The right strategy

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Today may well be the beginning of the end of Syria as we know it. The UN's German investigator Detlev Mehlis is set to submit the findings of his investigation of the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri to the UN Security Council today.



The German magazine Stern reported this week that Mehlis will finger several high-ranking Syrian officials as having been involved in the murder. For their part, the Americans and the French are reportedly preparing draft sanctions resolutions against Syria that could be passed in the Security Council as early as next Tuesday.


What happens in Syria is of acute interest to Israel. Our neighbor to the north has been in a formal state of war against Israel for the past 58 years. Since 1982, Syria has been the chief architect and enabler of the Hizbullah terror war against Israel from Lebanon – a war which Israel lost in May 2000. Syria has also been one of the chief state sponsors of the Palestinian terror war against Israel (which Israel is losing).


Given our legitimate stake in the future of Syria, it would seem natural for Israel's political and military leaders to be making clear, forward-looking pronouncements of Israel's national interests as they regard the events now unfolding. Yet disturbingly, statements by Israel's leadership have been both shallow and strategically misconstrued.


Israel's basic line is that the government is against regime change but supports a change in the policy of the Assad regime that will end Syria's sponsorship of Lebanese and Palestinian terrorism against Israel.


There are two strategic fallacies inherent in this statement. The first fallacy is that stability in Syria serves Israel's interest. We are told that the strongest force in Syria after the current regime is the Muslim Brotherhood. Were the Muslim Brotherhood to take over Syria, we are told, the situation for Israel would be far worse than it is today.


But why would this necessarily be the case? Under the "stable" Assad regime, Syria supports the terror wars being waged against Israel. Under a "chaotic" regime of the Muslim Brotherhood, Syria would support the terror wars being conducted against Israel.


So why should we care? Then too, whereas the Ba'athists, who provide safe haven for terrorist groups from al Qaida to Ahmed Jibril wear Western business suits and therefore enjoy a reputation as rational actors that the West can do business with, the Muslim Brothers, who wear gowns and turbans enjoy a reputation as radicals whom the West cannot do business with.


As a result, current international pressure on Israel to restrain its actions to defend itself against Ba'athist Syrian aggression would likely be diminished were the Ba'athists to be replaced by the Islamists. So again, it is unclear why Israel has any interest in regime preservation in Syria.


The second fallacy at the heart of Israel's perception of the maelstrom now seizing Damascus is that it is possible to tinker with the status quo in the Arab world while preserving its basic contours. There may have been something to this view before the September 11, 2001 attacks on the US. But four years later, it is both false and dangerous. Until America was attacked, it was US policy to maintain the status-quo in the Arab world. But in the wake of those attacks, US policy was stood on its head.


As President George W. Bush has repeatedly stated, and as the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq have borne out, the US now sees social dynamism and flux rather than stability as the means to achieve its strategic aims in the Arab and Muslim world. It is not simply that the regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq were overthrown and that Syria may well be the next in line. From Cairo to Riyadh to Amman to Rabat, no Arab regime today remains firmly in control of its destiny. In this historic and geo-political context, for Israel to state a preference based on a no longer relevant status quo is to miss the central regional reality of our times.


Israel's stubborn indifference to the enormous impact that Iraq's transformation into a dynamic, multiethnic quasi-constitutional proto-democracy is having on the Arab world writ large is merely the most blatant manifestation of our intent on preserving our strategic blindness. What we are missing is an appreciation of the fact that while it remains true that the overwhelming majority of our neighbors hate us and wish to see our country annihilated, it is equally and more significantly true that while we sleep, the Arab world is undergoing its most significant change since our neighbors' post-colonialist dictatorships were founded in the 1940s and 1950s.


In the context of the emerging realities in our region, what should Israel rightly base its strategic logic on? We are not America. We do not have the ability to influence how our neighbors' political and social forces will align themselves. But we do have control over defining our expectations of our neighbors and of incorporating those expectations into our political consciousness, our military operations and our diplomatic policies in a manner that will cause these expectations to form the strategic foundations and the tactical guideposts for Israel's actions.


Israel's expectations must be based on the principle that the conduct of good neighborly relations with the Jewish state is not a matter of choice but an international legal duty. When Arab states reject Israel's right to exist and support violent attacks against it, they are transgressing the law of nations. As such, Arab regimes should not expect a prize from Israel for desisting from their criminal behavior.


There are two principle sources of Israel's strategic befuddlement. First, the strategic line that Israel has adopted since the 1993 inauguration of the Oslo process with the PLO is unilaterally dictated by the Left.


The Israeli Left bases its world view on two incorrect assumptions. First it assumes that at base, the Arab world is unchanging. Second, it assumes that given the stasis of the Arab world, Israel must change and it must do so by internalizing, accepting and justifying the Arab world's refusal to accept Israel's right to exist.


The latter assumption then informs Israel's attempts to appease these "static" Arab regimes by transferring territory to the same rejectionist yet inherently "stable" regimes in exchange for their empty declarations to cease their support for wars – conventional and unconventional – against Israel.


The fact that Israeli security and political sources are now expressing concern that a tamed Assad or an outwardly pro-Western replacement regime may foment immediate US pressure on Israel to give Syria the Golan Heights in exchange for "peace" is a result of our strategic confusion due to our internalization of the Left's strategic fantasies.


Were we to understand that the Syrians, not we, are the ones who must change their behavior, we would not be particularly worried. It is Israel's legitimate right to demand and expect Syria to change before we even begin to consider any arrangements relating to an alteration of the current status of the Golan Heights.


The second reason why Israel's strategic conversation has been brought to the point where our leaders cannot explain to themselves, to the public or to the international community what our national interests are is because the Israeli Right, which enjoys the support of the majority of Israelis, is incapable of independent thought.


For the past twelve years, the Israeli Right has reduced its strategic thinking to reacting to and opposing leftist initiatives. In so doing, it has enabled a continuous erosion of its ability to construct policies — an erosion that has enabled a right-wing prime minister to mainstrea
m the radical Left's post-Zionism.


Today the Israeli Right has an opportunity to change this disturbing state of affairs. The separation fence in Judea and Samaria – whose creation is a consequence not of Israel's security imperatives but of the government's adoption of the defeatist ideology of the Left which claims that Israel ought not defeat terrorism – is about to be built around Jerusalem's southern flank in Gush Etzion along a route that will endanger the long-term survival of the settlement bloc and expose its residents to unremitting terrorist attacks from the territories outside of the fence.


Opposing this dire and strategically unjustifiable future is the fact that Ariel Sharon has repeatedly declared that he secured American support for Israel's permanent control of settlement blocs in Judea and Samaria which he himself has stated include Gush Etzion.


In light of all this, the Israeli Right now has an opportunity to unify its forces not by objecting to the route of the fence but by rejecting the fence – which only advances the defeatist world view of the appeasement-guided Left – completely. In rejecting the fence, the Right should set forth the demand to extend Israeli law and jurisdiction to Gush Etzion.


This move is based on a number of strategic assertions. First, the demographic situation in Judea and Samaria is different from that in Gaza. The Israeli population in the areas is growing faster than the Palestinian population. Were Israel to annex today all of Judea and Samaria, Jews would make up two thirds of the population of the state.


Aside from this, there is absolutely no reason for Israel to accept the racist Palestinian demand that any land it receives must be Jew-free. That demand is but a manifestation of the continued Palestinian rejection of Israel's right to exist.


Third, this move asserts that there is no reason for Israel to pay any price whatsoever for a Palestinian cessation of their terror war against Israel. Until the Palestinians themselves undergo a societal change that brings them to the point where they forswear violence, Israel must do what it can to strengthen itself and advance its national interests.


Finally, in the absence of a credible opportunity for peaceful relations with the Palestinians, Israel has the right to take such actions as necessary to secure its citizens and national interests unilaterally, regardless of how such acts may impact internal Palestinian politics. And Israel's national interests involve strengthening Jerusalem's southern flank in Gush Etzion.


Nationally, a campaign to apply Israeli law to Gush Etzion could have an electrifying effect on Israel's public debate. It would be the first opportunity since 1993 for the Israeli public to be exposed to a plan that is based on Israel's national interests rather than those of the delusional Left and of the unstable Arab autocracies that insist we have no right to our state. Aside from that, a campaign to apply Israeli law on Gush Etzion would be the first time since Oslo that the Right would unify in support of its own program rather than in opposition to the Left's programs.


Israel's strategic ignorance that has manifested itself so clearly in relation to developments in Syria is the result of a national intellectual failure that has grown larger and more dangerous with each passing year. A concerted campaign to apply Israeli law to Gush Etzion and to reject the strategically misconceived separation fence will be a first and necessary step outside the strategic trap in which we are currently ensnared.


Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.

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