Politics and Pathologies in Israeli National Security Decision Making

Yesterday in The Atlantic I wrote about the politics and pathologies in Israeli national security decision-making, with a specific focus on the National Security Council.

Here’s how it starts:

Imagine this: Israel strikes Iranian nuclear facilities, destroying some and damaging others. Iran fires missiles back at Israel and “activates” Hezbollah on the northern border. Hamas, deciding this is an opportune moment, starts shooting its own rockets into the southern and coastal areas of Israel.

This is an entirely plausible scenario. It’s also one that Israel expects. What’s less clear is whether Israel has thought through the rest of the implications of a strike on Iran: the impact on the economy; the length of time citizens will need to be mobilized for military service; the reaction of its friends, allies, and neutral states; and how it will coordinate a multi-tiered response on all these fronts.

Follow the link for more.


Israel-Syria Tension

Dan Byman and Natan Sachs offered many insights about Israel’s alleged attacks on Syria. Three follow-up questions/comments:

1. If Assad’s fortunes decline and he becomes desperate to attack Israel to divert attention from his problems and/or to try to unify Syrians, does it really matter whether Israel has attacked recently? Isn’t Israel already an all-purpose bogeyman given the last 65 years?

2. I think we should be more careful about the context in which we talk about quiet borders. Yes, Israel’s border with Hezbollah has been quiet since 2006 when compared with before. Yes, the Israel-Syria line in the Golan has been quiet. But in the last decade, Israel attacked an Islamic Jihad camp in Syria, bombed Syria’s nuclear facility, and hit weapons 3x (so far) during the civil war. The authors also note “the Assad regime tried to create a crisis by pushing Palestinian refugees living in Syria to return to Israel to divert attention from the crackdown.” Is that quiet?

Moreover, when one mode of attack gets quiet (e.g. fewer border skirmishes), others may heat up. Israel and Syria did not fight in the Golan in the 1980s but they both contributed to a violent mess in Lebanon next door. Hezbollah may not be launching missiles at Israel but it may have poked Israel via drones and allegedly organized an attack that killed Israelis in Bulgaria. Quiet in one aspect or area of the relationship may only be part of the full picture of relations.

3. The authors would like the United States, “to coordinate allied interventions so together they make it more likely that Bashar’s regime will fall and Syria will return to stability.” Does that have to be overt coordination or could it be done in private?



Defining the Arab State

Issandr el-Amrani has a very angry response to Aaron David Miller’s piece on the post-Arab Spring decline of the Arab state. Though el-Amrani raises a couple of important points, the piece seems as full of misperceptions that he accuses Miller of.

El-Amrani’s underlying point—that the Arab states are not simply “tribes with flags”—is a strong one, and I think Miller undermines his own argument by falling back on that assertion. But contrary to what el-Amrani seems to indicate, Miller wasn’t arguing that the state has collapsed everywhere in the Arab world, much less so in the Middle East (where he notes Israel, Turkey, and Iran have remained coherent and strong). El-Amrani uses the examples of the UAE, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt to prove his point. But apart from the fact that Miller explicitly put Saudi Arabia in the category of states “holding their own,” these examples underline Miller’s point that it’s about “basic coherence and governance.”

It’s not about feeling good about the Arab Spring, as el-Amrani dismisses Miller’s piece, but about questions of legitimacy and governance. That’s a legitimate concern to note, as different groups compete with each other, either violently or non-violently, to define the state and its basis for legitimacy, laws, and norms.

Indeed, Karl reMarks notes this in his own response to Miller, and which el-Amrani cites approvingly. He acknowledges that “the collapse of the state, in varying degrees in each of the three states [Egypt, Iraq, Syria], is an undisputable phenomenon.” reMarks’ critique is centered on the reasons for the failing nature of these states, and that’s certainly something to engage and debate.

Also contrary to what el-Amrani seems to assume, Miller wasn’t providing a normative take on the aftermath of the Arab Spring, but more like a logistical take. Will these Arab states remain functioning as central authorities, with institutions capable of asserting that authority across all of society?

I share el-Amrani’s yawn with the language Miller uses in his piece, which is—as with his other ones—filled with clichés. I suspect this is because Miller simply writes too much, and for a non-specialist audience. It seems the easiest thing to do. But that’s a different motivation than the implicit orientalism that el-Amrani hints at.

Finally, el-Amrani inserts his own cliché as much as he criticizes Miller for doing so. Referencing Miller’s take on the Hamas-Fatah split and the sectarian divisions in Iraq, el-Amrani faults Miller for ignoring the Israeli occupation and the American invasion. Obviously both are relevant, and I seriously doubt Miller isn’t aware of these as constraining factors. (In fact, he references colonial interference as a contributing factor.) But neither was relevant to his particular point, which is that Palestine and Iraq are simply unable to get their internal houses in order so as to provide good governance to their people. Explaining why certainly requires an account of the Israeli and American presence, but that wasn’t the point of Miller’s piece.  Moreover, Miller puts Palestine and Iraq in the category of “pre-Arab Spring” countries with governance problems.

The underlying problem seems to be that Miller and el-Amrani are approaching the issue from two different angles. Miller doesn’t claim that states don’t exist in the Arab world, or even that they will collapse entirely tomorrow. He admits that borders are well entrenched, and that efforts to redraw them have been few in number, and failed completely. Rather, Miller defines the state as “effective” and “possessing the capacity to protect the wellbeing of all of its citizens.” Surely, with the violence being visited upon the citizens by the governments and other citizens, this is an obvious and legitimate argument to make.

El-Amrani seems to assume that Miller is making the opposite argument. He contends that Miller confuses “the dysfunctions of Arab states with the absence of a state.” But that line of thinking doesn’t appear in Miller’s argument. Nowhere does he say there is the absence of a state; at best, only Lebanon is listed as a “non-state,” but Miller doesn’t connect this to the Arab Spring but its own long-standing internal divisions and problems.

Perhaps El-Amrani disagrees with Miller’s proposals for stabilizing the Arab states, which include strengthening national institutions and broadening their legitimacy. After all, if the Arab state is already doing fine, then it requires something else to fix the problems currently roiling them.

Miller’s assumptions of the weak foundation of the Arab states—something that’s been a perennial concern throughout the literature on the Arab state—should be engaged on their merits. Otherwise, serious policy solutions can’t be debated.

All Quiet on the North-Eastern Front

The Syrian civil war has now really spilled over into Israel, if in small doses. On November 3, three Syrian tanks rolled into the demilitarized zone in the Golan Heights. And yesterday, a stray bullet from Syria struck an Israeli jeep on the Heights. This, after Syrian shells fell on the Heights in September. While one can’t predict with certainty, it’s highly unlikely this will spark a direct Israeli intervention and Syria, and from there a wider regional war.

The argument that Israel would become involved is similar to the notion that Turkey will soon be drawn into Syria because of cross-border violence. That argument has been effectively disproved, and we can follow similar logics for explaining why Israel won’t, either.

First, while Israel certainly preferred the Asad regime to maintain stability on the border—just as it preferred Hosni Mubarak in Egypt—and fears the uncertainty generated by the Syrian violence, its disastrous intervention in Lebanon in 1982 taught it about the pitfalls of trying to arrange the internal politics of its neighbors. Sending the IDF into Syria is the only way to stop all violence across the border, but doing so runs the risk of drawing Israel into Syrian politics by tipping the balance in the fighting. But anything less than an invasion, even if it’s limited, will look unnecessarily aggressive and petty.

Second, any intervention in Syria would have no clear purpose. Asad isn’t looking for a fight with Israel, as he isn’t looking for one with Turkey. Nor does the Syrian opposition want the Israeli army fighting alongside it. Israel would have no military objective worth the price of being tied to the war, and no clear exit strategy.

Indeed, as the jihadists in the opposition, already known for their resentment toward Israel, are increasingly well-armed, Israel would find itself facing a situation in which the local forces turn their attention to Israel, Hezbollah-like. Getting mired in a guerrilla war against Syrian opposition groups at a time when Israel is already facing uncertainty on the border with Egypt, the unresolved Iranian nuclear issue, the teetering of the Palestinian Authority, and a resurgent Hamas would be an unnecessary provocation at a time when Israel’s focus is needed on genuine threats.

Third, that Iranian issue remains Israel’s primary focus. Military intervention in Syria would sap time, attention, and resources from the Iranian file.

Fourth, Israel is in the midst of an election campaign. While that’s not a guarantee that the government wouldn’t engage in military action if it deemed it necessary, responding to a few inadvertent hits from the Syrian military hunting down the Syrian opposition doesn’t classify as “necessary.” It would also put Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu more on the defensive against his electoral rivals, some of whom are already hitting him on his belligerency toward Iran and his failure on the peace process. Netanyahu is risk-averse, and the balance sheet on intervening in Syria puts the disadvantages at far, far greater value than the advantages.

All of the cross-border violence has been limited, and hasn’t reached over the Golan to hit the more densely-populated Northern Galilee. The primary purpose of holding on to the Golan has been for its strategic value: as a plateau overlooking northern Israel and into Syria, it acts as both a defensive barrier and a potential launching point. A few shells or bullets, or poorly-guided tanks, aren’t enough to change that calculation.

It remains to be seen if Syrian regime forces will, accidentally or while fighting the rebels, engage in more serious violence. But even if it does, my guess is that Israel will continue to lodge official complaints with the United Nations and raise its alert levels, but no more. The Syrian violence simply doesn’t pose a serious enough threat to Israel for anything more.

MacQueen and Pressman Present at Melbourne Conference

Prof. Benjamin MacQueen (Monash) and Prof. Jeremy Pressman (UConn), both bloggers here at Mideast Matrix, presented papers at a conference held at the University of Melbourne, “The Middle East in Revolt: the First Anniversary.” MacQueen’s paper dealt with the (democratic) transitions literature and its potential application to Egypt and Lebanon. Pressman talked about the Obama administration’s response to the Arab uprisings.