The situation has changed on Israel’s northern front, and the prospect of war is coming into focus. The fear in this country is that since Hezbollah and Iran are emerging on top in the Syrian civil war, they will soon turn their weapons against us.
Israel’s leaders sound ready to fight. The recent, full-scale military drill in the north was geared toward “victory” over Hezbollah. About the time that Israel was bombing another weapons depot near Damascus, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the UN: “We will act to prevent Iran from establishing permanent military bases in Syria for its air, sea and ground forces. We will act to prevent Iran from producing deadly weapons in Syria or in Lebanon for use against us. And we will act to prevent Iran from opening new terror fronts against Israel along our northern border.”
Last week Andrew Exum, a Middle East aide in the Obama administration, wrote in The Atlantic: “[F]or nearly two years now, Israeli military and intelligence officials have been warning every American official who comes through Tel Aviv and Jerusalem that the next war [with Hezbollah] is coming.”
What kind of war will it be? Exum: “very, very ugly. … Hundreds and perhaps thousands of Israelis could die in another conflict.”
Sure. Why not? Hezbollah has an estimated 150,000 missiles ready to strike. And if Iran gets into it? And Syria?
Yet Israel’s leaders don’t sound like they fear the consequences of such a war. They sound like they’re mainly afraid of letting Hezbollah keep its 150,000 missiles, and of letting the cease-fire agreement in Syria go through, which Netanyahu says would bring Iranian weaponry and Iranian-aligned militias near the Israeli Golan Heights. More than being afraid of the prospect of hundreds or thousands of Israeli deaths, they sound afraid of letting Iran establish a “band of control” from its territory through Iraq and Syria and into Lebanon for the transfer of weapons and fighters.
But here’s the thing: By continuing to bomb Syrian arms destined for Hezbollah – which Israel has admittedly done nearly 100 times in the last five years – as well as periodically killing Hezbollah and other pro-Syrian fighters along with the occasional Iranian general, Israel is making the next very, very ugly war in the north a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Sooner or later, Hezbollah or Iran or Syria is bound to strike back, at which point Israel can be expected to fight the war it’s been training for and talking about. You have to wonder if Netanyahu and the military brass are deliberately trying to provoke our enemies to the north into hitting back, so they can then claim that Israel has “no choice” but to fight another “war of self-defense.”
But what if we didn’t go on bombing and killing our enemies to the north? Would they attack? Most Israelis, it seems to me, think they would. They base this view on the growing masses of arms held by Hezbollah, Iran and Syria, the brutality all of them have shown in war, and their political or Islamist ideology that marks Israel out for destruction. All this, according to the seeming Israeli consensus, adds up to an inevitable attack from the north meant to cripple if not crush Israel, which makes an Israeli “preemptive” attack appealing.
That’s where we stand. In my view, though, this consensus is the product of Israeli paranoia. It’s the product of the fear and aggression that rule the national political mentality, and that get so many Israeli soldiers and civilians killed for no reason, not to mention Arab soldiers and civilians. The idea that Hezbollah, Iran and Syria are itching for a war with Israel, that they’re just waiting to attack, is a delusion. Absent Israeli provocation, such an attack would have no parallel in the world or in history. Yet Israelis seem ready to fight on account of this fear, and if they’re not ready now, they will be as soon as one or two Israelis are killed in the counter-attack for our 103rd or 104th or whatever number bombing in Lebanon or Syria, and the government, media and right-wing “street” are roaring for battle.
The reason the Israeli consensus is a delusion, the reason Hezbollah, Iran and Syria don’t want war with Israel, is because the weak don’t want war with the strong, especially when the weak have been getting their heads handed to them by the strong for years and decades on end. Whatever arms our enemies to the north have, Israel has many times better ones, and our “qualitative edge” is only growing.
“If Hezbollah’s capabilities have grown linearly, ours have grown exponentially, in intelligence, in targets and in the ability to attack,” Israeli Maj. Gen. Tamir Hayman, commander of the military drill in the north, told AP.
But what better proof is there of Israel’s clear military superiority over Hezbollah, Iran and Syria than the long, long list of Israeli attacks on them that went unanswered. In addition to those mentioned above, Israel has destroyed a Syrian nuclear facility. It has killed five Iranian nuclear scientists. It flies spy planes, drones and balloons over Lebanon continuously. And it has made the Golan Heights part of Israel, when the Syrians, not to mention the rest of the world, say it rightly belongs to Syria.
Has Hezbollah, Iran or Syria ever destroyed an Israeli nuclear facility? Do they bomb Israeli weapons convoys and depots ever, let alone 100 times in five years? Do they kill Israeli generals and nuclear scientists? Do they fly spy planes, drones and balloons over Israel? Do they conquer Israeli territory? None of these things is even imaginable; they wouldn’t dare try. And why? Because they respect Israel? Because they believe Israel has the right to attack them but they don’t have the right to hit back? No. They don’t hit back, except on very rare occasions, because they’re scared stiff of Israel’s power, and rightly so.
So why, after winning a six-year war that was awfully costly to them in money, weaponry and blood, would Hezbollah, Iran and Syria want to bring Israel down on their heads now, of all times?
Some make the point that fear of Israel didn’t stop Hezbollah from attacking it in 2006 and starting the Second Lebanon War. This is true. Hezbollah started that war by capturing and killing two Israeli soldiers, and eight more died chasing the attackers across the Lebanese border, which put the war in motion. In the end, 1,800 Lebanese were killed, compared to some 160 Israelis. Much of Lebanon was devastated; in Israel a few apartment buildings were hit. A couple of weeks after the fighting ended, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah admitted his mistake on Lebanese TV: “We did not think, even one percent, that the capture [of the two soldiers] would lead to a war at this time and of this magnitude. You ask me, if I had known on July 11 … that the operation would lead to such a war, would I do it? I say no, absolutely not.” Since then, Nasrallah appears to have learned his lesson.
Still, the looming triumph of Iran and its allies in the Syrian civil war, the feared advent of Iranian-aligned militias and weaponry near the Israeli border with Syria, the prospect of an Iranian-controlled “corridor” all the way to Lebanon – the sense that Iran is building an empire on Israel’s doorstep – has Israelis afraid that they’re next in line. (The fear-mongering and saber-rattling by Netanyahu, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and others, of course, stokes their anxiety.)
But if you look at the tremendous and growing imbalance of power between the two sides, and add to it the long, ongoing record of Israeli military humiliations of these enemies, isn’t it likely that Hezbollah, Iran and Syria intend to build up their forces not to attack Israel, but to deter Israel from attacking them? Isn’t it likely that their weapons, at least with regard to Israel, are there for defensive, not offensive, purposes?
The weak do not attack the strong and instigate suicidal wars for the sake of ideology or religious belief; the absence of Hezbollah and Iranian missiles raining down on Israel, even in the wake of continual Israeli attacks dating back long before the Syrian civil war, is proof of that.
However, this does not mean the strong can blast away with impunity at the weak forever. In March, Israeli jets bombed weaponry in Syria that was destined for Hezbollah, and the Syrian army fired antiaircraft missiles at the jets. They missed; if they’d hit those jets, the Third Lebanon War might have begun right there. In 2015, Hezbollah killed two Israeli soldiers on the border a week and a half after Israel had killed six Hezbollah fighters and an Iranian general. In 2012, Hezbollah was likely behind the killing of five Israeli tourists in Bulgaria, which was evidently payback for Israel’s lethal acts against Hezbollah and Iran.
If Israel continues such acts – and Netanyahu pledged at the UN to widen them – then it probably is merely a matter of time until Israelis again get killed in retaliation, and then that “very, very ugly” war will probably be upon us.
So why continue? Why go on attacking enemies who have no logical reason to attack you, and whose relatively meager resistance shows that actually they are not looking for a fight? Why provoke a war when you obviously have your enemies, whatever their ideology, well and truly deterred?
I raised these questions recently on Facebook, and at length the answer I got from a couple of very intelligent, well-informed, politically moderate Jewish friends was this: primal Jewish fear. Fear of annihilation. Fear of threats of annihilation. Fear of waiting while our enemies get stronger, get closer.
I understand. That fear has a long history behind it. But that history is over, and has been for decades, at least for Israel. That fear is born out of a memory of Jewish powerlessness and persecution, but Israel is the opposite of the powerless, persecuted Jews of history. Israel is the colossus of the Middle East. If you go by their actions instead of their words, Israel has its enemies scared to death. And everybody seems to know it except the Jews.
It’s time to let go of this primal Jewish fear, at least as far as Israel is concerned. It’s an anachronism. In light of Israel’s awesome power compared to that of its enemies, it’s irrational. But worst of all, it’s deadly – for Israelis and others. Our minds are so full of this old, post-traumatic fear of being attacked by our enemies, terrified as they are of us, that there’s no room left for the timely, healthy fear of the consequences of a war that we start by continually attacking them.
We have to stop this. We Israelis go to war much, much too readily. We are putting our children’s lives in danger –and the lives of lots of other children, too– for nothing but our misplaced fears. If we’re going to be afraid of something, let’s be afraid of that.