By Haviland Smith
Sometimes it’s almost impossible to figure out precisely why Israel involves herself in activities that appear not to be in her national interest. This time, that activity is Israel’s perpetual battle with Gaza and Palestine.
There is no question about Israel’s right to protect herself against incoming rocket barrages from the Gaza strip. In fact, she is not doing badly as her missile defense system has held Israeli casualties to under ten, while Palestinian casualties are over a hundred dead and a thousand wounded.
The real issue is just how the prosecution of this war is going to improve Israel’s position in the Middle East. Most importantly, how has that battle affected Israel’s close-in neighborhood?
Until Gaza began, things were going pretty well for Israel. Despite the Arab Spring, which could have been very unsettling for Israel, the attention of the world was focused on Middle East events in a way beneficial to Israel. Syria was the major media focus with Iran and Iraq not far behind, and it was all negative.
As a Shia-run country, Syria has active ties to both Shia Iran and to Shia Hezbollah. In the case of Syria, most of the world, including the Middle East, was aligned against those three entities who are Israel’s closest regional enemies. Keeping them in a negative limelight has been good for Israel. Now, they have virtually disappeared from our view in the media, which is now filled with Gaza – an activity earning mostly brickbats for Israel.
Then consider Egypt with her new Muslim Brotherhood governance and her peace treaty with Israel. The last thing in the world Israel needs is to lose her special relationship with Egypt, yet that is where it easily could be heading. The simple fact of the Gaza conflict inflames Egyptian public opinion against Israel and puts the Egyptian President Morsi, who is trying to negotiate a cease-fire for Gaza, in an impossible position with his own people and in the netherworld between the Israelis and the Palestinians. It is a no-win, nightmare situation, which could do serious harm to the Egypt/Israel relationship.
And then there is Jordan where, for the first time there are significant stirrings against the King, his Palestinian wife and his government. Jordan is home to over 3 million Palestinian refugees from the 1948 and 1967 wars. They have further been burdened by the arrival of over 30,000 refugees from Iraq and a like number from Syria. This has increased the level of general dissent. Jordan is suffering economically from the Syrian situation because Syria is one of its biggest trading partners.
In Lebanon, Shia Hezbollah has called for all Arab states to send weapons to Gaza. Lebanon is, itself, about as precarious a “country” as one can find in the Middle East with a population containing just about every nationality, ethnicity and tribe in existence.
Hezbollah, which owes its allegiance to Shia Iran, is estimated to have something in the neighborhood of 30,000 rockets on hand and capable of hitting deep into Israel. George Mitchell, former U.S. Middle East Peace envoy, describes these rockets as “better, longer range, more destructive” than those already fired from Gaza.
As if that were not enough, consider the cyber attacks now underway against Israel. “Anonymous,” an ad hoc group of hackers waging war on Israeli Web sites, is the least of Israel’s cyber problems. After almost a week of millions of cyber attacks by Anonymous, they have been joined by a far more virulent and effective set of attacks, apparently originating from Gaza and Iran, that have introduced malware and RATs into the picture — programs capable of taking control of the infected Israeli computers.
And then we have Turkey, a country that clearly would like to see its role and importance increased in the Middle East. The Turks have been openly negative on Israel’s ongoing Gaza blockade and their invective against Israel has risen to the point where the Turkish president has accused Israel of trying to eliminate the Palestinian population of the Gaza strip.
On balance, Israel’s neighborhood is in far more ferment than it was prior to the beginning of the Gaza fighting. It is becoming increasingly unstable at a time when Israel, surrounded as it is by hostile populations, can ill afford such instability.
Sadly, it seems fair to say that Israel’s increasing instability is largely self-induced. The big question here is: Why?
The logical end to this instability is regional conflict and it is difficult to see how Israel could find advantage in such a dangerous situation.
Of course, it may be that Israel’s entire Gaza show is there simply to influence Israel’s upcoming elections in favor of the Likud and Mr. Netanyahu.
Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in East and West Europe and the Middle East, and as Chief of the Counterterrorism Staff. He lives in Williston, Vt.