Part Three of “The Isolation of Israel: Peril and Opportunity”
This is part three of Professor Paul Merkley’s series, “The Isolation of Israel: Peril and Opportunity.” Access to the previous installments can be found by clicking on the following links: Part 1, and Part 2.
When the Arab Spring began there was consensus among Middle East commentators that of the immediate neighbours of Israel the one most likely to stay intact was that of Bashir al-Assad of Syria. The thinking was that Syria had the most professional armed forces and that these were bound in extraordinary loyalty to their President by the fact that they were mainly recruited from a closely-bound religious minority called the Alawites. The Alawites derive from a branch of Shia Islam but are regarded by both Shias and Sunnis as defectors from Islam – the worst kind of heretics. The Alawites know that they will face the pent-up rage of both Sunnis and Shias should they ever relax their grip on power. This is sufficient explanation for the astonishing ruthlessness of Assad’s army and of the Shabiha, Assad’s all-Alawite version of Hitler’s Waffen-SS.
When, a few months ago, discontent reached proportions that presented the regime with the real possibility of overthrow, journalists looked up an incident that had gone by without attracting international notice in February, 1982 – the two-week campaign of massacre by Hafez al-Assad’s military of at least 20,000 mainly Sunni civilians in the city of Hama who had dared to go into the streets in protest. [Kanan Makiya, Cruelty and Silence: War, Tyranny, Uprising and the Arab World (New York: Norton, 1993), pp. 286, 300–303).]
When the original Hama massacre of 1982 occurred there came to my own mind a passage in Isaiah where the Assyrian conqueror-tyrant brags “By the strength of my hand … I have removed the bonds of the people … and have put down the inhabitants like a valiant man… And my hand hath found as a nest the riches of the people: and as one gathereth eggs that are left, have I gathered all the earth; and there was none that moved the wing or opened the mouth or peeped” (Isaiah 10:13–14). The expert wisdom was that memory of that event was strong enough that no one in Syria would ever peep again. Thus, as public protest against the tyrant Assad spread throughout the land during 2011–2012, it had to be significant that Hama was again, as thirty years ago, in the front ranks of this dangerous resistance.
As I write, a deathwatch has begun over Syria. All efforts at diplomatic solution have failed. The UN Special Envoy Kofi Annan has been humiliated. It must end somehow and before long, but collective action by the UN or by a coalition of Friends of Syria has been thwarted by the threat of veto in the Security Council by both China and Russia. The President of the United States and other Western leaders are no doubt relieved by knowledge that any policy more active than the present one of wringing hands and talking piously about suffering does not have sufficient support with the public that they will have to abandon Machiavellian calculation for another act of heroic idealism along the lines of the Libyan intervention of last year. [The argument for non-intervention in Syria is put cogently and with full regard to the humanitarian dimension by Middle East scholar Daniel Pipes, in his article, “Stay out of the Syrian Morass,” The Washington Times, June 13, 2012.
The likelihood is that Syria will be immobilized by chaos for a long time to come. This might seem a boon to Israel, as it removes fear of repetition of the assault upon Israel which Syria cooked up with the Soviet Union’s connivance in October, 1973 (the Yom Kippur War.) But it does not remove fear that Israel could still be harmed by the side-effects of imminent collapse in Syria. Senior Israeli military officials have spoken “off the record” (“Israel sees rising instability on Syria armistice line,” June 5, 2012) about their Government’s concern that the collapse of the Assad regime is already creating opportunities for groups like al-Qaeda to make the Golan into something like Gaza and the Sinai – havens for terrorism. Such situations create opportunities for humanitarian outrage for which no government but Israel is ever required to answer before “public opinion” in our part of the world or “world opinion” at the UN.
Jordan and Lebanon: Exceptions to the Arab Spring, or Late-Bloomers?
In the early weeks of 2011 the Kingdom of Jordan seemed no more but also no less likely than Egypt or Syria to experience the full destabilizing effects of the Arab Spring.
Since signing the Israel –Jordan Peace Treaty of October, 1994, Jordan has been, like Egypt but unlike Syria, a beneficiary of the American taxpayers’ largesse distributed in return for good behavior. The King had to pay a price for this: Jordan’s Islamist elements as well as most of her “Palestinian” population denounced at once this treaty which they portray as surrender of the holy cause of Palestine.
Cecily Hilleary, who reports for Middle East Voices (which describes itself as an “Arab Spring-driven social journalism project powered by Voice of America”) notes that the regular Friday protest gatherings against King Abdullah’s regime that have been going on for several months “have begun to escalate, and some analysts fear that if the king doesn’t deliver soon [on their complaints about rising prices and high unemployment] Jordan’s ‘peaceful’ Arab Spring could go from simmer to full boil.” She quotes one American academic expert: “The protests include Jordanians of a variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds … [The] level of vitriol and dissent aimed at both king and queen …[is] unprecedented in the kingdom which has been ruled by the same family since 1950.” (“Is Jordanian Uprising a Threat to King Abdullah’s Rule?,”
May 27, 2012.)
The politics of the Kingdom are bound to be heated further as Jordan struggles to absorb the masses of refugees from the ongoing carnage in Syria. So far, there have been about 5,300 Syrians registered officially as refugees in Jordan but no one doubts that the real number is much larger, perhaps several times larger. Unlike the refugees who fled the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1948–1948 these people are in no sense victims of “Israeli conquest.” But sooner or later all Muslims find a way to explain their individual and their collective plight as owing to the Jews; sooner or later these Syrian refugees and their champions will be mounting criticism against the fragile government of Jordan for its neglect of these victims of international Zionism. It will become even harder for the King of Jordan to defend the limited commercial and cultural contact that presently exists between Jordan and the State of Israel.
Lebanon is in a real sense a microcosm of the cut-throat conflict that was going on among all the distinguishable sub-communities – Sunni, Shia, Druze and Christian – when the Ottoman Empire came to an end about a century ago. The cacophony is now being increased by the addition of a flood of refugees from the Syrian civil war and, simultaneously, from the anti-Christian and inter-sectarian Muslim violence in Iraq (increasing as the Americans gratefully retract to an observer’s role in Iraq.)
Complicating matters further for Western observers are the deep political divisions that trace to deep theological differences within the Christian communities of Lebanon. We in the West were taught to think of the Ecumenical Councils (Nicaea, Chalcedon, etc) that followed upon Constantine’s conversion as providentially provided to achieve Christian unity and as having established the foundations for the long-range intellectual and philosophical history of Christendom. This is an important half-truth; in the part of the world that Israel lives in today these Councils are remembered as inspiring persecution by European Christians (Greek Orthodox) of Oriental (pre-Chalcedonian) Christians. Islam, needless to say, takes no notice of these theological differences but is still profiting politically from the political divisions which made it possible for Islam to impose second-class citizenship (dhimmitude) upon them all. Although Lebanese Christians share an interest in self-protection through participation in politics the different communities calculate the political dynamics differently. One branch threw its weight at the last election to the coalition that has Hezbollah at its head and which today dominates the government.
The situation in Lebanon cries out for solidarity between Jews and Christians – the two communities that experienced dhimmitude during the centuries of Muslim ascendancy. Unfortunately – and, from our point of view incredibly – the hierarchy of the Christians churches in the Middle East continue to imagine a political advantage in being found at the forefront of the chorus blaming the Jews for everything that goes wrong in life. [Aymenn Jawad, “Middle East Christians and Anti-Semitism,” Jerusalem Post Christian Edition, September, 2011.] Christian figures were in fact among the founders of the most radically anti-Zionist terrorist organizations, including the one that was responsible for the massacre at the Olympics in Munich in 1972.
These divisions within Christian ranks have always puzzled Jews. Notably, they puzzled Menachem Begin, who imagined that his intrusion by force into Lebanon in 1982 would be seen by “Christendom,” in part at least, as a gesture to save Christians from their persecutors. Instead, the U.S., the European nations and the UN rallied to rescue Yasir Arafat.
As I write, it seems increasingly likely that Lebanon will come apart at the seams, as an estimated 8,500 refugees from the Syrian civil war and more from Iraq drag their hereditary quarrels into the land and deposit them on top of the pile of historical animosities already in situ. Israel may gain advantage from the distracted state of Lebanon’s government. Still, we have to recall that again and again in this region plausible–sounding champions (like Nasser in the 1960s) have managed to summon up a sudden and dramatic display of anti-Israel unity – and start up a ruinous war in which Israel fights alone.