Is the Middle East on the Threshold of Collapse?

Iran is at the brink of nuclear capability, Lebanon could be heading toward civil war, and the Palestinians may declare statehood. Where should we go from here?

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

New York Times columnist Roger Cohen visited Beirut last week. Hezbollah, he insists, is stronger than ever. It is a mixture of a political party, a social movement and a militia, and it is "completely inappropriate" to call it a terror organization. Therefore, Cohen claims, the time has come for Washington to find a way to talk with Hezbollah.

A semonstration in a refugee camp in Damascus. Credit: AFP

Cohen writes that he was impressed with Dahiya, the lively Shi'ite district in southern Beirut that was rebuilt after Israel bombed it during the 2006 war. Lebanon will avoid another civil war, he believes. Opponents of Syria and Hezbollah have paid reconciliation visits to Damascus. Prime Minister Saad Hariri's hands are tied; he presides over a government whose members include his father's killers, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Stability in Lebanon seems to take precedence over redress for that crime, or other matters.

On the day Cohen's column was published, the daily Yedioth Ahronoth released an entirely different report on the situation in Lebanon. A senior officer in the Israel Defense Forces' Northern Command (the newspaper ran a photo with the item of Northern Command head Gadi Eizenkot ) told Yedioth that Hezbollah is mired in the worst crisis since it was founded, pending the special international tribunal's indictment of senior members on charges relating to the assassination of the elder Hariri.

The report claimed that Iran has cut about half of its financial assistance to the group, and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is still in hiding. Should another conflict erupt with Israel, Hezbollah will discover that the Second Lebanon War "was a picnic."

Some Lebanese commentators say that Hezbollah is getting stronger and that all parties in the country fear the Hariri murder investigation could provoke chaos. They agree with Eizenkot about one thing: Hezbollah will think twice before launching an attack on Israel. The organization was badly burned by the 2006 war. It will take something external - Israeli missile convoys in Syria, or an explicit Iranian order - to reignite the conflict between Hezbollah and Israel.

Israel and the United States no longer view events in the region in the black-and-white terms of the "Axis of Evil," but rather as a sequence of local disputes, some of whose participants are also involved in the greater struggle between radicals and moderates in the Islamic world. It appears that the radicals have the upper hand in that struggle. There has been no defining victory here, according to observers; instead, we are witnessing a gradual process. "The shift of tectonic plates" is how IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi described it during consultations with colleagues in the West.

Iran largely dictates the region's agenda, not only due to its growing nuclear weapons capability, but also via palpable efforts to make inroads into other countries, from Morocco by way of Lebanon and Iraq, and into Afghanistan.

In contrast with Iran's muscle-flexing, the moderate Arab states, led by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, appear weak while preparing the ground for new leadership as their rulers age. Concurrently, America's influence, as demonstrated in WikiLeaks documents, is on the wane, due to its withdrawal from Iraq, the deepening morass in Afghanistan and its domestic economic woes.

When a pro-Western leader such as Hariri (the son ) looks to the East, he sees the Syrians and Iranians. When he glances to the West, he does not find American aircraft carriers. The fact that Hariri recently visited Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is thus not surprising.

Changing balance

Israel Defense Forces intelligence officers are wont nowadays to use the term "the threshold era": Iran is on the threshold of attaining nuclear capability, Lebanon could be heading toward civil war, and the Palestinians are on the brink of a decision about a unilateral statehood declaration in the West Bank. Simultaneously, the most worrisome development from Israel's point of view (along with the delegitimization campaigns abroad ) is the change in the balance of arms between the sides. Israel used to have a monopoly regarding its ability to get arms to any point in the region (particularly via the air force ) at any time. But now the enemy is developing unprecedented weapons-delivery capabilities, and improving and expanding its missile and rocket arsenal.

The Obama government's declaration that it is withdrawing its proposal for a renewed settlement construction freeze in exchange for incentives and negotiations did not cause much of a stir here. But the breakup of the talks with the Palestinians - at a time when the Americans have yet to propose any substantive alternative - is likely to have long-term implications.

The U.S. focused unproductively on the freeze issue, even though some American experts warned all along that the peace talks would yield little of substance. Those who said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has undergone an ideological transformation and is now prepared to accept dramatic concessions were proven wrong: And at no stage did the Palestinian Authority demonstrate the level of seriousness required to close a peace deal.

When Hillary Clinton paid her first visit to Israel as secretary of state, soon after Obama's inauguration in 2009, then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert showed her what he had offered the Palestinians. He argued that the proposals were more generous than anything the Palestinian leadership had ever been offered by Israel. Clinton, whose last briefing on the peace process had related to her husband's proposal at the end of 2000, was skeptical.

"If you don't believe me, ask Abbas," Olmert said. Clinton did - and admitted her Israeli hosts were telling the truth.

Netanyahu's views are far from Olmert's and the scenarios now facing Israel, in the absence of negotiations, are not encouraging: They range from a unilateral Palestinian declaration of statehood to a potential third intifada.

In the absence of progress on any track, lack of stability is fraught with regional danger. It could mean a war under particularly difficult circumstances. Given the lack of progress on the Palestinian track, this could be the right time to renew substantive negotiations with Syria, as top officers in the IDF have been recommending for months. The chief of staff and intelligence officers do not guarantee that such a process could bear fruit, but do recommend that the country's leaders consider the option.

As the IDF sees it, Syria is the weak link in Iran's radical axis. If Damascus could get better access to the West and the Golan Heights in exchange for peace with Israel, President Bashar Assad would be receptive. He is not naive when it comes to the balance of forces between his country's army and the IDF. That is why he showed restraint in responding to perceived Israeli encroachments (the bombing of the reported nuclear reactor, and the assassinations of Imad Mughniyeh and Syrian Gen. Muhammad Suleiman in 2007 and 2008 ). Nonetheless, Assad could interpret some future Israeli operation against Hezbollah as one provocation too many, and order some limited anti-Israeli offensive of his own.

How, for instance, would Israel respond if Syria's army were to attempt some operation in Druze villages in the Golan Heights, or to launch a short, lethal shelling of IDF bases accompanied by a demand for negotiations supported by international groups?

Israel is currently deeply involved with efforts to block Iran's nuclear project, and foreign sources say these involve preparations for a possible military attack. However, its list of security concerns and preparations does not end with Iran, and these Syrian scenarios are food for thought.

Ashkenazi's questions

IDF Chief of Staff Ashkenazi, whose four-year term will end in mid-February, still must explain his part in the Harpaz document affair, a topic that has cast a shadow over Israel's security leadership for the past several months. His brief account in an Army Radio interview this week failed to draw a sufficiently persuasive picture. The State Comptroller's Office report on this matter, which is currently being prepared, is liable to present a troubling analysis of his actions in this affair.

What can't be taken away from Ashkenazi - along with the processes he implemented in the IDF following the Second Lebanon War - is his moderate, sober line on strategic issues, including Syria and Iran. In this respect, Ashkenazi had support from partners such as Mossad head Meir Dagan and Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin, both of whom will also complete their terms of service soon. Is Ashkenazi's dispute with Defense Minister Ehud Barak related solely to these strategic questions, or is it based on personal acrimony? The sides are divided even about this. Some answers may lie in the state comptroller's report.



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