Once upon a time, there was an eastern front. Many years ago – 20? 30? – Israel faced a strategic threat from the east. The hostile Iraqi Baath party and the hostile Syrian Baath party led seemingly modern nation-states with seemingly modern armies rich in soldiers, tanks and missiles.
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Fear of war in the east or the northeast forced Israel to maintain a strong army, live in constant preparedness and hold onto commanding territory in the Jordan Valley and the Golan Heights.
Over the past few decades, however, the eastern front has dissolved. First, U.S. President George H.W. Bush defeated Iraq, then his son, President George W. Bush, dismantled Iraq. First the Syrian army grew rusty, then the Syrian army fell apart.
The Arab Spring brought new winds of freedom and hope. Many good people concluded that Israel no longer needed a large army or commanding territory or a life of constant preparedness. Fear of the next war, which had a deep impact on every aspect of our lives, was replaced by a comfortable and understandable feeling that our global situation had never been better.
But in the past few months, dramatic changes have taken place in the east. The limited comeback by the pro-Iranian regime in Damascus, the growing Iranian influence in Baghdad and the military strengthening of Hezbollah have created a fairly strong radical Shi’ite axis. On the other hand, the sudden emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant brought onto the stage savagely extremist Sunni forces of a kind never seen before. Today, there are no Arab nation-states to the east and there are no strong Arab armies to the east, but there is complete chaos. The internal weakness of Arab nationalism and the ongoing stupidity of American policy have caused the relative regional order to collapse. The old eastern front has been replaced by a new eastern front of instability and uncertainty.
The new eastern front is nothing like the old one. There will be no new version of the Yom Kippur War here in the coming decade. Regular Arab armies won’t cross the border and Syrian tanks won’t flood the Golan Heights. But the combination of high-tech weapons with the armies of Islam is liable to create regional shock waves that will gradually approach our borders.
There are more question marks than exclamation points: What will become of Jordan? Will central Iraq and southern Syria turn into Afghanistan? Will the Gaza Strip become Somalia? And what are the implications of the creation of enormous expanses of territory that are under no unambiguous political control and no clear sovereignty?
Nevertheless, one thing is clear: The danger Israel faces in this new era is twofold. On one hand, Iran is becoming a hegemonic power by exploiting the collapse of the modern Arab world for its own benefit. On the other hand, radical sub-state actors are emerging, with whom peace is impossible and deterrence very difficult.
The deep changes in the east pose a challenge to the Israeli left: In these strategic circumstances, it will be hard to withdraw from the Jordan Valley and impossible to withdraw from the Golan Heights. Those who thought there was no longer a need for a strong Israel Defense Forces and for strategic caution were proved wrong sooner than expected.
But the changes in the east also challenge the Israeli right: An Israel that occupies and that builds settlements won’t have the international legitimacy it needs to defend itself against the new threats. Today, more than ever, the settlements damage national security.
The regional agitation impedes the forging of Israeli-Palestinian peace, but makes progress toward that goal a necessity. What is needed is a new diplomatic doctrine that will creatively address the complex reality while striving for a true alliance between the democratic Jewish state and moderate Sunni Arabs.
Neither the right nor the left, neither the government nor civil society can continue to ignore the far-reaching implications of what is happening around us. The east to our east is truly a new east. It requires all of us to think different, to think clearly and outside all of the boxes.