by John Walbridge
I am in Israel at the moment, having just completed a terrorism tour for academics sponsored by a group called the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). The organizer described them as “hawkish,” which is certainly true. The tour mostly focused on the mechanics of terrorism and counter-terrorism (how to make a suicide vest, how to stop someone wearing one, etc.) and consisted of lectures by and visits to people (usually well connected, upper mid-level) and units belonging to the police, para-military, and regular army. Direct talk about politics was mostly avoided. This dovish isolationist has to admit that it was a fascinating program, and I can recommend it to others. It’s called the Academic Fellows Program, if anyone is interested.
That said, I can make a few observations about Israel’s attitudes towards Iran and related issues based on what I heard and saw.
1) Nobody seems to be thinking very far ahead. It is not surprising that bomb squad officers should be obsessed with the next bomber, but even a senior retired intelligence officer, discussing “long-term” scenarios, only went to 2030, did nothing but project the most negative current trends, and had no suggestions for improving Israel’s long-term prospects. The settlers were an exception to this, but their strategic calculations relied on the assumption that God was going to back up their property titles, which seems uncertain to me.
2) There is a striking unwillingness to see things from the point of view of the other side or to recognize that the other side has legitimate interests that need to be taken into account. Apart from not asking the most obvious questions (“Why do people hate us so much that they are willing to blow themselves up to kill random Israelis on the street?”), I didn’t hear anyone talking about what Iran’s interests might be, what Hezbollah’s interests were, or how they should be taken into account. An Israel Defense Forces (IDF) officer on the northern border, which has been peaceful for six years, seemed utterly baffled by my question about whether the situation might be satisfactory for both sides, given that Hezbollah controls the south securely without Israel occupying any significant territory of interest to them and that between Hezbollah long-range rockets and the bloodymindedness of the Israeli air force, both sides have every reason to avoid a war. There is even a hotline to avoid misunderstandings.
3) There is an obsession with Iran. A settler leader and aspiring right-wing Israeli politician (and former senior aide to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) was explaining why a peace agreement giving the West Bank–sorry, “Judea and Samaria”–to the Palestinians would be militarily unacceptable. He took us to a settlement on the edge of the Samaritan hills and pointed to the towers of Tel Aviv on the horizon. “Imagine,” he said, “if Iran were here!” “Iran!” I blurted out, my resolve to keep my mouth shut overwhelmed by surprise. “What’s Iran got to do with it?” He looked at me as if I was a child.
Iran is going to take over Iraq. Jordan is very weak, so that will fall to them too. Then they will control Judea and Samaria and be able to attack Tel Aviv.
This preposterous scenario was extreme and our hosts apologized afterwards for exposing us to the naked political nuttiness of the settlers, but the notion that Iran might be lurking under every bed was widely shared.
4) Everyone seemed to think that Hamas and Hezbollah would automatically do Iran’s bidding. There is no recognition that they might be autonomous actors beholden to Iran for support but pursuing their own interests too. I don’t have much doubt that Hezbollah would refrain from making trouble with Israel if Iran asked them to do so or that Iran would order Hezbollah and Hamas to attack Israel if Iran was attacked. On the other hand, it is far less clear that Hezbollah would risk its own destruction at Iran’s order.
Glendower: I can call spirits from the vasty deep.
Hotspur: Why, so can I, or so can any man;
But will they come when you do call for them?
Fairness compels me to say that some of these attitudes were shared by Security Studies and Political Science types in our delegation.
I will leave the question of Islamophobia for another time, but had you heard, as I did from a senior former intelligence official, that Muslims have no sense of right or wrong because in the Qur’an Adam disobeyed God but did not eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil? I thought you would want to know.
All of this adds up to a lot of possible reasons why Israel might make major strategic miscalculations, both overreacting to provocations, real or imagined, and missing opportunities for positive progress. If, as seems to be the case, Americans concerned with these issues are picking up these attitudes towards Iran and Islam from Israel, there is every reason to be scared.
— John Walbridge is Professor of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at Indiana University. He teaches a variety of courses on the Middle East and has published, edited, and/or translated some ten books on various aspects of Islamic and Middle Eastern culture.