Partners in Chaos

Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu

by Gareth Smyth

In 1996, following the ‘Grapes of Wrath’ Israeli invasion of Lebanon, United States Secretary of State Warren Christopher brokered a written agreement under which Israel agreed not to target civilians while Hezbollah, the Lebanese resistance group, agreed not to fire rockets into Israel. The ‘April Understanding’ did not stop fighting between Israeli forces and Hezbollah. Nor was it designed to do so. Indeed, shelling and gunfire continued daily. But the agreement did reduce civilian deaths, and it largely held for the remaining four years in which Israel occupied a large swathe of south Lebanon. 

Fast-forward to 2019. On September 1, Israel and Hezbollah exchanged fire along the Israel-Lebanon border and came close to serious escalation. After Hezbollah claimed to have killed Israeli troops, Israel said it had fooled the Lebanese. Haaretz analyst Amos Harel warned that such jubilation was unwise.

There was also speculation over conciliatory messages being exchanged through France, Egypt, the U.S. and the Lebanese government. When Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu had stepped up their mutual threats days earlier, after two Israeli drones crashed in south Beirut on August 25, Lebanese prime minister Saad al-Hariri appealed for assistance not from the ‘international community’ or Washington, but from Moscow. 

In the past 20 years—certainly in the last ten—the Middle East has moved away from multilateral arrangements, formal or informal, towards an unruly pursuit of unilateral short-term gain. President Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ politics and contempt for international frameworks—he has left the Paris climate accords as well as the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal—has fueled a politics of gesture and foreign policy by tweet. 

In a new book, former Mossad official Yossi Alpher traces today’s “Middle East chaos” both to the ‘Arab Spring’ and a series of western interventions, especially the 2003 invasion of Iraq and overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. Winners and Losers in the ‘Arab Spring’: Profiles in Chaos is an ambitious yet succinct analysis of regional upheavals since 2011.

A major concern for Alpher, and many Israelis, is the military presence of both Iran and Hezbollah in Syria since their intervention to bolster the regime of president Bashar al-Assad against rebels backed mainly by the Gulf States. Alpher was one of the first to highlight Israel’s intelligence co-operation with Russia after Moscow’s armed intervention in support of Assad in 2015, necessary if only because both had military jets in Syrian airspace.

Israel’s problem is with Iran, not with Assad’s rule or his human-rights record. Tel Aviv had long-running talks with Assad’s father Hafez over the Israeli-occupied Golan that were encouraged and sometimes brokered by the U.S. These were near to an agreement in the 1990s and continued in 2008 under Bashar. But by 2015-16, Israel was clearly happier with some relationship with militant Sunni groups opposed to Assad, even Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate. Some UN reports suggested that Israel’s relationship with these groups included logistic support and not just medical treatment. By 2018-19, this was widely acknowledged in the Israeli media.

Central to Alpher’s book is the argument that Russian President Vladimir Putin, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s al-Quds brigade, have all made the most of regional instability. In a point worthy of a former Mossad officer, Alpher points out that both Putin and Soleimani are “intelligence professionals.”

Moscow has certainly gained a Mediterranean foothold with a naval base at Syria’s Tartus. Does this make Russia, if not the Middle East’s ‘honest broker’, at least the world power with clearest influence? Is Russia interested in establishing new security frameworks? “Putin’s capacity to mediate is limited and he knows it,” Alpher tells me. “But he’s our neighbor now, like Iran, but neutral [with regard to Israel]. Bibi has cultivated him skillfully, but that too has limits.”

Alpher rules out any understanding with Hezbollah, even on the lines of 1996. “This threat from the north is Israel’s major strategic preoccupation. The war of attrition against Iran’s build-up has so far been successful, but we are far from finished. As long as Iran is involved, I see no political solution.”

There is no American push to foster any understanding between Israel, Syria, Lebanon and Hezbollah. This is not an administration that likes complications. Mike Pompeo, secretary of state, has merely stressed U.S. support for Netanyahu—very much in line with Trump shifting the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem or pushing the Kushner ‘peace plan’, moves that Alpher argues have emboldened Netanyahu’s discourse and undermined Israelis who want a two-state solution with the Palestinians.

Europe is meanwhile struggling to maintain the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), from which Trump withdrew the U.S. in 2018. Iran has escalated its nuclear activities beyond JCPOA limits in order to put pressure on Europe to alleviate the effects of U.S. sanctions, and regards Hezbollah’s missiles in south Lebanon as a deterrent to Israel.

The G7 Summit of 24-26 August saw French president Emmanuel Macron invite Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to Biarritz—oddly on the same day the Israeli drones crashed in Beirut—but the Trump administration seems poorly equipped for serious multilateral talks while Iranian president Hassan Rouhani has ruled out bilateral engagement. 

Israel is similarly disinclined. Surprised by Zarif’s trip to Biarritz, Israeli officials panicked as rumors flew that the foreign minister was in France to facilitate talks between Trump and Rouhani. By Friday, Netanyahu’s office issued a statement that the Israeli prime minister had told Macron by telephone that this was the “wrong timing to hold talks with Iran, while it is increasing its aggression in the region.”

Alpher’s book explores various ways in which Netanyahu, who leads “Israel’s most right-wing, settlement-oriented and religious-extremist government in history,” has sought to exploit ‘Arab chaos’ since 2011. The driver of Israel’s “strategic co-operation” with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Alpher writes, is shared apprehension over “the danger of Iranian encroachment in the Persian Gulf and Levant regions.” Crucially for Netanyahu, “No longer was a Palestinian solution the necessary predecessor to normalization with the Arab world.”

Will Netanyahu’s approach benefit Israel in the longer term? Alpher tells me no, even though  he says “most Israelis” approve of Trump and hope he will be re-elected next year. “Ultimately Trump is disastrous for us, for two reasons. Firstly, he is helping us become a bi-national apartheid state [by incorporating the West Bank]. Secondly, when push comes to shove with the Iranians, the Russians, or anyone else, we cannot really depend on him.”

Yossi Alpher, Winners and Losers in the ‘Arab Spring’: Profiles in Chaos, Routledge.

Gareth Smyth, who has reported from the Middle East since 1992, was 2003-7 the chief correspondent of the Financial Times in Iran.

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