thank you for that most interesting explanation of why Hizballah may indeed,
as Nicolas Noe suggested in Asia Times last month 'believe that the next war
can and should be the last one between
What you write, however, has the effect of further inflaming a suspicion
which has been growing steadily stronger in me over the past weeks — that the
situation in the
smouldering volcano. It may not erupt,
but could well do so, and if it did, the eruption might come suddenly and
unexpectedly, generating a conflict which could escalate out of control, possibly
with totally catastrophic results.
And the likelihood of catastrophe is, I think, greatly increased by the fact
that many people are living in a fool's paradise, and do not grasp quite how
dangerous the situation
A key part of the background here I take to be the change in Israeli
attitudes described in the seminal 2008 Middle East Policy article 'Abandoning
the Iron Wall:
and the "Middle Eastern Muck"' by Ian Lustick.
The fundamental change whose implications Lustick explores in this paper is
the effective abandonment over the last few years of the 'Iron Wall'
conception, which Jabotinsky set out in 1925, and which was the basis of
Israeli policy until recently. In
essence, this conception involved bludgeoning the Arabs into accepting that
not be destroyed, as a prelude to negotiated accommodations.
What has now replaced this, Lustick argues, is an image of
isolated outpost of Western civilisation, in an Arab/Muslim world with which no
accommodation is possible. And this
change opens up all kinds of possibilities for catastrophe.
According to Lustick, Israelis are 'coming to see the Middle East as a whole
the way they came to see
in the 1980s.' A 'natural feature of this
overall outlook,' he writes, is:
'an image of the Arab/Muslim world, and the Palestinians in particular, as
irrational, brutal and violent, imbued with intractably anti-Semitic hatreds
fortified by deeply anti-Western, Muslim-fundamentalist fanaticism.'
This is relevant to the point made — very fairly — by Fred and 'different
clue', that all kinds of other factors are involved in the increasing
propensity of Israelis to emigrate, besides the growing military capabilities
of Hizballah and
While that is clearly so, the evidence presented by Lustick suggests that
apprehensions about the security situation are an increasingly important
motivation in causing Israelis to think their future may lie elsewhere.
And this is, surely, not surprising. For
implicit in this view of
as an isolated frontier post in a 'civilisational war' is an obvious question
as to whether it makes sense to stay there.
Why live on Hadrian's Wall, when one could live in
or indeed Londonium, as it once was called?
A further effect of this image of the 'Arab/Muslim world' as 'irrational,
brutal and violent', obviously, is to make the increasing military capabilities
of Hizballah and Iran look yet more threatening than they would otherwise seem. It may indeed be that, as 'different clue'
suggests, if the Israelis decided 'to think very slowly and clearly' they could
live with these.
But if one sees the possessors of these capabilities in the terms in which
Lustick suggests that Israelis see the whole 'Arab/Muslim world', then the
threat does indeed come to seem 'existential' — and the collapse into the
all-too-easy and catastrophic analogy with genocidal aspirations of Nazi
What further follows is that even a perfectly 'rational' Israeli strategist
may be right in perceiving the threat from Hizballah rockets and possible
Iranian nuclear weapons as 'existential' — because if people believe it to be
so, it becomes so.
In a kind of vicious circle, the maximalist definition of Israeli security
requirements which results further diminishes the possibility of the kind of
grudging acceptance of the presence of a Zionist 'settler state' from the
'Arab/Muslim world' which the 'Iron Wall' conception made the basis of Israeli
So the route down which
has chosen to go makes it, from Nasrallah's point of view, too dangerous — and
perhaps also too sheerly insulting — to be accorded even grudging acceptance. And at the same time, it has also opened up
the possibility of a perfectly 'rational' strategy to exploit the fears of
Israelis to cause the state to self-destruct.
However, it seems to me that both their dramatic successes against Israel,
and the fact that these do make it eminently possible to conceive of a strategy
which will cause the settler state to self-destruct, may be inducing in
Hizballah a combination alike of hubris and exaggerated — or perhaps it would
be better to say misdirected — fear.
Ironically, this seems to me oddly similar to the combination of hubris and
exaggerated and misdirected fear which, after their dramatic victory in 1967,
blinded the Israeli leadership to the fact that any realistic prospect of
making the 'Iron Wall' strategy work depended upon using the territorial gains
it achieved as bargaining chips — rather than trying to hold on to them.
You write of Hizballah's attitude to a war:
'They know it wouldn't be painless but I guess they are using a logic that
the big hurt once is better than the continued hurt for centuries to come.'
But the fear of a 'continued hurt for centuries to come' surely is
grotesquely exaggerated. The
which has very good prospects of surviving 'for centuries to come' — it is one
in which an 'incapacity to imagine a future for
acceptable' has been spreading right across the political spectrum. And again, this is a case where once
something is imagined to be so, it is liable to become fact.
At the same time, there is a very real shift in opinion in the
notably General Petraeus and Admiral Mullen — are coming to grasp the depths
of the problems that the way in which the Israelis have come to see the
'Arab/Muslim world', and the policies which result, cause for the
and loathing of Obama' — to quote the title of a recent piece by the Financial
Times foreign affairs columnist Gideon Rachman — is very visibly helping the
evolution of American opinion in directions unfavourable to
Actually, Rachman's article is a good example of the kind of 'fool's
paradise' in which so many are now living.
Having noted a whole host of factors which make many of us believe that
the time for the two-state solution has passed, Rachman goes on to assume that if
the Israelis fell in with the rather small changes in settlement policy
suggested by Obama, the road to a two-state solution might still be open.
Doing this blinds him, and many others, to the fact that a realistic
perception that their society is facing a dead end is pushing some Israelis to
take refugee in fantasy, while other — perfectly realistic — ones are driven
to contemplate extreme solutions. The recent
article in Haaretz by Ephraim Sneh, which we discussed here some weeks back, is
I suspect a kind of coded 'thinking aloud' about the possibilities and
difficulties of such solutions by a perfectly 'rational' Israeli strategist.
Unlike Rachman, and much opinion in the supposedly 'rational' West, Sneh was
facing up to the extreme intractability of the dilemmas which confront
a war which, if not necessarily the 'last war' between
intended as a very radical 'game changer' indeed — as Clifford Kiracofe has
It is fairly clear that Israeli military power is inadequate seriously to
set back the Iranian nuclear programme, and deeply unclear that the balance of
military power has shifted towards
kind of decisive victory against Hizballah it so signally failed to achieve in
Accordingly it is likely that the only war which makes sense for Israel is
one in which it can enlist the massive military power of the United States, in
an all-out war in which it would hope to do the maximum damage possible both to
Hizballah and to Iran.
A possible further objective of such a war could be to create a situation
whereby the vision of a civilisational clash became self-validating — with the
having so involved itself on the Israeli side that it could not easily retreat
from the complicity thus created.
Among others, Colonel Sam Gardiner, in his recent report entitled 'The
Israeli Threat', has argued that an Israeli strike on
well create a situation in which the Obama Administration could feel it had no
option but to join in on the Israeli side.
Very often, if one sees signs that an adversary may be preparing to set a
trap for one, the sensible response is to take steps not to fall into it — and
if possible, by failing to act as the adversary, to cause the attempted
entrapment to backfire.
On this basis it would seem sensible for the Iranians to attempt to devise contingency
plans aimed at responding to any Israeli attack, in ways which tilted the
balance against intervention in the
approach suggested by Lysander in a previous thread.
And by cheeking Obama over the settlements, Netanyahu may have made this
much easier — both because this may make the President incandescent at any
attempt to pressure him by Israelis, and because there is clearly a growing
number of people in the United States who think that Israel needs to be taught
who is the tail and who the dog.
It may be the Iranians are not in a position to wrong-foot the Israelis in
the way Lysander suggests. But if they
were able to do so, the potential gains could be very great. For
programme is such an 'existential threat' that it has to take unilateral
action, and then to take action unsuccessfully, would be precisely the way to
encourage its citizens to bolt.
Moreover, a restrained response could make it possible to turn the image of
the Muslim world as 'irrational, brutal and violent' back on the Israelis. If one thinks through the implications, one
can I think see the possibility of a truly massive propaganda coup.
What then of Hizballah?
The appropriate strategy at the outset of any conflict seems obvious enough
— one of 'symetrical response', which at one of the same time establishes the
Israelis as aggressors, and ensures that they suffer damage commensurate with
— and if possible tailored to — that which they inflict. It has to be demonstrated that
now, and cannot realistically hope in the future, to destroy the retaliatory
capability of Hizballah.
So far, the picture you give of Hizballah's strategic thinking seems to make
excellent sense. However, I remain
puzzled by the calculations you suggest are behind the vision of this war as
the 'last one' between
and its enemies.
What you say about the 'lessons of 1066' and the imperative 'don't join with
the enemy where you haven't planned to' certainly seem to me to have been very
much to the point in 2006, and to be very much to the point today.
However, you seem to me to be suggesting that Hizballah thinks that this
conflict is the likely to be a final and decisive one, precisely because they
can realistically plan for circumstances in which they can advance into
In their shoes, I would certainly have contingency plans for all kinds of
situations. But I would still both think
that the kind of immediate decisive victory you suggest is unlikely, that the
dangers of attempting to achieve it are liable to be very great — as well as
believing that it is unnecessary.
For this there are several reasons:
1. You suggest Hizballah believes
that a 'symetrical response' could trigger the kind of panic which would
produce an immediate exodus, which in turn could lead to an immediate military
collapse: rather than simply accelerating a more extended process of
This may be so, but hopes that aerial bombardment could trigger a rapid
panic have rather often not been vindicated.
The RAF and USAF devastated German cities in the latter stages of the
Second World War, without having significant effects on German morale.
2. You appear to suggest that, in response
to these anticipated signs of disintegration, Hizballah might advance into
Palestinian refugees behind them.
Whether they would enjoy the kind of advantages they enjoy when fighting
on the defensive on their own territory seems to me unclear.
3. The key to the strategic position
In recent years Israeli governments and
the American Zionist lobby have been very successful in marginalising
scepticism about unconditional support for Israeli politics — but at the same
time their actions have greatly increased such scepticism. Since I started reading and commenting on
this blog back in 2005, the underlying change in the climate of opinion in the
has been palpable.
The conduct of Hizballah in 2006 encouraged the erosion of sympathy and
least because it turned so many familiar stereotypes on its head:
an inept and brutal Goliath. A re-run of
2006, with Hizballah forces not crossing over into
Any advance into
particularly if Palestinian refugees followed in its wake, would risk
reactivating all the old stereotypes of Arabs dreaming of pushing
sea — and validating the Israeli vision of themselves as an isolated outpost
of Western civilisation.
4. Last but hardly least, advancing
would surely needlessly exacerbate the danger of Israeli use of nuclear
And I must admit to being puzzled by some of the reasons you give for being
reasonably sanguine about the danger of these weapons being used if indeed the
Israelis were confronted by the kind of rapid disintegration you suggest is
You suggest that it is unlikely that the Israelis would be in a position to use
nuclear weapons, because 'the Liebermans of Israel, those that use the
nationalist agenda would be long gone.'
But if the rapid disintegration you suggest Hizballah anticipates
materializes, then how are 'those that use the nationalist agenda' going to
have had time to get out?
Surely this is an argument for not attempting to secure a decisive victory
now — but leaving the implications of defeat to sink in, thus encouraging the
disintegrative tendencies evident in Israeli society?
5. Moreover, another point made by
Ian Lustick seems relevant. He suggests that rather than force against Arabs
and Muslims being conceived of as 'a persuasive instrument in service of
political or diplomatic aims', it is now increasingly treated by Israelis as 'a
kind of rattonade'.
Apparently this is a term drawn from French practice in
'rat hunt', and which signifies a violent strike on the enemy, 'for purposes of
punishment, destruction and psychological release.'
And here, one also comes up against the question of whether the Israelis may
be tempted to cope with their intractable demographic problems by attempting
In an earlier thread, you and I have disagreed on the possibility of the
Israelis resorting to 'ethnic cleansing'.
My view remains that — in normal circumstances — this remains
extraordinarily unlikely. It is
precisely however in the circumstances of a war which runs out of control that
the unthinkable becomes thinking.
So, for example, the transition in Hitler's policy from 'ethnic cleansing'
to 'genocide' in relation to the Jews of Europe comes in the early stages of
the Russian campaign.
How much significance one should accord to the famous interview given back
in 2003 by the Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld is a moot
point. This is frequently misunderstood,
because people fail to grasp that that his key point is that by failing to
retreat to the 1967 borders,
has left itself with no good options — and may end up with only catastrophic
But I think it does give one reason to fear how Israeli leaders might act,
in the context of a war running out control.
The question as to whether the world would allow the kind of 'ethnic
cleansing' to which van Creveld suggested
"Interviewer: Do you think that the world will allow that kind
of ethnic cleansing?
"Creveld: That depends on who does it and how quickly it
happens. We possess several hundred atomic warheads and rockets and can launch
them at targets in all directions, perhaps even at
our air force.
"Creveld: Let me quote General Moshe Dayan:
must be like a mad dog, too dangerous to bother." I consider it all
hopeless at this point. We shall have to try to prevent things from coming to
that, if at all possible. Our armed forces, however, are not the thirtieth
strongest in the world, but rather the second or third. We have the capability
to take the world down with us. And I can assure you that that will happen,
"Interviewer: This isn't your own position, is it?
"Creveld: Of course not. You asked me what might happen and I've
laid it out. The only question is whether it is already too late for the other
solution, which I support, and whether Israeli public opinion can still be
convinced. I think it's too late. With each passing day the expulsion of the
Palestinians grows more probable. The alternative would be the total
annihilation and disintegration of
And I think that although van Creveld may be blustering, one should be
cautious about assuming that both an attempt at 'ethnic cleansing', and also
the use of nuclear weapons, would be impossible in the course of a new Middle
East war — and in particular, one which Israel was losing catastrophically.
The conclusion to which I have come — with deep regret — is that the
over the next few years if by far the most likely eventuality. But if this is so, the political problem
becomes how to manage the winding up of the Zionist project, without this
generating a total and utter catastrophe. And as the catastrophe could indeed
be total and utter, it seems to me that a lot of people who are at daggers'
drawn actually have a common interest in avoiding it.
And for this reason, the best strategy for Hizballah would be to try to make
'deterrence' work, while, obviously, being prepared for it failing. If it fails, however, they should, even if
the war goes their way, be extremely cautious about any ideas about advancing
Eschewing hopes of a final victory now would certainly involve accepting the
possibility that this might not be the last and final conflict. But a successful defensive war could well
create a situation whereby the winding up of the Zionist project could be
achieved without a further war — and also make it likely that, if such a
further war materialised, it would be less apocalyptic than an all-out war in
present circumstances might turn out to be.