In a Discussion Panel held at Al-Zaytouna Centre in Beirut, in Coordination with the Middle East Studies Centre in Amman
As many local, regional, and international sources and politicians mention the possibility of witnessing a new war in the Middle East, involving Israel and any -or all- of the “refusal front” parties (Hamas/ Gaza, Hizbullah/ Lebanon, Syria and Iran); Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations held a Discussion Panel about “Israel and the Possibilities of War in 2010,” on 22/4/2010. The Discussion Panel was organized in coordination with the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies in Amman, and was attended by a select of intellectuals and academics of concern with the Palestinian issue.
The opening address was by Prof. Dr. Mohsen Mohammad Saleh, general manager of Al-Zaytouna Centre, who welcomed the guests hoping the discussion will be fruitful. Saleh furnished for the discussion by posing the central questions that arise when discussing the issue of Israel and war possibilities; questions that are “left open for the discussants and guests to address.” These questions include: the possibility of Israel taking serious military action such as war; and in case it did, on which front would that be? Or would it be on more than one front?; the nature of such a war, would it be a limited military campaign or strikes with specific targets, or will it follow the two recent scenarios of 2006 and 2009 in being more exhaustive and open?; and what about the retaliation or expected reactions of the opposite party/parties?; etc… Saleh stressed that answers to such questions are neither straight-forward, nor necessarily definite or available. He added that the need to discuss them arises from the fact that such questions involve a large set of factors and variables, of which the most prominent are the internal Israeli situation, the internal situations in neighbouring areas (Gaza, Lebanon, Syria and Iran), the surrounding regional environment (Arab ‘moderate’ regimes) and the international situation, specifically the American position.
The First Session
The first session of the discussion panel focused on arranging the available informational background on the various related aspects, and it started with four lengthy interventions: first, about the internal Israeli scene (presented by Hilmi Moussa); second, on the possibility of a war between Israel and Gaza (Dr. Jawad al-Hamad); third, on the possibility of a war between Israel and Lebanon/Hizbullah (Birgadier Dr. Amine Hoteit); and fourth on the possibility of a war that involves Iran (Dr. Talal Atrissi).
In addressing the Israeli internal scene, Hilmi Moussa, the specialist in Israeli Affairs, attempted to answer the question: “Is there an already-taken Israeli decision regarding launching a war, whether on any of the above mentioned fronts?”. He started by emphasizing that Israel is unlike any other country in that it is essentially founded on the principle of power and deter factor. Israeli politicians and strategists link Israel’s sustainability with its ability to maintain its power; thus among the basics of the Israeli national security theory is that “Israel’s existence doesn’t bear any military defeat.” Moussa noted however the difference between continuous preparation for war, and taking an actual decision to wage a war; especially in the current regional setting that changed after the July 2006 war and the war against Gaza in 2009. The resistance movements have been on the rise, while the Israeli-American relations have changed in light of the current crisis faced by the US in the Middle East. Moussa excluded the possibility of Israel waging a war currently against any of the parties mentioned above, although it does threaten with that as a form of political bargaining. For Israel, the current situation –as it is– serves its interests more than a war: Gaza doesn’t impose any serious threat, and the West Bank succumbs under the Israeli settlement and Judaization plans, including Jerusalem. This argument was supported by other discussants, who consented that Israel doesn’t save any effort in investing the current situation of Palestinian schism, the freeze in the settlement process, and the existence of a “common” Israeli-Egyptian goal (besieging and suffocating Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and thus deem its resistant/ Islamic model of governance to failure).
Dr. Jawad al-Hamad, head of the Centre for Middle East Studies in Amman, elaborated on the possibility of Israel waging a war against Gaza, and what goals could Israel seek from such a war. The major reason behind any military action taken by Israel currently, including war, is its need to strengthen its morale following the last two wars of 2006 and 2009; when it failed in achieving its goals. Gaza is the most probable target being the weakest front, although Gaza today is not an Israeli top-priority strategic concern. The general climate within Israel indicates preparedness to this war, politically and militarily, awaiting the right moment to launch it. Al-Hamad described the waging of a war against Gaza as “merely a matter of time, and regional and international development.”
It is worth-noting here that the discussants’ arguments have varied widely on this issue, where many arguments stressed that a full-war against Gaza Strip is unlikely, since Israel could by no means seek the reoccupation of the Strip, neither it wants to. Most common in these arguments was the possibility of Israel taking limited steps such as assassinations and incursions, or limited military campaigns; in case it opted for a military approach in dealing with the Strip.
As for Lebanon, and the possibility of observing a war on Israel’s northern front, specifically with Hizbullah, Brigadier Dr. Amine Hoteit said that the region is witnessing currently a phase of “parading power”. Moving to a stage of “using power” is dependent on two major considerations: the offensive power being sure of its ability to achieve its goals first, and second its ability to employ politically the results of this war to its advantage and interests. In the case of Lebanon and after the 2006 war, the changes are not in favor of Israel waging such a war, especially in light of the recent meeting in Damascus between Nasrallah, Assad, and Ahmadinejad. Hoteit stressed what Moussa earlier mentioned, that the process of power restoration, and preparing for war, is an ever-lasting process in Israel; but taking the decision to start a specific war and the accompanying details of waging is postponed for the respective moment. He concluded that a war against Lebanon is unlikely in the foreseeable future (6-16 months in military terms).
‘Iran and the possibilities of war’ was the topic of the fourth –and last before opening the floor for discussion- elaborated statement by Dr. Talal Atrissi. Atrissi started by a briefing on the American-Iranian relations since Obama’s arrival, where Obama initially expressed his intent for dealing differently with Iran by going back to dialogue; then after the Iranian elections, the relations went back to deterioration, with threats of “considering all possible options to deal with Iran.” Atrissi argued that all the international efforts to pressure Iran have failed, including those to dismantle its alliance with Syria, and attempts to infuse an internal state of turmoil following elections. He added that the currently discussed sanctions will not be effectively harmful to Iran, since both Russia and China object to such sanctions. This leaves two possibilities: first, the military option, and the resulting Iranian reaction that the US currently is incapable of expecting or foreseeing its nature and limits (will it retaliate fiercely, or in a confined manner, or will it choose to play the victim role?); and as such the US cannot take such a risk while it is still stumbling in Iraq and Afghanistan, especially that the Arab gulf states are not keen to such a step. The second possibility would be to deal realistically with a “nuclear Iran,” while setting red lines on Iran’s utilization of its nuclear capabilities; examples of such restrictions could be, forbidding the use of nuclear weapons, forbidding the selling or transferring of nuclear technology, prohibiting its reach to “terrorists”, etc. Staying out with these two possibilities, according to Atrissi, indicates clearly in itself a significant change in the American dealing with Iran, “to the extent that we can rule out the possibility of observing a military action against Iran in the current circumstances.” He added that even limited strikes are unlikely, because of the vagueness that surrounds the Iranian retaliation scenario, and what could that infer on the regional and international scene.
Then the floor was open for the discussants, where the first intervention was by MP Brigadier Waleed Sukkareiyyah, on the change in the nature of the relation between the “refusal front” and the resistance movements. Today, these sides are like domino pieces, if one piece falls all the others will follow. Sukkareiyyah mentioned that the US is currently seeking the dismantling of these powers, specifically Syria and Iran, to isolate Iran from the Arabs; and that if we were to observe a military strike on Iran, then it would not be taken by the US but rather by Israel. He questioned “the level of preparedness in Israel to such a strike -that nonetheless remains unlikely.”
As for Syria, Sukkareiyyah argued that a war with Syria is not currently in Israel’s interest because of two factors: first, Syria today has improved its defense strategy, thus it is somehow capable of retaliating efficiently; second, and more important according to Sukkareiyyah, Syria’s retaliation with rockets will be more costly to Israel, economically and morally, since the Syrian population is more capable of bearing and enduring losses as sacrifice.
Saqr Abu-Fakher, the writer and researcher at the Institute for Palestine Studies (IPS), warned the discussants against “rashness in eliminating the war option, because the possibility of observing a war exists on both theoretical and practical levels.” Abu-Fakhr supported his statement by briefing some of the recent developments in the region, including the vigorous intelligence activities, military maneuvers, armament efforts; that all “indicate a possibility of observing a war, no matter how low the chances seem.”
Ahmad Khalifeh, his fellow colleague in IPS who specializes in Israeli affairs, emphasized the need to elaborate more on the issue of the current internal Israeli political, military and domestic scene; as all previous discussions neglected this factor that is crucial in affecting a decision to wage a war. A second factor, that is also crucial in Israeli war decisions according to Khalifeh, is the US-Israeli relations, and the extent to which the US is able to push Israel to a war, or prevent it from going to a war.
The Palestinian researcher, Waleed Mohammad Ali, called upon not confining the discussion about war with the “traditional military dimension, because we are already in a state of war that takes various forms”; noting the continuous Israeli settlement and Judaization measures in Jerusalem and the West Bank, the siege on Gaza Strip, the “security coordination” in the West Bank, and similar other attempts of ending the Palestinian issue and eliminating the resistance.
Hamas representative in Lebanon, Ali Barakeh, elaborated in the issue of the complexity of addressing such a topic, because of the numerous factors that need to be considered. Adding to the aforementioned, Barakeh noted the freeze in the settlement process, Netanyahu’s right-wing visions and his refusal to the two-state solution, the Egyptian stance towards Gaza Strip that essentially embodies a form of official Egyptian “enmity” towards Hamas rule. Also Barakeh called upon considering the various possible military options, besides waging a full war, such as waging a war of attrition against Iran or Hamas, to weaken the Islamic rule or to bring it down, and not necessarily to re-occupy the Strip in the case of Gaza.
In a similar context, Dr. Muhammad Noureddine argued that the threat of a “nuclear Iran” should not be viewed in the perspective of being an existential threat for Israel in the physical destructive sense, but rather in how it threatens the “special relation” between the US and Israel, because the American need for Israel in the Middle East to protect its interests is unlike the past, and the whole concept of American foreign policy in the Middle East is being re-shaped towards the necessity of approaching and understanding the needs of the region’s native populations and regimes.
Noureddine’s interjection was the last in the first session, which was thus concluded.
The Second Session
The second session was moderated by Dr. Jawad al-Hamad, and was wholly dedicated to the discussants’ comments and participations.
The first discussant to participate was Suheil al-Natour, who reiterated a set of questions with the goal of “trying to arrange of the major factors that determine the answer to the question being discussed, i.e. Israel and the possibilities of war in 2010.” Most prominent among these determinants according to al-Natour: the US-Israeli relations; the possible war scenarios, especially regarding retaliation scenarios that might develop in case Israel took a step of military action; the regional and international settings; in addition of course to the internal Israeli setting. Al-Natour emphasized in his statement, the need to consider the dangers of situations other than war, such as the danger of remaining in the current state of Palestinian schism, where the “Palestinian wounds would rot.”
Next spoke Tayseer al-Khatib, who saw little chance of remaining in the current “stagnant” situation, and called upon the discussant to elaborate in the various scenarios, posing a sample question to “kick-off”: What if a war was launched against Gaza, will Hizbullah intervene? And if yes, then when and how?”. This call was supported by Dr. Hussein Abu-Naml in his following intervention. Abu-Naml expressed his concern towards the ascend in the regional rhythm, that reminds him personally of 1967; “Israel is not the only side talking about war. A quick look at the Arab press is enough to see that.” This tension, however, is not healthy according to Abu-Naml; neither it is necessarily in the resistance’s interest to focus on the drawbacks of Israel and the upturn of the resistance, and to avoid any mention of Israel’s strength factors and the lessons it learned following the wars of 2006 and 2009; adding, “war is a serious matter with high cost, and continuing as such might lead to the formation of a public opinion that asks, ‘well, if we are as strong and capable, why don’t we wage a war against Israel?’ “.
On the issue of Gaza, Abu-Naml agreed with the point that Israel is not that concerned with the situation in Gaza, because for the mean time and from a practical perspective, there is nothing for it to worry about. Indeed, it finds Iran worrisome because its threat is farther than a mere nuclear threat, but an issue of ideological considerations related to political Islam, resistance, and Islamic governance; all of which are concepts that the US and Israel seek to distort and eliminate: Israel for the sake of normalizing its presence in the region, and the US for protecting its interests.
To the above, Dr. Talal Atrissi added three remarks to be considered. First, observing war preparations in the region is not something new or abnormal; on the contrary, this had been almost a “natural” state, independent of the issue of observing an actual war. Second, the waging of a war on behalf of Israel is critically dependent on its belief regarding the behaviour of the opposite front, as Israel doesn’t want to be involved in a comprehensive war that possibly involves Hizbullah, Syria and Iran. Third, terms such as “current situation,” “current conditions” and “foreseeable future” are directly associated with the situation in Iraq, the possible American withdrawal, and the implications thereof especially on the Iranian issue.
Hilmi Moussa remarked on the issue of Jordan and Egypt, with regards to Israel. According to Moussa, “the regimes in these two countries provide Israel with border protection, assuring to an extent that Israel itself couldn’t provide a similar or better one.” As for Syria, its regime is to Israel “an enemy that you know, is thousand times better than an enemy you don’t”; thus all the neighbouring Arab regimes are for Israel a convenient condition, whose alternative could be much worse. Moussa added that when we read the present and raise possibilities, we only refer to logic and reason, thus excluding the scenarios that might result from political rashness or recklessness. And the latter do exist but we cannot read; especially in the Israeli political institutions, where even the US has resorted to strengthening its ties with the military institutions rather than the political ones, because of the trust factor; not to mention that the military institutions has proved throughout history to have the dominant say in Israel. “This brings the discussion back to the necessity to read and understand the internal Israeli setting,” Moussa concluded.
Atef al-Joulani, editor-in-chief of the Jordanian daily newspaper Assabeel, linked the possibility of waging a war against Gaza with three factors that determine whether this war would be comprehensive or limited: first, the preparedness of the Israelis; second, the legal and moral costs that Israel will have to bear (a new factor after Goldston’es report); and third, the American and European stances, where al-Joulani questioned the seriousness of the current US-Israeli crisis, and the possibility of it being indeed a mark to the beginning of a new stage of their relation.
“But will the tripartite northern front (Iran, Syria and Hizbullah) allow the fall of Gaza?” This was the question posed by Brigadier Dr. Hoteit, who essentially answered that they will only allow it in a specific context and to a limited extent. “They might allow the fall of Hamas rule, or Hamas sustaining a military defeat; but they will not allow a full elimination of Hamas as it means wiping Gaza off the agenda of the resistance. Indirectly, this points towards the elimination of the resistance in Palestine, taking into consideration the current situation in the West Bank.” Hoteit added that “if a similar Israeli attempt took place, the ‘refusal front’ will interfere through already available justifications and contexts that furnish for Hizbullah’s direct military intervention, such as Shebaa farms, the Israeli breaches of UN resolution 1701, and the biased UNIFIL performance in the Lebanese south.
Assuring this argument, MP Brigadier Sukkareiyyah ruled out the possibility of Israel attempting to take such a step in the first place; because Gaza doesn’t impose any security threat for Israel, neither it constitutes an obstacle to the peace process because currently this process is stagnant and there exists no viable plan/ vision that is acceptable to concerned parties. On the contrary, “if Israel takes any military action against Gaza, it will merely be a cover up for another plan/ action it is undertaking on another front.” He concluded by stating that, for Israel, a comprehensive war would literally be suicide.
Here also, Hilmi Moussa briefly intervened saying that Israel doesn’t really care who rules in Gaza, as much as it cares that this ruler takes it seriously into consideration.
Last but not least was a remark by Prof. Dr. Mohsen Mohammad Saleh on the “induced states of consciousness,” observed on all concerned fronts following the wars of 2006 and 2009. This altered state is mainly characterized by increased caution in taking any military step, be it on the part of Israel or the resistance movements. Both realize today that the resulting consequences might get out of control. “The resistance movements today are different from those in the past in that they practice some kind of self-control. For example in Gaza, we observe a cease-fire and no rockets are launched towards Israeli settlements although the official cease-fire period had ended. Saleh hypothesized that such behaviour on behalf of the resistance movements was partly due to their recent involvement in political experiences; but there is a need to study this issue, and consider its possible implications on the future of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Saleh also remarked on the issue of Israeli capitalization of the stagnant peace process and the Palestinian schism, to create the largest possible set of facts on the ground in Jerusalem and the West Bank; saying that this Israeli strategy will not continue forever, and at some later stage, Israel will feel that it has left no stone unturned and thus feel an urge to change the situation. Saleh asked: “What is the critical point at which Israel will decide that this status-quo is unacceptable -especially while the resistance movements are also on the rise- and that some action should be taken to change it?”.
“Saleh’s question, among numerous others that were posed and left open, is but a part of the challenging task of addressing the issue of Israel and the possibilities of war in the foreseeable future. Questions about this issue outnumber available answers, and that is why discussion becomes insightful and necessary”; As such, Dr. Jawad al-Hamad, concluded the second session, and thanked all the guests for this worthy discussion. Similarly, Prof. Dr. Mohsen Mohammad Saleh thanked the guests and announced the end of the Discussion Panel.
Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations, 27/4/2010
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