Friday, February 05, 2010

More poor Israeli diplomacy: The flare up with Syria

So the story is that Ehud Barak is reported in the Israeli press saying "in the absence of an arrangement with Syria, we are liable to enter a belligerent clash with it that could reach the point of an all-out, regional war." Syria interprets that as a threat and its foreign minister, Waleed Mouallem, issues a very interesting response that merits closer examination: "war this time would move to your cities." Which is enough to bring possibly the most ineffective diplomat in the world today onto the stage, Avigdor Lieberman. "In the next war, not only will you lose but you and your family will lose power."

Mouallem first. Barak's statement had not been intended as verbally aggressive against Syria. His intention was to express to Israeli leaders that Israel would not be in a better position after a war with Syria. Barak's further statement that Syria may want the potential war after which he expects to negotiate the same issues as are under discussion now, and the release of that statement to the press was provocative, but not ridiculously so, not what would come later.
"A political arrangement is not the dream come true of the other side," Barak said. "This will be a choice of 'no choice.' If the other side believes it is possible to bring down Israel, to wage a battle of attrition against it or lure it into a honey trap, then it will prefer to do so."
Israel has failed to achieve objectives across its borders, and has lost a war in that sense, but Israel has not lost a war yet in the sense of another party demonstrating that it can capture and hold territory already under Israeli control against Israeli military opposition. Zionism as a project is delicate enough that losing a war, or even scenarios short of losing a war could render it unviable.

Syria, in terms of military capability, is in an entire category above Hezbollah in 2006. Moullem's statement that the next war will be fought in Israel's cities is a prediction that a threshold has been already crossed and that war from now on will be far most costly for Israel than the wars it has fought so far, especially if they include nationally organized armed forces.

Lieberman's response had two equally severe shortcomings. One is that it is not true in a very important and profound way. The other is that he demonstrated that he fundamentally misunderstands the motivation of his opponents. Israel has proven unable to remove Hamas from power. I don't think it is necessary to recite an entire list of advantages Assad's regime has over Hamas in terms of regime stability or independence from Israeli leverage. Knowing what it knows now, the United States wouldn't even be willing to remove Saddam Hussein from power. It is just a bizarre assertion by Lieberman that somehow Israel could remove Assad from power.

But even more importantly, Assad is not Mubarak or one of the colonial dictators of Jordan or Saudi Arabia. I call those leaders colonial dictators because the United States does hold the leaders accountable and is in a position to effectively register dissatisfaction with their policies in ways that lead to policy adjustments. The people of those countries have no way to hold their leaders accountable, and in fact, when asked, express that they would prefer policies less in line with US priorities. This is a subject that I will write more about.

But for now, for Lieberman to make a personal threat against Assad has very little motivational power, especially since the threat is obviously empty and could not even be applied to a territory whose contact with the outside world is almost entirely under Israeli control. For Lieberman to make that accomplishes nothing but advance the perception of Assad as a selfless leader who dismisses concerns about his own personal safety.

It would have been far more effective to threaten Syria, even true threats that Israel will attack civilian targets and harm the elderly and children of that country, than to threaten Assad personally. Israel is used to interacting with Mubarak and Jordan's Abdullah for whom, of course, the opposite is true.

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