HOWARD EPSTEIN: HEADS IRAN WINS; AND TAILS, ERR, THE SAME
If you are finding it hard to follow Middle Eastern events at the moment, you would not be alone. For Trump, it is a true nightmare. There is no way the Twitterati could sum things up for him in a message of 280 characters — about the length of this paragraph, and we have not yet got going.
It was reported Sunday, 19 November, that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had half an hour on the phone with French President Emmanuel Macron and that it was the French president who initiated the call. Macron informed Netanyahu about the steps the French are taking in the crisis in Lebanon.
“Crisis? What crisis?” you ask. Be careful. It was that question that lost British PM Jim Callaghan his premiership in 1979. The crisis with which Macron is occupied is that of the peripatetic Lebanese PM, Sa’ad Hariri, who resigned his post (from the safety of Saudi Arabia) last week and is returning to Beirut (if at all) via Paris. As you do.
What does it have to do with the French? The Lebanon (as it was once more importantly known), the Lebanon has been within the French sphere of influence since the end of WWI. Israel — or Palestine as it then was — fell under British control for the following thirty years. The British writ does not run here anymore and in any event the idea that Britain would lift a finger to help the Jewish state (note it is not yet the Jewish State) is risible, not merely because of the absence of will, but also because Britain barely has enough forces to defend the British Isles these days — according to the most senior military figures in London.
But why, I can hear you asking, is it suddenly important for the French to consult, or at the least liaise, with Israel? Ah! Now the questioning has gone to the heart of the problem, and the answer is Iran.
Since the start of the disintegration of what used to be Syria, the Iranians — careful always to use proxies, such as their creature, Hezbollah — have been plotting their inevitable march to the sea. No. Not the Arabian Sea, but that which laps the golden sands from Gaza to Beirut, by way of Israel.
Their comrades-in-arms (for as long as it suits Putin), the Russians, also have interests round these parts: the Russian navy has maintained a presence in Syria’s Mediterranean port of Tartus since the 1970s. They also have a listening post at Latakia and, courtesy of Assad, they now have air-force bases in what used to be Syria. The Russians are not going home any time soon.
And what used to be Syria is already crowded. Even when Da’esh has gone, there will be the several hundred fighting groups that vied for a piece of the action at the height of the civil war. They might muddy the waters for the Iranians and the Russians.
Nevertheless, if one entity is pre-eminent in what used to be Syria, it is undoubtedly Iran, which has in the past week completed its “land bridge” from its home territory to within something like 30 kilometres from the Israeli outposts along the Golan Heights.
You remember the Golan Heights, don’t you? That’s the most significant strategic line that Israeli ever controlled, and still does despite the desires of such luminaries as the two Ehud’s — Barak and Olmert — to return it to Syria in exchange for a comprehensive settlement. Fortunately, none was forthcoming and Israel remains dug in, looking downhill at the encroaching Iranians.
Now it is time for another question: where is Saudi Arabia in all this? It was not for nothing that Hariri went to Riyadh to announce his descent from pole position in Beirut. There were religious reasons for it.
When considering the Middle East it is important to remember that religion plays an overwhelmingly important role — and I am not referring to the Jewish dagger in the heart of an otherwise pure Muslim East Asia (as they see it). The sharper conflict is that between two branches of Islam: Sunni and Shia.
Almost everywhere in the Muslim world the people are Sunni. From Indonesia, via Malaysia, Bangladesh, Pakistan and all the way across to Morocco, all are Sunni except… except in Iran and Iraq. There are also large pockets of Shia in overwhelmingly Sunni Saudi Arabia. And there a dagger touches a main artery.
Iran was hopelessly the weaker party in whatever massive confrontation might be brewing (as it has been for over a thousand years) between the two main branches of Islam. All of that changed with Obama’s deal (the JCPOA) with the Iranians. In the most craven demonstration of appeasement since Munich, 1938, Obama facilitated not merely Iranian nuclear capability by and by (with the JCPOA or without it), but also the release of over US$100 billion — cash money, readies, greenbacks, lucre — to the murderous ayatollahs and mullahs, the better for them to pursue Iranian hegemony from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea.
Thus enriched, and empowered, the Iranians have been out on a spree — shopping for arms, blood and land. Hariri’s resignation from a safe distance was expressly because of what he saw as the Iranian take-over (by Hezbollah) of Lebanon. What is about to be what used to be Lebanon shares a border with what used to be Syria, marked in the main by the notorious Beqaa Valley, which has long been a conduit for arms from Syria to places bordering Israel.
And now for sixty four thousand dollars (to think that used to be a lot of money!), where does Israel stand in all this? Answer: increasingly threatened. One hundred and sixty thousand Hezbollah rockets pointed at every location in Israel would sharpen the senses, would it not? And now, not only is Hezbollah is battle-hardened from its activities, and the blood it has shed, in what used to be Syria, but also can expect Iranian boots on the ground any day now to support, if not to catalyse, its provocations against Israel.
So far, one detects nothing that looks like a general mobilisation but, with the Saudis threatening war against Iran in Lebanon and Macron (the French always have delusions of le grandeur about their armed forces) starting a drum roll — and the Saudis increasingly failing to hide their new-found affection for Israel (the only one with a nuclear umbrella) — one has to ask another question: how long can peace hold? And for that, I regret, neither I nor anyone else has any answers — but one observation: Israel is ready.
Coda: What is wonderful about Israel is that despite all this almost every Israeli will tell you they feel safer here than anywhere else. They have my endorsement for that view. At least we do not have rampage killings on an almost daily basis, as in the USA; we do not have police officers committing suicide, as in France (60 so far this year and counting); we are not in mourning, like the Italians, over something as petty as not making it to the soccer world cup; and we do not have fashion gurus (Karl Lagerfeld) lecturing the prime minister (as he did to Mutti Merkel) on ethics. (He said that he thought it somewhat unseemly to admit a million Muslims into Germany within seventy years of the murder of six million Jews.) And who is going to argue with that, right of the Left, that is?
© Howard Epstein — November 2017
The author’s book, Israel at Seventy: In Weizmann’s Image is available now from Amazon in paperback or as a Kindle e-book. (See below.)
As Israel reaches its seventieth birthday next May, it is timely to consider the story of its indispensable founder, Chaim Weizmann. Statesman and scientist, it was Weizmann who saved the British Empire from defeat in World War I, kindled the hope for the return of the Jewish people to their ancient homeland, after an absence of 2,000 years, and was then instrumental in securing what was needed to establish the State of Israel and its future as a technological powerhouse. Weizmann may be said to be the world’s first 20th century — even 21st century — man. If any aspects of modern life became supremely important last century, and remain so in this, they are science & technology and networking. Weizmann’s chemistry, both in the laboratory and with a wide-range of key people, led to his four great political coups, each essential to the emergence of the State of Israel. In addition, he pulled off three crucial educational feats that secured Israel’s future and ensured its success — in his image. In the case of the political achievements, only Weizmann could have wrought them. In the case of the others, only he did. Despite these signature successes, today little is known of him and what he achieved. Why this should be so is revealed in a tale of rivalry between two political giants: Weizmann, the greater talent, but the older, and his nemesis, David Ben-Gurion.
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