Josef Olmert

Israel in a New Middle East

Gaza is the story of the day now, while the issues of Syria /Lebanon /Iran and Israel seem to have taken the back burner for a while, but let us not make any rash mistake here. We may, much sooner than later, have to divert our attention to the North. Dealing with the vexed issues of the North has been an on-going Israeli dilemma ever since the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war in 1975 and its aftermath with its implications over Israel.

This is not a mute point, because , at least one advantage that we can derive from the past ,is to learn it and make sure , that failures will not repeat themselves. One way to do it, is to have the right people who can give us a good look at the past, one which will guide us about the future, and people like that exist in Israel, though on many occasions they are not taken seriously and henceforth ignored. One person who should be taken seriously is Dr. Colonel[res.]

Jacques Neriah, a native of Beirut, a former senior military intelligence officer and policy adviser to the late Yitzhak Rabin. It took him many years, but he finally published an authoritative book [in Hebrew-The rise and fall of Bashir Jumayyil], on the unfortunate story of Israel’s involvement in Lebanon, something which started with high hopes and ended up as the sad Lebanese quagmire.In this particular case, the book is extremely timely, despite the long time passed from the early 1980’s.It is so, because the book deals with a question which was relevant then, and even more so these days-can Israel have allies in the overall hostile Middle East, and if the answer is positive, who can they be?.

The Zionist movement and later the State of Israel desperately looked for regional allies, a natural and legitimate aspiration for people feeling besieged in their own homeland. Maronite Lebanese Christians were such potential allies, especially when the Jews were the sought after side by Maronites, first the small group of ”young Phoenicians”, then leaders like Emile Edde. What happened however after the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war in 1975 was different . Since then, Israel, as is brilliantly narrated by Neriah adopted a policy of supporting the Maronite side in the war as a powerful state, and in the process something happened, which should still serve as strong flashing red light to our current leadership.Israel developed a policy of adopting the Maronites which ignored the many signals we got about what was really their motivation in getting engaged in an alliance with Israel-it was to throw the Palestinians and Syrians out of Lebanon, but it was not to make peace with Israel. The Israeli mistake was to misunderstand the limitations of a small minority in detaching themselves completely from their natural, historic hinterland, in favor of a lasting and binding peace with the erstwhile enemy, Israel. So, the expectations of Israel were to start with unfounded, unrealistic, wishful thinking, too much of a luxury for a state like Israel which should use its own limited resources in a more restrained and beneficial way.The outcome was the collapse of the Maronite option, in fact, the collapse of the minority option.This is where Neriah ends his important contribution, but the story altogether isd not over.

Today, we are facing with an interesting new situation in the Middle East, in a way the reversal of what happened between 1975 -1982. Israel finally finds itself in a situation where it is on the side of the majority of the Sunni-Arab countries of the Middle East. No minority option, rather a majority option. This is almost all about Iran, as well as the weariness with the Palestinians and other factors, which are besides the scope of this piece. Be it as it may, new winds are blowing now in the Middle East, where Arabs are publicly , clearly state that they wish Israel to defeat Iran, and that brings us back to the narrative of Neriah. it is because of the geography, as the undeclared Israeli-Iranian war is waged in Syria and Lebanon. But Then there are two other elements which require us to learn the lessons of Lebanon and the Maronites, as espoused by Neriah.First, it is to understand, that the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, the King of Bahrain and others did not endorse , nor do they intend to endorse the Zionist ideology, exactly as Bashir Jumayyil did not turn from being a Catholic Maronite Lebanese nationalist into a Zion lover. It is important, though may seem trivial to many, to understand it, as we build our expectations about what we can get back from the Saudis and their allies. Well, here is where reality should sink in, and ideal expectations vanish. Like in Lebanon, here too , we are not going to get the formal, public peace which we rightly desire to get. Yes, the Saudis care very little about the Palestinians, but no, they still will expect Israel to do more than it does now about the Palestinians.

Here is where the challenge is for our leadership these days, if they do not want to repeat the mistakes described by Neriah. Do only what is strictly the Israeli interest, do not develop imaginary expectations about what can be the reward of those Arabs who want to see the destruction of the Islamic Republic, but if the opportunity arises, be ready to go beyond current policies about the Palestinians, when it meets our national interests, and also will be properly reciprocated by these Sunni Arab states.

About the Author
Dr Josef Olmert, a Middle East expert, is currently an adjunct professor at the University of South Carolina