Thomas Friedman’s award winning book on the situation in the Middle East between Israel and its proximal neighbors was one of my first introductions to the various factions that made up the current Middle Eastern quagmire. With the recent anniversary of Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon, I reread this late 1980s book, to see where things have changed and where things have remained the same.
A digression… In chess, there are two ways to begin a game. The classic way is to advance all the central pieces on both sides, make a made dash to occupy the middle of the board, and seek early and severe conflict with the intention of dominating the game and coming out quickly the definitive winner. But as chess theory progressed, a second way to play the game developed. Move the pieces slowly, building defensive positions with future potential offensive capabilities, at times not even venturing out to the other side of the board. Slowly, move by move, a tension develops, piece by piece, that when the eventual conflict breaks out, a similar but delayed devastation occurs. The opening game progresses to the middle game, and eventually the end game results in only one winner, either black or white. Unless there is no way to win the game, and stalemate ensues.
Coming back to Friedman’s (no relation) book. He begins with his tour of duty as a reporter in Beirut before and during the Israeli invasion. He learns from the US Marine corps failed attempt to stabilize the region that this area of the world is beyond north vs south and east vs west. It is also northeast vs southwest and southeast vs northwest. The minute you make one friend, you make five enemies.
At that time, Israel was attempting to ally with the Christian population of Beirut, looking to oust the PLO and stabilize the southern part of the country from coordinating infiltrations and rocket attacks on Israel’s north. Other players in the mix were Druse, Shiite militia, Hezbollah, Sunni militias, Syria, etc. Friedman witnesses not only the affects the Israeli assault had on the local population, but also the illogical tribal warfare that indiscriminately rained death and destruction upon Lebanon from within. In all, Israel did succeed in removing the PLO from Lebanon and ousted them to Tunisia. But then, Israel got bogged down in a prolonged decade of guerilla warfare in the south, which to this day remains a wild west of sorts until its eventual dominance by Iranian backed Hezbollah. Friedman was able to catapult his career to the front lines of the New York Times by reporting on the Sabra and Shatila massacres where Christian forces were allowed to come in and massacre Muslim civilians with Israel essentially looking the other way.
One thing that seems to present itself during Friedman’s analysis of the Arab population of Lebanon is his never ending desire to scold Israel for its supposed bad behavior. This has won him little love in right wing pro Israel circles. Then again he wrote for the New York Times. A Jew himself, he seems to take pride in taking Israeli leadership to task, while writing off the violence of the Arab side as natural by products of their tribal heritage aka noble savage of sorts. If we give him the benefit of the doubt, and assume he holds Israel to higher standards because they are his people, and thereby should by exemplifying the moral high ground, then we can only bemoan the tragedy that is the realty of Israel finding itself in such a bad neighborhood that necessitates that it too be dragged down in to the mud of endless violence to continue to defend its existence.
Friedman than travels to Israel, and spends time pontificating on the state of affairs that the conflict has had on various factions of Israeli society. One standout bright light in the picture of endless messianic, Arab haters, and even more offensive in the Left’s eyes, the settler population, is his discussions with Rabbi Hartman of the progressive Jewish Hartman Institute. Some of Hartman’s concepts are the most inspiring and insightful in the book, arguing for a love thy neighbor approach to Middle East tolerance, and putting ethical and moral behavior over an endless battle over a divine promised pile of rocks. Unfortunately, his perspective remains too idealistic to hack it in the real world of Middle Eastern affairs. Maybe in a place like Copenhagen it would have been a slam dunk.
Friedman ends the book with a newer chapter, inspired by Oslo and Rabin’s effort to make peace with Arafat. Friedman even writes a few peace deal clinching speeches for an imagined Israeli leader, a ‘bastard for peace’ as he calls him, that would be able to risk all and make territorial compromises and political concessions a priori to a Palestinian population in order to catapult the status quo into a hopeful new world order of peace and prosperity. Too bad such a partner on the Palestinian side truly doesn’t exist.
With the failed Oslo accords behind us, a withdrawal from the Gaza strip that only resulted in a Hamas led terrorist stronghold being formed with no intention of ever making peace with Israel, the death of the Labor party and land for peace, and a second albite shorter Lebanon war behind us, where have things progressed to as to where we are now in 2020?
Lebanon: Still a failed country, essentially a puppet Syrian regime. A poorly ended second Lebanon war facilitated the complete dominance of southern Lebanon by Hizballah, with 100,000 rockets now aimed at Israeli civilian population centers, sponsored by the new arch enemy of Israel, Iran. Cross border infiltrations are being threatened most recently, a future hot spot that will likely erupt again into war sooner rather than later.
Syria: A Shiite enclave supported by Iran and the Russians, their military efficiently degraded to a point where fighting Israel is no longer a possibility. Essentially reduced to a pit stop for Iranian weapons to be funneled to South Lebanon, to insulate Iran from any attack on its nuclear program by threatening a hail storm of missiles on Israeli population centers should an Israeli attack on Iran ever ensue.
Occupied territories/Judea and Samaria/West Bank/Palestine: A PLO led enclave of refugee camps, villages, with pockets of relative normalcy and pockets of terror, in no rush to agree to a two state solution, now contemplating the possible demographic advantages of a one state solution. Ignored by the Likud led government, and ostracized by Trump in favor of a pro Israel deal of the century, on the cusp of a possible land annexation by Netanyahu, it remains to be seen if a third Intifada is on the cusp of erupting.
Israel: Having sort of formed a government after a long term election crisis and the ashes of cost of living protests and corruption charges on high still sorting themselves out, a land grab seems imminent as a way to divert attention from Bibi’s trials and tribulations over Bibi gate, and a way to salvage whatever Israel can still get from the Trump peace plan before a possible exit stage left from Trump occurs, and a left wing American government aligned with anti Israel left wing factions of the radical left (Democrats, American Jews unfortunately implicated here), reverse any favorable US policies towards Israel. One thing for sure, Israel has emerged since Lebanon One as an even more powerful militarily, technologically, and seems to have mastered the art of subverting the ‘situation’ of the occupied territories, and focusing on building a future for itself with or without a partner for peace. The long term affects of Arab demographics, both in the West Bank and even more concerning, within Israeli itself, leave Israel in a precarious position where simply ignoring the other side may one day become physically impossible. But for now, it effectively does.
Iran: Emboldened and empowered by the destruction of their arch enemy Sunni Sadam Hussein, which was probably the biggest mistake the West ever made in the Middle East, Iran has spread its tentacles across the Middle East, working its nuclear program, improving its weapons systems capabilities, and trying to move weapons into the vicinity of Israel by any means necessary. Israel’s Depth Corp, a military unit created to counter this threat, has been active on all fronts, as nearby as Syria and as far away as Sudan, with cyber warfare, submarines, drones, spies, and everything else thrown into the mix. While it is easy to see Iran as the center of all evil, and a means to an end in itself, one must look at geopolitical tensions on an even more global level, and wonder to what extent Russian or Chinese attempts to destabilize the US as the sole world superpower and control global access to natural resources could be playing behind the scenes. I do not discredit Iran as a complete proxy for a Chinese initiative to secure a oil supply for its ever growing population and industry, and found a great sinkhole to bog down Israeli and American blood and treasure, leaving them free to expand to Africa, South America etc. Keep in mind, in the Chinese world view, Abraham and Isaac and Ishmael are not even on their historical radar. Let them keep killing each other with America going broke funding the endless war, well move another two million people into East Africa and take all their stuff.
A better ending to Friedman’s book, and in my opinion the only way to bring peace in the middle East, is not for an Israeli leader to lay down the red carpet for a Palestinian counterpart to shake hands on, but rather for a moderate Palestinian uprising, the silent majority, to rise up and overthrow their corrupt and inept leadership, and go through the process of creating a demilitarized peaceful nation for themselves. That would force Israel to have to make peace with them. Think Ghandi, not George Habash. Stop educating the kids to hate Jews, stop paying terrorists to kill Jews. Show the world you are capable of being a real democratic and productive society. Show Israel there is a real partner for real peace. Until then, don’t expect Israel to let its guard down ever again, certainly not after endless missiles from Hamas controlled Gaza.
Back to chess. Chess is a binary game. Black vs white. There is no grey. Only one side can win. Except in two cases. One is stalemate. In that case, even though the one side that played everything correct all the way through the game, makes one critical blunder on the very last move, and even though it has a superior position and more pieces on the board, the game is still considered a draw. The second way a chess game can end in a draw is by repetition. Pieces get stuck in an endless loop, replaying the same moves back and forth, again and again. Once the same moves are repeated enough times, the game is considered over, and no side is declared winner.
So too with Israel and the Palestinians. It is doubtful the Palestinians will ever be transferred to Jordan and Israel will take over all the land of Greater Israel on both sides of the Green Line. In parallel, it is doubtful that the Palestinians will succeed in winning a state for themselves from the river to the sea, and eliminate millions of Jewish souls from their eternal homeland. So, if a real peace is not achieved, which likely it never will be, that just leaves a sad eternity of stalemate and draw by repetition. I believe that is what Freidman unfortunately concluded was the future of Lebanon when he left the country. But those weren’t his people, so his criticism was lacking. To see the same future for the Sunday School inspired land of his own people likely explains his bitter disdain for Israel over the years. Unfortunately, unless something remarkable happens, he may be proven to be correct.