By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –
With the success of the Iran deal virtually assured and with Russia moving into Syria, Israel’s hawks are facing an unprecedented setback. These developments could be demoting Israel from regional hegemon to marginal player, and severely limiting Tel Aviv’s freedom of movement. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s startling assertion that he wants to make Israel a world power comes at a time when its position as regional hegemon is being eroded. In other words, what world is he living in?
Israel has been a regional hegemon for decades, ever since the Camp David accords neutralized Egypt as a significant player in the Levant. Since 1979, Israel has had complete freedom of military movement in this region. It took advantage of its new hegemony to invade Lebanon in 1982 and to occupy 10% of that country for 18 years.
In these three and a half decades, not only did Israel manufacture hundreds of nuclear warheads, which it has occasionally hinted it would use if the danger seemed great enough, it attracted from the United States a vast arsenal and an array of key technological advantages. Israel’s hegemony was strengthened by the US invasion and destruction of Iraq from 2003. Israel’s all-out assault on little Lebanon in 2006 and its two further attacks on defenseless Gaza were the signs of this hegemony.
Although Turkey, another militarily advanced state, opposed the attacks on Gaza, it was not able to prevent or even impede them, because of US and European backing for Israel. And although Iran is bitterly opposed to Israeli policies, it is very far away and militarily weak, and can only work in the Levant through proxies.
The only brake on Israeli freedom of movement is local guerrilla groups such as Hizbullah, which twice foiled Israeli attempts to dominate southern Lebanon. Hizbullah is a small group with perhaps 25,000 fighters and its social base is Lebanese Shiites, who are only probably about 1.5 million strong. Take away the women, children and out of shape men, and that really isn’t the basis for a significant military group. (Israel’s population is 8 million, of which 6 million are Jews). What Hizbullah has going for it is Iranian backing. Neutralize Iran, and Hizbullah could be cut off from weapons resupply and finally defeated, and Israel could make a play for the water and other resources of south Lebanon again.
In 2006, in the wake of Israel’s failed attempt to destroy Hizbullah, it looked as though complete Israeli hegemony in the Levant were nevertheless still attainable. The Neoconservatives around Dick Cheney in the White House wanted to attack Iran and do to it what they did to Iraq. That could have pulled the plug on Hizbullah. Iraq was broken. Syria was weak and had lost its Soviet patron in the 1990s. The Palestinians were both weak and divided.
Now, Iran is beyond the reach of the Neoconservatives and even if another Republican won in 2016 (unlikely), it would be very difficult for that president to buck the international consensus around the Iran deal. Sanctions on Tehran will be lifted and Iran could get rich off its gas and oil, in the last couple of decades during which fossil fuels matter.
The prospect for the disruption of the land bridge (Syria) over which Iran ships rockets and other materiel to south Lebanon has receded. Russia appears to have decided to stop al-Qaeda and its Salafi allies in the Army of Conquest from moving west from their base in Idlib on the largely Alawite port of Latakia. Russia also wants to rebuild Syria’s army.
Because Russia came into Syria, Israel had to come to an agreement with Moscow about Israeli F-16s attacking convoys and other targets of Hizbullah in Syria. The danger is great that it will inadvertently kill Russian advisers or troops.
The coordination worked out between Israel and Russia effectively “clips Israel’s wings, denying it the prerogative of entering Syrian airspace at will and striking unilaterally. Since Russia is allied with Iran in Syria, in essence Israel may be asking Iranian permission.
The flip side is that Putin has deplored Syrian Arab Army shelling of Israel and in some ways a bigger Russian presence in Syria may increase Israeli security. Putin has hinted that he thinks the al-Assad regime should concentrate on its extremist enemies within. I.e. a big diversionary attack on Israel by Syria or Hizbullah to gain street cred with ordinary Syrians is likely no longer a possibility, since Moscow would forbid it.
A year ago Prime Minister Netanyahu may have still thought he could derail the Iran nuclear deal, and he had full freedom of movement in a collapsing Syria, even allegedly secretly giving some aid to the al-Qaeda affiliate, the Support Front, against Hizbullah in the Golan Heights and its hinterland. His planes have struck suspected Hizbullah sites at will, and even inadvertently killed an Iranian general.
Now, a year later, he is boxed in, helpless against Iran’s reintegration into the world system and blocked in Syria by a superpower presence.
Israel is a small country of 8 million and despite its nuclear arsenal, well-equipped military, and high tech capabilities, it ultimately is more like Austria or the United Arab Emirates than it is like a great power. Netanyahu has been trying to punch way above his weight. It was likely that at some point he would be brought down to earth.
Perhaps he just has been.