Do America and Israel want the
Middle East engulfed by civil war?
by Jonathan Cook
The Electronic Initfada, December
The era of the Middle East strongman,
propped up by and enforcing Western policy, appears well and truly
over. His power is being replaced with rule by civil war, apparently
now the American administration's favoured model across the region.
Fratricidal fighting is threatening to
engulf, or already engulfing, the occupied Palestinian territories,
Lebanon and Iraq. Both Syria and Iran could soon be next, torn
apart by attacks Israel is reportedly planning on behalf of the
US. The reverberations would likely consume the region.
Western politicians like to portray civil
war as a consequence of the West's failure to intervene more effectively
in the Middle East. Were we more engaged in the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict, or more aggressive in opposing Syrian manipulations
in Lebanon, or more hands-on in Iraq, the sectarian fighting could
be prevented. The implication being, of course, that, without
the West's benevolent guidance, Arab societies are incapable of
dragging themselves out of their primal state of barbarity.
But in fact, each of these breakdowns
of social order appears to have been engineered either by the
United States or by Israel. In Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq, sectarian
difference is less important than a clash of political ideologies
and interests as rival factions disagree about whether to submit
to, or resist, American and Israeli interference. Where the factions
derive their funding and legitimacy from -- increasingly a choice
between the US or Iran -- seems to determine where they stand
in this confrontation.
Palestine is in ferment because ordinary
Palestinians are torn between their democratic wish to see Israeli
occupation resisted -- in free elections they showed they believed
Hamas the party best placed to realise that goal -- and the basic
need to put food on the table for their families. The combined
Israeli and international economic siege of the Hamas government,
and the Palestinian population, has made a bitter internal struggle
for control of resources inevitable.
Lebanon is falling apart because the Lebanese
are divided: some believe that the country's future lies with
attracting Western capital and welcoming Washington's embrace,
while others regard America's interest as cover for Israel realising
its long-standing design to turn Lebanon into a vassal state,
with or without a military occupation. Which side the Lebanese
choose in the current stand-off reflects their judgment of how
plausible are claims of Western and Israeli benevolence.
And the slaughter in Iraq is not simply
the result of lawlessness -- as is commonly portrayed -- but also
about rival groups, the nebulous "insurgents", employing
various brutal and conflicting strategies: trying to oust the
Anglo-American occupiers and punish local Iraqis suspected of
collaborating with them; extracting benefits from the puppet Iraqi
regime; and jockeying for positions of influence before the inevitable
grand American exit.
All of these outcomes in Palestine, Lebanon
and Iraq could have been foreseen -- and almost certainly were.
More than that, it looks increasingly like the growing tensions
and carnage were planned. Rather than an absence of Western intervention
being the problem, the violence and fragmentation of these societies
seems to be precisely the goal of the intervention.
Evidence has emerged in Britain that suggests
such was the case in Iraq. Testimony given by a senior British
official to the 2004 Butler inquiry investigating intelligence
blunders in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq was belatedly published
last week, after attempts by the Foreign Office to hush it up.
Carne Ross, a diplomat who helped to negotiate
several UN security council resolutions on Iraq, told the inquiry
that British and US officials knew very well that Saddam Hussein
had no WMDs and that bringing him down would lead to chaos.
"I remember on several occasions
the UK team stating this view in terms during our discussions
with the US (who agreed)," he said, adding: "At the
same time, we would frequently argue, when the US raised the subject,
that 'regime change' was inadvisable, primarily on the grounds
that Iraq would collapse into chaos."
The obvious question, then, is why would
the US want and intend civil war raging across the Middle East,
apparently threatening strategic interests like oil supplies and
the security of a key regional ally, Israel?
Until the presidency of Bush Jnr, the
American doctrine in the Middle East had been to install or support
strongmen, containing them or replacing them when they fell out
of favour. So why the dramatic and, at least ostensibly, incomprehensible
shift in policy?
Why allow Yasser Arafat's isolation and
humiliation in the occupied territories, followed by Mahmoud Abbas's,
when both could have easily been cultivated as strongmen had they
been given the tools they were implicitly promised by the Oslo
process: a state, the pomp of office and the coercive means to
impose their will on rival groups like Hamas? With almost nothing
to show for years of concessions to Israel, both looked to the
Palestinian public more like lapdogs rather than rottweilers.
Why make a sudden and unnecessary fuss
about Syria's interference in Lebanon, an interference that the
West originally encouraged as a way to keep the lid on sectarian
violence? Why oust Damascus from the scene and then promote a
"Cedar Revolution" that pandered to the interests of
only one section of Lebanese society and continued to ignore the
concerns of the largest and most dissatisfied community, the Shia?
What possible outcome could there be but simmering resentment
and the threat of violence?
And why invade Iraq on the hollow pretext
of locating WMDs and then dislodge its dictator, Saddam Hussein,
who for decades had been armed and supported by the US and had
very effectively, if ruthlessly, held Iraq together? Again from
Carne's testimony, it is clear that no one in the intelligence
community believed Saddam really posed a threat to the West. Even
if he needed "containing" or possibly replacing, as
Bush's predecessors appeared to believe, why did the president
decide simply to overthrow him, leaving a power void at Iraq's
The answer appears to be related to the
rise of the neocons, who finally grasped power with the election
of President Bush. Israel's most popular news website, Ynet, recently
observed of the neocons: "Many are Jews who share a love
The neocons' vision of American global
supremacy is intimately tied to, and dependent on, Israel's regional
supremacy. It is not so much that the neocons choose to promote
Israel's interests above those of America as that they see the
two nations' interests as inseparable and identical.
Although usually identified with the Israeli
right, the neocons' political alliance with the Likud mainly reflects
their support for adopting belligerent means to achieve their
policy goals rather than the goals themselves.
The consistent aim of Israeli policy over
decades, from the left and right, has been to acquire more territory
at the expense of its neighbours and entrench its regional supremacy
through "divide and rule", particularly of its weakest
neighbours such as the Palestinians and the Lebanese. It has always
abominated Arab nationalism, especially of the Baathist variety
in Iraq and Syria, because it appeared immune to Israeli intrigues.
For many years Israel favoured the same
traditional colonial approach the West used in the Middle East,
where Britain, France and later the US supported autocratic leaders,
usually from minority populations, to rule over the majority in
the new states they had created, whether Christians in Lebanon,
Alawites in Syria, Sunnis in Iraq, or Hashemites in Jordan. The
majority was thereby weakened, and the minority forced to become
dependent on colonial favours to maintain its privileged position.
Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982,
for example, was similarly designed to anoint a Christian strongman
and US stooge, Bashir Gemayel, as a compliant president who would
agree to an anti-Syrian alliance with Israel.
But decades of controlling and oppressing
Palestinian society allowed Israel to develop a different approach
to divide and rule: what might be termed organised chaos, or the
"discord" model, one that came to dominate first its
thinking and later that of the neocons.
During its occupation of the West Bank
and Gaza, Israel preferred discord to a strongman, aware that
a pre-requisite of the latter would be the creation of a Palestinian
state and its furnishing with a well-armed security force. Neither
option was ever seriously contemplated.
Only briefly under international pressure
was Israel forced to relent and partially adopt the strongman
model by allowing the return of Yasser Arafat from exile. But
Israel's reticence in giving Arafat the means to assert his rule
and suppress his rivals, such as Hamas, led inevitably to conflict
between the Palestinian president and Israel that ended in the
second intifada and the readoption of the discord model.
This latter approach exploits the fault
lines in Palestinian society to exacerbate tensions and violence.
Initially Israel achieved this by promoting rivalry between regional
and clan leaders who were forced to compete for Israel's patronage.
Later Israel encouraged the emergence of Islamic extremism, especially
in the form of Hamas, as a counterweight to the growing popularity
of the secular nationalism of Arafat's Fatah party.
Israel's discord model is now reaching
its apotheosis: low-level and permanent civil war between the
old guard of Fatah and the upstarts of Hamas. This kind of Palestinian
in-fighting usefully depletes the society's energies and its ability
to organise against the real enemy: Israel and its enduring occupation.
The neocons, it appears, have been impressed
with this model and wanted to export it to other Middle Eastern
states. Under Bush they sold it to the White House as the solution
to the problems of Iraq and Lebanon, and ultimately of Iran and
The provoking of civil war certainly seemed
to be the goal of Israel's assault on Lebanon over the summer.
The attack failed, as even Israelis admit, because Lebanese society
rallied behind Hizbullah's impressive show of resistance rather
than, as was hoped, turning on the Shia militia.
Last week the Israeli website Ynet interviewed
Meyrav Wurmser, an Israeli citizen and co-founder of MEMRI, a
service translating Arab leaders' speeches that is widely suspected
of having ties with Israel's security services. She is also the
wife of David Wurmser, a senior neocon adviser to Vice-President
Meyrav Wurmser revealed that the American
Administration had publicly dragged its feet during Israel's assault
on Lebanon because it was waiting for Israel to expand its attack
"The anger [in the White House] is
over the fact that Israel did not fight against the Syrians ...
The neocons are responsible for the fact that Israel got a lot
of time and space ... They believed that Israel should be allowed
to win. A great part of it was the thought that Israel should
fight against the real enemy, the one backing Hizbullah. It was
obvious that it is impossible to fight directly against Iran,
but the thought was that its [Iran's] strategic and important
ally [Syria] should be hit."
Wurmser continued: "It is difficult
for Iran to export its Shiite revolution without joining Syria,
which is the last nationalistic Arab country. If Israel had hit
Syria, it would have been such a harsh blow for Iran that it would
have weakened it and [changed] the strategic map in the Middle
Neocons talk a great deal about changing
maps in the Middle East. Like Israel's dismemberment of the occupied
territories into ever-smaller ghettos, Iraq is being severed into
feuding mini-states. Civil war, it is hoped, will redirect Iraqis'
energies away from resistance to the US occupation and into more
Similar fates appear to be awaiting Iran
and Syria, at least if the neocons, despite their waning influence,
manage to realise their vision in Bush's last two years.
The reason is that a chaotic and feuding
Middle East, although it would be a disaster in the view of most
informed observers, appears to be greatly desired by Israel and
its neocon allies. They believe that the whole Middle East can
be run successfully the way Israel has run its Palestinian populations
inside the occupied territories, where religious and secular divisions
have been accentuated, and inside Israel itself, where for many
decades Arab citizens were "de-Palestinianised" and
turned into identity-starved and quiescent Muslims, Christians,
Druze and Bedouin.
That conclusion may look foolhardy, but
then again so does the White House's view that it is engaged in
a "clash of civilisations" which it can win with a "war
All states are capable of acting in an
irrational or self-destructive manner, but Israel and its supporters
may be more vulnerable to this failing than most. That is because
Israelis' perception of their region and their future has been
grossly distorted by the official state ideology, Zionism, with
its belief in Israel's inalienable right to preserve itself as
an ethnic state; its confused messianic assumptions, strange for
a secular ideology, about Jews returning to a land promised by
God; and its contempt for, and refusal to understand, everything
Arab or Muslim.
If we expect rational behaviour from Israel
or its neocon allies, more fool us.
Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist
based in Nazareth, Israel. His book, Blood and Religion: The Unmasking
of the Jewish and Democratic State, is published by Pluto Press.
Middle East watch