When I visited Israel in March, one of the more interesting dinner discussions I had was with former Mossad Director Danny Yatom, now a Labor Party member of the Knesset.
As head of the Mossad, Yatom gave orders to have the head of Hamas, Khaled Meshal, assassinated by poison. The effort was botched, and the failed attempt became globally embarrassing news for Yatom and then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
But the fact remains despite this one failed case that Israel has been extremely skillful at knocking off serious enemies in covert, lethal, under the radar screen ways.
Why is Israel pounding most of Lebanon rather than just the South and rather than pinpointing its attack against Hezbollah assets? Why the dramatic bombing of explosive fuel centers? The attacks both in Gaza and in Beirut seem made for Fox News, CNN and the next Schwarzenegger movie.
I think that there is little doubt that a significant part of the explanation can be attributed to the fact that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his more liberal partner in this effort, Amir Peretz — now Defense Minister — are not former field command generals and want to demonstrate that they can be responsible stewards of Israel’s national security — and that they won’t be timid in using Israel’s military capabilities.
But that doesn’t explain it all. The Israeli response to the Hezbollah incursion is exactly what Hezbollah wanted. Adversaries rarely give each other the behaviors the other actually desires unless there are other objectives involved.
My view is that three broad threats were evolving for Israel from the American side of the equation. One one front, the U.S. will be attempting to settle some kind of new equilibrium in Iraq with fewer U.S. forces and some face-saving partial withdrawal. To accomplish this and maintain any legitimacy in the eyes of important nations in the region — particularly among close U.S. partners among the Gulf Cooperation Council states — America “might have” tried to do some things that constituted a broad new bargain with the Arab Middle East. The U.S. had even previously flirted, along with the Brits, in trying to get Syria on a Libya like track and out of the international dog house.
There was also pressure building to push Hamas — or at least the “governing wing” of it — towards a posture that would move dramatically closer to a recognition of Israel. Abbas was becoming increasingly entrepreneurial in creating opportunities for the constructive players in Hamas to squirm towards eventual negotiations with Israel that could possibly be packaged in terms of “final status negotiations” on the borders and terms of a new Palestinian state. George W. Bush is the first President to actually call the Palestine territories “Palestine” and may have eventually come around on trying to pump up Abbas’s legitimacy as the father of a new and different state. I am doubtful of this scenario — but some in Israel had serious concerns about this unfolding.
Lastly, despite lots of tit-for-tat tensions and enormous mistrust, Iran and the U.S. were tilting towards a deal to negotiate about Iran’s nuclear pretensions and other goals.
Some in Israel viewed all three of these potential policy courses for the U.S. — a broad deal with the Arab Middle East, a new push on final status negotiations with the Palestinians, and a deal to actually negotiate directly with Iran — as negative for Israel.
The flamboyant, over the top reactions to attacks on Israel’s military check points and the abduction of soldiers — which I agree Israel must respond to — seems to be part establishing “bona fides” by Olmert, but far more important, REMOVING from the table important policy options that the U.S. might have pursued.
Israel is constraining American foreign policy in amazing and troubling ways by its actions. And a former senior CIA official and another senior Marine who are well-versed in both Israeli and broad Middle East affairs, agreed that serious strategists in Israel are more concerned about America tilting towards new bargains in the region than they are either about the challenge from Hamas or Hezbollah or showing that Olmert knows how to pull the trigger.
Another well respected and very serious national security public intellectual in the nation wrote this when I shared this thesis that Israeli actions were ultimately aimed at clipping American wings in the region. His response:
the thesis of your paper is right-on.
whether intentional or coincidental, that is what is being done right now.
I share these other views only to establish the fact that there is not a consensus either in support of or opposed to Israeli action — but some are beginning to scrutinize what Israel is seeking to achieve with such flamboyant displays of power that are antagonizing whole societies on their borders.
Keeping America from cutting new deals in the region — which many in the national security establishment thinks are vital — may actually be what is going on, and the smarter-than-average analysts are beginning to see that.
To take one moment though and argue a counter-point to this, one serious analyst I spoke to this morning who stopped by to talk after attending synagogue raised a good point. He said that he thought that Olmert’s insecurity about military management was driving the over-reaction.
But he also said that the QUALITY of the attacks against Israel were freaking out the Israeli military and intelligence leaders. Complex incursions that included abductions along with a successful attack on an Israeli gunship show that the enemy is no longer an unimpressive, rag-tag lot. Training and armaments have been improved, and Israel is scrambling to figure out how this happened.
Interesting thesis — and it should be on the table too.
— Steve Clemons