Syria’s War At Israel’s Door

by Jonah Shepp

The Syrian civil war took an interesting turn late last week as fighters from the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra overran the Quneitra checkpoint between Syria proper and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and captured or surrounded dozens of UN peacekeepers from Fiji and the Philippines. Juan Cole finds precisely none of this surprising:

The London-based Al-`Arabi al-Jadid reports that Israeli Gen. Aviv Kochavi, now head of the Northern Command but until recently chief of military intelligence, has for two years been warning that the Syrian civil war could spill over onto Israel. Haaretz has also shown alarm at the developments. Not only is the Succor Front consolidating its hold on Golan, but the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) is alleged to be infiltrating Syrian villages near Israel in the north. The Syrian army, once responsible for Israel-Syria border security, has “evaporated” after losing battles with the militants. The likelihood that Israel could in the long run be completely insulated from a raging civil war right next door, which has displaced 3 million abroad and more millions internally, was always low. The view that it is good for Israel when the Arabs fight one another is a glib and superficial piece of cynicism challenged by seasoned observers such as Gen. Kochavi.

One of the many side effects of Israel’s regional isolation is that it tends to treat conflicts in and among its neighbors as the Arabs’ problems and pay them relatively little mind, compared to the interest one might expect a country to take in violence so close to its borders. This isolation emerges from the intractability of the conflict and, to my mind, represents a noteworthy obstacle to regional peace.

The concept of linkage, i.e., that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the “core conflict” of the Middle East from which most or all other chaos derives, is too facile and reductive to account for the region’s many and manifold problems, but it’s not complete bullshit either. And even if Israel is not the proximate cause of these external conflicts, it certainly ought to be worried about them, especially considering that the plight of the Palestinians has served as an excellent recruiting and propaganda vehicle for Islamist radicals throughout the greater Middle East.

Because Israel remains technically at war with most of its neighbors, because its leadership expects to remain so indefinitely, and because overt cooperation with Israel remains anathema to Arab governments, the most powerful military in the Middle East has little involvement, or even interest, in addressing regional security challenges like the Syrian civil war, the failure of the Iraqi state, and the ISIS menace that emerged from the confluence of these crises. One of the often overlooked benefits of a permanent peace settlement is that it would enable Israel to function in regional diplomacy and politics as something other than a pariah state. You may believe that “the Arabs” would never do business with “the Jews”, but of course, Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia already do, albeit quietly and probably not as effectively as if they could do so openly.

Just imagine how quickly the well of ill will toward Israel would evaporate if Israel were able to participate in facing the threats endemic to the region, whether that means Islamist militancy or water and food scarcity. But of course, as long as the Palestinians remain under occupation, without a state, and with no closure or reparations for the refugees, that sort of cooperation can never happen. Maybe Netanyahu and his allies prefer it that way, but if so, they are awfully short-sighted. That’s why I stand by my suggestion that Israel, not America, offer to assist in ridding the region of ISIS. If nothing else, it would be very interesting to see how such an offer would be received. And it’s also why I think Israel has more to gain than to lose in negotiating a permanent peace deal that is maximally generous to the Palestinians. Goodness knows some things are more valuable than land.