Saturday, June 11, 2011

Israel: Middle Eastern Boogeyman

This year, both May 14 and June 5 were marked by hundreds of Syrians attempting to cross Syria into Israel at the Golan Heights village of Madjal Shams. The Syrian government, one of the most authoritarian in the world, has either orchestrated or very explicitly allows for these crossings to occur. After all, the Syrians who attempted to cross the border with Israel did so while passing Syrian military installations and the Syrian government must know that such breaches of the Syrian-Israeli border risk inflaming war. So then, why would the Syrian government allow this?

The reason is quite simple because Syria is using the oldest trick in the Middle Eastern dictatorship book: stir up conflict with Israel to placate the domestic populace. While some critics say that Syria is simply staking its claim to the Golan Heights, a territory Syria believes rightfully belongs to it despite the fact that Syria instigated the conflict with Israel in 1967, the Syrian border has been very quiet overall since Bashar al-Assad replaced his father in 2000. Compared to Lebanon and Gaza, Syria has been downright silent. Even when Israel destroyed a Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007, in an operation that mirrored the 1982 Osirak bombing and perhaps served as a warning to Tehran, the Syrians did not attempt military action. So why now?

Obviously, Syria's internal dissent has become a major issue in recent weeks and months, and Bashar Assad is using extreme force to put down the protests against his regime. In many ways, the current situation is very similar to the Sunni insurgency that Hafez al-Assad faced in 1982 when his army entered Hama and massacred 25,000 insurgents. Now, while the younger Assad has overseen the death of hundreds if not thousands of protesters across Syria, he needs something to defer attention from his internal problems: and that someone is Israel. Indeed, Israel has become a proverbial pinata in the Muslim world, serving the same role for those governments that the Communist Warsaw Pact served for successive U.S. administrations. Whatever the actual geopolitical situation may be, it is very easy for a leader in Syria or Egypt or even Turkey to drum up support by criticizing and threatening Israel.

In Syria, Bashar Assad is facing sufficiently desperate circumstances that he is risking a potential military conflict with Israel to stabilize his government. Nothing else could explain his undertaking something as reckless as having "civilians" cross into Israel and cause problems. At the least, he's looking for a diversion, something else for his people to focus on. In the past, Assad might have been able to hide the atrocities his military is committing, but in the new information age, he feels pressed to act quickly and blame someone, anyone, for the internal dissent. Syria's closest ally, Iran, has already joined in the chorus of blaming the United States and Israel for meddling in internal Syrian politics while at the same time applauding the Arab Spring revolutions that have toppled Western-supported leaders such as Hosni Mubarak. While blaming Israel is one thing, Assad's actions bespeak a new level of desperation. Indeed, his actions were seen as so potentially dangerous and likely to create a new conflict that the Lebanese Army shot several Syrian-inspired "civilians" as they attempted to cross the Lebanon-Israel border on May 15. As the "Naksa Day" demonstrations approached on June 5, Lebanon militarized its border to prevent any such breaches from its end.

The Arab Spring has also seen a substantial rise in anti-Israel rhetoric in Egypt, where a now several month power vacuum exists. At this point, there are only two primary contenders: the army and the Muslim Brotherhood. Indeed, for all of its promise, Egypt's next government will either be a military dictatorship or a totalitarian theocracy. Notice how no one is talking about Mohammed al-Baradei becoming the leader again. The interim military government is taking plenty of steps to show its "anti-Israel credentials" to the people, by floating the idea of voiding the Egypt-Israel peace treaty. Even though the (cold) peace between Israel and Egypt has brought significant economic benefit to both countries, the army must match the Brotherhood's anti-Israel stance in order to gain traction with "the Arab street." The army in Egypt knows well the fate of the leader who does not behave in a sufficiently antagonistic way toward Israel, all they need to do is compare the fates and legacies of Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat.

In Iran, this behavior is reaching epic proportions. Iran has reacted swiftly and harshly against its protesters and there are persistent rumors of Ahmadinejad butting heads with Ayatollah Al Khamenei. Ahmadinejad recently ousted the nation's oil minister and took over the post himself, apparently much to Khamenei's dismay. Ahmadinejad and Khamenei have both used Israel as primary way to divert from the economic sanctions being levied on Iran for its nuclear weapons program. While many average Iranians are struggling, they are told that confronting Israel over its mistreatment of Palestinians and its aggressive and expansionist policies is of utmost importance. So is pouring millions if not billions of dollars into a nuclear program that is at once diverting Iran's resources from improving and diversifying its economy and incurring international sanctions.

And so, the trend goes marching on. In these countries with controlled media and decades of indoctrination, no one actually knows anything about the real Israel. Jews are portrayed alternatively as pigs, dogs and jack booted SS officers crushing the life out of the Palestinians (the same ones that Jordan and Lebanon evicted from their midst and shoved into refugee camps). Jews are viewed as a cancerous, foreign presence in "Muslim lands" that must be thrown into the sea. Indeed, since the fall of Nasser in the wake of the Six Day War, various Muslim leaders take their turns championing the anti-Israel cause, with little actual success. Yet, in many cases, rhetoric is no longer enough. For, if the Arab Spring proved anything, it was that the idea that Israel is at the center of Middle Eastern conflict is a myth. The revolutions started in Tunisia and Yemen, countries that share no border with Israel and have not had any direct conflict with Israel. Yet, those leaders try to always bring the conflict back to Israel. Muammar Quaddafi at one point blamed "the Zionists" for turning his people against him.

For so long as there is Israel, there will be Muslim dictators who blame their nation's sorry state of affairs on Israel instead of taking steps to improve their societies. Dictators need a boogeyman, something scary that they can show their people to make sure they stand behind their government and its attempts to kill the boogeyman. For Middle Eastern governments, when the going gets tough, blame Israel.

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