By Abdul Bari Utwan
The Arab region is presently experiencing strange circumstances which bring to mind the situation which prevailed before the 1973 war. The peace process is basically stalled, especially on the Palestinian track; the resistance does not resist; there are no military operations; and there are no missile attacks on Israeli colonies north of the Gaza Strip or in the Negev. Are we, therefore, witnessing the calm before another storm?
Before the October/Ramadan War of 1973, an atmosphere of "no peace, no war" prevailed across the region. This was after the "War of Attrition" ended, with calm on the Egyptian-Israeli front and the Palestinian resistance being expelled from Jordan after bloody "Black September". This state of affairs did not last as Egyptian and Syrian forces crossed Israel's (still yet-to-be-defined) borders. The rest of the story is well-known. For 37 years afterwards, the Arabs did not launch any war against Israel more specifically, Arab states' official armies did not launch any war. Israel, however, has launched three wars in that period, two against Lebanon (1982 and 2006) and the third against the Gaza Strip in 2008/9. It failed in all three and was forced in the end to withdraw after suffering military and political losses.
The status quo of "no peace, no war" now does not differ much in terms of the objective conditions and political realities. It is, though, different in terms of the changes that have taken place in alliances on the ground. Egypt has bowed out to be replaced by Iran as a strategic ally of Syria. Meanwhile, Hezbollah in Lebanon has grown stronger and the steadfastness of Hamas in the Gaza Strip has boosted the importance of the Syrian-Iranian alliance.
Israel now lives in a state of unease because of this alliance, which is supported by an ambitious nuclear programme that could deliver nuclear warheads in about three years, according to American estimates. Thus, it is possible that Israeli concerns will be translated into a new attack on Lebanon, Syria or the Gaza Strip, or all three, in order to counter its isolation and growing criticism from its closest ally, America.
Recent days have seen an escalation of Israeli threats against Syria and Hezbollah. After Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's grandiose threat to inflict a crushing defeat on Syria and bring down the rule of President Basher Al Asad and his family, we now see deliberate leaks in the Israeli media about an Israeli attack on a Syrian lorry carrying scud missiles to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon being aborted at the last minute. Were these leaks psychological warfare to intimidate Syria and force it to disengage from Hezbollah? Or were they an attempt to create a climate favourable to justify an imminent attack on Syria and Hezbollah?
There is no clear-cut answer, but what is obvious is that Israeli accusations against Syria have increased markedly since Benjamin Netanyahu's extreme right-wing government took office. Likewise, the US administration has made strong protests concerning the alleged transfer of missiles to Hezbollah, suggesting an acceptance of the Israeli narrative.
The transfer of scud missiles to Hezbollah is neither new nor surprising, whether Syria chooses to confirm or deny it. This US-Israeli protest comes 20 or 30 years too late, for how else did Hezbollah build an arsenal of over 40,000 missiles of various sizes and range? It launched 4,000 of them at targets deep inside Israeli territory in response to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in the summer of 2006.
Put simply, Israel is looking for an excuse to launch another war. Hezbollah will not give it the pretext, having suspended resistance activities in the south of Lebanon, at least for the time being. Similarly, Hamas has ordered its military wing and other resistance factions to stop launching locally-produced missiles from the Gaza Strip. The Syrian leadership has displayed resolute self-restraint even after frequent acts of Israeli aggression deep inside its borders, including the Israeli raid on the alleged nuclear reactor at Deir Al Zoor in the north-east of the country.
Israel's attempts to intimidate its neighbours have not stopped at Syria, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, they have also extended to the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas, and its partner Jordan. An example was the military order to expel an estimated 70,000 Palestinians from the West Bank, a large percentage of whom are from Gaza, scuppering the Oslo accord. This came after Israel had seized control of the land and Judaised the holy sites, recreating the expulsion of Palestinians by the nascent Jewish state in 1948. All of the indications, therefore, suggest that Israel is preparing for war, with not a week going by without military or civilian exercises; the distribution of gas masks to five million Israelis is unlikely to be part of a strategy to deceive Israel's opponents.
In all the wars that Israel has waged against the Arabs the element of surprise is the common factor. The exception was in 1973 when Syria and Egypt used the same strategy to great effect and totally unexpectedly, after the disastrous defeat of 1967 which exposed the myth of Arab military prowess. Hezbollah does not need new missiles. When its leader Sayed Hasan Nasrullah threatened to bomb deep inside Israel and destroy Ben Gurion Airport if Beirut Airport is attacked, and destroy Tel Aviv if any Lebanese city is attacked, he did so because his intelligence network had confirmed that Israel is preparing for war. The Iran-Syria relationship is much stronger than the old Syria-Egypt alliance which waged war 27 years ago; Ahmadi Najed is clearly no Anwar Sadat and President Basher Al Asad is not like his father.
Netanyahu is thus playing with fire. He apparently wants to extricate himself from his present dilemma and international isolation by starting a new war, but he should learn from America's bitter experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. Starting a war is easy, as could victory given the disparity in military capability of Israel and its foes. The question is what will happen after that victory and what will be its consequences.
The fear of war exists in Arab capitals due to the material and human costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This should be a strong card for the Arab states to play, either with the Americans or the Israelis. However, the US and Israel sees this "Arab fear" as a weakness to be exploited along with the Arab states' stubborn adherence to the peace option despite Israel's aggression.
This "no peace, no war" situation resulting in Arab stagnation and Israeli excesses should not continue. The concept of a two-state solution for Israel-Palestine has dissipated, and Israel's rejection of the Arab peace initiative has peaked. With the Palestinian Authority losing its raison d'être, this may be the beginning of the end of "no peace, no war". If that is the case, then the initiative should begin from the occupied territories with an intifada unlike either of the two we have witnessed before, with no holds barred while war preparations take place. Perhaps Israel's next war will, indeed, be its last.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.