The Long War Strategy

The Guardian-11/06/2007

The decision by the University and College Union (UCU) to consider a boycott of Israel is the latest manifestation of a broader process which has been steadily gathering speed in the last half-decade: the converging of opinion on the Middle East conflict among members of two camps, who might ordinarily be considered to have little in common.

The two camps are the European radical left and supporters – both in Europe and here, in the region of Islamist states and organizations. The alliance is built around a joint commitment to Israel’s disappearance from the map.

Supporters of these streams sometimes gather together. The “anti-war” conference in Cairo in April of this year, attended by representatives of Hamas, Hizbullah and European extreme-left and Islamist groups, was organized jointly by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian Socialist Revolutionary party. Leaders of Respect – that joint venture of far-leftists and Muslim Brothers – were also in attendance.

But the important cross-pollination is taking place in the realm of ideas and strategies, rather than joint political organization.

Israel’s regional enemies are currently in a state of euphoria. The failures of the second Lebanon war, combined with the possibly imminent eclipse of US strategy in Iraq, and the emergence of Iran as an active sponsor and inspiration for radical Islamist organizations, have combined to produce in the region an atmosphere familiar to students of its history. This mood might aptly be termed “pre-conflict euphoria”. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent contention that the “countdown to Israel’s destruction has begun” perfectly captures it.

A previous manifestation of this phenomenon in the region took place in the period between Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August, 1990, and his expulsion from there in Operation Desert Storm in January 1991. The atmosphere in Arab capitals prior to the war of June 1967, and the lionisation of the Palestinian guerrillas in 1968-70 are similar instances. On all these occasions, broad swathes of the intelligentsia and the people of a number of regional states came to believe that after many failures, they had finally found the blueprint for defeating Israel, and undoing the shame inherent in its creation.

Today, among those states, organizations and people in the region who reject Israel’s continued existence, there is a perception that the correct strategy for producing the eventual demise of the Jewish state has been found. The new strategy has been likened to the antique far-left doctrine of “prolonged popular war”.

According to this view, conventional battlefield confrontation is only one of a variety of means to be employed to achieve the desired end. Ongoing, demoralizing guerrilla attacks, which sap will and morale, the constant maintenance of conflict – with the intention of preventing successful societal development, and a parallel political strategy of delegitimisation and isolation – are all key ingredients. The perceived combination of sophistication and indefatigability represented by Hizbullah in Lebanon is a key model and source of inspiration in this.

Victory here is not predicated on a Syrian armored column entering Tel Aviv. The intention is to gradually whittle away at the various components of Israel’s strength. The goal is to make of Israel a “failed state”, in which the pursuit of normal life becomes impossible.

This is where the various international delegitimisation initiatives come in. Initiatives such as the UCU boycott are the result of the efforts of a fairly small number of people. The anti-Israel boycott campaign offers a chance for activists of fringe political organizations to “punch above their weight” and for a moment take centre stage. The people behind the latest move in Britain, for example, are members of a small far-left party – the Socialist Workers party.

But such figures have been able to emerge from eccentric obscurity precisely because of the current febrile mood regarding Israel and the Middle East conflict among significant parts of educated British opinion.

Thrilled by the militant challenge offered by the popular war strategy and its supporters, the boy-cotters wish to cast themselves in the mold of the anti-Vietnam war and anti-apartheid campaigners of the past. They will do their bit by cutting the ties of support linking the enemy entity to its western backers through commerce, trade, and cultural and educational links. Israel, in the analogy, is to play the unflattering role of Thieu’s doomed South Vietnamese republic, or the apartheid regime.

Ultimately, the followers of the strategy of prolonged popular war and their international cheerleaders are advocates of failed ideologies, backed by states whose achievements in the field of societal and economic development are modest in the extreme. Previous outbreaks of pre-conflict euphoria in 1967, 1970 and 1990-91, ended in defeat and humiliation. In all three of the previous cases cited, however, it is worth noting that the mood eventually faded as a result of a decisive military humiliation suffered by its main protagonists. This time, hopefully, another way will be found in time to deflate the ugly, politicidal alliance now gathering strength.

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