Interview: The Transforming Fire 29/12/2010

Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Jonathan Spyer, a researcher at the Gobal Research in International Affairs Center in Herzliya, and a columnist at the Jerusalem Post. He is the author of the new book, The Transforming Fire – The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict.

FP: Jonathan Spyer, welcome to Frontpage Interview.

JS: Thanks, Jamie. Good to be here.

FP: Tell us about your book and its main argument.

Spyer: The book is concerned with the emergence over the last decade of a new conflict, or rather a new mutation of an old conflict.

I suggest that the old Arab-Israeli conflict has been in a long process of winding down since the mid-1970s, as the Arab states that once led it gradually leave the field of engagement. However, the combination of popular Islamist movements in Arab countries and the state interest of the Islamic Republic of Iran is producing a new alliance which is committed to the destruction of Jewish sovereignty. So the book describes the emergence of this alliance, the basis of its strategic optimism and its belief system, the response of the Israeli society and state to the challenge posed by this new alliance, and the main engagements between the two sides so far, with a particular focus on the 2006 Second Lebanon War.

The book is a combination of analysis, interview, reportage and personal experience. So I draw examples from my experience in the 2006 war, and in earlier experiences in the West Bank, alongside broader political analysis and the experiences and perspectives of others who I interviewed.

FP: Illuminate for us the belief system of the new alliance bent on annihilating Israel.

Spyer: The alliance committed to Israel’s destruction contains within it many forces, with quite disparate ideological and belief systems. There are Iranian or pro-Iranian Shia Islamists, of course, but there are also fanatically anti-Shia Sunni salafis within the ranks of Hamas. There are also ostensibly secular nationalists, exemplified by the Syrian regime and by the less important remnants of secular Arab nationalism who place themselves under this banner. Yet despite their disparities, they share certain defining common features. All are anti-American and anti-western, believing themselves to represent the ‘authentic’ regional currents, challenging the West and its local hirelings.

All believe that, as such, they represent the rising force in the region, and that the US and its allies are demonstrably in decline. All are anti-Jewish and anti-Israel, and portray Israel as a product of western domination of the region. All are committed to a militarist and politicidal, somewhat social darwinist view of politics as endless struggle (or ‘resistance’), in which the side with the greater will and faith (in their view, themselves) will ultimately win total victory.

So this is not a particularly complex or sophisticated belief system, which contains clear contradictions and fault-lines, but it enjoys the passionate commitment of those engaged on its behalf.

FP: The book includes details of a trip you made to Lebanon. Tell us about the trip.

Spyer: Lebanon is one of my central research interests, and with the Israel-Islamist conflict, as with so many earlier regional conflicts and processes, the country is an ideal setting for observing and considering the phenomenon. I have a lot of friends and contacts in the country with whom I communicate regularly. A couple of years back, the chance emerged for me to visit Lebanon in the company of a journalist colleague. Of course, I was happy to take up this opportunity. In the course of the visit, I met with a large number of analysts, activists and ordinary Lebanese, and also had the chance to travel to south Lebanon and spend a day in the openly Hezbollah-controlled area of the country. It was fascinating, and deeply informative.

FP: Can you describe your day in the openly Hezbollah-controlled area of Lebanon? Share some of your observations and experiences.

Spyer: Well we spent the day travelling through the villages and towns of southern Lebanon, sometimes stopping to take a closer look in a number of places. I was able to get a sense of the strength of the Iranian allegiance in the area – we saw a number of Iranian flags, and of course posters, pictures and improvised statues of Khomeini, Khamanei and other leaders. This very pronounced aspect of southern Lebanon was striking, given Hezbollah’s insistence to the outside world at the time (in 2007) of its status as an independent Lebanese actor.

I was also able to observe close up the destruction that still remained from the 2006 war, with large areas of Ait a Shaab and Maroun a Ras and Bint Jbeil still completely in rubble at that time. We were able to get a sense of the inefficacy of UNIFIL, which was entirely absent from the populated areas. And of course through talking to people, I also got a general though inevitably superficial sense of the sentiments of some of the inhabitants of the area. I also managed to revisit Marj Ayoun and El Khiam, which were of particular interest to me because of certain experiences during the 2006 war.

In general, it was a fascinating experience, confirming for me the absolute importance for serious analysts and researchers of getting out in the field and taking a look around, if you really want to gain an understanding – this remains a central professional axiom for me.

FP: Who is currently winning the Israel-Islamist conflict?

Spyer: Despite some significant setbacks, and with some qualifications, I would say that the Iranian/Islamist side is currently making gains, not only or primarily in its fight with Israel, but across the region. This side has just demonstrated that it gets to decide who can form a government in Iraq, it effectively dominates Lebanon through Hezbollah, and it has succeeded in planting what looks more and more like a permanent split in the Palestinian national movement, giving itself a veto on any diplomatic progress between Israelis and Palestinians. These gains have been made not because of any great skill on the part of the Iranians and their Islamist allies, but rather because of the weakness and confusion of the West.

But the gains are only relative. It is worth noting that where this alliance comes up against strong and determined opposition, it tends to be stopped in its tracks. I would cite Israel and Egypt as two examples of strong states that each in its own way has stood its ground and faced down this alliance. Operation Cast Lead is a good example of what can be achieved in this regard, in a war which in essence saw Israel and Egypt combine to face down a local member of the Iranian-led alliance. Egypt’s efforts to repress domestic manifestations of this alliance, and the ongoing strength and buoyancy of Israeli society and economy are further proof of the limited strength of the Iran-led alliance. It is worth remembering that Iran in the final analysis is a third world country, and its allies are terror groups, capable of and willing to commit acts of great violence, and also willing to die in the pursuit of their goals. This gives them a certain strength, but it is ultimately a brittle strength, unlike the strength which derives from a strong, powerful state and economy.

FP: Shed some light for us on the weakness and confusion of the West. What is causing it?

Spyer: My sense is that large parts of the populations of the western democracies have lost a vivid sense of the worthiness of their own societies and the very great virtues of the western democratic system.

In western Europe especially, one has a sense of societal fatigue, cynicism, lack of direction, even decadence. This absence among large numbers of people of an active faith in the rightness of the free way of life they enjoy I think produces a certain moral and subsequently political flabbiness. This makes it a difficult and slow process to identify obvious and real threats and enemies.

The threat of Islamism, both domestically and internationally for these countries, is perhaps the classic example of this. For those of us, like Israelis, who come from the ‘frontiers’ of the democratic world, from the points where that world intersects with rival and hostile systems, this easy, blurred outlook is a luxury we can’t afford. We aren’t the only ones to feel that way. Other ‘frontier democracies’ like Poland and in a different way India share a similar outlook to Israel in this regard, and this makes for the very easy communication and friendship which we have with these countries. But in the western heartland there has been a fading of this energy, and it needs to be won back. That’s the real fight, in a way. Once this energy and commitment returns, I think support for and solidarity with Israel tend to accompany it as a matter of course. Where this commitment is absent, there you find the unreasoning hostility to Israel and sometimes the desire to see it thrown to the wolves.

FP: How will this conflict end do you think?

Spyer: The conflict will end in one of two ways – either in the destruction of Jewish statehood, or in the defeat and decline of Iran, and the fading of Islamist movements and ideologies into irrelevance. I think it will be the latter. As I said, the Iran/Islamist alliance is ultimately an alliance of backward states and movements whose only currency is the uncompromising practice of political violence. This can get you only so far. As the alliance suffers blows from determined Israeli and Arab resistance to it, as its promises of building successful powerful countries recedes – with its rule producing only brutally repressive regimes such as the Hamas enclave in Gaza, so its luster will gradually fade.

There may be decisive military engagements along the way. This is impossible to predict. But the Iran/Islamist alliance commits the fatal error of a massive underestimation of its enemy. It knows nothing of the reality of Israel, and imagines it to be a lost, artificial country whose citizens have little commitment to it. This is a fundamental misunderstanding, and as the hubris of this alliance is worn away by defeat, setback and lack of achievement, so the masses currently excited by it will turn away in disappointment.

FP: Expand for us on the strengths of Israel and also why the Iran/Islamist alliance so profoundly underestimates it.

Spyer: The Iran/Islamist alliance underestimates Israel for a number of reasons. Firstly, there is a traditional Islamic contempt for the Jews, which sees them as a naturally weak and subaltern people, not fitted for the bearing of sovereignty. This view is deeply rooted, and seen from it, Israel looks like an absurd pretension and a surely temporary anomaly. Secondly, strategic optimism of a sometimes unreasoning variety has been a very characteristic element of Arab ideological movements in modern times. They are always able to convince themselves that they are on the road to victory, even when to the rest of us, they seem to be in tatters. In this regard, as in many others, the current Iranian regime has imbibed a great deal of Arab political culture. Some Iranian friends of mine regard Ahmedinejad and the Revolutionary Guards element as representing a quite alien political pattern, taken from the Arab world and grafted onto Iran. I don’t have sufficient expertise in Iran to know if that’s true. But certainly the extreme self belief, hubris and arrogance of this regime and its various clients is very familiar to any student of modern Arab political culture.

Regarding Israel’s strengths, well, the country’s economic achievements and so on are not news to anybody. I think there is a deeper element at work, though. Israel is a very powerfully rooted country, whose people have a vivid sense of who they are, rooted in Jewish history. This is not a case of people recruited for service by some brittle modern ideology. Rather, Israel is built ultimately on a profoundly powerful, pre-modern, even primordial sense of Jewish identity which modern Zionism has, so to speak, carried into modern political form. This is a very potent element. It is still in the process of coming to fruition in myriad ways, but it has already created a very strong core.

Of course, one could argue that there are still profound contradictions to be worked out in Israel regarding making this core loyalty work properly in a democratic setting, and regarding the correct balance between tradition and modernity. Israel has not yet answered many questions relating to this. But the root identity of the country is firm and strong. This is something which Israel’s many adversaries – and here one must include the ‘moderate’ Palestinians of the West Bank Palestinian Authority as well as the Iran/Islamist alliance – are absolutely determined not to accept. Yet it remains the case.

FP: Jonathan Spyer, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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