Review: New Cold War in Middle East

Seth Mandel, February 2, 2011

By Jonathan Spyer
Continuum, $29.95, 240 pages

How can a society remain perpetually ready for war yet uncorrupted by the readiness?

It is a question posed by Jonathan Spyer in “The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict,” and it’s a thoughtful question that highlights the book’s composition as equal parts philosophical memoir and strategic analysis.

Mr. Spyer, a journalist and fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs (Gloria) Center in Herzliya, Israel, begins the book with a seemingly anodyne anecdote from the 2006 second Lebanon war about his Israel Defense Forces unit waiting through a series of false alarms along Israel’s northern border. The soldiers barely slept in anticipation of the order to reinforce another IDF unit in Lebanon’s el Khiam.

But the false alarms finally give way to the real thing. As Mr. Spyer’s unit prepares to go after the Hezbollah fighters – who started the war with a deadly cross-border raid in July – one of his fellow soldiers says starkly, “Not all of us will be coming back.”

Mr. Spyer instinctively reassures his comrade that it isn’t true. But it is – not all of them will be coming back. The almost intolerable hurry-up-and-wait, followed by the dangerous action of rooting out members of such a resilient terrorist group on their own soil is made worse by the inconclusiveness of the war’s end – essentially a draw, as Hezbollah began stockpiling missiles for the next war the moment the cease-fire went into effect.

Hezbollah is central to the story because Mr. Spyer’s book takes a close look at the ease with which Islamism has replaced Arab nationalism among the Muslim nations of the Mideast. There is no better example of that than Hezbollah, which as Mr. Spyer notes is probably the de facto political power in Lebanon even though it’s controlled by Iran and coordinates with Syria. Mr. Spyer charts the rise of Islamist groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad but puts one country at the center of this story: Iran.

“All these elements – the increasing Islamization of society, the proliferation of small Islamist sects, and the growth of increasingly radical positions within Hamas itself – are direct byproducts of the construction of a jihadi enclave in Gaza, from which all more moderate Palestinian streams have been expelled or else suppressed,” Mr. Spyer writes. “What is emerging in Gaza, as in Hizballah-controlled southern Lebanon, is a Levantine blueprint for the kind of societies the rising elite in Iran hope to see emerge throughout the region: steeped in religious observance, repressive, and geared above all to the successful prosecution of war.”

Mr. Spyer isn’t shy with labels. He promptly calls this a new cold war emerging in the Middle East. Iran, Mr. Spyer writes, is seeking to take ownership of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because of its emotive powers in the region and because, as a Shiite, non-Arab state, Iran generally would be considered an outsider – suspicious and unable to gain widespread trust otherwise.

Borders mean much less than in the past because of the communications revolution – something the mullahs had used against them in the aftermath of Iran’s fraudulent presidential elections in June 2009. Aside from the state allies of Syria and Sudan, Iran has formed alliances with – or taken effective control of – Hezbollah in Lebanon, Muqtada al-Sadr’s movement in Iraq, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas. Both Turkey and Qatar have moved into Iran’s orbit as well.

Mr. Spyer pits this alliance against the states that fervently oppose Iran’s nuclear ambitions: Israel (for obvious reasons), Egypt (as the former speaker of pan-Arab political passions), Saudi Arabia (which considers itself a leader of the Arab Muslim world), Jordan, Morocco, the Gulf Arab emirates and Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority.

While it is difficult to gauge how the Arab “street” is responding to Iranian meddling, Mr. Spyer says Israelis are girding for the fight. “The emergence of a regional coalition committed to the Jewish state’s destruction is having a profound effect on attitudes also within Israel itself. A more militant, stark, pessimistic outlook is taking hold in the Jewish state, as the country readapts itself to the new climate taking hold across the region.”

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is Mr. Spyer’s prescription for victory against Islamism: patience.

Israel’s survival – which Mr. Spyer prescribes should be attained by gearing all battles toward conventional warfare, where Israel has the advantage – will destroy Islamism’s credibility.

“Iran and its allies suffer from the fundamental problem that they cannot produce societies in which people actually want to live,” Mr. Spyer writes. “Rather, they create immensely repressive internal arrangements, coupled with an endless repeat of acts of military theater, which then bring down retribution and suffering on the populations they control. The anger and sense of humiliation that they are focusing on is real. But once it becomes clear that they are not in fact able to bring the victory, they are likely to decline.”

Remember that the next time Israel is pushed to make concessions that would endanger its security, especially when most agree that Iran represents an existential threat. You can sacrifice Israel, or you can survive and defeat Islamism. Mr. Spyer makes a persuasive case that you can’t do both.

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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