By NATHAN GONZALEZ
There is much talk in the news about Israel weighing its military options against Iranian nuclear facilities. Yet, if for a moment Israel stops focusing on the region’s military balance, and starts thinking of its long-term security as a Jewish state in the post-Arab Spring Middle East, it will realize that its warplanes would be of greater use flying over Damascus than over Tehran.
In coalition with other nations, Israel can and should intervene to stop the current humanitarian catastrophe in Syria for the sake of its own long-term security.
Conventional wisdom states that Israeli support for any popular uprising in the Middle East would be a kiss of death to the protesters. In this case, conventional wisdom is only partly right. Going back to the first half of the twentieth century Israel has been the target of secular Arab political entrepreneurs who sought to pin their legitimacy on their opposition to Israel.
For its part, Israel has done incredible damage to its own image in the Arab world by pursuing disastrous policies — from the expansion of settlements in occupied Palestinian land, to incoherent and trigger-happy misadventures in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip over the decades. But there is nothing written in the political DNA of the Middle East which demands Arabs and Israelis despise each other. At some point in the future, Israel must make an effort to become an accepted resident of its own neighborhood, and a Syrian intervention would be the most logical place to start.
To be sure, many would condemn Israel for any military attack against the Syrian regime, and members of the Arab League would likely retreat from their association with the uprising. Let them. To date they have done little to stop the bloodletting. And any fears that Israeli military strikes against command and control centers of the Ba’athist regime would make the Syrian government more aggressive toward its own people beg the question: Hasn’t the Syrian regime already pulled all the stops?
According to the United Nations, the number of Syrians dead at the hand of Bashar al-Assad has surpassed 6,000. There is little Israel can do to make things worse for the people of Syria.
If the immediate human rights crisis weren’t enough to compel action, Israel could take strategic comfort in toppling a regime that has played host to part of the HAMAS leadership, and which has served as a main supply route for arms bound for anti-Israeli Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon. This means that, unlike Egypt and Tunisia, Syria is the one place where humanitarian concerns and the strategic interests of Israel have come together.
Some Israelis who doubt the benefit of getting rid of Assad mistakenly believe that a stable, hostile dictator is always better than coping with uncertainty. “Better the devil you know,” goes the adage. One member of an Israeli think tank with whom I shared a cab in Doha told me that Israelis like HAMAS to be “exactly where it is,” meaning inside Assad’s Syria: a short commute for Israeli jets, and a place that can be bombed from time to time with relative political impunity.
But such traditional, cynical thinking assumes the Middle East is not changing at neck-breaking pace. Whether democracy ends up taking hold in this new Middle East is still an open question, but no one can doubt that a greater level of popular participation will mark Arab politics from this point forward. It is no longer enough to be feared by a handful of dictators, one has to try to be loved (or at the very least respected) by the Arab people.
None of this is to say that Israeli intervention will invite an overnight embrace from the Arab street, and there are those who will always hate Israel no matter what it does. Some newly powerful Islamists will lash out against Israel and stoke anti-Semitism to gain political ground, just as secular Arab leaders did half a century ago. Yet, ultimately, the vast majority of Arabs will judge Israel by its actions, not merely the rhetoric of political entrepreneurs.
It is time for Israel to show that its warplanes can do something other than cause Arab suffering — it can relieve it.
NATHAN GONZALEZ is publisher and executive editor of Nortia Press, fiction and nonfiction books dealing with global affairs.