The following article was written on March 30, 1992.
As the continuing flow of new missiles to Iran reveals, the Bush administration (refers to first President Bush) remains committed to misconceived policies in the Middle East. Even if Israel were to yield West Bank and Gaza to create a new state of Palestine (with east Jerusalem as its capital), the government in Teheran would persist in planned aggression against the Jewish state. Altogether unconcerned with the fate of the Palestinians, this government will be satisfied only by Israel’s disappearance.
Ironically, by its public declarations and its deeds, Iran is remarkably open and honest about its objectives. In the words of Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, new leader of the pro-Iranian Party of God, “The only way to achieve a lasting peace in the Middle East is the return of all the Jewish occupiers to the lands from which they originally came.”
Israel’s “crime,” in the eyes of Iran, is that it exists. Short of ceasing to exist (an option that would be made much more likely by the creation of a state of Palestine), Israel can do absolutely nothing to remove the threat of another major war. To a considerable and growing extent, one that Washington still refuses to acknowledge, the problem is religion. More and more, as Islamic fundamentalists wrest control from secular forces in Iran and the Arab world, the declared enemy is no longer “Zionists,” but “JEWISH occupiers.”
Throughout the Islamic world, fundamentalists are now challenging incumbent regimes, competing for power and calling for a new assertiveness. Unlike more moderate Muslems, these fundamentalists are disinterested in political compromise and are willing, in many cases, to place the obligations of “submissions” (Islam, in Arabic, means submission to the will of God) above the requirements of personal or collective survival. Moreover, their power grows daily as a number of Arab states are increasingly unable to surmount substantial social, medical and economic problems.
In Egypt, the palpable reassertion of Muslim piety is directed toward a day when all irreligious leaders are deposed and the Ummah (total community of Muslims) is united under a universal Caliphate, a fully legitimate government ruled by an elected leader of irreproachable integrity. Whereas Iran’s faith is drawn primarily from the minority Shi’a branch of Islam, Egypt’s fundamentalists look forward to an alliance with over 130 million Sunni Muslims in the rest of the Middle East and North Africa. (There are now nearly one billion Muslims in the world.) Such an alliance, led by the so-called Jaamat Islamiya (Islamic societies) and including Al-Jihad (Holy War), could lead to a position of “no compromise” with infidels, especially if it is heavily informed by the Manichean type dualism of Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966, a leading idealogue of the Brotherhood who was hanged by Nasser.
The problem of Islamic fundamentalism is already an internal problem for Israel. Although fundamentalists ordinarily view Palestinian nationalism as contrary to Islamic universalism, they are increasingly trying to gain control of the Palestinian resistance, both in Israel proper and in the territories. Calling for an escalation of the uprising and a denunciation of all compromise with Israel, the groups Hamas and Hizbullah – certain to become more widely known and recognizable in the years ahead – see only one strategy of confrontation: underground cells serving as military units “to challenge Satan’s schemes and strike at Zionist interests.” In a recent memorandum offered to the Palestine National Council (PNC), Hamas demanded the following of the PNC: “The military option should be confirmed, and jihad considered the proper way to liberate Palestine and achieve independence.” Should West Bank and Gaza become Palestine, groups such as Hamas and Hizbullah would likely wield enormous power and possibly act as surrogates for hostile (to Israel) Arab states and Iran.
At this very moment, Iran is already preparing – with the utmost seriousness – for a total war of annihilation against Israel. For its part, the United States – as its “reward” to Israel for commendable restraint during the (1991) Gulf War – is pressuring Israeli leaders to further compromise their own security. Seemingly oblivious once again to the real bases of hostility in the region, the Bush administration (Bush One) effectively encourages a PLO/Hamas state west of the Jordan River, an affirmation of Palestinian “self-determination” that could end in a nuclear nightmare for all parties in the area.
Should the West Bank and Gaza become “Palestine,” Israel’s vulnerability to armed attacks by Arab neighbors and Iran would increase markedly. Recognizing an “improved” balance of forces vis-à-vis
Israel, a larger number of enemy states would calculate that they now confront a smaller, more beleaguered adversary – one deprived of former strategic depth and one whose military forces are more preoccupied with “Palestine” than they ever were with the intifada. Fearing even total defeat, Israel could find itself resorting for the first time to explicit threats of nuclear deterrence and, should the threats not be taken seriously, the actual retaliatory use of nuclear weapons.
Of course, one must compare the risks to Israel of a neighboring state of Palestine with those of continuing control over the territories. Should Israel remain in possession of the West Bank and Gaza, a combined attack by several Arab states would benefit from the anti-Israel exploits of the intifada, exploits that are apt to escalate under such conditions. Diverted from the central effort to resist Arab armies, Israel – because of its precarious rule over a hostile Palestinian population – could be weakened considerably. Yet, its overall position is apt to be weakened less by rebellion than by another adversarial state on its eastern borders. Therefore, Israel would be less inclined to threaten or to use nuclear weapons, if Jerusalem maintained jurisdiction over the territories.
Even if the Palestinians and/or Iran actually favored a “two-state solution”, which they clearly do not, this would not reduce the incentive of present Arab governments and Iran to wage war against Israel. Indeed, it may well increase this incentive. This means that the critical factor in determining probable Israeli recourse to nuclear deterrence and/or nuclear weapons is the perceived effect of Palestine upon Israel’s vulnerability. Because this effect will almost certainly be greater than a persistent and expanded uprising in the West Bank and Gaza, transforming the territories into an independent state would actually enlarge the risk of nuclear war in the region.
(To be continued)
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LOUIS RENE BERES (Ph.D. Princeton) is the author of many books dealing with international relations and international law. His book, Security Or Armageddon, Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (1986) remains an early authoritative treatment of the subject. He is strategic and military affairs columnist for The Jewish Press and chair of “Project Daniel.”