The only practical way to defeat irregular forces embedded in a civilian population is to destroy the states that back them. That is why America overthrew Saddam Hussein, and also why Israel is considering a preemptive war on Syria on the model of 1967.

After Israel began military exercises on the Syrian border last week, the prospect arose of war with Damascus. In fact, for Israel to strike at Syria today would require the strategic equivalent of a conversion experience for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, as it were, a conversion on the road to Damascus.

A week before the 1967 war, no one could have predicted if then-prime minister Levi Eshkol would stake the existence of the Jewish state on the fortunes of Israeli arms. In retrospect, it seems clear that Israel had no other choice. The existential choice today is no less real, but far less clear in Israeli minds.

For example, the May issue of the The Atlantic Monthly asks on its front cover, “Is Israel Finished?” Among friends and sympathizers of the Jewish state, the prospect of its liquidation now is debated openly. The 2006 attack on Lebanon revealed an enervated Israel, unwilling to act decisively, and Israel may not be able to summon the fighting spirit that sustained it through previous crises.

Olmert desperately wants a Palestinian state on the West Bank, Atlantic writer Jeffrey Goldberg reports, to separate the growing Palestinian Arab population and keep the integrity of the Jewish state. But the Palestinians never will form such a state at the price of recognizing the permanent presence of a Jewish state. The radical Islamists of Hamas control Gaza and would make short work of Mahmoud Abbas’ regime on the West Bank, except for the presence of the Israel Defense Force.

Olmert’s popularity in Israel is lower than President George W. Bush’s in the United States. In August 2006, Olmert promised to destroy Hezbollah, after the Syrian- and Iranian-backed Hezbollah kidnapped Israel soldiers. Hezbollah fired 4,000 rockets into northern Israel, many of them through the windows of private apartments in southern Lebanon. To keep his promise, Olmert would have needed to expel a million people, raze their villages and use incendiaries to destroy the network of tunnels built underneath them with the help of Iranian military engineers. This was not in the cards.

Israel is now caught between an undefeated and rearmed Hezbollah in the north and Hamas in Gaza, a non-state living on international aid, with a non-army firing missiles at southern Israel from civilian neighborhoods. Without razing the Gazan neighborhoods near its border and expelling the population, Israel cannot suppress the rocket attacks, which now are an annoyance but will become a serious threat as Hamas acquires longer-range weapons. Hamas, in effect, is daring the Israelis to inflict harm on the civilians who screen its rocket teams.

It is messy to suppress irregular forces by reducing the ambient population and impossible for Israel to do so in the present international environment. Guerilla movements, however, require arms, money and intelligence from sympathetic states. Hamas and Hezbollah would represent no threat to Israel without the backing of Syria and Iran. Military and political logic requires Israel to attack their sponsors, rather than their militants embedded among civilians. Iran is hard to reach, but Syria is a sitting duck.

Israel’s problem with Hamas and Hezbollah is not much different from America’s problem with al-Qaeda after the September 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center. Without weapons, training, intelligence and passports from sympathizers in Arab states, terrorists could not pose a threat to the United States. It was not necessarily the case that Saddam, for example, conspired to commit acts of terrorism against the US. In no sense are most of the Middle Eastern regimes states in the Western sense of the term. Anwar Sadat famously said that Egypt was the only state in the Middle East, calling the others “tribes with flags.” They are more like hotels that rent rooms to a varied clientele, including some who abet terrorism.

After September 11, the United States did not know precisely what elements of which governments sponsored terrorism, although it knew that Damascus, Baghdad and Tehran hosted certain terrorist groups. It did not have the leisure (and perhaps not even the capacity) to infiltrate these groups gradually; it was simpler and more expedient to take down one of the regimes as a horrible example to the rest.

Washington chose to make an example of Iraq rather than some other state for two reasons. First, the existence of United Nations resolutions condemning Iraq’s efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction provided a quasi-legal basis for the attack. It really did not matter whether Saddam actually had such weapons, because he acted as if he did, and the Security Council had condemned him for it on 17 prior occasions.

Second, Washington falsely believed it could create a stable and functioning regime in Iraq that could serve as its partner in the region. Although an attack on Syria or Iran might have made more sense if the sole objective were to discourage terrorism, nation-building was not imaginable in either country.

The original motive for the Iraq invasion, which I supported, has been lost in the shambles of the American nation-building charade, which I ridiculed from the outset. Washington’s supposed hardliners cringed and cowered before the strategic choice before them: without taking down one of the regimes, Washington could not suppress state support for terrorism.

But it was illusory to believe that the US was capable of creating a stable to regime to replace it. To prevail in the regime meant an unending series of small interventions and unending chaos in the region, with hideous humanitarian consequences. Cardinal Richelieu had the stomach to pursue such a policy towards the German empire during the Thirty Years’ War of 1618-1648, but not Bush. Yet a Richelovian policy towards the Middle East, horrible as it would be, is the inevitable consequence of American interventionism.

America faces humiliation in consequence of its irresolve, but its survival is not at stake; in parallel circumstances, Israel faces eventual extinction. As Goldberg portrays Israel’s anguished debate in the Atlantic, the country is divided between hawks like Olmert, who needs a deal with Abbas for a West Bank Palestinian state, and a peace faction that demands unilateral withdrawal from West Bank settlements. Somewhere on another planet are the religious settlers who are sure that God will sustain them in the entirety of Biblical Israel.

Olmert’s ostensibly aggressive policy during the 2006 Lebanon War was a timid man’s idea of ferocity. Israeli bombers raised a lot of dust but did little damage to Hezbollah’s entrenchments. The limited commitment of Israeli ground forces showed the flag, took a few casualties, and accomplished little.

Rather than bomb the puppies of war in South Lebanon, military logic required a crushing blow aimed at the puppies’ master in Damascus: destruction of the Syrian air and tank forces on the ground followed by an armored incursion. Washington would have objected, no doubt, just as it objected to Israel’s pre-emptive attack on Egypt, Syria and Jordan in June 1967. Nothing wins, however, like winning.

From a military vantage point, the military risk to an attack on Syria today is negligible compared to the risks Eshkol assumed in 1967. The psychological barriers, though, are vastly greater. Israel’s cabinet four decades ago included men and women who grew up with continuous danger, had already fought two wars, and expected to fight more. Olmert is a lawyer, not a soldier, and he presides over a society that is sick of war and longs to enjoy Israel’s exceptional prosperity and amenities of life.

To attack Syria at this juncture would be an admission that peace will be out of reach for the conceivable future. Despite his unpopularity, Olmert remains in office because the majority of Israelis see no alternative to his objective, namely a Palestinian state on the West Bank. A nasty sort of sobriety prevailed in Israel in 1967. That has given way to a delusion. Ariel Sharon in 2002 reportedly spoke of a 100 years of war with the Arabs, a prospect that today’s Israelis find too horrible to contemplate.

Nonetheless, a century of war is just what Israel shall have, whether it wants to or not, unless it decides to abandon the Third Jewish Commonwealth – and that option is on the table.

Whether Israel will attack Syria is beyond prediction; to do so would require an existential leap on the part of the body politic. Syria, to be sure, takes the threat seriously enough. Writing in Asia Times Online on April 10 (War and peace, Israeli style) Syrian analyst Sami Moubayed said:

The Israelis insist they are not seeking war with the Syrians, even as Israel began its biggest military maneuver in its history since 1948. This was on the border with Syria, which has been calm since the June war of 1967 … President Shimon Peres insisted this was not a prelude to war with Syria, telling the Syrians not to worry. Israeli Radio, however, told citizens the scenario being practiced was for how things would look like on the fourth day of an “imaginary” war with Hezbollah on one front, and the Syrians on the other … Adding spice to the show were the words of General Dan Harel, the deputy chief of staff of the IDF, who said, “Anyone who tries to harm Israel must remember that it is the strongest country in the region, and retaliation will be powerful – and painful.” If all of the above is not a prelude for war, then what is?

No matter what Israel offers, the Palestinian Arabs as well as Israel’s neighbors cannot accept a permanent Jewish state. Sadat was right: Egypt is the only state in the region, and it could make peace with Israel as a matter of state interest. How long the Egyptian state will last is another matter. But the secular nationalism that created the modern Egyptian state half a century ago is a dead letter. Islamic governments cannot accept the return of the Jews to Zion according to Biblical prophecy, for this would question the Koran’s claim to be a final revelation to supplant the Judeo-Christian scriptures.

The Arabs are a failing people, I have argued in earlier studies (see Crisis of faith in the Muslim world Asia Times Online, October 31 and November 5, 2005). It is not only the triumph of globalized Western culture over traditional society that threatens them, but the ascendancy of Asia. Last week’s food riots in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East bring the point home. Arabs are hungry because Chinese are rich enough to eat meat, and buy vast quantities of grain to feed to pigs and chickens. If the rise in Asian protein consumption portends a permanently higher plateau of food prices, the consequences are dire for populations living on state subsidies, from Morocco to Algeria to Cairo to Gaza. A people that have no hope also have nothing to lose.

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