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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.
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