One night in August 2006, Jonathan Spyer’s unit in the Israel Defense Forces prepared to head into South Lebanon to reinforce their fellow soldiers in the war against Hezbollah, the world’s most dangerous terrorist organization. “Not all of us will be coming back,” his friend said as they shook hands.
“Our little war in Lebanon in 2006 was the last chapter in a story of great hope, and great disappointment,” Spyer writes in The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict, his recently released account of the new phase in Israel’s–and the West’s–battle for survival. After serving in the IDF, Spyer went to work in the Prime Minister’s Office and is now a widely published journalist and fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center in Herzliya, Israel.
In his still thick British accent (Spyer immigrated to Israel from Britain in 1991), Spyer told me over the phone this week that Iran is at the center of this Israel-Islamist conflict, in what is frankly a new cold war in the Middle East. The war against Lebanon in 2006 was an indication of this new Iranian-fueled cold war, he said, which like any cold war has its hot spots. Hezbollah, as Iran’s client militia in Lebanon (and which may be the “de facto” political power in Lebanon, he said), is responsible both for the battles it fights directly against Israel and those it inspires.
“The Second Intifada we can see is a direct and legitimate child of Hezbollah’s fight against Israel in South Lebanon,” he said of the terror war launched against Israel in September 2000 by Marwan Barghouti, the Tanzim and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. “The direct model they had was the successful campaign waged by Hezbollah throughout the course of the 1990s that ended with ‘success’ with Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon.”
We were discussing a conversation Spyer once had with a Hamas leader who told him that resistance clearly works, because the Jews had gone from wanting a state between the Nile and the Euphrates to wanting a state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean to accepting even less, all because of Arab resistance. This thinking was clearly both prominent and prevalent among the Palestinians.
“Success breeds success and success breeds emulation,” he said.
As Spyer shows in his book, the Israel-Islamist conflict is also a global conflict, because of the spread of Islamist violence and the support Islamism finds politically among the global Left, nostalgic for their own failed revolutionary ideas and obsessed with the concept of Palestinians as victims.
Spyer said the most important part of the West’s role in the conflict is to understand its true parameters.
“That is to say that the same forces that threaten the stability firstly of Western interests throughout the Middle East, of course, and also to a considerable extent in countries which have large Muslim minorities and large Islamist minorities in those Muslim minorities, threaten also the social peace of those countries themselves,” he said.
Unfortunately, that recognition is simply not taking place. Israel is seen far and wide in the West as something that can be sacrificed, he said, to appease the Islamists. This type of thinking is exactly the opposite of the reality of the situation.
“I think what has to be understood is that in actual fact the enemy that Israel is facing is exactly the same enemy as that enemy which is threatening the stability of the West,” Spyer said. “And once you have that realization then the rest of it becomes obvious: You have to ally with Israel; you have to understand that Israel’s fight is the same as Britain’s fight or France’s fight against radical Islam.”
Spyer notes in the book that Islamism has no serious competitor in the Middle East for the hearts and minds of Muslims. I asked Spyer if it needs one in order to be defeated, and he pointed out that the places in the Arab world where Islamists have power are in countries that lack a strong state–Gaza, Lebanon, Iraq–not, for example, in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or Jordan.
Spyer also said that once Islamists gain power, they tend to discredit the movement–such as in Iran, where the mullahs are unpopular. This brings up a quandary, then: Is it better for Islamists to gain power and discredit themselves, or to remain a popular minority?
There is no question in Spyer’s mind that the answer is the latter. The theory has been tested, he said, in Gaza by allowing Hamas to stand for elections in 2006. As they showed, once Islamists win an election, there tend not to be any more elections.
“The experience of power does tend to make Islamism unpopular,” he said. “That doesn’t mean to say we can afford the luxury of sort of allowing them to get into power and then allowing them to discredit themselves.”
But Spyer said these kinds of revolutionary movements tend not to produce very much other than revolution–the art of governing is usually beyond the capabilities of such radicals. This will eventually cause Islamism to lose its luster.
“My view is that Islamism will eventually play itself out because it will be seen to have produced nothing,” he said. “It creates a very successful mood of militancy, but in the end when that begins to be seen as producing nothing in terms of real victories or real achievements, so the shine will begin to go off it.”
This demonstrates the importance of Israel’s survival. Contrary to what many in the West believe–that the Islamists’ stated goal of Israel’s destruction is a rallying cry and a slogan more than a defining raison d’être–Israel’s enemies seek and expect its eventual destruction.
“As months turn into years and years turn into decades, and Israel remains–I think it will remain, for all its problems, a very successful, flourishing country–and the Islamist movements remain mired in backwardness, and mired in the ability to produce martyrdom and martyrs but not much else, so I think that the shine will go out of it,” Spyer said.
In the meantime, the focus must be Iran, which is at the center of strife in the Middle East.
“We’ve seen the WikiLeaks in recent weeks and we kind of now know that when the grownups are talking behind closed doors, that’s what they talk about all the time,” Spyer said. “That’s the real problem. Iran and its ambitions and its linking up with Islamist forces in country after country, is the key problem facing this region, facing Israel and also facing Arab reformers and people who like stability in the region.”