Analysis from Israel

Is the Obama administration trying to start a war between Israel and Syria? Because intentionally or not, it’s certainly doing its darnedest to provoke one.

This weekend, three anonymous American officials told CNN that Israel was behind an explosion in the Syrian port of Latakia on July 5. The explosion, they said, resulted from an airstrike targeting Russian-made Yakhont anti-ship missiles. If this report is true, this is the second time U.S. officials have blown Israel’s cover in Syria: They also told the media that a mysterious explosion in Syria this April was Israel’s work, even as Israel was scrupulously keeping mum–just as it did about the Latakia incident.

This isn’t a minor issue, as anyone who knows anything about the Middle East knows: In a region where preserving face is considered crucial, publicly humiliating Syrian President Bashar Assad is the surest way to make him feel he has no choice but to respond, even though war with Israel is the last thing he needs while embroiled in a civil war at home.

This truth was amply demonstrated in April, after three airstrikes attributed to Israel hit Syria within a few weeks. After the first two, Israel kept mum while Assad blamed the rebels; face was preserved, and everyone was happy. But then, the Obama administration told the media that Israel was behind the second strike–and when the third strike hit two days later, Assad could no longer ignore it: He vociferously threatened retaliation should Israel dare strike again.

The Latakia attack also initially adhered to Israel’s time-tested method for avoiding retaliation: Israel kept mum, Assad blamed the rebels, face was preserved, and everyone was happy. But the Obama administration apparently couldn’t stand it–and a week later, it once again leaked claims of Israeli responsibility to the media.

At best, this means the administration simply didn’t understand the potential consequences, demonstrating an appalling ignorance of Middle East realities. A worse possibility is that it deliberately placed its own political advantage above the safety of Israeli citizens: Facing increasing criticism for its inaction in Syria, but reluctant to significantly increase its own involvement and unable even to secure congressional approval for the limited steps it has approved, perhaps it hoped revealing that at least an American ally was doing something would ease the political heat–even at the cost of provoking a Syrian retaliation that claims Israeli lives.

The worst possibility of all, however, is that the administration knows exactly what it’s doing, and is deliberately trying to spark an Israeli-Syrian war as a way out of its own dilemma: It wants Assad gone, but doesn’t want to do the work itself. Starting an Israeli-Syrian war would force Israel to destroy Assad’s air force, thereby greatly increasing the chances of a rebel victory.

Whatever the truth, these leaks damage American as well as Israeli interests, because one of Washington’s consistent demands of its ally is that Israel not surprise it with military action. Hitherto, Israel has honored that request: Though it doesn’t seek America’s permission for action it deems essential, it does scrupulously provide advance notice. But if Obama administration officials can’t be trusted to keep their mouths shut, Israel will have to rethink this policy: It can’t risk getting embroiled in a war with Syria just to ease Obama’s political problems.

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How Israel’s Electoral System Brings the Country’s Fringes Into Its Center

Like Haviv Rettig Gur in “How and Why Israelis Vote,” I, too, think the advantages of Israel’s parliamentary system outweigh its disadvantages, and for essentially the same reason: because it keeps a great many people in the political system who would otherwise remain outside it.

Critics of the system’s plethora of small parties—as Gur notes, no fewer than 43 parties have been vying for Knesset seats in this year’s election—maintain that it should be streamlined and redesigned so that only big parties would be able to enter the Knesset. In that case, the critics argue, people who currently vote for small parties would simply switch their votes to large ones.

No doubt, some voters would do so—but many others would not. There are at least three groups among whom turnout would plummet if niche parties became by definition unelectable: Arabs, Ḥaredim (including some ḥaredi Zionists), and the protest voters who, in every election, propel a new “fad” party into the Knesset. (In 2015, as Gur writes, the fad party was Kulanu. This year, it’s been Moshe Feiglin’s pro-marijuana, libertarian, right-wing Zehut party, which Gur doesn’t discuss although polls have consistently showed it gaining five to seven seats.)

Together, these three groups constitute roughly a third of the country, and all three are to some extent alienated from the mainstream. If they were no longer even participating in elections, that alienation would grow.

Why does this matter? In answering that question, I’ll focus mainly on Ḥaredim and Arabs, the most significant and also the most stable of the three groups (protest voters being by nature amorphous and changeable).

It matters primarily because people who cease to see politics as a means of furthering their goals are more likely to resort to violence. Indeed, it’s no accident that most political violence in Israel has issued from quarters outside the electoral system.

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