Commentary Magazine


Re: Seven Years Later

Noah Pollak writes that Israel seems finally to be implementing the Bush Doctrine: Jerusalem allegedly has warned Damascus that it will be held accountable for Hezbollah attacks on Israel’s northern border. I hope he’s right, but I remain skeptical.

After all, when Ehud Barak (then prime minister, now defense minister) withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, he issued similar warnings that Syria would be held accountable for any further aggression. Well, Hezbollah’s aggression continued and in 2006 Israel fought an inconclusive war against that terrorist group, ignoring the suggestions of some commentators (including yours truly) that it should expand the conflict to Syria.

Is there any reason to think that the current government-led by the same prime minister (Ehud Olmert) who so conspicuously mishandled the Hezbollah war-will be more far-sighted in the future? I wouldn’t bet on it.

A fundamental problem here is that, while Israel believes in retaliation and deterrence, it doesn’t by and large believe in another aspect of the Bush Doctrine-regime change. Most Israelis are deeply cynical (not without reason) about the prospects of positive political change in the Arab world. Their attitude is: Better the devil you know. In Syria, the devil in question is Bashar Assad and, all things considered, Israelis prefer keeping him in power.

I’m not sure this attitude makes much sense, since Assad is already an avowed enemy of Israel who is actively helping anti-Israeli terror groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. To the extent that his aggression is restrained-he is not, for example, firing missiles from Syria into Israeli cities-it is not because he is a nice guy but because he is deterred by the threat of Israeli retaliation. Presumably that same threat would function against any future Syrian regime, even if it is led by Islamists.

But Israelis, at least those who run the government, are comfortable dealing with traditional Arab strongmen and can point to the rise of Hamas in Gaza as evidence of the dangers of democracy. In point of fact, Hamas’s rise is actually the price that Israel pays for supporting an autocrat–Yasser Arafat–for so long on the theory that he would do Israel’s dirty work by suppressing Palestinian militants. Instead, Arafat nurtured a climate in which shahids (martyrs) were glorified, the Jewish state was reviled, and moderate political figures were intimidated into silence, jailed, exiled, or killed. The corruption and ineffectiveness of his administration eventually turned most Palestinians to an even more radical alternative.

But just about the only prominent Israeli who believes in supporting Arab democrats is Natan Sharansky, and he is not in government any more. That’s why it is so ironic that American “neoconservatives”–who champion the promotion of democracy–are derided in some quarters as practically Mossad agents. In fact, the Mossad, and other organs of Israeli government, while happy to rub out terrorist kingpins, are not interested in toppling state sponsors of terror.