Peres and The New Middle East

By Yossef Bodansky

One of the most significant developments in the aftermath of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin is the ascent of Acting Prime Minister Shimon Peres to an unchallenged position at the top. He is thus responsible for Israel's national security.

Mr. Peres is determined to accelerate the "Peace Process" on the basis of his reading of the mega-trends in the Middle East and the world as a whole. This may be the most dangerous strategic development since Israel has embarked on its present fateful path.

Mr. Peres is convinced that the only thing that matters is what he terms Israel's "fundamental security." This "fundamental security" can be attained only in the context of a regional strategic balance of powers based on cold war logic. The availability of strategic weapons (nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, etc.) makes war unwinnable to the sane governments in the region. No government will dare to risk the horrendous losses a future war will entail. This creates an overall situation of "strategic paralysis" which prevents governments from embarking on "adventures" aimed at major or dramatic changes -- such as the destruction of Israel. Instead, the lack of strategic military options will convince and compel the region's governments to concentrate on peaceful economic development and the democratization of their societies -- trends that make wars unlikely.

Because Mr. Peres is convinced that the mega-trends as he sees them make wars unlikely. The territories -- including the Golan Heights -- are not only unimportant militarily, but are actually a hindrance to Israel because holding them only increases tension with neighboring countries, thus preventing faster normalization.

The mere existence of guarantees from the U.S., Mr. Peres stresses, will ensure that Arab governments actively participate in the transformation of the Middle East to that economic-dominated region Mr. Peres envisions. Moreover, active U.S. involvement in the Middle East will ultimately -- Mr. Peres is convinced in the near term -- will bring all the pro-West states of the region to rally around Israel, forming a regional strategic alliance blessed by the U.S. and led by Israel that will confront together the rise of radical Islam in Iran and elsewhere. Mr. Peres is convinced that only U.S.-brokered and guaranteed regional agreements on non-use of weapons of mass destruction can really guarantee Israel's security, even in the era of rampant proliferation.

Terrorism, to Mr. Peres, is an inevitable cost of doing business in the modern world. "There are also [terrorist] strikes in Oklahoma and Paris" he recently quipped in response to a question about the spate of bombings at the heart of Israel. Moreover, Mr. Peres is convinced that militant and radical Islam will eventually be suppressed because the region's states have vested interest in blocking Iran and consolidating a vibrant regional economy based on Israeli know-how and Saudi money.

However, recent developments in the Middle East raise doubts about the validity and viability of Mr. Peres' the vision of the regional mega-trends.

The explosions in Riyadh on November 13 more than shattered the illusion of stability in Saudi Arabia. They should be considered a manifestation of the beginning of a marked escalation of Islamist surge in the Middle East.

Since the failed assassination attempt on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in late June 1995, there has been a marked increase in the preparations in Islamist circles to dramatically escalate their assault on the conservative regimes in the Middle East. Indeed, Jihad was formally declared against Qadhafi's Libya. There is a major escalation of Islamist violence in Egypt. The recent explosions are but one expression of the beginning of Islamist subversion in Saudi Arabia. Fearful of a confrontation with the Islamists in his midst, Yassir Arafat is adamant against making any major step that might aggravate the situation -- from cracking down on Islamist terrorists (HAMAS, Islamic Jihad) to amending the Palestinian Charter.

These are not isolated or discrete incidents. Rather, they are integral components of a major Islamist offensive against the so-called moderate regimes in the Middle East decided upon in the PAIC conference in Khartoum in late March 1995. Since then, the Islamists have embarked on major and very professional preparations. Starting this summer, they began the implementation of their grand design. The events of this fall are but yet another phase -- albeit a major escalation -- implemented in a timely fashion.

The Islamists, led by Tehran and Khartoum, have embarked on this onslaught because they are confident in their ability to overthrow, at the very least paralyze, the conservative -- the so-called moderate -- Arab regimes. The Islamist leadership is convinced, and not without good reason, that they can soon establish Islamist regimes throughout the Middle East. Recent developments in the key Arab states testify that their reading of the dynamics in the region -- the real mega-trends -- is very accurate.

Egypt is slowly overwhelmed by the Islamicization of society even as the security forces continue to confront the Islamist terrorists. Consequently, Egypt is increasingly on the verge of Islamist popular uprising. The population demonstrates genuine desire for an Islamic regime (of some sort). The Islamists intensify their penetration of, and taking over, society through what Adel Darwish calls "Islamicization by stealth" -- a gradual domineering of society while conditioning the population to an Islamic regime. The Egyptian population, having lost faith in the ability of Mubarak's Cairo to resolve their economic plight and reverse the overall deterioration of the situation in Egypt, is ready for imposition of Sharia as a cure-all panacea. Meanwhile, larger and more professional terrorist cadres are being trained and prepared in Pakistan, Sudan, and Iran pending deployment to Egypt and the inevitable escalation of the Islamist armed struggle. The escalation of the Islamist armed struggle is bound to transform into a popular insurrection, thus serving as a demonstration of the wide reach and determination of the Islamists.

In Saudi Arabia, the main challenge facing the country is the self-destruction of the House of al-Saud. "Like a rotting carcass, the House of Saud is beginning to decompose," Said K. Aburish wrote. "If nothing is done then we will have a revolution, if not in 1997, then soon after." The population has given up on benefitting from the country's immense wealth, seeking instead solace from the corruption and dictatorship in the fold of revivalist Islam. The beginning of armed Jihad is thus both an expression of the extent of desperation of the majority of Saudis and the beginning of the Islamist final push to overthrow the House of al-Saud.

Syria, though not subjected to Islamist violence presently, is fully aware of the growing threat of revived Islamist insurrection. Syrian apprehension of the growing Islamist threat to the stability of Damascus has been recently revived by Iran and Sudan by parading Syrian Islamist leaders (now in virtual arrest in Khartoum) in the PAIC conference. Now reminded of the Islamist option, Damascus got the message. As of this summer, there has been a marked improvement of the already intimate strategic cooperation and coordination with Tehran -- still its closest ally. This development is expressed in the escalation of HizbAllah and Palestinian terrorist activities in southern Lebanon. Syria's flagrant and adamant refusal to talk to Secretary Christopher and Washington as a whole on such issues as spread of "super-bills" and drugs is also an integral part of Syria's closer cooperation with Iran and the Islamist leadership. Meanwhile, the further consolidation of the Iran-dominated Tehran-Baghdad-Damascus axis only serves to bolster Damascus' self-confidence in its steadfast position and the military option.

Under such circumstances, the fate of regimes in Riyadh and Cairo is far from certain. Islamist regimes may even be established there in the near future. Far more dangerous, however, are the ramifications of efforts by Cairo and Riyadh to reach compromise with the Islamists. The present regimes will be compelled to take strong positions that will placate and satisfy their militant Islamist constituencies rather than face a violent overthrow.

Active resumption of the military option against Israel, with an explicit commitment to fight until the complete destruction of the Jewish State and the establishment of a Muslim State in its stead, is a major demand of the Islamists.

This regional dynamics, already unfolding in front of our eyes, is contradictory to the vision of the future Middle East used by Mr. Peres to justify Israeli concessions. Moreover, the rapid acquisition of strategic weapons by Iran, Syria, and other Arab states is based on a doctrine completely opposite to the logic claimed by Mr. Peres. In their view, even the mere acquisition of rudimentary strategic capabilities, let alone the achievement of a strategic balance of power, IS THE KEY to launching a conventional war for the destruction of Israel.

Leading Syrian, Iranian and other Arab senior military experts and officials are convinced that Israel cannot afford massive civilian casualties in its heart -- the greater Tel-Aviv area.Therefore, they argue, the mere existence of Islamist (Iranian, Syrian) strategic capabilities merely threatening to inflict carnage on Tel-Aviv will deter Israel from using its vastly superior strategic arm.

With the threat of Israeli escalation and unbearable punishment removed, the Islamist strategy continues, the Arabs and Iranians can now utilize their vastly larger conventional power to overwhelm Israel and "liberate al-Quds." Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights and the mountain ridges in Judea and Samaria will greatly simplify the military challenges of such an assault.

The leaders in Tehran, Damascus and Khartoum see this scenario as a viable and imminent challenge. Indeed, they present their current and escalating assault on the conservative, so-called moderate, regimes -- especially Cairo and Riyadh -- as conditioning of the region for the ultimate Islamist assault on Israel. The Islamist leadership believes that by winning over these key Arab states, a unified Islamist camp can rise to the challenge of destroying Israel.

The growing self-confidence and assertiveness of the Islamist leadership do not guarantee that such a scenario can be implemented by the Islamists. Still, there should be no doubt as to the Islamists' commitment to the destruction of Israel. The rapid and impressive acquisition of strategic capabilities and weapons of mass destruction by Syria and Iran, as well as the hidden Iraqi arsenal, should suggest that the professed doctrine of a massive assault under a strategic umbrella constraining Israel might very well be the chosen strategy of leading powers in the region.

This strategic build-up, coupled with the on going escalation of Islamist subversion in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, should raise the alarm in Jerusalem. At the very least, it is imperative for Jerusalem to re-examine the possibility that the mega-trends predicted and identified by the Islamists might indeed be the prevailing trends. This trend is the exact opposite of the two most vital tenets of the "fundamental security" of Israel according to Mr. Peres' vision. Therefore, considering the vital stakes at hand -- the very existence of Israel -- this is not the time to take such gigantic risks and leaps of faith -- as Jerusalem is rushing to undertake. It is imperative for Israel to wait until the real mega-trends and dynamics in the Middle East are better understood and ascertained. Only then, if humanly possible, real peace should be sought after and hopefully achieved.

Yossef Bodansky joined the Freeman Center For Strategic Studies as its World Terroism Analyst in 1994. He is the author of TARGET AMERICA: Terrorism In The U.S and TERROR: The Inside Story Of The Terrorist Conspiracy In America. As a result of the recent bombings in Argentina and London, and recently in Oklahoma, interest in Bodansky's works are at an all time high.

He is considered one of our nation's foremost experts on terrorism and unconventional warfare as well as a recognized authority worldwide. He is also an expert on guerilla and unconventional warfare and all aspects of the military affairs of Russia/The Soviet Union and the Third World.

Bodansky is a contributing editor of Defense & Foreign Affairs: Strategic Policy. He has written widely for such specialized journals as Jane's Defense Weekly and Global Affairs. Bodansky has contributed chapters and essays to the International Military & Defense Encyclopedia among other books, and has lectured widely to professional audiences in the defense, intelligence and security fields in the United States, Europe and Asia.

He was a visiting scholar in the Security Studies Program of John Hopkins University and served as consultant to the U.S Departments of Defense and State prior to assuming his current post. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

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