Whence Orthodox Jewish Zionist Politics?

The Israeli election campaign has already begun.


In the run-up to that campaign, one of the most notable, and remarkable, political events in Israel in 2012 was actually a non-event. At a time when Israelis were struggling to figure out how to deal with any number of basic moral issues such as whether to attack Iran, what to do with African migrants arriving from the Sinai, how to cope with an economy dominated by a small group of the ultra-wealthy, how to cope with extortionate housing and food prices and the growing disparity in incomes—among other things—the once-powerful Mizrahi movement and its two political offshoots, the Ichud Leumi and Habayit Hayehudi parties, were almost totally silent.aehudi partiesH


In fact, the last time that these parties had made major headlines was in late 2010 when there were open clashes between the settlers and the government over a freeze in construction on the West Bank.


From its founding in 1902, the national Orthodox religious Mizrahi movement had always been something of an anomaly in Zionist politics. Most political parties are founded for one of two reasons. They can be established to promote an epiphany that has subsequently been turned into a full-blown political ideology; or they are set up to further an existing sectoral group’s self interest. In the Mizrahi political movement, there was a very different dynamic.


Each of the other early Zionist parties believed that it had invented the solution to “the Jewish problem” and had then set about building a whole ideology around their basic thesis (socialism, bourgeois liberalism, or national property rights). The Mizrahi movement, however, began as a loosely-attached group of activists that had no overall ideology or even a clear collective self-identity. What we today call “the Modern Orthodox” had been hit by a double-whammy a hundred years earlier by the creation of the Reform, and then the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) movements, and had not yet recovered or figured out where they should go philosophically. Their great “posek” (final religious arbiter) of the 19th century, Samson Raphael Hisrch, had rejected the very idea of a return to the Promised Land.


However, beginning with Rabbi Shmuel Mohilever in the 1880s and continuing with rabbi Yitzchak Reines at the turn of the 19th century, these Jewish leaders did have two specific goals—to demonstrate that a Jew could be both “modern” and pious; and to save the Jews suffering under the autocratic regimes of eastern Europe (even if that meant resettling those Jews in Uganda).


Eventually, and unlike the Haredim, the Mizrahi movement’s founders came to believe that saving Jews required a nationalist solution.


However, that decision has since led to a series of what have proven to be irresolvable problems.


The first was whether the movement’s members would be merely in the modern world so that it could take advantage of the benefits of modernism, or become active participants in shaping the modern world, which often meant reshaping religious law to accommodate the changes that were taking place in the society around them. In other words, the movement’s leaders had to decide whether their party would be outward looking and universalist, as Ben Gurion had hoped, or whether it would be inward-looking and particularist like the Haredim.


However, even before it could even begin tackling such weighty issues, it faced two conundrums. In order to join the Zionist Movement the Mizrahi Movement had to accept the principles that underlie liberal democracies, including majority rule. In other words it had to accept the principle that the law of the land would be formulated by the citizens of the land through their elected representatives. Or, put another way, sovereignty, and thus the source of authority, should lie in the hands of the citizenry, not the rabbis. As well, laws and regulations must be open to change in order to adapt to the changing needs and lifestyle of the citizens.


The immediate problem that then arose was that orthodox religion of any kind believes that the ultimate source of authority is God, and thus, His laws cannot be changed. In other words, liberal democrats believe that the law must reflect life, while orthodox religion believes that life must be filtered through the law.


To make a very long story short, after a more than century-long struggle, the Mizrahi movement has found that it cannot live with the emotional and intellectual ambiguity that being orthodox in a constantly-changing, secular milieu entails.


Once the founding fathers of the party died or retired, most of the party members gave up the struggle to reconcile the paradoxes with which they had been living. Instead of doing battle with new and unfamiliar problems, they withdrew more into themselves, began living is increasingly enclaved areas, began talking only amongst themselves, and began to use the question of Jewish settlement in the territories captured in the Six-Day war as a means to escape from having to deal with weight moral and ethical issues. The movement then turned itself into a pure sectoralist party for a while, and now has become an empty, intellectual shell—just as Labor and a majority of the Revisionists have.


Unlike the leadership today, the Mizrahi movement’s founders were in a unique position to grapple with the kind of issues they faced. They had grown up in the intellectual maelstrom of fin de siècle Europe, and had been exposed to the whole range of political and social ideas roiling around. Most were highly educated in subjects such as law and philosophy. And, they were deeply religious.


It is difficult for us today to value the extraordinary intellectual bravery of the Mizrahi movement’s founding members. Unlike the Haredim, they had chosen not to retreat into a restrictive, pre-industrial enclave. And unlike the secular socialists or the bourgeois Zionists, who had simply been able to modify two centuries of Christian, atheistic and agnostic Enlightenment political thought to suit their needs, the Orthodox Zionists had no body of established political ideas and ideals upon which they could draw.


From the outset, the religious Zionists were confronted with the need to find a way to meld their spiritual beliefs with the objective difficulties inherent in being a part of a ruling class. In effect, in addition to trying to achieve their two stated aims, they were also faced with the almost monumental task of reconciling their religious beliefs, which were largely based on precedents set during almost two thousand years of life in the Diaspora (where they had little or no say in the running of government), with the exigencies of modern, nation-state building.


True believers in the Messiah, the early religious Zionists of the turn of the 20th century struggled to find a way to reconcile their rationalist, earthly political activities with their spiritual yearnings for the coming of God’s messenger. No less importantly, they had to find a religious justification for working together with the rest of the avowedly secular Zionist movement that believed that man should and could accomplish the tasks that the greatest rabbis had believed had already been assigned by God to the tarrying Messiah.

The first stage in the Mizrahi movement’s attempt to resolve the paradox came when most of its members chose to adopt the teachings of the avowed mystic, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook.  Kook preached that Zionism was part of the process of redemption, not an end in itself. Once that process got underway, the Messiah would come and redeem not just the Jews, but all mankind. Kook taught that religious Jews could work with secular ones because all Jews had within them the potential for holiness—even if they did not recognize it. Therefore, even irreligious Jews could be working to serve God’s great plan for man’s redemption.


Even though Kook was a classical Jewish mystic in many ways, his teachings were those of a universalist who had been influenced by some of the great, non-Jewish European thinkers. His preachings enabled the Mizrahi movement’s members to reach a kind of cease-fire with the secularists so that both could work together to end the British Mandate.


Like the secularists, the religious nationalists emerged from the War of Independence in a euphoric state of mind. However, the very success of the Jews in waging the war, seemingly against all odds, compelled the religious Zionist leaders to once again confront the conundrum that they were still deep believers in the coming of the Messiah. However, the ultimate expression of Jewish religious messianism—the ingathering of the exiles to their ancient homeland—had been carried out by otherwise ordinary, largely secular, men and women.


The religious Zionists had little choice but to look on in shock and sometimes horror as secular unbelievers—the very people who had openly rejected traditional Judaism and had sought to find a social, national replacement for it—had made a reality of the religious Jews’ millennial messianic dreams.


Not only that, once the state was formed, these secularists had begun crafting laws themselves, without regard to and even in competition with Halacha (Jewish religious law).


Worse still, this man-made law was being given precedence over what the Orthodox believed was Divine Law; and those man-made statutes had been declared to be binding on the whole population within the country’s sovereign boundaries.


However, undoubtedly, the greatest difficulty the Orthodox religious Zionists faced was that the secularists were ignoring and even openly rejected the two thousand years of rabbinically-based ordinances which the Orthodox believed should form the foundation for all Jews’ beliefs and practices. This was far from the way to national redemption that Kook had preached.


The difficulties the religious Zionists had in confronting and accommodating themselves to what were, in effect, grievous acts of heresy were exacerbated by the fact that the Orthodox, who base their whole lives on following rabbinical precedents, could find no references in rabbinical or Biblical sources for how to live in and how to cope with the very idea of a secularly-governed, democratic, sovereign, modern, Jewish nation-state.


To Ben Gurion, the plight of the religious Zionists was a non-issue and of little concern. Like so many secular, rationalist humanists before and after him, he could not conceive of the importance individuals can place on religious spiritualism, mysticism and messianism. Moreover, at the time, religious Zionism was at its weakest point ever. Large numbers of young people who had been brought up in religious homes were abandoning a religious lifestyle for a secular one, especially after serving in the army.


As well, the chief rabbinate had become beset by divisions and fights for position and status and had thus become ever-less relevant to the bulk of the country’s population. Even religious Zionism’s flagship institution, Yeshivat Mercaz Harav, the yeshiva that had been founded by Chief Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook, was in danger of closing its doors for want of both funds and students.


Very quickly, however, the situation began to change. Throughout his career, Ben Gurion’s single-minded concern had been state-building. Any problem involving what he believed to be religious clap-trap should be dealt with quickly and then forgotten. That emphasis on short-term responses to what were existential religious questions, however, was to have long-term consequences. Probably the first important change in the situation came with his decision to sign the so-called “status quo agreement” that was supposed to formalize the relationship between religion and state.

From that moment on, the religious parties, for the first time, were handed a safe haven in the form of a huge, taxpayer-financed religious bureaucracy that has since become one of the largest centers for state-funded patronage in the country. The newly-created positions in the Ministry of Religion and the Chief Rabbinate, and through them in the religious courts, the local religious councils, the slaughterhouses, the state-funded synagogues and the state-sponsored religious schools have enabled otherwise unemployable rabbis and religious functionaries, some of whom who are opposed to modernity and even the secular nation-state, to become tenured civil servants protected by the secularist, modernist Histadrut.


The first and ultimately the decisive battle within the Mizrahi Movement’s two original political parties, the bourgeois Mizrahi Party and the socialist Poalei Mizrahi party (which eventually united to form the National Religious Party) was over which group within the Movement would be the party’s source of authority—the rabbis or the laymen. Until the 1950s, the lay politicians had formulated policy, and had then had those policies vetted by the rabbis.


But that would soon change.


One major problem the Movement faced was that the advocacy-based, modern system of parliamentary governance demands that a party speak with a single voice. However, so long as they continued to allow many voices to speak, the Orthodox religious parties were never able to speak as one. That was because, in keeping with Jewish tradition, all the party’s ordained rabbis were considered to be equal in authority to all other rabbis—and they had different positions on a whole range of issues. And, as I mentioned, the laymen had always been considered more equal than the rabbis when it came to formulating responses to matters of public policy. It is worth noting that there were not even any reserved places for rabbis on these parties’ Central Committees.


For these reasons, between 1951 and 1961, the religious Zionist movement refused to hold internal elections, preferring to paper over internal differences through power-sharing between the various factions.


However, it is a general rule in politics that this form of super-stability cannot exist for long, and inevitably leads to an explosion, during which new, fully-independent parties are formed; or a revolution breaks out, after which one faction takes control.


A major problem the rabbis faced was that, because of their divisions and power-plays, they were all too often incapable of coming up with any joint, binding decisions that were of relevance to the pressing theological questions that had been raised by the creation of the state. As the Modern Orthodox Chief Chaplain of the army at the time, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, put it “The Rabbinate so far has not awakened to the fact that there is a Jewish state and that halakha must be brought up to date to make the state viable[1].”


A significant turning point was the passage of the State Education Law in 1953. For the first time, the religious Zionists were finally given a warrant and state funding to set up their own, separate school system. The religious Zionists then had to decide what would be the organizational structure and the content of the studies in these schools.


Up to that time, the ideal of modern religious Zionism had been encapsulated by the social ideals of Hapoel HaMizrahi, especially as expressed in the life being led on the religious kibbutzim, which combined physical labor, land settlement, an open dialogue with secularists, and an almost pure expression of democratic governance. For example, it is noteworthy that religious kibbutzim would only allow rabbis to become members if they were also willing to work as equals in the cowsheds; and isolation from the majority, secular population and the social problems the fledgling state was facing were considered anathema.


With the establishment of the national religious school system, though, a new power base emerged overnight. Within months, power, influence, and state funding began to shift to the rabbis who were chosen to become the school principals and the heads of the yeshivas. The national religious camp was about to move to a more Haredi-style form of internal governance. All that was missing was a recognized posek who could expound a dogma that would finally resolve the movement’s exhausting paradoxes.


For many of the newly-appointed educators, the War of Independence had been a traumatic event. As I have noted, religious soldiers who had encountered secularism for the first time during their army service, had abandoned formal religion by the thousands. In response, once the separate school network was set up, the religious educators sought to create an educational system that would act as an antidote to the seductions of secularism. This meant not only building a school system, but also strengthening the Bnei Akiva youth movement so that the students would also spend most of their free hours in a religious environment.


One of the first decisions the educators and the politicians made was to establish more gender-separated, religious boarding high schools, in which, as in the Haredi yeshivas, Torah study was idealized, the study of humanistic subjects was downgraded, and every moment of every student’s time could and would be controlled.


Three problems arose almost immediately, particularly after the wave of immigration from Asian and African countries had begun in earnest. First, although they proclaimed themselves to be a bridge between the secular and the Haredim, the Orthodox religious Zionists’ self-felt need to focus primarily on religious subjects led them to all but ignore the history and thought of the Enlightenment period when preparing school curricula. Thus, not only did the students in their school system not learn the intellectual tools that had developed during that crucial period, the graduates of the system ended up lacking a basic understanding of the ideas that were driving the thoughts of both their own, aging, European-educated lay leaders and the secular citizens around them.


Second, there were simply not enough trained teachers whom the school administrators could call upon to fill the newly-established positions that had been created as a result of the huge growth in the state religious school system; and there were not enough rabbis to man the synagogues in newly-built outlying settlements. The only large stocks of teachers and rabbis available were the products of the Haredi yeshivas. The need to employ these teachers then resulted in greater attention to religious practice, the study of religious texts and increased intolerance of deviancy among the graduates of these state religious schools.


The third problem would result in new forms of leakage. Having now greatly expanded their pre-state school system, the Mizrahi political leadership had to decide how religion should be taught. The Mizrahi movement perceived itself to be a bridge not only between the Haredim and the secular, but also between Ashkenazi and ethnic Mizrahi religious groups. For that reason, the religious Zionists had demanded and had received permission to have first rights to attract ethnic Mizrahi youngsters to their schools. However, the Ashkenazim and the Mizrahim have always had a fundamentally different approach to preserving the tradition. Ashkenazi orthodoxy passes on its tradition through the study of texts, while Mizrahi and Sephardi societies put less emphasis on scholasticism and a greater emphasis on the use of family activities, social persuasion and verbal messaging as a means of preserving and passing on beliefs.


Once the boarding schools were established, and precisely because they were such a closed environment, they began to attract the best text-oriented teachers. Those teachers then attracted the students of the most established families—particularly the religious, established Ashkenazi bourgeois, who could afford the additional costs of such schooling. Very quickly, many of these boarding schools became elitist, Ashkenazi strongholds, while the regular, less-well-taught urban and rural schools became populated primarily by Mizrahi immigrants. This elitism would then lead to two phenomena.


Some of the best young scholars leaked out of the fold and chose to pursue their advanced studies in Haredi yeshivas.


And resentful lower class Mizrahim, who, in any case, viewed the Ashkenazi religious Zionist elite as the handmaidens of the hated labor movement, began to leak out first to the secular Revisionist camp, and later to Shas—once Shas became established as a Mizrahi alternative to both Agudat Yisrael and the NRP.


In other words, by that time, by the mid-1960s, the NRP had become more concerned with the level of religious practice and religious learning of its constituents than with the serious social problem that they had created. The party had taken first dibs on these immigrants, but they had not followed through and had failed to give these children the education they needed.


Leakage to the secular camp, however, was always perceived to be the greater threat. For that reason, an ever-growing emphasis was put on controlling adolescents’ free time—especially during the transition period between high school and the army. Unlike the Haredim, the religious Zionists could not reject compulsory military service, because to do so would have put them outside their self-perceived image of being part of the Zionist mainstream. This decision to opt for control, isolation and a narrowing of the areas open for public discussion, instead of equipping the youngsters with the rationalist intellectual tools needed to confront the challenges of secularism (as had been the case with their elders), was to have profound repercussions.


The first was that the yeshiva heads gained an almost monopolistic influence over Orthodox youngsters at the most crucial time in the adolescents’ lives. It not only isolated the students from interaction with their secular peers, it also distanced them from their homes, the realities their families were coping with, and, often, the religious moderation and tolerance their parents had adopted.


As often occurs in such an intellectually-incestuous environment, irrationality and a sense of elitism began to take hold. Worldly issues that were not directly related to the society of Torah learners were ignored. Concerns about how Jews could be both modern and innovative in thought and orthodox in religious practice began to fall by the wayside.


What was missing, though, was a common dogma which could unite the increasingly powerful rabbis.


It was at this point that a minor rabbi, working in a decrepit yeshiva, began to gain influence until his radical dogmas became conventional wisdom among most religious Zionists, and he would become the guru/posek for most of the religious Zionist movement.


Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook (1891-1982) was the scion of the great religious leader of the early Zionist period, Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook (1865-1935). Today, most of the religious Zionists claim that they are followers of both the father and the son. However, by doing so, they conflate what are two very different approaches to Zionism. What the younger Kook did was to take a kernel of his father’s ideas and then build up an entire political theology that was almost the antithesis of his father’s beliefs.


Probably the greatest of the differences between the two was that the Latvian-born, elder Kook was a European-educated universalist, a Hegelian by predisposition, who placed an emphasis on Jews’ obligations to all mankind. He thus warned against the moral dangers of narrow nationalism.


By contrast, and contrary to what had long been Zionist dogma, even within the religious camp, the younger Kook was a fervent, nationalist isolationist. He asserted that the Jews were a nation whom God had set apart; and that the pursuit of “normality,” as Ben Gurion had directed, was illusory. In other words, while his foreign-influenced father had stressed values he had learned in Europe and as a full-fledged member of the ruling Zionist establishment, the younger Kook’s teachings were the product of an extreme xenophobic reaction of a native-raised, if not native-born son, who had sequestered himself in a closed yeshiva environment, and who understood little about and cared little about modern Western secular thought or practice.


Both men were mystic messianists. However, while the father had believed that holiness was a potential latent in the Jewish people, his son took the holiness of the Jews to be an operative fact.


This may seem to be an abstruse difference in positions by the two men, but it had enormous practical consequences. The younger Kook argued that since the Jewish people was holy, it was duty-bound to pursue redemption and to take part in the process of redemption in every way possible. Since the return of the Jews to the Holy Land was part of the process of redemption, Jews were duty bound to take an active role in settling all of the Biblical Land of Israel if the process was to proceed at the fastest pace possible. In effect, he took Labor’s 1930s secular political dogma that held that settling the land was the path to national redemption, and made it into a halacha.


His combined emphasis on increased piety through a rigid adherence to religious practice, settlement activism and land worship though, enabled him to do the seemingly impossible—to combine into a seemingly seamless whole religious messianism and the romantic secular nationalism of the Revisionists and many of those in the Labor Movement.


The end product, a dogma that can only be described as an elitist, isolationist, super-Zionism, or even hyper-Zionism, would become the Mizrahi movement’s official resolution of the paradoxes it had faced since its founding.


Among other things, the younger Kook’s message also finessed the issue of whether the law should reflect life or act as a filter for life. To him, man-made law only had validity if it served a purpose in the process of redemption. If it appeared to delay redemption, it had no value. In other words, Kook’s dogmas appeared, literally, to have been made in heaven because they appeared to be an escape from the need to resolve the central issues that Modern Zionist Orthodoxy had had to confront from its inception. Redemption through settlement would provide the solution to how to deal with all these problems—and so all the other social, economic, religious and political issues the country faced could simply be ignored.


The Kookists, though, remained a distinct minority in the religious Zionist camp for a long time. When the younger Kook’s followers rose up in rebellion against their elders in the National Religious party in 1963-64 during the party’s internal elections, their revolt was put down. They had not yet attracted a critical mass of followers.


1964-65, however, saw a turning point in the evolution of national religious doctrine and practice. In that year, the aging Chief Rabbi Isser Yehuda Unterman, in a total reversal of established religious Zionist policy, declared that, henceforth, all the policy decisions of the National Religious party would have to be vetted first by the rabbis. By that, he apparently assumed that it was he himself who would automatically become the great posek. In effect, his declaration amounted to an announcement that the NRP had undergone a coup. Democracy had ended. And he had taken charge.


But that was not to be. Unterman had failed to take into account the shift in power to the yeshiva heads.


Among the first to realize the true significance of and to accept Unterman’s argument—and to expand on it—was Rabbi Avraham Shapira[2], who, however, just happened to be a devoted follower of the younger Kook. To Shapira and his students at Yeshivat Mercaz Harav, Unterman’s proposition was basically correct. Their only qualm was that it was Kook who should become the ultimate arbiter.


Two decades earlier, such an open challenge to the existing authorities would merely have been papered over. However, by this time, Kook’s followers had already spread through the school system and were able to influence their pupils, who, in turn were able to influence their parents.


Shapira, who would later become both Chief Rabbi and head of the Mercaz Harav yeshiva upon Kook’s death, went even further than Unterman had. He argued that halakha was not just relevant to, but should form the basis of all policy decisions. For that reason, rabbinical rulings on public policy should have the same status as those on religious matters; and those public policy rulings should be binding on all religiously observant Jews.


In other words, the lay leadership should be demoted to the status of being rabbis’ functionaries, as had been the case with the Haredim. No less importantly, henceforth, almost all the NRP’s political initiatives would originate from amongst the graduates of Yeshivat Mercaz Harav, and the core activists would be drawn from the students of the teachers that followed the Kookist line. This claim to rabbinical supremacy in policy-making then set the stage for the creation of the Hardali movement, which, in effect is Haredi-style nationalism.

By the mid-1970s, the Kookists, led by the NRP’s youth faction, had pulled off a coup and had taken control of the party. While, initially, a few figureheads of the old guard, such as Yosef Burg were allowed to remain on the party list, by 1981, a majority of those elected to the Knesset were fervent Kookists.


By then, another phenomenon that had begun to take root in the late 1960s, had begun to sprout. In 1965, the Orthodox religious Zionist rabbis, led by Kook’s followers, had begun to extend their influence by moving a part of their enclave into the bastion of Israeli mainstreamism and of the state’s self-identity—the army. It was that decision that would provide the organizational framework for the dramatic changes that would soon take place in both the NRPs system of internal governance and in its approach to Israeli society as a whole.


In particular, the decision completed the process of establishing what has amounted to a second religious state within the state, alongside the one already formed by the Haredim. By creating an army within the army, the rabbis began the process that has turned Israel into a full-fledged, de facto federated state.


The rabbis’ decision to insert themselves into the military, and to retain their graduates’ dependency on them even after the students had graduated from high school, was the culmination of what had, again, been a long process.

Because this process has had such an enormous impact on Israeli life, it is a story that is worth relating in considerable depth. Amongst other things, the narrative includes the establishment of the settlements in the occupied territories, the attempt to dismantle the few sets of political and legal checks and balances Israel has, and the ultimate reaction to these actions by the Israeli secular and religious rationalists.


The basic story of how and why the rabbis and the young, grassroots mystic/romantics succeeded in turning the army into a base of operations is quite simple. In the late 1950s, the national religious rabbis had set up a program called the mechina (preparation), under which students from the religious Zionist high schools had begun spending a full year in Torah studies at yeshivot prior to their undertaking their compulsory army service. At the time, there were very few religious military officers, in part, because the religious conscripts feared that full-time military service might lead them to contravene religious laws, such as those that forbid work on the Sabbath. The rabbis of the time felt that their charges needed a period of spiritual strengthening before these youngsters faced the challenges (some believed the battering) of secularism. That mechina year, however, failed to staunch the leakage by many of these youngsters into secular society.


As a result, in 1964, the Orthodox religious Zionists decided to persuade the army to establish a new, separate, framework for religious men—modeled to some extent on the well-established Nahal program—that extended the mechina program beyond recognition. At the time, the Nahal program was considered to be the idealized form of Zionist expression for young people. The original Nahal program had been designed to combine military service with 1930s-style “pioneering” work—which usually meant establishing new border settlements or working to strengthen weak ones that had already been established. The conscripts served a regular term as soldiers, plus an additional year as farmers. The religious kibbutzim had a similar program, under which the recruits served a full term as soldiers and also studied at a yeshiva in Kibbutz Ein Tzurim for several years.


Under the new program, labeled “Yeshivot Hesder,” Orthodox men were to combine military service, not with agricultural labor, but with religious learning. In other words, for the first time, and contrary to all of Labour’s dogmas, Torah learning was given official sanction as a Zionist equivalent to physical labor. Moreover, unlike the Nahal recruits and those from the religious kibbutzim, they would serve less time as soldiers in the field.


Beginning with one yeshiva and 30 students, the program has grown to include 51 yeshivas and more than 10,000 students—roughly 40 percent of all national religious conscripts. Significantly, most of the Hesder yeshiva heads have been graduates of Yeshivat Mercaz Harav—or have been followers of Zvi Yehuda Kook.

Once the Hesder program had become well-established, the process of enclaving the religious nationalist youngsters up to the age of 23 or more had been more or less completed. As well, the system ensured that all of them would be indoctrinated with the younger Kook’s doctrines. Under the 5-year program, the conscripts first spend a mechina year in the cloistered environment of a yeshiva “strengthening” their beliefs. They then appear at the recruiting centers as a group and are processed and undergo basic training in their own company-sized formations. Their actual army service lasts only 16 months, as compared with the three years spent by other recruits.


Initially, the army was pleased with the results. The conscripts begin basic training with a high degree of group camaraderie and unit cohesion, because the platoons are made up of like-minded individuals who have already established ties of comradeship in the yeshiva—a significant plus in military terms. Moreover, the “buddy” system of learning in yeshivot encourages mutual support and understanding between youngsters suddenly facing enormous pressures. For the most part, these soldiers have turned out to be highly-motivated, brave and disciplined.


However, weaknesses in the system soon began to appear; and the fallout from those weaknesses has affected both the army and the society at large. Because of their restricted timetables, the Hesder recruits can only be assigned to certain units. Since these conscripts serve only 16 months, and 10 months of that must be taken up with basic and advanced training, the soldiers only put in 6 months of actual front-line service. This means that they often cannot be integrated into regular formations that need extra time to train and coordinate their field operations.


Another negative is that the Israeli military is now using an increasing quantity of highly-sophisticated, high-tech equipment, which requires longer and more-practiced field exercises if full use is to be made of the materièl. Interruption in that training for yeshiva studies means that lessons are often easily forgotten. Moreover, soldiers’ physical fitness and battle-readiness are also affected because Torah study is essentially a sedentary activity[3].


In all armies, conscripts are usually isolated on their bases from all other outside influences, at least until they are socialized into the world of rigid military hierarchies, and until the recruits from different backgrounds are forged into a single, trusting fighting unit. That is true in Israel as well—except for Hesder units, where the Kookist yeshiva rabbis establish close ties of dependency with the recruits prior to their service and are given almost unimpeded access to recruits even after basic training begins. Moreover, the yeshivot are free to send the recruits leaflets, many of which, while written as Talmudic and Biblical discourses, are often heavily laden with partisan political messages as well.


The challenge that these 19 or 20 year olds then face is that they become caught in the unenviable position of having to serve three masters—or, more accurately, to accept three different and often warring sources of authority. The orthodox recruit is expected to obey his commanding officers, carry out the orders of the government (which may veto purely military-based proposals for diplomatic or domestic political reasons), and to defer to rabbis who have become increasingly politically active. As Stuart Cohen has pointed out “Compelled to divide his energies and loyalties between two very ‘greedy’ institutions [the military and the yeshiva], the conscript runs the risk of failure at his inability to satisfy the highest demands of either[4].”


No less importantly, he eventually has to choose who will be his ultimate source of authority.


The kinds of tensions created by a divided source of authority escalated geometrically when the government decided in 2005 to evacuate Gaza, leading many of the senior rabbis, led by former Chief Rabbi Avraham Shapira, to call on the soldiers to disobey orders. In other words, he declared that the rabbis should be the ultimate source of authority in the state. In practice, the individual soldiers were then caught having to obey and to serve not just three bosses, but also to confront the massive power of three state-supported hierarchical institutions that had come into open conflict.


On a more general level, the rabbi’s call to disobedience also demolished two major principles that had once been bedrock beliefs in the Mizrahi movement. The first was that while a soldier should have freedom of expression in the area of religious ritual while serving in the military, (such as keeping Shabbat), unless there was an operational necessity not to, that freedom to choose did not extent to disobeying orders that may have contravened political beliefs that were the product of those religious beliefs. In other words, directives issued to the army by a legitimate government should be carried out unless they are prima facie immoral.


If Halacha required political change it should be done incrementally and through the system.


Second, and even more worrisome, according to Shapira, in essence, henceforth, while Orthodox religious Zionism accepted the idea of a democratic state in word and in theory, it could take an adversarial stand with regard to the institutions that that state had established. In other words, religious Jews could accept the idea of a state in principle, but they were also free to undermine the activities of the institutions that the legitimate government had established to carry out its policies.


And now we have seen that position taken further by some rabbis who claim that soldiers must accept the authority of rabbis who are not even part of the military framework. In other words, they are demolishing what little Israelis have of a national social contract—that everyone must serve in the military and follow the same chain of command.


Understanding the damage that had been done both to the army and to society at large, the former Head of Manpower at the General Staff, Maj. Gen. Elazar Stern, himself a graduate of the Hesder program and a resident of a settlement in the West Bank, launched a campaign in 2007 to try eliminate the segregated religious-only paratrooper and armored corps units. However, the power that the rabbis were able to wield by this point was so great that Stern failed.


The issues that had caused Stern to try to launch his reform, however, did not go away. In fact, they became ever more salient. The story of the Kfir Brigade is a case in point. The brigade was formed in 2005 when six independent infantry battalions that had specialized in urban warfare, counterinsurgency and policing the occupied territories were combined to create a single unit.


From the outset, the brigade was unusual in many ways. Unlike the other infantry brigades, it has six battalions (including one for Haredi yeshiva drop-outs), instead of the usual four. Unlike the other infantry brigades, it spends almost its entire time in West Bank and is rarely rotated out for service on the Lebanese border, the Golan Heights, or the boundary with Gaza. And, not unsurprisingly, a disproportionate number of the members of this largely-volunteer unit have come from amongst the settlers on the West Bank and/or the Hesder yeshivas.


The unit is particularly inviting place for the Hesder students because these soldiers can serve close to home, the length of training they require is limited, and they can easily be inserted into the many battalions for relatively short periods without the overall effectiveness of the brigade being affected.


However, within a relatively short time, the inherent weaknesses of a military unit made up primarily of like-minded soldiers began to appear. In August 2007, soldiers from the Duhifat battalion were ordered to go to Hebron to provide perimeter security for the police, who were planning to evacuate settlers from a home that settlers had taken over illegally. Twelve of the soldiers refused to climb aboard the bus.


In October 2009, a group of soldiers from the Shimshon battalion, who were being sworn in, pulled out a banner during the ceremony, which read “Shimshon does not evacuate Homesh,” (a reference to a settlement that had been evacuated in 2005). A month later, several soldiers from the Nachshon battalion raised a banner on their base reading: “Nachshon does not expel” [settlers]. All the soldiers involved in these acts of insubordination had come from Hesder yeshivot.


The Hesder Yeshivot Administration condemned the insubordination, but these incidents highlighted a growing split among the Modern Orthodox rabbis over the basic issue of who should have final authority over the soldiers—the General Staff acting under instructions from the democratically-elected government, or the yeshiva rabbis who are also paid by the state. In other words, the situation had degenerated into a straight power play for control of the hearts and minds of the conscript soldiers.


For example, the head of the Hesder yeshiva in the West Bank settlement of Elon Moreh, Rabbi Elyakim Levanon, supported the soldier-protestors. “Defending citizens, not evacuating Jewish settlements, is the IDF’ job,” Levanon asserted. In a burst of self-contradictory irony to which he seemed oblivious, he added that “Using the IDF to expel Jews is a blatant politicization of the IDF and it must be stopped.”[5]…As though his position was not politically-based.


Although there were calls to close down the yeshivas in which the disobedient soldiers had studied, and Stern publicly warned of the danger of turning the IDF into “an army of militias[6],” only the Har Braha yeshiva was eventually punished, but no punishments were meted out to the other rabbis or the yeshivas that supported the insubordination.”


It is important to remember that by the time of Stern’s defeat, the Orthodox religious Zionists had already lost control over the Chief Rabbinate and many of the religious councils to the Haredim. It had also lost a major source of employment for its functionaries as much of the kashrut supervision had also fallen into the hands of the ultra-Orthodox. As well, for all intents and purposes, it had given up on outreach to the secular public. In other words, it had lost both much of its raison d’être and its institutional base.


For example, once they seized control over the religious courts (which must approve all Jewish marriages), the Haredim had imposed compulsory marriage counseling for all young couples wishing to marry. As part of that counseling, each couple is given a brochure that, among other things, compares women to “clay” and urges the husband to “shape and mold her as he pleases.” The Orthodox religious Zionists may have realized the impact that such recommendations would have on secular Jews’ perceptions of religion, but they issued nary a peep of protest.


The single-minded belief in settlement as the antidote to the existential intellectual problems they had to face had led the Orthodox rabbis down a dead-end street. And they had no Plan B.


In the end, the Orthodox religious Zionist rabbis have been demeaned by the Haredim and the secular public alike. Probably the greatest body blow came when the conversions to Judaism by one of the movement’s senior leaders, Rabbi Haim Druckman, were declared invalid by a Haredi religious court judge.


The movement that had sought to position itself within the Zionist mainstream as a bridge between the secular and Haredi worlds and had made a brave effort to find a moral and intellectual base in modernism, now found itself positioned off to the side, enclaved, divided and largely irrelevant to the rest of the Israeli public.


Probably the best example was the furor created by Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, the head of the hesder yeshiva in Har Bracha. He supported insubordination on the part soldiers if this meant evacuating settlers—even from illegal settlements. The Hesder rabbis, feeling that their power as a bloc was being threatened, condemned political demonstrations while soldiers were in uniform, but they failed to address the central issues—the same ones that had confounded the Orthodox Zionist movement since its inception: Who should be the country’s source of authority?—the rabbis, or the government as the elected representative of the citizenry; and should the law of the land be based on the will of the majority or the rabbis’ increasingly narrow interpretation of halacha.


It was at that moment that the Mizrahi movement, as it had been originally conceived, finally gave out its last breath. Interestingly, nobody that I saw posted an obituary in the media. Maybe, that was because by this time, the Kookist advocates had taught everyone that the issues Mizrahi’s founding fathers had worked so hard to resolve, simply weren’t worth all the effort they had put in.


If that is the case, we have been witnessing what is truly a national tragedy; and all Israelis are  the poorer for the outcome.



[1] Jerusalem Post Weekly, Overseas Edition, March 20, 1964, p. 2

[2] This Avraham Shapira should not be confused with the former leader of Agudat Yisrael’s Knesset faction of the same name.

[3] Stuart A. Cohen, “The Hesder Yishivot in Israel: A church-state military arrangement,” Journal of Church and State, Vol. 35, No. 1, Winter  1993

[4] Ibid

[5] Matthew Wagner, “Rabbis grapple with IDF insubordination,” Jerusalem Post, November 18, 2009

[6] Elazar Stern, “Silence of the rabbis,” ynetnews.com, November 17, 2009

Iran: What’s Behind All the Verbiage?



The debate on what to do about Iran has become one of the most fascinating exercises in politicking that I have ever witnessed. Hardly a day goes by without someone leaking something about some aspect of the subject. At the same time, I certainly can’t recall a time when there was so much speculation about a subject about which almost everybody knows almost nothing of real import.


While most people have been focused on whether Israel will attack, so many other issues have arisen as a result of the debate that it has also become a snapshot of the state of the Israel’s self-governance.


In past talks, I have often counseled that people should look at the forest and not just the trees because we tend to focus on individual events and ignore much more important processes that are underway. But, this time because we have become fixated only on the broad issue of whether Israel should attack Iran unilaterally, I would like to do the very opposite and look at some the individual trees that have sprouted in recent months. That is because, as the old saw goes, “the devil is in the details;” and there are too many details that are available that have been ignored or forgotten about.


If one looks, even for just a moment, at how the public debate on whether to attack has developed, one can see that Israelis have also been going through a series of mini-debates on such wide-ranging subjects as what constitutes an “existential” threat to the country, what subjects are fit for public debate, what is the function of the press in the age of the internet, what is the role of “elder statesmen” in Israeli society, how accurate are intelligence assessments, how far can Israeli politicians be trusted to keep their mouths shut when it matters, and how much dissimulation and spin can any society tolerate and still maintain its sanity?


Obviously I can’t deal with all these subjects in one go, but I want to use this forum to try to examine at least some of them…and some others that haven’t been discussed at all.


In order to do that, though, I first have to review what set off the debate in the first place. Until Netanyahu was elected three years ago, most of Israel’s efforts to get the world to confront the potential Iranian nuclear threat had focused on back-room diplomacy. Netanyahu, however, made the strategic decision immediately after his election to “go public” with the issue using the world media.


This effort has been spectacularly successful. However, he is now also having to confront a lot of the fall-out from his decision—and he’s not very happy about that. For some unknown reason, this man, whom many are convinced is an expert in communications, seems to have believed that if you make an issue the centre of almost all your remarks to the media, you can also, somehow, control what everyone else may say in response to the media—and that includes the president of the state, Simon Peres, and one of his predecessors, Yitzchak Navon.


For example, it should not be at all surprising that, among the first people to appear on the scene were the fact-checkers and the reality-checkers.


Take Netanyahu’s banner for this campaign to attack Iran. It is Menachem Begin’s decision in 1981 to attack Iraq’s Osirak nuclear site. Netanyahu and his flaks have claimed that because of that attack, Iraq gave up its nuclear programme. The trouble with this claim is that the very opposite was true.


According to the former head of the Mossad, Ephraim Halevy, who was very deeply involved in assessing Iraq’s behaviour at the time, Osirak posed no real threat to Israel because the French-designed reactor could not be used for producing weapons.


However, almost immediately after the reactor was destroyed, Saddam Hussein launched a three-part programme to produce nuclear weapons. Shimon Peres has confirmed that one part was the planning for the construction of cascades of centrifuges to produce highly-enriched uranium that could have been used in bomb-making.


The Iraqi nuclear project only ended with the American invasion in 1991.


Another example has been Netanyahu’s claim that Israel is facing a nuclear Holocaust. Again, the spinmeisters have gotten ahead of the facts. As Maj. Gen Yitzhak Ben Yisrael, arguably the country’s leading military scientist, has pointed out, as a result of a study that he has undertaken, he has come to the conclusion that an atomic bomb on Tel Aviv would probably kill 23,000 people. That’s a lot, especially considering that Israel has lost only about 20,000 people in all its wars—and, if a bomb were dropped many more would be affected by radiation fallout. But, objectively, the total number still does not represent an existential threat to the country as Netanyahu has claimed.


A third example of reality checking has been the debate over whether Israel actually has the capacity to inflict enough damage on the Iranian nuclear project to set it back by more than a couple of years. In the wake of the Six-Day and Yom Kippur wars, Israel promoted an image of itself as militarily invincible. And yet, one of the main reasons why so many former military officials have come out against a unilateral attack on Iran is that they believe that Israel, for all it military prowess, is still a very small country, facing a large, dedicated and well-equipped enemy 1500 kilometers away, and so does not have the capacity to knock out Iran’s nuclear programme completely.


Brig. Gen. Moshe “Chico” Tamir, a highly decorated soldier and the former commander of the Gaza front goes even further. He has noted that Israel’s entire military doctrine was formulated in the wake of the Yom Kippur War. That doctrine stated that the primary task of the IDF is to prepare for a major tank battle between states.


While the doctrine has been tinkered with, for example in the wake of the Intifada, it has never been totally reassessed to take into account the huge changes that have take place in regional warfare in recent years. And that was one of the reasons for the IDF’s abysmal performance during the Second Lebanese War.


With comments such as these, it is, therefore, no wonder that Netanyahu’s flaks keep trying to shut down former military officers’ and intelligence analysts’ participation in the debate.




As a result of Netanyahu’s decision to use the world media as a verbal guerilla battlefield, the Americans have launched the equivalent of a verbal counter-insurgency campaign. Leaks and formal statements from Washington have been coming so thick and so fast that it often appears as though the media—especially in Washington, but also in Israel—are being bombarded by cluster bombs of real facts, half-truths, and outright lies.


This has meant that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama are now engaged in what is arguably the most extensive spin and propaganda war since the Cold War ended.


So, the next stage in this analysis will examine who these verbal bombs are directed at.


Contrary to public impressions, Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak cannot order a full-scale attack on Iran. The same is true for the 8 man “Inner Cabinet” and the 14 member “Defence Cabinet.” Unlike the United States, where the President is the commander in chief of the armed forces, according to Israeli law, only the full cabinet is permitted to launch an attack that could lead to full-scale war.

One reason for the confusion over who can do what is the fact that the Ministerial Defence Committee can order what is called an “operation” that has limited aims and is needed to respond to an immediate threat. But it cannot order an all-out war. For example, the one-off raid on the Syrian reactor was ordered only by the Ministerial Defence Committee.


There is now a fear among some, though, that Netanyahu may take the decision on whether to attack Iran to a small decision-making forum by labelling the assault an “operation,” or by asking the full cabinet to transfer responsibility for deciding on whether to attack to the Inner Cabinet. That may be the reason for his recent attempt at trying to delegitimize the Defence Cabinet by claiming that it cannot keep secrets. The fact that the so-called “leaks” from the cabinet had nothing new in them did nothing to faze Netanyahu.


That is also why a group of civilian activists have now petitioned the Supreme Court to come out with a declaration that the whole cabinet must make the decision on whether to attack Iran. It also explains why Barak has also been going out of his way to declare that the decision on whether to attack will be taken by the cabinet as a whole.


And so now the plot begins to thicken. The current leaks from Washington and Jerusalem, as well as the open national debate, have all been directed at setting the cabinet’s agenda for making such a decision. And clearly, the critics have found fertile ground. Polls have shown that both Bibi’s popularity and the public’s perception of the country’s politicians are at an all-time low. Therefore, it appears that a significant portion of the public wants to ensure that there are different voices represented when the decision is made.


In very general terms, the US effort has been directed at indirectly influencing the cabinet by shaping Israeli public opinion, while Netanyahu has focused primarily on rallying his ministers directly.


The Americans have been using a combination of stick and carrots. As part of this campaign, Washington has leaked sticks such as news items that Azerbaijan will not permit Israeli bombers or rescue helicopters to land on its territory and that the Saudis will shoot down any Israeli aircraft that enters its airspace. The carrots have included revelations that the US and Israel cooperated on developing cyber weapons such as the Stuxnet and Flame computer viruses that attacked Iran’s nuclear sites, the allocation of more American military aid including money to station more Iron Dome anti-rocket systems, and promises never to allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons.


This has not placated Netanyahu, who is now pressing for heavier sanctions and a public pronouncement from the White House what its so-called “red lines” are. How Netanyahu ever expected that a president, running for reelection, would commit his country to a set of dramatic actions in the indefinite future when no one knows what else will be going on in the world at that time—or even who the next president would be—is, however, beyond me.


Surprisingly, one thing that has been missing from Netanyahu’s demands is a statement by Obama that he actually cares about Israel’s fate. I have found over the years that it matters a great deal to the Israeli public whether a foreign politician who offers advice to this country can show that he or she actually cares about this country’s future. And so Washington’s failure to initiate a statement that can be perceived in that way has had a profound effect on the Israelis public’s interpretation of all the verbiage coming out of the US capital. But maybe that is precisely what Netanyahu wants. He may very well want to project an image of Obama as a cold-hearted bastard.


By contrast, Netanyahu and Barak have focused their leaks and public remarks at responding to domestic criticisms of such an attack. Most of those criticisms highlight the potential dangers involved and the belief that Israel should not take on a task that is the world’s responsibility.


Most of the criticisms have dealt with things that anyone living in Israel can know. The critics, for example, have discussed in exhaustive detail what the relation with Washington means for Israel strategically. And we have also heard and read extensive assessments of Israel’s capacity, or the lack thereof to defend civilians in case of a mass missile attack.


In response, the IDF has been issuing a stream of announcements and videos highlighting improvements made in early-warning radar systems and the use of helicopters.


But, if we are being honest, probably no more than a dozen people in Israel know what the country’s true defensive and offensive capability is.


So, as I just mentioned, Netanyahu’s domestic critics, recognizing that all of Israel’s recent wars have been followed by judicial commissions of inquiry into political and military incompetence, have been trying to ensure that every subject related to a decision to go to war will be discussed in depth so that no minister can claim post-facto that no one thought of raising this or that issue.


Therefore, even before an attack, we can expect a protracted cabinet debate. Prior to the Six-Day War, for example, it took the cabinet 3 weeks of intense, non-stop debate before the opening attack was authorized. And keep in mind that the cabinet debate this time has not yet even begun.


In order to understand how that ministerial debate will shape up, it is also essential to understand the procedures that have been put in place over the years for making such a decision.


Setting the Strategic Objective:


Even before the issue comes before the cabinet, there has to be a decision on what the final objective should be—and no less importantly, what the exit strategy will be.


Netanyahu has ordered his diplomats to demand that the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, who are conducting the negotiations with the Iranians and are known as the P5+1, demand such things as a total shutdown of Iran’s nuclear enrichment capacity, permanent international supervision of nuclear weapons-related sites, and the removal of all the enriched uranium from Iranian soil.


Barak’s immediate military objective, though, has been more limited. From all that he has said, it would appear that he has ordered the military to prepare plans for destroying enough of the Iranian nuclear infrastructure so that Iran’s weapons-making efforts will be set back by at least two years.


Barak’s argument has been that because of the turmoil throughout the Middle East even a small delay after an attack may have far-reaching consequences.


I therefore found it very strange the way the media played up US Chief of Staff Martin Dempsey’s remarks at his quickly-assembled press conference at the end of June 2012, when he argued that Israel shouldn’t attack Iran because it cannot destroy all of the Iranian nuclear infrastructure—a claim he repeated at the end of August.


By the way, I have also found it no less strange that the public debate has not included a discussion on how Israel intends to stop the fighting once it begins. After all, one can expect that the Iranians won’t simply sit back and not respond. Not only that, Israelis, after having gone through the first Lebanese war and its 18 year aftermath of bloody occupation in southern Lebanon, know what can happen when you start a war but can’t figure out how to end it.


But to get back to Dempsey. What the media missed out on when it came to Dempsey’s remarks was that he wasn’t using normal English. He was using a combination of American militarese and diplomatese to say “You shouldn’t bomb Iran because we say you shouldn’t.” Unspoken subtexts include the American elections, American fatigue at more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the need to cope with budget cuts for the American military because of the world economic crisis, and the decision by Obama to refocus the American military on the threat to America’s economic and political interests in the Pacific Basin…among other things.


At this point I have to digress a bit. It is clear that no Israeli plan on the scale imagined can be conducted without taking into account what the reaction of the United States will be, and whether, in the end, Washington will choose to act militarily as well. So, before I go any further, I have to talk a bit about an issue that has been totally absent from the public debate here, but is crucial to an understanding of what is going on.


That issue is this: We have heard a deluge of opinion and analysis about what Israel’s stakes are. But the Israeli media, and even the major American media outlets, have failed totally to explain what America’s stakes are, and what penalties it may suffer. There have been some often-repeated remarks about the potential rise in world oil prices, and the forms of violence that may break out. But there has been almost nothing in the media about the baggage the Americans carry with them into their discussions on whether to attack Iran.


So here is a very short précis of what some of those concerns are.


To begin with, after years of neo-con unilateralism under George W. Bush that led to both military and economic disaster, the Obama administration is committed to a policy of military multilateralism and the legitimization of any military action by the UN Security Council.


Of course, the Russians and the Chinese have stymied every American effort to involve the Security Council in this issue, so UN legitimization is a non-starter. As a result, before an American attack, a new way to get international approval will have to be found.


One forum for such approval could be NATO, because Europe may soon come under threat from Iranian missiles. However, while the Europeans have been willing to commit themselves to staged economic sanctions on Iran, they have been deeply opposed to actual military action against the mullahs. Their caution is understandable. The EU is in the midst of the worst economic crisis in its history. And wars are very expensive.


In Europe, military budgets have either stagnated or fallen over the past decade. For example, during that time, Germany’s military spending has fallen by nearly 4 percent, while Italy’s has shrunk by 21 percent. There is, therefore, no desire at all to raise these figures by engaging in a war with Iran now.


In other words, a war threat by the US, such as the one that Netanyahu has been seeking, would, perforce, commit the US to a return to its old policy of unilateral intervention that Obama has rejected.


And remember, the US is having its own economic problems. Most Israelis and even most Americans don’t realize that last year, even after it had begun its withdrawal from Iraq, the US still accounted for 41 percent of global military spending. That meant that its military spending, even after downsizing, was roughly the same as the next 14 countries combined.


And despite budget cuts, American military spending still takes up half of all the American budget’s discretionary spending—money that could otherwise go to reducing the humungous national debt or to other projects such as repairing the country’s crumbling infrastructure.


But that’s not all. The Americans’ current commitments to Israel and the Gulf States are already stretching the US navy to its limits. Among other things, the US has stationed two aircraft carrier battle groups in the Gulf area. This means, in effect, that 60 percent of the carrier strike fleet has already been committed to defend the Middle East against an Iranian attack. That is because for every carrier at sea, two others are tied up being resupplied, providing home leave or undergoing essential maintenance.


Any attack on Iran would undoubtedly have to be led by the navy, mainly because the Saudis are very reluctant to allow masses of Americans to be stationed on Saudi soil for fear that this will spark terror attacks by domestic jihadists. The US could station tactical aircraft in the Gulf States, but they would be vulnerable to Iran’s huge arsenal of short-range missiles.


There are currently 11 carriers, but one of them, the Enterprise, is about to be retired; and its replacement, is only scheduled to enter service in 2015. That means that there will be only 4-5 carriers available for duty elsewhere in the world. And, as Obama has said, with the growth of the Chinese navy and China’s increasingly assertive stance over ownership of isolated islands, national waters and deep sea mineral rights, America’s future military  planning has to focus on protecting US allies in the Pacific rim.


The Americans and their allies such as Japan and South Korea do have real reason to be concerned. China has been the biggest importer of arms during the past decade, and its overall military spending has risen by 170 percent in that time.


So, with those constraints in mind, let’s get back to how Israel will decide whether and when to attack Iran.


Agreeing on Tactical Means to Achieve the Objective:


Once the strategic objective has been set by the prime minister, the Israeli military then responds with a set of plans that are vetted by the prime minister and defence minister for their political, diplomatic and economic implications. The General Staff then makes whatever changes have been demanded and tests out these plans for their viability. Israel has spent more than a decade and billions of shekels on equipment and training for an Iranian attack and in making adjustments to the plans. For example, the Air Force increased the number of military exercises directed at training in in-air refuelling of aircraft and long-distance bombing runs.


It is because of this extended testing period that even recently-retired military intelligence and military officials’ assessments of Israel’ military capacity to wage war can break down… for the simple reason that they may not have a clue about some new and brilliant idea someone has come up with.


Cabinet Vetting:


The cabinet debate only begins in earnest after the Chief of Staff, and usually the Chief of the Air Force and Chief of Military Intelligence, appear before the cabinet, describe the plans that have been prepared, and then give an assessment of the likely chances of the plan succeeding (including the costs). Invariably, no decision on military action is made without the full backing of the Chief of Staff. Pundits too often point out that the decision to bomb the Osirak reactor was taken despite the intense opposition of such major political figures at the time as Ezer Weizman. What the pundits usually fail to note is that Begin did have the full backing of the then Chief of Staff, Raphael Eitan. At the moment, Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Benny Ganz’s position is not publicly known.


Cabinet Debate:


The cabinet debate then devolves into a discussion of the following issues:


  • Is there an alternative to war? Currently, the only alternatives that have been tried have been diplomatic negotiations and the application of economic sanctions. The diplomatic negotiations have so far failed, and the sanctions have yet to run their course and have the intended impact.


Netanyahu understands that he has been up against both his domestic and American critics who want to give the sanctions more time to have an effect. Therefore, he has been pushing Obama to increase the level of sanctions immediately. In particular, he wants the West to impose a ban on international transactions with Iran’s central bank. He argues that while the sanctions have imposed hardship on ordinary Iranians, they are having no impact on Iran’s nuclear weapons development plans.


Obama and the Europeans, though, have remained committed to staged increases in the sanctions in order, in part, to buy more time. Barak, therefore, is arguing that an attack now that results in a two year delay in Iran’s nuclear development programme, may eventually provide enough time for the sanctions to have the intended effect. A counter-argument, though, is that a wounded, but not defeated regime in Iran might then be able to rally the nation to support the building of a bomb as quickly as possible.


  • Does Israel have international backing? Israel has never before gone to war without at least a “yellow light” from a superpower. Netanyahu’s implied threat that Israel would attack Iran before the US elections (or possibly immediately after them) was a failed attempt to see if it could force the Obama administration to give the Israelis at least a grudging yellow light to go ahead with an assault.


  • What are the costs? The need to re-equip the military after the 1973 Yom Kippur War cost two years of GDP, 10 years of economic development and led to hyperinflation. This time, Israel has more than 75 billion dollars in foreign currency reserves and a debt to GDP ratio of about 72 percent. As well, most of the military costs are already sunk costs. In other words, the bombs and the equipment needed to launch an attack have already been purchased.


However, depending on Iran’s reaction to an attack, oil prices could skyrocket and the current economic crisis around the world could intensify and affect Israel too. Such a scenario could also lead to world-wide diplomatic condemnation of Israel, as the Europeans have already warned.


Even more importantly, though, there are at least three new potential costs that were never part of the cabinet’s calculus when wars were declared in the past. An Israeli attack could lead to the first cyberwar in history, with almost unimaginable results.


The Israeli heartland is now vulnerable to massive rocket and missile attacks from Iran, Lebanon, Gaza, and now the Sinai. An estimated thirty percent of Israelis have no access to bomb shelters and only 50 percent have gas masks.


Moreover, Iran has shown that it is willing to try to strike Israeli targets abroad using Hizbollah operatives, Iranian Revolutionary Guards special units and even mercenaries.


In response to the criticisms coming from ministers, Barak has estimated that there would be no more than five hundred civilian casualties in Israel, while Netanyahu has argued that the cost in lives now would be tiny when compared with the potential for a future nuclear Holocaust.


  • What will be Israel’s deterrent position if it does/does not go to war? Barak and Netanyahu fear that if Iran does get a nuclear weapon, not only will there be nuclear proliferation throughout the region, Iran will be able to use the nuclear threat to protect its proxies such as Hizbollah. Although US Defence Secretary Panetta has promised that the US will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, Israelis point out that Washington made the same promise with regard to Pakistan and North Korea.


It appears, though, that the most effective argument used so far with cabinet members has been that because Iran is now so advanced in protecting its nuclear facilities, if an attack is not launched soon, Israel, for the first time, will become dependent on the United States for its defence. It was for this reason that former US Middle East policy specialist Dennis Ross suggested that if the Obama administration wants to delay an Israeli decision on whether to attack, it should provide Israel with the kind of weaponry that would enable Israel to extend its waiting time.


One reason why that argument resonates so strongly is that, not only is Israel liable to lose a measure of its independence if it has to rely on direct American military force, there is a lack of trust between the two sides.


For example, in early July, Dempsey, announced unilaterally that Israel and the US would now be going ahead with the long-delayed joint military manoeuvres labelled “Austere Challenge 12.” There was no official, public confirmation of this fact from Israel until Time Magazine broke the story that the US would be cutting back on the number of American soldiers taking part in the exercise. And you should remember that Israel delayed this same exercise, which was originally supposed to have been held earlier this year, at least once.


Nonetheless, “Austere Challenge 12,” the largest joint war game ever held by the two countries, will still involve thousands of troops from both sides. It is designed to test the two nations’ anti-missile defence systems, and, according to Dempsey, will take place in “October or November”—just prior to or just after the US presidential elections.


Dempsey’s announcement can be interpreted in two ways—and he has done nothing to clarify which interpretation is more accurate.


A huge anti-missile exercise could have provided Israel with an unprecedented defence umbrella in the event of a mass missile attack on the country.


On the other hand, it would have been virtually impossible for Israel to launch an independent, surprise attack on Iran at that time. The Americans would have been in a position to spot any Israeli preparations for an assault, and the Israelis would have been loath to embarrass the Americans or disobey Washington’s wishes with so many American soldiers in the country. Significantly, the huge logistics operation required for manoeuvres of this type also meant that there would have been significant numbers of American troops on Israeli soil for weeks before and after the war games themselves.


Netanyahu’s decision to announce his “red line” for attacking Iran (Iran’s acquisition of 260 kilograms of uranium, processed to a level of 20 percent purity), has now enabled him to delay a decision on the issue. At Iran’s current processing rate, an assault most likely will not even be contemplated until after the Passover holidays in late March. Another reason is that during period from Mid-November to early April there is too much cloud cover over Iran for certain types of weapons such as laser-guided bombs to be effective.


But there is another unknown that could affect the decision. It is unclear at the moment whether Netanyahu will be able to pass the necessary austerity budget for next year. Normally, the budget is prepared by late June and is presented to the cabinet by early July so that it can be debated and passed by the cabinet by the Jewish New Year in September. This year, though, the budget has not yet even been fully formulated.


If the budget cannot be passed in cabinet by the time the Knesset reconvenes after the last holiday, Simchat Torah in October, Netanyahu will have only two choices—to call early elections immediately or to wait until the calendar year passes, and the budget can go on automatic pilot for 3 months…after which elections are called automatically. By law, the government is required to present a budget by November 1. However, there is no legal penalty for not doing so. The government also has the option of presenting a budget, but then allowing it to die in committee.


It is unlikely that an attack on Iran will be ordered during the interim period between the calling of an election and the balloting because any casualties might become the main subject of the election campaign. And, the former Minister for Homeland Defence, Matan Vilnai has warned that an attack on Iran might take as long as 30 days. That could mean at least 30 days of heavy rocket fire, heavy damage and hundreds of casualties in Israel’s major cities.


An automatically-called election campaign that begins only at the beginning of April would mean that a new government with a mandate to order an attack will probably not be in place until mid-July. But by that time, at least according to Ehud Barak, the Iranians’ “zone of immunity” will already be in place; and Israel will not be able to bomb effectively without direct and heavy American support.


So what we are currently witnessing is a political shadow ballet.


If I were a conspiracy theorist, which I’m not, I would say that everything that is going on now is just an elaborate game to enable all the actors to play to their domestic audiences. Too often in the past, for example, Israeli leaders have used a real or supposed threat to the country as a way of diverting attention away from pressing domestic issues—in this case, the need to pass a highly contentious replacement for the Tal Law which granted exemptions from military service to the ultra-Orthodox and was recently declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, and to cut the budget drastically, among other things.


So, instead of focussing on conspiracy theories, we should ask: Can what is going be explained in real military terms? For example, since whether Israel will assault Iran has been the most talked about and most analyzed surprise attack in the history of warfare, would Israel nonetheless be able to create an element of surprise?


If you look closely, everything that has been happening does bear at least a superficial resemblance to Egypt’s behaviour just prior to the Yom Kippur War. In the years just prior to the conflict, Anwar Sadat kept threatening war. But after every set of military manoeuvres, and after the Israeli military reserves had been called up, the Egyptian troops were sent back to their barracks—that is until October 1973, when, after the Israelis had become tired of calling up the reserves and had convinced themselves that Egypt would never be so stupid as to attack, the war actually broke out.


Could it be that what we are seeing now is just a huge ruse to lull the Iranians in the same way that Israel was lulled in the period before the Yom Kippur War?


At least according to Israeli intelligence sources, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenai has come to just such a conclusion—that Israel and the US wouldn’t dare attack now.


Nonetheless, Iran’s Supreme Leader does seem to be taking the Israeli threat seriously and so ordered the holding of the manoeuvres at the very moment that Austere 12 was underway. Such war games are enormously expensive and are coming at a time when the Iranian economy is being affected by sanctions. So, then we can reasonably ask: is all the war talk deliberately designed to further weaken the Iranian economy?


I don’t know the answer to any of these questions, but they are worth thinking about.


And so, to conclude, despite my promise at the beginning that I would focus on the trees and not the forest, I cannot help but take note of several very important processes that are underway.


The first is that the open debate on whether to attack has finally led to a real discussion on what are the real capabilities of the IDF. In the years before the Six-Day War, the country was terrified of an all-out Arab attack. After the victory in that war, the pendulum swung to the other extreme and Israelis became convinced that the IDF was invincible and capable of effecting miracles. That impression has persisted to this day despite the fact that all of Israel’s subsequent wars were partial victories at best.


So, even if we don’t know the details of Israel’s true military strength, we are beginning to learn what may be its outermost limits.


The second is that there is now a huge national discussion on whether Israel’s almost total dependence on military deterrence and American military aid is sufficient to keep the country safe. It is very clear that military deterrence, rather than diplomatic efforts, have taken precedence in Israeli strategic planning, for a very long time. However, it is becoming ever clearer that Israel is dependent not just on the United States, but also on Europe to ensure that the sanctions efforts are maintained and strengthened. The recent chiding that Israel has been subjected to by the two countries that are leading the sanctions effort in Europe, France and Germany, should act as a warning that Israel’s diplomatic efforts need a lot more work.


And finally, I find it quite astounding that an issue as incredibly complex as what to do with Iran—and what the fall-out from those efforts could be—has now evolved in the press into an almost soap opera-type serial that focuses almost solely on the personal relations between Netanyahu and Obama, how much or how little they trust each other, how often and in what ways they insult each other, and who is trying to screw whom by working behind the other’s back. The behaviour of these two leaders, at least as we have seen it described in the press recently is certainly no way to run a war—unless, of course, you believe that this all an elaborate ruse…or you believe in the conspiracy theory of your choice.




Super Stability: A Reason for Israelis to Rue the Chinese Curse of Having to Live in “Interesting Times”



I don’t know whether you have thought about it, but when it comes to areas like foreign affairs or defence, or even a whole slew of domestic issues in Israel, Israelis have recently been deluged by a flood of spin and often baseless speculation in the world media. For example, almost every Western media outlet has run at least one major article on how Israel will attack Iran. But almost all those articles have been written by people who are clueless about the real capacity of the IDF.


As the saying goes: “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, talk.”


This drought in real news about existential issues has really been a warning signal. Israel is once again going through a period of what I call “super-stability.”


There is a very big difference between political “stability” and “super-stability.” Normal political stability occurs when events follow each other in a generally-predictable path. Real stability is actually an oxymoron because it requires that progress be made in resolving the problems a society faces, even if the movement is slow or is interspersed with occasionally dramatic moments.


Super stability, on the other hand, is a political pathology—a condition where nothing is happening, and so there is no outlet for growing tensions within a society.


Ironically, when there is a consensus among pundits that a particular country is “stable,” it has usually actually entered into a period of dangerous “super-stability.” That is exactly what happened in the months prior to the fall of the Shah, in the months preceding the rioting in Tunisia, and the period in Israel prior to the first intifada. In other words, while things may look terrific on the surface, once super-stability sets in, even a very minor event can have an explosive aftermath.


For example, the first intifada broke out after a simple car accident between an Israeli and a Gaza driver. In Tunisia, rioting broke out after a fruit vendor was given a ticket by a municipal inspector. And the upheaval in Syria began after some teenagers were arrested for daubing graffiti on a wall in the city of Derr’a.


So, my ears perked up and alarm bells began to ring inside my head when I heard a couple of months ago that Likud flaks were boasting that Israel now had “the most stable government it has ever had.” This, to me was an almost sure sign that Israel was entering into a period of very serious trouble.


So what I would like to do in this article is to explain the pathology of super-stability, to give a few examples of how it expresses itself and especially the distortions in Israeli politics and society it fosters, explain how Israelis react to it and finally, by using Shaul Mofaz’s decision to join a national unity government as a model, explain one of super-stability’s central underlying causes in Israel that needs to be dealt with urgently.


But first, I want to make a very important general observation.


I think that the most striking, unifying factor in almost all of the events taking place in the Middle East is that they are all being initiated by minorities…and that they are being directed primarily against other minorities. In other words, in neither Israel nor in any of the Arab countries in which revolts are taking place, are there representatives who are speaking out on behalf of a national mainstream. There are political camps, but very little national consensus.


In an attempt to find consensus seekers, the media too-often label some politicians in these countries as “moderate,” or “centrist.” But these terms are not only meaningless, their use obfuscates debates about pressing national issues.


For example, the word “moderate” is a comparative term. So we must always ask “Moderate compared to what?” There is a specious claim, for example, that the Moslem Brother is moderate…compared to the Salafists.


Big deal. Both want Sharia government.


And when someone is called a “centrist,” it usually means that this person sits in the middle between two polar opposites. He or she doesn’t necessarily have to have a coherent world view or even a rational approach to a particular problem—just that they object to what the opposites propose. That automatically puts them into the “middle” of an argument


In Israel, the appearance of national polarization is striking. It’s not that Israel doesn’t have a mainstream. Polls have shown for years that on almost every existential issue, the citizenry there eventually mobilizes into a bloc that provides a resounding 62-67 percent show of support for a particular solution to a problem that has arisen.


The problem that invariably arises is that this majority of the population, the mainstream, has almost no representation in the Knesset. Hebrew doesn’t even have a term for the English word “mainstream.”


I cannot emphasize enough that, in politics, the word “centrist” does not mean “mainstream.” The fact that Israelis use the terms synonymously, is part of this national political pathology that I will be discussing in depth in a moment.


Mainstreaming in democracies is crucial because it is the only way to efficiently fashion a list of national priorities that is rational and equitable. When I talk about priorities I don’t just mean, for example, how much money should be spent on defence, and how much on education?


Among other things, I am talking about situations where deeply-held values come into conflict. For example, how much of the public purse should be spent on the elderly to whom we owe a debt of gratitude for all they have done, but who are now coming to the end of their lives and are very expensive to maintain? And how much, by contrast, should be spent on the youth upon whom the future of the country depends.


What is important in all this is that when there is no mainstream politics, minority interest groups fight for power and sectoral allocations that are disproportionate to the minorities’ numbers or their contribution to society as a whole.


When a country enters a period of super-stability, it is usually after one group of minorities has entered into an alliance and has managed to silence another bunch of minorities.


Minorities play a crucial role in democracies. If minorities are silenced, tensions within a society then tend to build until they reach the point of explosion because they have had no outlet.


The same is true if the mainstream, which is usually made up of members of many political minorities, is silenced because it cannot find adequate representation in the halls of power.


How can we tell if minorities or the mainstream are being silenced? The crossover point between stability and super-stability usually occurs when one or more factions in a country succeeds in instilling an unreasonable fear or an unreasonable level of fear in the country’s citizens. Fear is a normal human response to uncertainty, but unreasonable fear—such as the old hoary one that Jews control the world’s banking system—prevents rational discussion on how to resolve problems.


In non-democratic countries that fear is usually instilled by the central government and its security forces. In democratic countries, or in counties just emerging from authoritarianism, minorities can also do the same thing simply by framing events in such a way that fear among others sets in.


When that happens, political battles usually take on almost all the characteristics religiously or tribally-based warfare—even if physical violence is not employed.


A good non-Middle Eastern example of this syndrome is the American Tea Party.


In a democracy, if a minority succeeds in gaining too much power because it has been successfully playing the fear card, two things then usually happen: The population becomes polarized and finds it difficult to create compromises. But even more importantly from a long-term perspective, is that the makeup of the voter pool is altered because consensus-seekers in the mainstream, out of disgust, chose not to vote. In Israel, for example, the voter turnout has dropped from over 80 percent two decades ago, to about 65 percent today. Most of those who fail to vote are moderate consensus-seekers.


In democracies such as Israel and the United States, this phenomenon then allows the minorities to exert political power that is totally disproportionate to their numbers. In less or non-democratic societies it leads to inter-tribal or interreligious violence as we now see taking place in Libya, where inter-tribal violence is rampant, and in Syria, where the civil war there is taking on more and more of the characteristics of both a tribal and a religious war.


A fundamental aspect of this dynamic is that minorities usually, but not always, thrive politically when the population of a country is not fearful that it is facing a common external threat. External threats tend to bind all the citizens together, in a mainstream, to confront the common enemy.


When there is no external fear, minorities too often use their ability to induce irrational fear in order to divide and rule.


The basic technique used by each of these groups is to first induce a fear within the group itself—even one that is not based on fact or any reality— in order to ensure the group’s own members continued loyalty to the group. This induced worry can even lead to hysteria and panic—about what the “other” will do.


Who is “the other?” It really makes little difference. Anyone will do. In the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) world, for example, it is anyone who is secular—or worse, Reform or Conservative.


But this is not a phenomenon restricted to the Haredim. Israeli governments, dating back all the way to Mapai times, have always tried to invoke internal threats as a means of diverting attention away from their inability to cope with domestic problems that the opposition was trying to capitalize on. And it worked. Mapai never had a majority in the Knesset, but it ruled uninterruptedly for almost 20 years.


The Likud, since it first seized the reins of government, has used that technique no less often.


The problem the Likud faces today is that things are too good for the party’s own good.


Think about it for a moment. The advent of the Iron Dome anti-rocket missile system has been a disaster for the Netanyahu government because the system works, and so the threat, and fear, of rocket fire from Gaza has been reduced enormously. That means that the country doesn’t feel obliged to unite behind the Likud leadership in order to confront the possibility of bloodshed.


The same is true of the collapse of the peace talks with the Arabs. The Likud can not longer use the “threat” that the settlement project is in danger in order to rally supporters.


Another disaster for the Likud has been the collapse in popularity of both Labour and Kadima. Both have been so weakened by their internal infighting and their inability to come up with an original, comprehensive, political agenda that will attract mainstream voters that they cannot, at least at present, be used as political punching bags.


So, if there is no immediate threat to focus on, one favourite technique used by all minority politicians to induce fear is to raise some great specter from the past as an example of a potential threat today. In Israel, Netanyahu has been using the Holocaust as means of inducing fear about the threat from Iran, even though the two situations are simply incomparable


Another popular technique  relies on using the “thin edge of the wedge” theory—in other words, if you give in just a bit, more will be demanded and then all hell will break loose. This, for example, has been the primary tactic used by the Haredi parties. And when it doesn’t work, the Haredi rabbis invariably issue some more stringent and extreme Halacha (religious ruling) that they know will create verbal ire and even a verbal war, with the “other”—in this case the secular or liberal Jews. Ordering women to sit at the back of the bus is one example.


We saw a variant of this tactic, by the way, when, during the spring of 2012, Lt. Col Shalom Eisner beat up an unarmed Danish protester in the Jordan rift. Eisner had broken almost every rule in the book, not only by attacking unarmed civilians, but even more egregiously, from the army’s point of view, lying about what he had done.


Nonetheless, because the minority settlers were concerned that Eisner’s actions might somehow delegitimize their enterprise, they rushed to his defence. Naftali Bennet, the former head of the settler movement, in a commentary on Channel Two’s Meet the Press, even went so far as to assert that the Dane was actually part of a world-wide conspiracy designed to delegitimize Israel. For that reason, Bennet implied, Eisner was actually a victim.


A third popular technique used in democracies is to try to rally supporters by attacking vital state institutions. In the US, the idea of “big government” has always been a popular election issue of conservatives.


In Israel, we have seen a whole raft of bills introduced recently in the Knesset by some Knesset members that are deliberate attempts to induce unnecessary fear in the public.


Take a look, for example, at the bills that have been submitted to the Knesset in 2011 and 2012, and actually passed by the legislators.


The so-called “Nakba law,” forbids municipalities or public organizations from funding public demonstrations about what Israeli Arabs call the “Naqba”—or “catastrophe” that led to the establishment of the State of Israel. The indirect message is that Israelis should be fearful of Israeli Arabs’ freedom of speech.


Then there is to so-called “Admissions Law” that allows small communities to reject people who want to live there if, according to the law, “they are not right for social life in the community,” or if they “do not match the socio-cultural fabric of the settlement and there is reason to assume that they might harm it”—whatever that may mean. This might best be called the “xenophobia law” because it enshrines a citizen’s right to be fearful of others, and to actually prevent otherwise respectable citizens from exercising their basic right to own property where they choose—even if there is no real justification for punishing them in this way…other, of course, than a fear of what they might do some time in the indefinite future.


The so-called “Boycott Law” says that any Israeli who publicly calls for a boycott of “a person or body because of their affinity with the State of Israel, one of its institutions, or an area under its control.” Such individuals or groups can be sued, even if the boycott call has no effect. In other words, if an Israeli is opposed to the settlement programme on ideological grounds, he and those who think like him—and there are many in the country—are now forbidden from calling, for example, for a boycott of goods produced in the West Bank settlements. In other words, this law is ultimately designed to induce a fear in Israeli citizens should they even contemplate acting on the basis of their beliefs.


Say for example, if the protest leaders called for a boycott of Bank Leumi because of its high fees, they could be sued too because the bank is partially state-owned.


A particularly egregious example of this kind of political manipulation is the so-called “Infiltration Law.” It stipulates that foreign refugees and asylum seekers who arrive here are to be held for a minimum of three years, and in some cases indefinitely; and Israelis who help them will also face stiff penalties. But the law makes no provision for unraveling the current bureaucratic boondoggle of how the differentiate between simple job seekers and refugees fleeing real persecution. Again the message is: fear those you don’t know well.


This particular law is particularly good example of what I have been talking about, because, like so many other laws…but rarely so blatantly…the fears that have been engendered fly in the face of hard objective facts. Folks like Interior Minister Eli Yishai and Internal Security Minister Aharonovitch have been claiming that the infiltrators and illegal residents are both a demographic threat and a major source of crime. The real truth, according to the Knesset’s own research department is that while about one in fifteen Israelis in the major cities has engaged in crime, only about one in 80 of the illegals and infiltrators has done so—despite the illegals’ often horrendous descent into poverty because the government does not allow them to work legally.


When the head of the research department confronted Aharonovitch with these statistics—which had actually been provided initially by the police—Aharonovitch’s reply reportedly was “I don’t care what the facts are, it’s the way I feel.”


So much for evidence-based policymaking.


There are a bunch of other laws that have been submitted with the same intent to create fear that are either now stuck in committee or have been frozen by Netanyahu because they are simply too embarrassing.


One bill that has not been frozen, though, is Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman’s proposed law that would allow the Knesset to re-legislate laws struck down by the Supreme Court through the use of what amounts to a simple coalition majority. The implication is that one should fear even the highest court in the land because it is not to be trusted.


Each of these bills is worthy of criticism, but the situation is actually much worse if you view them collectively.


If one looks at all these bills, not individually, but as whole, it is fairly easy to discern that there is a strategic and not just a localized tactical intent behind their formulation. To begin with, by inventing issues that induce fear, Knesset members can not only gain a lot of publicity, they can also avoid having to confront real, difficult, substantive issues because they can claim that they are already preoccupied with dealing with these “threats” that they, themselves, have invented


Of greater significance, though, is that fear-mongering is being used constantly by some minority parties and minor factions within parties in order to leverage their strength so that they can change Israel from a state governed by the rule of law, which protects the rights of the mainstream, to a state in which every principle of governance is negotiable by the country’s politicians. This would then give minorities a decided advantage over everyone else when policies are being formulated. That has long been the aim of the Haredim, and their successes to date have now emboldened elements within the Likud, Yisrael Beitenu, and the National Union to try to do the same.


The impact of this approach is already visible.


For example, it has led to a major split within the Likud between traditional liberal democratic Revisionists such as Benny Begin and Ruby Rivlin, who remain true followers of Zeev Jabotinsky, and who believe firmly in the rule of law…and what I have come to call the “extreme neo-nationalists” such as Danny Danon, Yariv Levine and Zippi Hotovely. This division has become particularly acute in the wake of the Likud’s internal elections for delegates to the party convention.


That vote also provides a very striking example of how a minority in Israel can leverage its power to the point here it can almost pull off a putsch.


The neo-nationalists, who are a decided minority in the party and in the country, began their campaign to take over the Likud by joining the party in unprecedented numbers in 2011, even though many of them intended to continue to vote for other parties in the general elections. Netnyahu tried to halt their move by calling for early primary elections. But that didn’t help. The normal turnout for an internal party election is about 40 percent of the registered members. But this time, the extremists who had already joined the party voted in disproportionate numbers. That then led to a disproportionate number of their supporters being elected to attend the party convention.


Those delegates then attended the convention in disproportionate numbers. Normally, only about 30 percent or so of Likud members show up at a national convention. So, in order to make the convention venue look overfull on television, the party rents a hall that is very slightly smaller than the number of expected delegates. In this case, the party rented a hall that held 400 people. But 3,000 delegates actually showed up.


At the party convention, the rebels then tried to take control of the meeting. Bibi had nominated himself as the president of the conclave and wanted to be elected by a show of hands. But the rebels demanded a secret ballot—and were confident that they would win.


Netanyahu was then forced to cancel the vote entirely and left the meeting in embarrassed shock. One of the reasons why Netanyahu may have agreed to the formation of a national unity government with Kadima is that he felt that he needed time to figure out how to deal with this attempt by a party minority to take over the party as a whole. If the extremists had taken control of the party, the Likud would have lost its ability to win over members of the majority mainstream.


Before I get into the whole story of what happened when Kadima joined the government, I first need to give you a verbal snapshot of where Netanyahu’s government was at just before the formation of that new, humongous government. Netanyahu did have a strong personal lead in the polls. But his government, made up of 6 minority parties, had exhausted whatever common ground they had had, and were finding it increasingly unable to initiate new projects—even ones demanded by the Supreme Court such as a replacement for the Tal Law that allowed wholesale exemptions from compulsory military service by the ultra-Orthodox, and the evacuation of the settler outpost of Givat Ulpana. A resolution of both these issues was being stymied by cabinet minorities. Bibi initially welcomed elections because an election campaign would have enabled him to ignore these issues—at least for a while.


But these events were not the only things that were happening within the country. Among other things, the demonstrators who had taken to the streets the previous summer had already announced that they were planning another series of protests…which would have taken place in the midst of the election campaign. And the decision on whether to attack Iran was coming to a head. Even before that, Bibi was going to have to confront a series of highly embarrassing reports by the state comptroller on the lack of preparedness for the Carmel forest fire, on the sick relationship between the general staff and the defence minister…as well as a bunch of other problems.


In Israel, when major existential issues such as these are at stake, and when the government fails to deal those issues adequately, the mainstream public takes control by using a series of tried and true, and even unique ways of addressing these issues. The long way involves years of debate and revision. But there is a shorter way too—and that is to attack an issue head-on by seeming to talk about something else entirely.


Don’t laugh. It’s true.


And that was the technique chosen again this time. First and foremost, the public began revolting against the fear-mongering to which it has been subjected, but in a way that must have been mindboggling to a non-Jew because this very deep conflict was presented to the world public as actually a debate on whether to attack Iran.


How is that? Well, this may sound very hoity-toity and highfalutin’, but if you had listened carefully to the debaters on television at that time, they had entered into a very deep and even engrossing discussion about the Olympian philosophical subject of epistemology—the study of what we can know. This debate is nothing new to Jews. It dates back all the way to Talmudic times, when the rabbis declared that prophesy had ended and no one could henceforth claim to have talked directly to God. As a result, the rabbis declared, one could only gain an inkling of what God wanted through the study of texts, precedents and debate. That meant, first and foremost, gathering together all the information that is available on a particular subject and then judging its relevance to the subject at hand. By the way, this ingathering of all available knowledge was considered to be so important that even heretics and foreigners were allowed to give evidence if it was germane to the subject under discussion.


Epistemology is a pretty heavy subject, though, and politicians wince at even using the word. So what the debaters did was to break the subject up into many of its constituent parts, and then, when any particularly irrational suggestion arose, they marshaled that constituent part of the study of epistemology that best undermined the particular fear that was being induced.


The underlying and most frequently-used strategy is based on the belief that knowledge is the only antidote to unfounded fear. Once you know the facts, the debaters argue, you can deal with the problems at hand by using the wisdom of crowds and by building mainstream support for solutions designed to allay unnecessary fears.


For example, after Netanyahu analogized between the Holocaust and the Iranian threat, newspaper columns and internet sites in Israel were flooded by protests by ordinary Israelis. Bibi’s analogy may have tapped into American Jews’ psyches, but in Israel it led to revulsion and disgust. The Israeli protesters’ main theme was that, by comparing the situation of the Jews today with that of the Jews in World War II, Netanyahu had demeaned all the sacrifices and all the accomplishments of this country’s citizens during 64 years of independent statehood. Reservist soldiers, in particular, seemed to have taken the analogy as a particular affront. To them and others, Israel’s honor, self-esteem and self-image had been undermined by their own elected leader.


In other words, as I mentioned earlier, while the formal discussion was about whether Israel should attack Iran, the really important subtext was “Bibi, get off the pot and stop fear-mongering.”


The critics’ primary repost to Netanyahu was that the state is capable today of dealing with any existing threat. To support their position, the mainstream protesters, most of whom serve in the army reserves, pointed out basic facts that Netanyahu had chosen not to mention: that during the Holocaust, there was no Jewish state with a well-trained and well-equipped army to which Jews could flee; and the Jewish people had had no formal and formidable allies such as Israel has with the United States today.


This kind of civil, mainstream reaction is nothing new here. Roughly once a decade, and particularly after a social, military or economic crisis—and super-stability does count as a form of crisis— the Israeli public embarks on a debate about what it views as the source of the crisis. In the 1960s, the subject was the ill-treatment of new immigrants. In the 1970s, following the Yom Kippur War, it was about government failures and political responsibility. In the 1980s it was about political populism and how this had led to economic collapse. In the 1990s, it focused on whether peace with the Palestinians was actually possible. And in the last decade, it has focused on glaring social problems, such as the growth in poverty and the increasing disparities in income.


In each case, the debate gathered momentum quite quickly as more and more knowledge of the situation became available. And when the government of the day failed to respond to the factual information that had been made available to the people, it ended up being thrown out of office.


How can you tell if a protest will build to the point where it becomes a civilian rebellion by an unsatisfied mainstream?  It’s actually quite easy. Let us look at the two most recent public revolts as examples—the consumer rebellion that broke into street protests in the summer of 2011 and the ongoing argument about whether to bomb Iran.


The best way to tell is to look at who the leaders of the protest movement were and why they were attractive to other Israelis.


It is important to note at this point that the leaders of the protest movement included a large number of previously-anonymous young people. Most recently, the argument against attacking Iran now has been taken up by a group of senior defence officials, both those currently serving and those recently retired, who previously had rarely talked in public. How then did they leap from anonymity to sudden fame and even adoration?


Both these groups were following in the wake of others, just like them who had come before. Motti Ashkenazi, began as a sole protester in front of the prime minister’s office in 1974. Eventually, though, he became the spokesman for many of the hundreds of thousands who had lived through the Yom Kippur War, and who were disgusted by the government’s performance. Later, there were the economists who came out of academic obscurity to offer painful, but widely-accepted solutions to hyperinflation.


And, of course, there were the four mothers, who fought to extricate the country’s soldiers from the 18 year quagmire in Lebanon. And Uzi Dayan, before he entered politics, who successfully fought to build the fence in the West Bank to halt the infiltration of terrorists—despite the extremely vocal opposition of the settlers.


What each of these individuals and groups had in common is the following:


They were perceived by the public to be “ideal” and trustworthy Israelis because they exhibited the following features. They were


  • loyal and upstanding citizens
  • having a particular expertise in the subject
  • having a personal stake in the outcome of the debate
  • having personal integrity
  • addressing an issue that was affecting the majority of the population, not just a sectoral group
  • having no known or public political party affiliation
  • being willing to suffer some sort of personal hardship on behalf of the cause
  • being able to formulate the question as having a directive for action component but requiring only a “yes” or “no” response.


Once they passed that initial screening, they then had to be able articulate a rational programme for action that was devoid of unfounded threats or fears.


Invariably, governments had always tried to pooh-pooh rebels of this type. In this most recent case, Likud officials initially tried to portray the security experts as petulant babies, who were disappointed that they had not been promoted or had not had their terms extended.


But once the protest leaders passed all of the mainstream’s character and programmatic tests, they were usually able to garner wide support very quickly. Otherwise, how can anyone explain that one Haredi man’s protest over the price of cottage cheese, and one young woman’s anger that her rent had been raised, ended up encouraging half a million Israelis to join in a mass street protest in the summer of 2011?


Now, before I come to my concluding section where I will discuss one of the primary reasons why governments here don’t usually last more than to years because they cannot escape the trap of super-stability, let me just review very quickly how we got to this point.


I started this talk by saying that we have been going through a news drought because the government no longer has an agenda it can agree on. The minority parties who make up the government have exhausted whatever interests they once had in common—other than remaining in office. That has left many critical issues, such as the Tal Law and the future of Givat Ulpana, unaddressed. That situation enabled minorities within the coalition parties and the political minorities that make up the government to try to leverage their positions to gain more power. As part of that campaign, they induced fear, where, based on the facts we know, none was warranted.


The political stalemate had also led to growing tensions within the public, which rejected the fear-mongering and demanded that real issues affecting the country’s citizens be addressed. To justify their positions, the protesters brought a great deal of new knowledge to the public’s attention.


Bibi responded, as he had in the past, by first embracing the protesters and promising change. But then, when all the information was assembled, organized and analyzed by the Trajtenberg committee, he eviscerated most of the committee’s main recommendations in order to placate his Haredi coalition partners. For example, the Trajtenberg committee had recommended that priority for public housing be given to those families where at least one parent worked. But that provision was dropped because of the opposition from Shas.


Unable to legislate real change, Bibi tried to settle into the comfort of a super-stable government. But this had paved the way for yet another social explosion. Bibi responded by trying to unite the country by inducing fear of Iran.


The result was that a group of the country’s leading security experts felt impelled to break their public silence and to challenge Bibi’s fear-mongering head on.


They argued rationally, based on the facts at their disposal, that Israel is secure and has the capability to defend itself. By capability, I mean the country’s citizens have both the capacity and the will to defend themselves. However, they cautioned, at this moment, it is inadvisable to use that power.


Their arguments were simple, clear and easy to understand.


  • Israel’s military capacity is not unlimited and it needs allies if it is to undertake a successful military campaign thousands of kilometers from its borders.
  • Because Iran has not yet reached the point where it has decided to build a bomb, it does not present an immediate existential threat to the country.
  •  Iran could become an existential threat in the future, but Israel is not now in imminent danger. Therefore, there is still time for diplomacy, and war should be contemplated only as a last resort, not an immediate option…because of the damage it could cause to the country.
  • Furthermore, a diplomatic effort is a reasonable option because, contrary to the fears spread by some politicians over the years that Israel is alone in the world, the country has not been abandoned. It now has real diplomatic allies because it has joint interests with other powerful countries.


Government supporters were dumbfounded by the nature and the intensity of this attack—and the use of fact to counter the fears Bibi had been fostering.


Initially Netanyahu’s supporters fell back on ad hominem attacks. Some of the critics, for example, claimed that these defence experts are now “out of the loop,” and didn’t know what they were talking about. Others argued that even though these people are now ordinary citizens, they had no right to talk as they did.


To their credit, Bibi and Barak did have reasonable and rational responses to their critics. Barak argued that, just in case its allies backed out at the last minute, Israel needed to ensure that it retained an ability to act independently. Because of its military limitations, it could therefore not allow the Iranians to reach the point where its nuclear production facilities were so well protected that they could no longer be successfully attacked by Israel alone.


Bibi argued, no less rationally, that without a constant and viable threat by Israel to attack Iran—with all the consequences that that entailed—the current alliance against Iran would not have been formed. And Israel had to maintain a real threat lest those allies, in the end, out of their own interests, chose not to adopt the military option.


A largely unspoken, but real fear running through this debate was that a basic premise of the defence experts, both in Israel and the United States, that they would know for sure when Iran had made a decision to build a bomb, could be fatally wrong. This fear is a bitter remnant of the experience of the Yom Kippur War, when Israel had had all the information necessary to lead to the conclusion that Egypt and Syria were planning to launch a war. Not only were the Arab forces in place, but military intelligence had picked up signals that ambulances were also being marshaled at the front, which didn’t happen during exercises. And to top it all off, both King Hussein and a spy in the top echelons of the Egyptian security services were warning that a war was imminent.


Nonetheless, Israel’s “best and brightest” military leaders chose to ignore the evidence because they believed that Sadat would act “rationally” and would not confront Israel’s superior military strength.


What the so-called “experts” failed to take into account, and what they only found out after Sadat launched his peace initiative years later, was that while he was eminently rational, his rationality as based on premises that were different from the ones the Israelis had considered.


There was a real fear that this time Israel might not get the signals in time, and if it did, it might misinterpret them as it had done before—and as the Americans had done so often in the recent past.


The public quickly discarded the ad hominem arguments because those jibes added nothing to the debate. Instead, it recognized the obvious fact that many of the government’s critics still serve in the reserves, where their knowledge is updated. And, in any case, they maintain close contacts their counterparts elsewhere in the world who are still in the loop.


What the public was craving and what it needed now was a thorough analysis of the conflicting claims in order to come to a rational decision about how Israel should act.


However, it was just at this point that many of Israel’s informal political checks and balances began to break down. The media, which might have laid out the arguments in an orderly and comprehensive fashion, fell into a classic trap. It began treating the argument as a “He said, she said” story.  The coverage then morphed into a narrative about a contest between verbal gladiators—not a rational argument between people who were equally concerned about the country’s future.


But worst of all, at precisely that moment when the Knesset opposition was duty bound to fill the vacuum left by the media’s failures and enter the debate, it failed to do so.


Since, for obvious security reasons, the government can’t reveal all the information in its possession, and since the media and the official opposition did such a poor job of analysis, the public was left to choose between what the government was saying and the judgments of those who did have access to that material and who could now talk openly.


The results were immediately clear. The public’s real fear was that Bibi and Barak were not trustworthy. Polls showed that only 24 percent of Israelis favoured an immediate, unilateral attack, while 62 percent (an overwhelming mainstream majority) believed that an attack should only be undertaken in conjunction with the United States.


By rights, the debate about attacking Iran, just as the ones on poverty and the growing gap in incomes, should have taken place first in the Knesset. That is what parliaments are for. But, as I pointed out, in Israel, the Knesset does not represent the mainstream in the country. Worse still, governments are federations of minority parties, each of which is, first and foremost, out to promote its members’ own sectoral interests. After these governments have divided up the public purse among their different interest groups, and after they have dealt with all the issues they share in common, they become stupefied, and super-stability sets in.


Super-stability, of course, is great for the politicians…but bad for the country. It enables the Knesset members to keep their perks and privileges and salaries for as long as they can, even if they end up dealing with nothing of real substance.


At this point the Israeli system of governance breaks down completely. It has done so time and again…and again…and for the same fundamental reason.


Even though political rule in Israel is based on the parliamentary system of governance, there is no real provision or traditional role here for what the British and commonwealth countries call “Her Majesty’s loyal opposition”—with the emphasis on the word “loyal.”


In any parliamentary system, when super-stability sets in, it is not only their duty, but in their self interest for the opposition parties to step forward with a coherent programme to shatter the super-stability.


In parliamentary democracies, this is the point where all the research the opposition parties should have done while the government was bulldozing through its own measures, comes into play.


The techniques opposition parties have available are all well known. They have to lay out all the facts that they have accumulated on issues of concern to the mainstream. They then need to prepare a list of questions to the government designed to clarify any holes in this data base. And finally they are bound to provide an assessment of their own based on their perception of what the country’s national spending and political priorities should be.


In this, Kadima and all the centrist parties Israel has had in the past, have failed disastrously. To compensate for the party’s incompetence, Mofaz had little choice but to escape into the existing super-stable cabinet…in the desperate hope that this would give him time to put its own house in order.


The underlying reason for Kadima’s failure and the failure of so many so-called “centrist” parties in the past is that they tried to be “centrist parties”, not mainstream parties. Instead of hitting the streets to listen to the public and find areas of consensus, they were elitist, run by former generals and old political pros, who never felt obliged to consult with the hoi polloi. They assumed that they could rely permanently on the protest vote that had initially brought them into office.


In other words, with the death of political parties based on a comprehensive ideology in the 1980s, those Israeli parties that don’t make it into the government have never taken the effort to figure out what their job should really be.


Instead, they have tended to sit back and wait until either they were courted to join the government of the day or until the government of the day made such a hash of things that they could then present themselves as “the alternative” to the government in power. Usually, by the way, they have joined a governing coalition, where they eventually disintegrated.


One of the main reasons why this has happened is that most of the centrist parties have been led by ex-security people—Yigal Yadin, Ezer Weizman,Yizchak Mordechai, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, and now Shaul Mofaz are but a few examples. Their whole worldview was shaped by their jobs in the security services, where the hierarchy is based on its ability to issue orders and follow orders. They have also learned that publicity, praise and promotion come from building blocs of obedient supporters, appearing to be in the midst of things and, as they say in Hebrew “taking command.” That means, when they enter political life, joining a government under any and all circumstances in order to be “where the action is.” Dull research based on listening to the mainstream that may be made up of members of different political parties is simply not their forte.


Their problem, once they join the government, is that being centrists, they have not necessarily come up with original ideas that will attract voters the next time around. What then too often happens is that, instead of debating policies, they end up in personal intra-party ego battles. But even those battles become sterile because the protagonists are also usually so fearful of alienating potential coalition partners that they never come up with specific plans or spending priorities of their own that might win mainstream votes, but alienate potential coalition partners.


Kadima is now being widely criticized for having joined the government, even for a short period. A fig leaf for Mofaz, when he suddenly joined the coalition was the promise by Bibi to bring about electoral reform by December 31. Now, having made such a botch of joining and quitting the government, maybe Kadima’s greatest contribution to Israel would be to reconsider and then enshrine in law a real role for the nation’s loyal opposition. Because, without an effective opposition, the mainstream will continued to lack power, and serial, ineffective governments will continue to form, on average, every two years.


The “Arab Spring” Is Going The Same Way As “The Golden Age of Islamic Science”—And For The Same Reasons


When the rebellions in the Arab world broke out, most commentators were quick to declare that an “Arab Spring” had come to the Middle East. There was a widespread assumption in the West that the Arab world would soon be engulfed by demands for the institution of liberal democratic governments in most, if not all the Arab countries.


Many were therefore shocked by the seeming meteoric rise in strength of the Moslem Brotherhood and the even more extreme Salafist theocrats…and many of those who were so quick to talk of an “Arab Spring” now use the term “Arab Winter” instead.


The confusion that has accompanied the Moslem hardliners’ rise to power is not dissimilar to the ongoing wonderment and debate over why the so-called “Golden Age” of Islamic science died too.


I haven’t seen a comparison of these two events, which took place nearly 1000 years apart, in any of the media articles being written. But a close look at both events shows that there is a great similarity in the reasons why they took place.


So, this article will present a short historical review of how and why the scientific golden age came about, why it collapsed, and finally how and why that collapse is similar to the political events we see taking place around us in the Arab world today.


When we think about Islam today, we tend to consider it only in terms of a religion based on a single prophet’s religious revelation. But its foundation was also a major political event. Mohammed saw his revelation as a means to unify all the tribes of Arabia, and halt the seemingly endless tribal bloodletting there, by imposing a single, in his view, universal understanding of what God wanted of all mankind. To that end, the new religion adopted a rigid set of laws, called the Sharia. And the bloodletting, at least in theory, was refocused from the tribes to non-believers.


In order to impose the new laws, the new religious leaders needed a political framework to police the laws. The result was the concept of the Caliphate, in which the leader would govern based on Sharia, as interpreted by the leading legal scholars of the day. In theory, at least, the Caliph was supposed to be chosen by consensus.


However, almost immediately after Mohammed death in 632 the system broke down. The first caliph was Abu Bakr, Mohammed’s father-in-law, who ruled for only two years. His successor, Umar ibn Khattab was personally chosen by Abu Bakr on his deathbed, but he too didn’t last very long because he was killed by his servant. The third caliph, Uthman Ibn Affan, was chosen by a council of elders, called the Majlis. But he too was murdered—this time by a group of dissidents. The fourth caliph, Ali ibn Abi Talib, faced a series of civil wars, and lasted for only 5 years before he too was assassinated.


I am providing this pocket history for two reasons. The first is that that Ali’s death led to Islam’s first and greatest schism—between the followers of Ali, who became known as Shiites, and the rest of the followers of Islam, who became known as Sunnis. The second reason is that, with Ali’s death, the political leadership of Islam was transferred to a hereditary dynasty. Authoritarianism, not consensual politics, had won the day and became the model for rule in most of the Islamic states from then on.


These factors, which I have never seen mentioned in any media reports, had a powerful impact on the development of Islamic science, and are having a potent effect on the Arab rebellions today.


But first, I must return to the subject of Arab self-governance and flesh out the subject a bit more.


One of the most important elements that have driven the Shia/Sunni split ever since it began was the difference between the two groups over who should govern the Ummah, the nation of Islam.   Sunni Islam stipulates that the head of state, the caliph, should be selected by a Shura – in other words, elected by a council of Muslim wise men or their representatives. Followers of Shia Islam, on the other hand, believe the caliph should be an imam chosen by God from the Ahl al-Bayt (Muhammad’s direct descendents). The electors should be an imam’s peers.


There is no place in this scheme of things for what Westerners call “democracy”—the sovereignty of the people and their right to choose their leaders. This is because Islam is based on the concept that the ultimate sovereign is God. He has limitless and terrifying power. Only those who have studied the Koran and the Hadith can possibly have even an inkling into what God wants. This means that the masses are expected to be followers of the clergy, not leaders or initiators.


Incidentally, among Shiites, the direct progeny of Muhammed are designated by, and are the only ones permitted to wear a black turban.


If you have ever noticed, both Ayatollah Khamenai and Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah both wear black turbans—designating them as both the progeny of Mohammed and people chosen by God to rule. For all his religious learning, Ayatollah Rafsanjani, for example, could never become Iran’s supreme leader because he wears a white turban.


In Sunni Islam, an imam is usually just a prayer leader in a mosque, while in Shia Islam an Imam has far greater status because he is considered to be bereft of sin and infallible.


Now why is this important to us? It’s simple.


The United States has based its entire recent policy towards the Arab world on the premise that it must foster democracy everywhere. But among Moslems, democracy, at least as Westerners define the term, has no inherent legitimacy as a political system. The only role democracy plays, if it is used, is to enable “rightly-chosen” leaders to take their appointed place in the political hierarchy. After that, it can be disregarded.


One of the greatest mistakes the Americans made after invading Iraq was to believe that they could impose democracy in a country that was incapable of electing a single national leader by popular vote—a leader whose legitimacy, after the election, was unquestioned by all the electors. The plurality of Iraqis, religious Arab Shiites, could only vote for an imam or his representative, while the second largest minority, the religious Arab Sunnis, could only vote for a person chosen by a Majlis, or council of Sunni elders and Islamic scholars. Any person elected in any other way, ipso facto, has no legitimacy to either religious Sunnis or to religious Shiites in Iraq.


The same is true in Iran. So long as religious Moslems remain a majority in Iran, all efforts, including those by Americans, to foster “regime change” and to create a secular leadership will come to naught.


But the Shia/Sunni division is not the only source of instability in the Islamic world. Despite his battles, Mohammed was never able to overcome the problems that arise from tribalism. Blood relations remain the paramount social structure in the Arab world.

In fact, almost immediately after Mohammed’s death, a series of civil wars, based on clan and tribal allegiances, broke out.


What we see in Libya today is therefore no aberration, but the continuation of a long history of tribal warfare that began long before Mohammed’s arrival on the scene.


Modern science in the West began when the right of individuals to think independently began to take precedence over the rights of a ruling, tribal aristocracy of barons, petty princelings and kings…and the right of the monopolistic Catholic Church to decide which subjects were permissible for study and debate.


In Europe, and later America, this breakdown in the existing power structure eventually led to the creation of the nation-state…and to democratic rule, in which the residents of the state, at least in theory, are the sovereigns. No less importantly, it also led to the development and acceptance of the scientific method, which demanded that assertions about the natural world be accompanied by decisive proof.


The Arabs, however, took a different tack. In order to cope with tribalism, they consistently sought out a single strong leader who was backed by a religious body. That body was usually willing to trade support and religious legitimacy for the leader in return for the leader granting the religious leaders the perks and privileges which they believed were rightfully theirs. That is precisely the form of government that exists in Saudi Arabia today. In this system, because God is the ultimate sovereign, the individual has no inherent rights.


The first of these strong leaders founded the Umayyad Caliphate. Although the family was from Mecca, it established its capital in Damascus.


While Islamic beliefs required that the Caliph be chosen by a Majlis, the Umayyads immediately set about establishing the principle of hereditary rule.


That was the end of the proto-democracy that the early Islamists had envisaged.


The Umayyads came to power at a particularly propitious time. The endless wars between the Byzantine and the Persian empires had weakened both. That made them less formidable on the battlefield. No less importantly, their constant fighting had forced them to tax their subjects very heavily. Thus, when the Islamic armies arrived, many of the new subjects of the Caliph were attracted by the promise of lower taxes; and for that reason, amongst others, most of the newly-conquered peoples were also willing to convert to Islam.


Their sudden victories then enabled the Islamic rulers to claim that their successes had been the product of God’s direct intervention, and that anyone failing to obey Islamic teachings was disobeying God’s will. Even today, those long-past military victories are used by Islamic missionaries as justification for their claims that Islam is the only true, universal religion.


Instead of imposing heavy taxes, the Umayyads were able to pay for their interminable wars through the plunder they acquired during their military campaigns. And within 90 years, they had assembled the seventh largest contiguous empire the world has ever known.


However, the caliphate also quickly became a victim of its own successes. Much of its tax money initially came from what were called “dhimmis”—those Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, Berbers and others—who were considered third class citizens, and thus more heavily taxed than Moslems.


But as more and more of the dhimmis converted to Islam, there were fewer and fewer of them to pay the heavier taxes.


Not only that, the Umayyads made several crucial mistakes. Probably the most important of these was that they treated the new converts as second class citizens and favoured Arabs when they handed out public positions. Understandably, since many of the new converts were more educated and more civilized than the former desert dwellers, there was resentment.


On a broader scale, though, privileged positions in government meant not only greater status, but also access to corruption and money. Thus, the Arabs could afford more wives, which then created a severe market shortage in women available for marriage.


This phenomenon worked both for and against the rulers.


On the negative side, it created resentment on the part of young men. Not only was there shortage of women, but precisely because of the scarcity, the bride price also rose.


On the positive side, from the point of view of the Umayyad rulers, the young men’s need for a big dowry then enticed them to join the army, which provided the Umayyads with more soldiers. As might be expected, many of these soldiers were then killed in battle—which reduced the surplus of vigorous, young males. Those who survived, though, could expect to gain the money they needed from plunder and booty, which meant that they would not turn their anger on the government of the day.


The thing was, though, the advantage the Moslems had acquired because they were facing weakened empires, eventually dissipated, and new competitors for power arrived. After the Umayyads suffered their first big defeats, at the hands of the Europeans at Tours and at the hands of some of the Asian tribes, the amount of plunder dropped and the Umayyads had no choice but to raise taxes…and, no less importantly, the soldiers no longer had access to booty. With no booty, soldiers’ morale also dropped.


Henceforth, when Moslems came to believe that they could not have enough bread or enough money for a dowry, they have been be willing to join forces with whomever appeared to be a new savior—the very situation that brought about the downfall of Mubarak in our day. The primary reason behind the rebellion against Mubarak by the secular youngsters was that they could not find jobs to pay for bread and a dowry.


Clearly, anyone or any party that takes office and cannot come up with a comprehensive plan to rebuild the Egyptian economy, is doomed to fail and is likely to face another popular revolt.


It’s worth noting that although the protesters in Cairo railed about just about everything under the sun, even the most militant feminists never mention the words “bride price,” which grooms must pay their betrothed before they get married. This is because none of the Islamic countries has a legal provision for providing women and children with financial sustenance in the event of divorce or abandonment.


In the case of the Umayyads, revenge by the dispossessed and the disenchanted was also not long in coming. A rival tribe, the Abbasids, began preaching rebellion among the disenchanted—and especially among the Shiites, who were also being discriminated against.


Full-scale war broke out, and all but one member of the ruling family of Umayyads, including all the women and children, were hunted down and killed. The sole survivor fled first to Egypt, and eventually made it to the outer region of the Umayyad territories, Spain, where he established what eventually came to be known as the “Cordoba Caliphate.”


It was only at this point, a hundred years after Mohammed, that what we today call “the Islamic golden age” really began. And the lessons that can be drawn from the successes and failures of this period of history are truly profound. They apply not just to the Arab world, but to almost everyone else.


So let us go through at least some of the lessons one by one.


The first, and maybe most important one, is that during this period of Islamic history, itjihad, or individual thinking, was still permitted.


I’ll come back to ijtihad in a moment. But before then, I have to explain the overall social and political environment in which ijtihad prospered.


The Abbasids inherited an empire that was so large that it was largely ungovernable because of the huge distances involved. So, unlike the Umayyads, who looked down on all non-Arabs, the Abbasids, courted their new, fellow co-religionists—especially the Persians. Unlike the Umayyads, the Abbasids recognized that they simply didn’t have enough educated Arabs to run an empire. They needed a corps of competent bureaucrats who knew how to run such things as an imperial postal service. The Persians, who had run an extensive empire of their own prior to the Moslem conquest, were the obvious choice to man these positions. As a result, the capital was moved from Damascus to the brand new city of Baghdad, largely so that the Abbasid leadership could be closer to Persia.


Since even before the days of Alexander the Great, Persia had been a repository of not only of Greek philosophy and science, but also of knowledge gained from trade with neighbouring countries such as India and China.


In order to take advantage of all that knowledge, the Abbasids set up a royal library in Baghdad called “The House of Wisdom,” and embarked on one of the biggest translation projects in history. They were greatly aided by an invention that had just arrived from China—papermaking. The arrival of paper was revolutionary because it was relatively cheap, unlike parchment. It wasn’t brittle, like papyrus. And it actually absorbed ink and was thus more permanent. The arrival of paper had an effect that was comparable in its day to Gutenberg’s later invention of moveable type and the advent of the internet in our own times.


Knowledge, for the first time, became more easily accessible. And because it was all deposited in one place, a person could draw from different disciplines while researching something. In other words, these early Moslems were engaging in interdisciplinary scholarship long before the term was invented.


The world’s first university was only founded in Bologna after the turn of the first millennium, so the House of Wisdom was sort of a proto-university—a half-way step between the Greek agora and the Athenian academies, and the university as we understand the term today.


Such an environment naturally attracted a whole coterie of people seeking knowledge—including Jews and Byzantine Christians who were suffering under increasing censorship by the increasingly orthodox Church.


This need to provide for a free-flow of people and ideas within a single, open-plan, architectural setting, in order to foster intellectual entrepreneurship, has only recently been rediscovered by successful companies like the Bell Labs and Apple.


The question that then arises is: How did the Abbasid caliphs pay for all this—especially since there were no new sources of plunder? And the answer is that they did so by allowing the growth of a competitive middle class—and especially of that class most despised by both Chinese and Marxist social theoreticians—a bourgeoisie. The merchant class, which was based on trade, was both a source of continuing taxable income, and a continuing source of new ideas and technologically-advanced products that the traders were bringing in from afar.


Too much taxation or a closed environment where only those merchants who have close ties to the authorities have access to permits and credit (as occurred in Egypt, Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East in recent years), would have been crippling to the Abbasids, and have been a disaster for most modern Arab countries.


I should add here that many of these ancient traders were Jews. In fact, most of the activity on the five main trade routes that ran through these Islamic lands to Europe were run by Jews for the simple reason that the Jews were the only people living in both Asia and Europe who spoke and could communicate with each other in a single language—Hebrew.


Not only that, unlike the Moslems, who thought themselves superior in every way to the European Christians, and therefore didn’t feel any need to have any intellectual contact with them, the Jews were willing to talk to everyone,  learn from everyone, and pay taxes—even outrageously high taxes—to whoever was in  position of authority.


The very opposite scenario was played out in the Arab states during the twentieth century. With the rise of what was termed “Arab nationalism,” the Jews, Armenians and Greeks who had formed the basis of the trading merchant class in Arab lands were all expelled or otherwise forced to leave from places in the Middle East where they had lived for millennia. As a result, one of the most important conduits of new knowledge disappeared from the Arab world.


But let’s get back to medieval Baghdad. For all the reasons I have already given, it is no wonder, therefore, that within a relatively short period, Baghdad went from being a “no place” to the largest city in the world, with a population of over a million inhabitants. This growth in urban populations then meant that there was a greater need for efficiency in the production of food for the non-agrarian population. The result was the need to invent of all sorts of new, semi-industrial machinery such as more efficient water wheels, not only for use in irrigation, but also for grinding grains. From there it was only a hop, step and jump to other innovations based on the water wheel such as the industrial production of other needed goods, including that new and highly-desired product—paper.


In fact, one can say that the golden age in Spain only took off after an Abbasid brought the first paper-making plant to Umayyad Spain.


Today, none of the Arab states can produce enough food to feed their own populations. And thus valued tax money and foreign exchange has to be used to purchase food, when it could have been used for education, infrastructure, and the other prerequisites for a technologically-based modern industrial economy.


Another important feature of the Abbasid Empire was that, unlike the regimes in almost all Arab countries today, there was a relatively great deal of local autonomy, and the central authority was relatively weak. Thus rather than having heavy-handed policies established by the caliph, there was a great deal of freedom for local initiatives by viziers and local emirs…and this brought about competition between these local leaders. That competition then fostered the merchant class, which, among other things, could provide these leaders with symbols of authority such as rich silks and other luxury items. Many of these leaders then also used the local taxes they imposed for other prestige-providing projects such as the establishment of their own academies.


And now I have to come back to the point I mentioned earlier—the flourishing of itjihad, or individual intellectual exploration.


This atmosphere of intellectual ferment produced a class of scholars and researchers and philosophers whose members tried to meld science, religion and the arts with rationalist Greek philosophy—especially the work of Aristotle. The first major figure to emerge from this group was Abu Yusuf Yaʻqūb ibn Isḥāq al-Sabbah al-Kindī. In addition to being the head of the caliph’s translation project, he wrote 260 books on subjects as diverse as astrology, philosophy, optics, medicine, chemistry (not alchemy, which he hated), mathematics, crytography, music theory, perfumes, swords, jewels, glass dyes, zoology, tides, mirrors, meteorology and earthquakes.


Then came Abū Naṣr Muḥammad al-Fārābī, one of the great intellects of his time or any other time. And finally, and arguably the greatest of all the polymaths of the translation period, the Arab world was blessed with  Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥusayn ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibn Sīnā (known in the West as Avicenna), who wrote at least 450 treatises including a medical encyclopaedia that, translated into Latin, was subsequently used in Europe for over 500 years.


I think that it’s noteworthy that all three were Persians, not Arabs.


There were many other scholars and researchers who were not slouches either. For example, Rhazes, another Persian, discovered that fever was part of the body’s defence mechanism. And al-Bruni measured the earth’ circumference with almost perfect accuracy using a trigonometric method he invented. The list goes on and on.


But as usually happens when religion becomes established, institutionalized and authoritarian, orthodoxy reared it head. Within a hundred years after the beginning of the great translation project, religious hardliners encouraged the caliph to issue an order forbidding further copying of any books on philosophy.


What eventually became known as the Ash’ari school of Islam had begun a massive challenge to the rationalists. Their doctrine held, for example, that there is no such thing as “natural laws” because God is completely free to do as He chooses. In other words, the fact that the sun rises in the east is not necessarily fixed because God could choose to make the sun rise in the west at any time.


So much for the study of physics, which forms the basis of industrialization and our modern technological age. And so much for the widespread adoption of the scientific method.


The man who consolidated the anti-rationalists’ position was a mystic theologian named Hamid al-Ghazali—and one can see the impact of his beliefs on the streets of Cairo today and throughout the Sunni Islamic world. In his book “The Incoherence of the Philosophers,” he attacked al Farabi and Ibn Sina because he believed that philosophy was incompatible with Islamic teaching. Reason, he argued, was the enemy of mankind because it teaches people to question and to innovate independently of God.


The immediate result of al-Ghzali’s teachings and their widespread acceptance, was what has now come to be called “the closing of the gates of ijtihad.” In its place, clerics enforced a form of religious absolutism called “taqlid,” that translates literally as “copying” or obeying without question.” In other words, believers were expected to chose a religious scholar as a model and then adopt his every belief and copy his every action without questioning.


We see this in action in Egypt today, where the same arguments and even the same phrases used by the Moslem Brotherhood’s leaders in Cairo are repeated, almost verbatim by the imams in the smallest villages.


The last of the great Islamic polymaths, Ibn Rushd, (known as Averroes in the West) was a contemporary of Maimonides in Cordoba. He tried desperately to maintain and foster the Greek philosophical tradition within Islam, but failed because politics and religion within Islam are so intertwined. As I mentioned earlier, Islam needs a political state to enforce its laws, and Islamic political leaders need the approval of the clergy to be considered legitimate.


The banning of dissent satisfies the needs of both parties. The way it is usually done, is to charge the person in question with such crimes as heresy and blasphemy—heinous, but indefinable cardinal sins in Islam. Ibn Rushd, for example, was banished for heresy and his books burned. In countries run by more secular Arab leaders, “crimes against the state,” or “sowing public discord,” of “fostering terrorism,” no less indefinable crimes, serve the same purpose.


In the end, education, in the form of madrassas, or religious academies, became the primary educational institutions in Moslem lands, and the exclusive fiefdoms of the clerics. For that reason, independent bodies devoted to knowledge based on other than religious teachings, such as universities, never developed in Islamic countries until recently. Even more importantly, translation of foreign texts into Arabic ended almost completely.


As a result, scientific exploration by independent-thinking individuals began to peter out as well because what today are often called “core subjects” (math, physics, biology and foreign languges) were not being taught; and rote learning became accepted practice within the whole Islamic world.


Although historians have usually attributed the end of the golden age to events such as the Crusades, the reconquista in Spain and the Mongol sacking of Baghdad, the fact is that Arab society had already become intellectually fossilized because it no longer had a core of independent thinkers who were trained and capable of coming up with imaginative solutions to new threats and challenges.


The results of this turn of events are highly visible today.


A study by the journal “Physics Today,” found that Moslem countries have an average of 9 scientists, engineers and technicians per thousand population compared to a world average of 42. There are now about 1800 universities in Moslem lands, but only 312 of them have scholars who have published journal articles. Most of these “modern universities,” by the way, are in non-Arab states such as Turkey, Iran, Malaysia and Pakistan.


Although there are approximately 1.6 billion Moslems, only two have ever won a Nobel prize for science. And, although Spain is hardly an intellectual superpower, according to a UN study, it translates more books in a single year than the entire Arab word has translated in the last thousand years.


A survey of current Arab science by the prestigious scientific journal Nature found only three areas of science in which Islamic countries excel—desalination, falconry and camel reproduction.


One major reason why this happened, which is never discussed in the media, is that after al-Ghazali, the Moslem world tended to view knowledge in much the same way that modern Arab leaders have come to view other natural resources—as a fixed quantity that has been granted by God and can only be renewed when and if God wishes to reveal more of His secrets. And, as I mentioned earlier, at any time, God could choose to change all accepted premises about the natural world, so the study of the natural world was perceived to be a waste of time.


In other words, the Arab leaders have had a rentier mindset—one in which people believe they can take natural resources, but don’t feel obliged to invest in alternatives to their reliance on those natural resources…alternatives that can sustain an economy over time, even after the resources have run out.


In effect, throughout the Arab world, we have seen the rentier mindset applied to intellectual resources as well.


Thus even when Moslem countries were defeated in war by technologically-superior weaponry, their response, as was the case among the so-called “Young Turks,” was to try to buy this knowledge, rather than develop indigenous responses. We see similar examples today in the Gulf States today, which are trying to buy or sponsor whole western-style universities without changing the rote system of education in primary and secondary schools that inhibit the individual thinking that is crucial to any university’s success.


All of which brings us back to the rebellions today. The major thing that you have to remember is that these rebellions have been “rebellions against” not “rebellions for.” Not one of the opposition groups in any of the Arab countries where the revolts have taken place has proposed an agenda for change. Just going to the voting booth does not guarantee a change in policies.


So, in the recent election campaigns there have been a lot of slogans, but not much more. The Moslem Brotherhood, for example, claims that “Islam is the solution.” But it doesn’t say what it is a solution to—to high unemployment? To low agricultural productivity? To a paucity of marketable patents?


Likewise, the Salafists call for a return a pristine and pious past. But we have already seen that that past is one of the main reasons why Moslems have had such a difficulty in coping with the challenges of modernity.


In both cases, nostalgia is no practical way of dealing with pressing issues. In fact it stands in the way. It has produced what Fouad Ajami has labeled “a political tradition of self-pity.”


Thus, instead of confronting issues directly, what we have been seeing today is an attempt to use the same techniques employed in the past to flee from dealing with those very issues.


The need to maintain “national honour” is the excuse most often given for a failure or a refusal to confront difficult problems. Thus, for example, the ruling military junta in Egypt, at the very time that the economy was collapsing and the country’s foreign exchange reserves were being dangerously depleted, turned down an offer from the IMF for a loan on very advantageous terms. The reason given as that accepting such a loan would be dishonorable because it could be understood to be an act of Western colonialism. Likewise, despite their chronic food shortages, the Egyptians refuse to accept Israeli agricultural advice because to do so is also perceived to be dishonorable.


As well, conspiracy theories abound. Colonialism, which has been long gone from the area, is still being blamed for any and all faults in the existing social system. And of course, anti-Zionism remains the fall-back position when all other arguments and excuses fail.


Replacing these comforting but counter-productive escape mechanisms with ijtihad and an educational system designed to promote original thought—and not jut introducing formalistic democracy—may, in the end, be the biggest challenge the Islamic world is facing today.


Some New Middle East Strategic Equations

Instead of discussing each country and political entity separately, in this article I would like to look at the current situation thematically. My thesis is that the media have been so preoccupied with day-to-day events, that most of the pundits and commentators have failed analyze and methodically examine where the countries in the region are going and where they are likely to be in the next five or ten years. In other words, I would like to take you on a balloon ride to look at the forests and not the trees.


I would also like to begin this article a bit differently than is usual. I want first to give you a conclusion I have come to…and only then begin at the beginning.


The conclusion is that many of the events and trends we are seeing today are the direct product of centuries of Arab history and Islamic culture—not some sudden or new intellectual flowering. And the reason why the media have ignored some of the most significant trends is that they keep looking for something new in the story because they believe that they have already exhausted previous subjects.


That, by the way, is why, with the exception of particularly gruesome videos that emerge from Syria for example, the daily killing there has virtually disappeared from the television news headlines.


And that is also is why the pundits, as was the case during the first round of elections for the president of Egypt, were so surprised when their predictions do not come true.


The real place to look for meaning in many of the current events is to seek it by delving into the past.


The fact is that few journalists have studied the history and culture of the region, so they tend to get trends wrong, misinterpret events, or simply describe occurrences with jaw-opening awe—not just in the Arab world, but in Israel too. For example, think about all the media brouhaha that followed Israel’s decision to free more than a thousand Palestinian prisoners in return for the release of Gilad Shalit. Try as they might, most of the pundits couldn’t understand the logic—or the long Jewish history of “pidyan shvuim” (ransoming captives) that lay behind the decision.


But now let’s look at a few of the major trends in detail.


On the surface, the situation in Syria, Egypt and Libya appears to be chaotic. If one looks only at the videos of what is going on in the streets in Homs, Sana, Cairo and Tripoli, that is the natural conclusion that any normal human being would come to. The pundits have tried to explain the ongoing violence as, depending upon the country, battles between secularists and Islamists, fights between Sunnis and Shiites, and conflicts between members of the old regime and revolutionaries.


This is all true. But to my mind, there is a far more fundamental conflict going on in all these countries. Probably the most striking result of the past year’s events is that the century-long battle within the Arab world over whether an Arab state should be based on nationalism or Islamic, universalist traditions is now, finally, coming to a head. In other words, will the Arab states seek a place in the global order, which is based on Western theories of nation states and national rights, or turn inward and become more isolationist and theocratic?


Islam’s idealized political state has always been the caliphate.


In theory, at least, a caliphate is supposed to be run by a strong leader who can control the centrifugal forces of tribalism. That leader is supposed to be appointed by a council of Islamic scholars, called the “Shura,” and then to live in a condominium relationship with these self-appointed masters of Sharia law.


In the past, this basic concept, when modified to allow for hereditary rule, led to the creation of three caliphate-type empires—the Umayyad, the Abbasid and finally the Ottoman Empire, which only expired finally after World War I.


To devout Moslems, the reestablishment of the caliphate has always been the default option and devout desire–especially when other systems of government fail. One of the major developments of recent times has been a growing desire by Islamic fundamentalists in both the Moslem Brotherhood and the Salafist groups to introduce a “purer” caliphate than those that ran great empires. There were four such non-hereditary caliphates, each of which lasted for only a short period in the interregnum between Mohammed’s death and the rise of the Umayyad empire, which brought with it hereditary political rule for the first time in Islamic-governed territories.


An alternative to rule by a caliphate or an aristocratic family began to emerge in the Levantine countries in the late 19th century, when European culture began to penetrate the Moslem world after the European colonialists began moving inland and out of their isolated trading outposts on the coasts.


However, from the outset, the very idea of nationalism as a political framework was considered by fundamentalist believers in Islam to be a politically-cancerous foreign implant that challenged the very premise of Islam governance—that Islam is the only true, universal religion and way of life…and therefore any government based on Moslem precepts must, ipso facto, be pan-national.


Nationalism, as a political concept, entered the Islamic world as a result of the work of largely-native Christian political prophets, who had always feared and suffered under Islamic hegemony, Moslem Arabs who had studied in Europe and had become at least partially secularized, and the European colonialists who believed they had a duty to “enlighten” the locals. From the outset, though, all these individuals and groups were considered by Moslem believers to be heretics.


By the 1930s, political intellectual life in the main cities of the most important Arab states had become largely divided between the nationalists, the so-called “modernizers,” and those who sought an Islamic renewal. The best-known examples were the Islamic activists in Egypt who formed the Moslem Brotherhood and the secularists who went on to form the Baath parties in Syria and Iraq.


Once the colonialists left or were driven from the region after World War II, (and left behind them multi-tribal nation states often ruled by unpopular monarchs) a hybrid ideology, called “Arab nationalism,” which viewed the entire Arab world as one nation, swept the main countries in the Levant. Its primary preacher was Egypt’s Gamal Abdul Nasser. However, as had so often happened in the past, tribal affiliations, regional jealousies and realpolitik quickly undermined Nasser’s project to unite the whole Arab world under Egypt’s tutelage.


Instead, in the years following Nasser’s death, and up to the recent Arab revolts, the system of governance in the Arab countries in the Levant and North Africa became one of heavy-handed authoritarianism, based on crony politics and backed by support from the military.


Now, of course, this form of authoritarianism has been challenged by the rebels in the streets.


Although the media have focused almost entirely on the rise of the Moslem Brotherhood and the Salafists in Egypt, an even more striking example of what is going on in the Arab Mediterranean states has been taking place in Israel’s back door. The Palestinian state, envisaged in the Oslo agreements and the cornerstone of the so-called “two state solution,’ has now, effectively been divided into two quasi states. One is Islamist and is based in Gaza, and the other, which, at least titularly, is based on nationalist principles, remains in power in the West Bank.


Since the revolts began in some of the Arab states, most of the pundits have held up the Turkish model as one that the Islamists could and even should emulate. But the Turkish model had one basic fault that makes it unacceptable to the Arab Islamists. At least in theory, Turkey remains a secular state.


To my mind, a far more interesting experiment in Islamic rule is now going on in tiny Gaza—and if it succeeds, it could affect the course of events throughout the Arab world—and it could be emulated in places like Egypt and Syria as well..


Islamic rule in Gaza is now six years old. It has already gone through many of the phases other Arab countries are only beginning to experience. In the past 5 years, Gaza has become the only place on earth where there is a government that operates according to Islamic political traditions. Even Saudi Arabia is less purely Islamic because it is run by a hereditary monarchy.


As a result, it is fascinating to look at the compromises that the leadership in Gaza has had to make during this period because the other countries that are undergoing upheavals are likely to have to confront the same or similar issues.


The biggest difference between the Saudis and the Gazans, besides the vast difference in wealth, is that the leadership in Gaza is chosen by a secretive Shura.


Shura elections to the political leadership were held recently. Previously, the political leadership of Hamas had been assigned to the leaders residing in Syria, led by Khaled Mashaal.  After the Israeli assassinations of Sheikh Yassin and Abdel-Azziz Rantisi, the Damascus-based leaders were considered to be less vulnerable.


More importantly, the Damascus-based politicians were charged with ensuring Hamas’s survival in Gaza by negotiating deals to ensure the flow of funds and arms to Gaza via the Sinai. At least at the beginning of its rule, Hamas tried to implement its revolutionary ideology, and particularly its ideology of continuous anti-Israeli warfare. And to do so, it needed patrons willing to give it cash and guns.


At the same time, the armed wing of the movement was in the process of adopting a combination of traditional guerilla warfare and stand-off warfare, using rockets and missiles that had been newly-imported from Iran. The results, though, were devastating to the Gaza economy because Israel was capable of reacting with vastly superior military force and a blockade.


But even more importantly, Israel eventually adopted effective military countermeasures such as the increasingly-sophisticated border fence and the Iron-Dome anti-rocket defence system.


As a result, Hamas could then no longer use the battle against Israel as a diversion from what was becoming an increasingly desperate domestic economic situation.


As well, at about the same moment, the Syrian civil war had begun to turn, more and more, into a Sunni-Shia religious war. As a result, Hamas could no longer ask for support from both Shiite and Sunni states, and was forced to choose sides. In the end, after a lot of closed-door infighting, the Hamas Shura, which is Sunni, came down solidly in support of the Syrian Sunnis. Among other things, that meant abandoning Damascus as a base; and the Damascus-based leaders have now moved to places like Qatar and Egypt.


But it was not just the Shia-Sunni divisions that led Hamas to leave Damascus.


The uprising in Libya enabled Hamas to find a new source of weaponry—from smugglers who had looted the arms warehouses in Libya. A bonus was that the arms from Libya are more modern and more destructive than the ones Iran had been supplying.


The end result of all these events was that, during its last meeting, the Hamas Shura gave the local government leadership in Gaza all the most important political and military positions within Hamas. In particular, Ismail Haniyeh was elected as the head of Hamas’s political bureau—the top “civilian” political position in the movement.


One reason why the local leadership in Gaza was granted so much power was that, while the expatriate leadership could afford to remain ideologically pure and play politics, the local Gaza leadership had already had to begin creating real alternatives to the situation on the ground. Those alternatives involved finding compromises that were still within the framework of Sharia law.


For example, since August 2011, Hamas has imposed a one-sided “hudna” or a renewable cease-fire—something that is permitted even under the most stringent interpretation of Sharia law.


Israel has always rejected a “hudna” that was not accompanied by a change in Hamas’s charter that calls for the destruction of Israel.


So now we come to a new trend.


Just as Israel has acted unilaterally in the past, Hamas is now doing so as well in order to further its own interests, and those of its allies—especially the Egyptian Moslem Brotherhood. And Israel, for its own interests, has had to tacitly accept Hamas’s unilateral actions.


Among other things, Hamas has reportedly set up a new police task force to control what the Hamas leadership has been calling “rogue organizations”—in other words, groups that fire rockets into Israel without Hamas’s permission. The official reason given is that each time rockets are fired into Israel, this gives the Israelis an opportunity to test the Iron Dome anti-rocket system in real time and under real conditions—and thus to make improvements in the system.


The only time recently when these so-called “rogue organizations” were allowed to fire off rockets into Israel was after Israel initiated an attack in Gaza in March 2012, in the wake of an attack by members of the Popular Resistance committees, who had fired on Israelis in the Negev from positions in the Sinai.


The ability by the Israelis to improve the Iron Dome may be real, but it is hardly the main reason why Hamas has been acting as it has.


To begin with, the quiet also obviously benefits the Gazans.


And among other things, in return for the quiet, Israel, without any fanfare, has loosened the blockade it had imposed on Gaza. More food and fuel are being allowed to enter Gaza from Israel, and more Gaza produce has been allowed to be exported to Europe via Israeli ports.


In other words, because there is an unwillingness by both the Netanyahu government and the two Palestinian entities to negotiate a peace settlement, what we have been witnessing is the development of a set of relations based on a seeming oxymoron—an ongoing trade in “unilateral” actions between Israel and the Palestinians. The object has been to create a modicum of stability now, without any of the parties having to commit to long-term objectives.


The danger, of course, is that this is liable to create a super-stable situation again…one in which fundamental issues are not dealt with.


And when that happens, tensions invariably build to the point when even a small spark can create a social or political explosion, such as the one that led to the first Intifada.


I cannot emphasize enough, though, that today, there is less of a chance of a super-stable relationship than in the past for the simple reason that more actors, especially extremist Moslem groups based in the Sinai, have now entered the drama. The extremists, which include members of al Qaeda affiliates and international Jihadists, feel free to attack Israel from their desert redoubts even when this is inconvenient for Hamas. The problem that Israel then faces is that Israel’s hands are largely tied. It fears attacking inside Egypt because of the repercussions such a move would have. So, it attacks Gaza instead. This then forces Hamas to respond as well—especially if one of its members is injured or killed by the Israelis.


Ironically, though, small-scale violent events of this sort may actually benefit both Israel and Hamas because they release political tensions that might otherwise rise to intolerable levels.


But that is not the only trend to arise out of the current situation.


And now we get into a complex web of interactions, inducements and motivations that would make Machiavelli or Metternich proud.



But even before I enter the maze, I have to review a few points I have made in other articles.


First, Sunni Islam has no central leadership as such. It requires that a believer choose a scholar to use as a model and then to follow all of that scholar’s dictates. However, a scholar is not bound by any other scholar’s precedents—and not even his own previous decisions. The idea behind creating a Shura is that some format is needed so that the leadership can produce a working consensus among leading scholars for policies that will accord with Sharia law. Once the Shura decides on a policy, everyone in the movement is expected to obey its orders. In other words, the Shura takes on the same role for the group that individual scholar does for the individual member of the group.


For example, the Moslem Brotherhood’s victory in the first round of the Egyptian elections came as a surprise to many. But they shouldn’t have been surprised at all. The Brotherhood’s Shura had decided to back Mohammed Morsi and it then demanded that its followers follow the Shura’s decisions without question. Absolute discipline is one of the Brotherhood’s fundamental demands of its members.


It was initially believed by most pundits that the Brotherhood would try to avoid actually taking over the reins of government because it had no workable plans for resolving Egypt’s myriad social and economic problems. But rule was so tempting that the Brotherhood decided to break its previous promises and, having now won the presidency, it now has little choice but to confront Egypt’s endemic problems.


For that reason, just as Hamas needs the Brotherhood for moral, political, diplomatic and logistical support, the Brotherhood needs for Hamas to succeed in running its fiefdom in Gaza. That is because in its own interest, the Egyptian Moslem Brotherhood needs a working political model to accompany its otherwise-useless slogan that “Islam is the answer.”


Gaza and Egypt face similar problems, but on a vastly different scale. In particular, both economies have been devastated to the point where any amount of aid can only be a palliative.


In the period since Mubarak was ousted, Egypt’s foreign exchange reserves have dropped by two-thirds. Unemployment and the government budget deficit have both risen ominously. The government now has to pay about 17 percent in interest on the money it borrows to cover the deficit.


As well, and most people don’t realize this, Egypt is also a net importer of oil. In fact, the latest batch of tenders for supplying oil that the government has issued indicates that, as a minimum, in the second half of this year, Egypt, will be importing about 33 percent more diesel fuel, worth an estimated 1 billion dollars, than it did last year.


Thus, the Egyptian Moslem Brotherhood needs Hamas as never before because it needs a place where small pilot programmes in running a failed state according to Sharia law can be set up.


The need has been given greater urgency because the novice Brotherhood politicians who were recently elected to the Egyptian parliament have been shown to be not merely inexperienced neophytes, but also incapable of confronting real issues—and thus coming up with any practical solutions to the country’s ills. Prior to its dismissal by the Supreme Constitutional Court, the only substantive debates in the parliament were over religious issues and how and when to apply Sharia law.


Those debates highlighted one of the central problems any Arab government anywhere will have to face in the future.


And now we come to one of the most important issues confronting Arab politicians that, to the best of my knowledge, has not been discussed anywhere.


As I mentioned earlier, every devout Moslem is expected to choose a scholar to emulate in both thought and deed. This means that when it comes to politics, a political official is expected to be less of a representative of a particular constituency—as is the case in the West—and more of a leader who is charged with telling his supporters what to think and how to act. This approach and expectation, which is derived from the Moslems’ ancient past, applies equally to so-called secular politicians as it does to hard-line Islamists.


We saw an example of this deeply-embedded belief in a study published in 2012 by the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies. A poll taken among Israeli Arabs found that 63 percent of these Israeli citizens favoured some form of national service. Not only that, 73 percent said that they would agree to Israel defining itself as a “Jewish State” if the Arabs in the country were guaranteed equal rights. However, another study at Haifa University, which agreed with the Jerusalem Institute’s findings, also discovered that if, as part of the questioning, the interviewees were told that their political leaders opposed both proposals, the level of support for these two proposals fell to 24 percent.


When the Israeli Arabs’ secular leaders in the Balad and Ram Tal parties were questioned about the findings, they were not surprised at all. As Balad leader, Jamal Zahalka, put it: “That’s our job…to lead…to tell people what to think.”


That belief, by the way, is one of the reasons why it has been so easy for so many Arab politicians to avoid taking responsibility for their failures and instead to blame Israel for their domestic policy failings.


Parenthetically, this situation goes a long way to explaining why so many Israeli Arab leaders have focused on almost every issue except acquiring real political equality for their constituents. Their incapacity to negotiate with the Jews has led them to place issues such as Israeli attacks on Gaza at the forefront of their public remarks, and to tell their voters that issues such as the Israeli naval attack on the Mavi Marmara, (the Turkish ship that tried to break Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza), are the ones that should be given primary place on the Israeli Arabs’ political agenda.


The problem that this attitude has created outside Israel is that the Shura policy-makers have never had to confront real-world issues. Generally-speaking Moslem clerics have studied nothing more than religious texts and have always been able to live off charity. They have never had to think about issues such as crop yields or replacing a collapsing sewage system. That is why one of the leaders of the Egyptian Brotherhood was able to say with a straight face that even though his country was facing economic collapse, it should not accept an IMF loan. The reason he gave was that the loan required Egypt to pay interest, and interest is forbidden under Sharia law. Therefore, as he put it, if he had to choose between the loan and, in his words “going to hell,” he would forego the loan.


But Gaza and Egypt together have another reason why they now want to come up with imaginative solutions.


As a result of the civil war in Syria, the Syrian branch of the Brotherhood has managed to resurrect itself, phoenix-like from the ashes of Alawite oppression. As a result, it has also begun exerting greater influence over the assemblage of opposition forces in Turkey. In particular, it has been taking increasing control of the relief stations that the opposition has established inside Syria. This grassroots work is similar to the strategy adopted years ago by the Moslem Brotherhood in Egypt, and it could very well influence which parties in Syria emerge with an upper hand if and when the Assad regime falls.


If the Syrian rebels manage to create autonomous areas within Syria, as they now hope to do, someone is going to have to rule those areas successfully if the rebels are to gain a critical mass of supporters elsewhere in the country.


Who will run those areas, and whether they can be run properly has become a matter of paramount strategic importance to the Egyptian branch of the Brotherhood.


The reason is that, according to the Israeli security services, there has also been a significant rise in the number of world jihadists, whom the Syrian government allowed to sneak into Iraq, now returning to Syria and organizing to overthrow the Assad regime through the use of extreme violence. These jihadists are direct competitors to the Moslem Brotherhood and they very well could eventually form a core of violent, anti-Brotherhood, regionally-destabilizing group if and when Assad is overthrown.


So what the two Brotherhoods both need to do is to plan for how to deal with public unrest and public issues quickly—despite the fact that their countries’ treasuries have been gutted.


In other words, at the very moment that the so-called “axis of evil” of Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Gaza that President Bush spoke of, is under pressure or possibly even collapsing, an axis of the Moslem Brotherhood, ranging from Tunisia to Syria is in the making—and Gaza, as a test site for self-governance under Sharia law, may be taking on an outsized role in that process…that is, if Gaza’s leaders can get their act together.


And that is a big “if.” With no practical, tested advice currently available from their Moslem Brotherhood mentors, the leadership in Gaza now has little choice but to rely more and more on its own decision-making.


Israel has now been very gently but warily entering this mire because it has no choice. It cannot stand back and say something like “it’s the Egyptians’” or “It’s the Gazans’ problem.”


That is because Israel’s security is not just dependent on military force. There are an almost innumerable number of ways in which domestic events and chaos in Egypt and Syria cannot but have an impact on Israel.


For example, a very serious issue that could have a catastrophic impact on Israel, but which has, again, been ignored by the media is that the recent instability in Egypt has meant that two diseases there have reached epidemic proportions. They are foot and mouth disease that affects cattle and Newcastle’s disease that can devastate chicken runs within days. Both diseases are endemic to this region, but Israel has been largely successful in eliminating them. However, should the Egyptian epidemics spread to Gaza, Gaza could become a continuous source of infection in Israeli chicken runs and cattle herds.


The only way to prevent the devastation of the agricultural sector in Israel would be to set up a joint programme with the Gazans. But that is easier said than done because, as I said, Israel refuses to negotiate with Hamas. It needs a go-between whom it can trust. A trade in unilateral actions can only take the two sides just so far.


And now the mire gets thicker.


From all the hints we have been getting, Israel, in quiet backroom talks, has been trying to manipulate the current situation to its advantage—not by making any dramatic moves, but by nudging the Egyptians and the Gazans to create a new modus vivendi that would go beyond trading unilateral actions.


From the dribs and drabs of comments that have been leaked from Israeli security sources, it would appear as though the Israelis are trying to nudge Egypt and Gaza into a de facto condominium relationship with Israel. And the key hinge of this relationship will be the Egyptian military. In fact, it is becoming ever clearer that for all the bluster about civilian rule in Egypt, the position of the Egyptian military, has been strengthened in recent months.


Just look at the facts as we now know them. From all the leaks we have been given, Israel has probably already agreed to increase the number of Egyptian infantry battalions permitted in the Sinai under the peace treaty, from 12 to 16. Not only would this allow the Egyptians to better fight the growing terrorist presence in the peninsula, it would also be a sop to both the Egyptian military and to the country’s newly-elected president, whoever he turns out to be.


Both the military and all the candidates for president had made a revision of the peace treaty—especially the clauses dealing with the Egyptian army’s presence in the Sinai—a central issue. A formal “unilateral” decision by Israel to increase the Egyptian troop numbers in the Sinai could thus provide the Egyptian leadership with a chest-thumping way of climbing down from the diplomatic branch they have climbed out on—and bolster the prestige of the military.


But Israel has already done more than that.


In recent months, Israel has strengthened the Egyptian military’s position immeasurably by making it the primary conduit between Jerusalem and those Egyptian/Palestinian groups that have sworn never to negotiate with Israel—specifically Hamas, The Moslem Brotherhood and the Salafists. For example, the cease fire in April 2012, the release of Gilad Shalit (the Israeli soldier held hostage by Hamas) and the ending of a hunger strike by Palestinian Arabs in Israeli prisons, were all negotiated under the auspices of, and with the direct participation of the Egyptian military.


Another, particularly fascinating exercise in Egyptian military mediation is currently under way—and it may very well be a signpost of how things will develop behind closed doors in the future.


Gaza has been suffering from a major fuel shortage. Egypt, because of its precarious economic position, can no longer afford to subsidize oil products used by the Gazans. In 2012, Qatar donated a tanker-load of petroleum products to Gaza. Israel, as usual, demanded that it be unloaded in Ashkelon, and then be shipped overland to Gaza. But the Qataris and Hamas could not accept that demand. So, instead, the cargo was offloaded in the port of Suez.


The problem that then arose was how to get the fuel from Suez to Gaza—especially when Sinai had turned into a kind of wild west zone. This then put the Moslem Brotherhood and Hamas in a fix. Hamas initially demanded that the fuel be delivered via the Rafah crossing between Egypt and the Sinai.


The Israelis refused to allow the Rafiah crossing to be opened to the passage of goods without Israel being present there to monitor for potential weapons deliveries. The Gazans refused to let Israel have a presence at the border crossing.


But probably most important of all, the Egyptian military couldn’t guarantee the safe passage of the fuel without bringing in heavily-armed reinforcements that are forbidden under the peace agreement. The first trial shipments of fuel were all hijacked by the Sinai Bedouin, and the trucks burned.


The deal that was eventually negotiated allows the Egyptians to load the fuel onto tanker trucks in Suez. Immediately prior to the departure of the trucks, the Egyptian army has been permitted by Israel to bring reinforcements into the Sinai in order to create a safe corridor for the tanker convoy. The tanker trucks then enter Israel and from there drive the two kilometers or so to the Kerem Shalom crossing into Gaza.




So, in conclusion, let me just review some of the trends in the region as I see them.


The Egyptian Moslem Brotherhood believed that it was riding a wave—that it could replace the nationalism on which the previous authoritarian government was based, with a universalist, caliphate-type Islamic system of rule.


It was influencing political developments across the Levant and North Africa—from Tunisia to Syria.


Casting its previous caution to the wind, it broke its promise not to run for the presidency and not to run is such great numbers for the Egyptian parliament. Its authoritarian and hierarchical system of rule and its organizational skills enabled it to succeed at the polls.


But it is now caught in a bind because it has no policies to deal with any of the basic issues Egypt is facing. Hamas, which has been in power now for five years, faced many of the same problems in Gaza when it set out to rule there. Therefore, it can and is acting as a model for the Brotherhood, its patron, on how to compromise, while still keeping to Sharia law.


The most important of these compromises has involved the consolidation of a tri-cornered relationship between the Brotherhood, Hamas and the Egyptian military, not least because the military has become virtually the sole conduit to Israel.


Israel has been doing its best to strengthen that conduit, largely by giving extensive publicity to the Egyptian military’s negotiating skills and its ability to forge high-profile agreements with Israel.


The big losers so far have been the young people in Egypt who forged the revolt there, but who, because they had neither the organizational skills nor a set of policies that were attractive to constituents, were incapable of competing with the organizational skills of the Moslem Brotherhood and the old regime. Western pundits who believed that Egypt was on the cusp of creating a Western-style liberal democracy have been proven wrong.


Following the recent elections in Egypt, it is now clear that the revolt there did nothing to modify the system of governance there. The old political division between an authoritarian religious movement and an authoritarian military continues to define how the political system in Egypt is run.


Therefore, it is likely that the institutional needs of the Brotherhood and the military will continue to guide policy-making in Egypt—and the two groups’ relations with Israel.


That is to Israel’s advantage because, as the situation in Gaza has demonstrated, both these Egyptian groups can impose discipline on their members once deals are made. And both, for their own reasons, are suspicious of and seek to control populist politicians who call, for, among other things a continuation of violence against Israel.






Middle Eastern Political Behaviour is Spreading World-Wide


Over the years, one of the greatest problems I have faced is trying to explain to folks abroad that politics in the Middle East operates on different premises than it does in their countries—and so so-called “solutions” concocted in Washington or Brussels may be of no value because they fail to deal with what are core issues in Middle Eastern countries, but which are considered to be secondary or even irrelevant matters in other countries.


For example, I don’t know how many times I have been told sternly or in exasperation: “Why can’t these people just sit down and work out their problems?” or “Why can’t you get your act together?”


Worse still, too many foreigners became convinced that they had arrived at the secret for resolving those problems. Too often, of course, those so-called “solutions” were based on a knowledge of the situation here that was only partial or outright wrong. And when their ideas were proven to be faulty, instead of reassessing the positions that they had held, many of these pontificators dug in their heels, let their emotions take over, and then adopted extremist positions in support of or in opposition to one side or another in the various Middle East disputes. The so-called BDS movement (Boycott, divest, sanctions) of Israel is one example. Unthinking support for any and all Israeli government actions by some Jews abroad is another.


The underlying reason for their frustration was their assumption that the system for conflict resolution that they had been used to, and that they wanted to employ here, applies universally.  The thing is that it doesn’t…for all sorts of historical and cultural reasons.


There is tremendous irony in all of this because I have come to the conclusion that, in recent years, social and economic and political changes that have been going on abroad have led many foreign nations to begin behaving like Middle Easterners…without realizing it.




Recently, Middle Eastern states have been going through an unusually chaotic period. But so too have other countries.


One need only look at what the economic crisis has been doing to almost everyone in the world.


Even more interestingly, though, there are great parallels between what is currently happening in the Middle East and what is taking place elsewhere in the world. The thing is: nobody seems to be noticing.


That is because, on the surface, it would not appear to be so.


In Israel, we have been witnessing a series of devastating state comptroller reports on incompetence and foot-dragging by government ministers. The social revolution is once again raising its head because the government has failed to deal  with some of the most important issues of concern to the average Israeli, such as the cost of housing and the fact that food prices are, on average, 30 percent higher than they are in Europe.


In the Arab world, Islamism has been making rapid gains and Syrian President Assad keeps slaughtering his people—as does President Bashar in Sudan. Iraq has gone back to waging what is in effect a civil war. And Egypt remains a political and economic basket case.


And, given the current level of instability, it has been only natural that the two non-Arab states bordering the region, Turkey and Iran, have been competing for hegemony in Fertile Crescent.


In Europe, the economic crisis continues—and continues to affect us—because the politicians there can’t get their act together. And the United States is so riven politically that compromise on even basic issues has become almost impossible in Washington.


When viewed as discrete events, there doesn’t seem to be much commonality among all these events. But, there is not only a pattern, there are also many unifying elements that lie behind almost everything of import that we have been witnessing in the past few years around the world. Unfortunately, as I have just said, these similarities have gone largely unnoticed, and thus finding solutions to the problems has been delayed.


As invariably happens at times like this, when political, social and economic instability seems to be pervasive, it has been only natural for people to look for guidance from history, and for lessons on how leaders in the past coped or failed to cope with similar periods of instability.


Maybe the best example of a person doing just that today is Germany’s Angela Merkel, for whom the lessons learned from the tragedies in Germany in the 1930s are at the forefront of her mind in all her negotiations on how to deal with the European economic crisis.


One problem that has arisen in its sharpest form from this examination of the past, though, is that, because each nation-state in the world has a different history, most of the world’s leaders cannot agree on how history should be interpreted and which lessons should be taken from history.


However, if people looked back far enough in history—before nation-states came into being in the 18th century—they could find the explanation for many of the issues facing us today.


I think that the best place to start an examination of what is happening world wide is to look at the history of and what is happening in the Middle East. And that history goes way back.


Based on archeological findings, it is not unreasonable to assume that, since the Fertile Crescent was the first place where agricultural settlement took place, the art of politics as we know it was also invented in this region. Prior to that, bands of hunter-gatherers undoubtedly negotiated with each other, and even went into battle over territorial rights.


But it was only with the development of the idea of a division of labour in the newly-founded cities that paid diplomats, courtiers, tax collectors, accountants and professional soldiers began to make their appearance. There was a need, in effect, to invent the idea of a middle class that would not only provide goods and services, but also be able to earn enough to pay a lot of taxes. Prior to that time, pastoralists and hunter-gatherers, who were members of extended families, clans or tribes, simply didn’t need such services because responsibilities for communal services, such as mutual protection, were shared by all the members of the group.


In order to control the centrifugal forces of residual, independence-oriented tribalism, these new urban agglomerations needed strong leaders capable of putting up walls around the cities for defence and of putting down revolts inside their cities. They also needed to develop and enforce a common value system to bond all the people with the glue of a set of agreed-upon laws, visions and beliefs. Hammurabi’s code, for example, was the product of just such an effort.


It was also for that reason that, from the very beginning, politics (the practice of rule) and religion (which is essentially a platform for expressing fears, beliefs and visions) became intimately enmeshed. In Egypt there were god-kings, and in other places, shamans and religious practitioners were at the top or near the top of the social hierarchy.


In places where that melding was most successful, the result was the establishment of whole empires.


But this new system of rule was also a mixed blessing.


Once they were no longer mobile, people needed protection from the vagaries of those who sought to rule, from natural disasters such as floods and drought over which the rulers had no control, and from brigands who did not accept the rules of the society that had been established.  And so a reliance on mutual assistance through personal commitments to blood relations in the form of extended families and tribes persisted.


Tribalism only really began to ebb in the Western world with the advent of industrialization, the development of the concept of self-governing nation-states, and the evolution of the concept that every individual has certain inalienable rights. Industrialization meant that people were no longer tied to the land or to their places of birth. They were thus more mobile because they could seek work in the mills and steel plants in the cities—or even journey half-way around the world to new-found lands. The nation-state demanded that people show their primary allegiance to the state and not to a third cousin four times removed. And the idea of inherent rights gave individuals the opportunity to defend their personal interests, even when those interests went against the interests of the tribe, in independent courts of law.


But before I go on, I have to define how I use the word “tribe.” Tribes are groupings of people who adhere to a particular culture that may include similar forms of dress, similar ceremonies, similar food habits, and similar dogmas…even if those dogmas have no scientific or historically-proven basis. In particular, established group practices are believed to over-ride any individual rights. Not surprisingly, each tribe considers itself, and its beliefs, to be superior to any other group—and therefore it does not necessarily accept, and may even actively try to undermine the norms that bind other people living in close proximity.


Throughout history, the only effective challenge to tribalism has been the establishment of a strong, centralized government, with adherents to that government’s value system willing to sacrifice their own personal interests or safety to protect this central authority. Such governments have been based on religion, geographical residence, or in more modern times, adherence to an accepted set of secular values.


By the way, by religion, I also mean full-blown ideologies such as communism.


The chaos we are witnessing in the Western world today is the product of the fact that many of the basic foundation stones on which whole societies have been built over recent centuries are crumbling.


As a result of globalization, people can no longer move to find work because it is the factories that have now moved. And in many cases, the owners of the business don’t even have to pay for moving a factory or a set of offices. All they need is an internet connection and much of the work can be outsourced.


Globalization has also meant that nation-states can no longer impose measures to protect local jobs as they once could and did. And the rights of individuals have been eroded because those who control the finances in the world perceive that they are no longer dependent just on their own nation-states for their wealth. For that reason, they no longer have the same commitment to preserving the values of the nation-states or taking an interest in the welfare of their customers as they once did. The idea is that if people in your country can’t afford to buy your brand of shampoo because they are unemployed, that’s still okay because you can always sell the same stuff elsewhere in the world.


Since the US has long been a model of how successful nation-states should behave, I will use the United States as my case in point. Then, I will discus what is going on in the Middle East.


Most successful nation-states have a single, fundamental guiding premise or ethos on which its society is based—and to which everyone is expected to subscribe. Among other things, that social contract helps keep tribalism at bay. Almost invariably, chaos develops when that elemental premise is challenged or undermined or no longer performs the service for which it was designed.


Since the fall of the Second Temple, the premise among Jews has been that “Kol HaYehudim Arevim zeh el zeh.” All Jews are responsible for the fate of all other Jews.


In the United States, the national premise is the very opposite of that of the Jews…that every individual is born with certain inalienable rights. Therefore the primary duty of the state is to protect those rights.


The foremost of these rights is liberty for the individual. The American Revolution was justified by the belief that this right to liberty had been trodden on by the British monarch. Among Jews, of course, the central ethos is not that of individual liberty, but of responsibility to other Jews and a duty to obey God’s commandments.


A corollary to the premise that all people have the right to liberty, though, is that each individual then does have a duty—to protect the state that enshrines his or her rights. In other words, just as in times past, politics and religion were inseparable, in the secular United States individual rights and individual responsibilities to the nation, but not necessarily to other individuals within that nation, were always intertwined and inseparable. That was why the robber barons of the 19th century felt no guilt in gouging California farmers seeking to market their produce in the East. The railroad barons were proud that they had united their country with bands of steel, but felt no obligation to deal with the fate of those individuals who used their services.


Any immigrant who chooses to live in the United States is expected to accept the idea that individual liberty is a supreme value before acquiring citizenship.


But what then happens when there is no agreement, or the previous agreement breaks down?


Invariably, the result, as I said, is instability and widespread confusion and uncertainty. At that point, people tend to seek anchors in the storm whirling around them. Most of those anchors, however, involve taking extreme positions that may not have any inherent logic.


A good example of this is the Tea Party, which takes both an extreme position on individual rights, such as its opposition to compulsory medical care payments and a no less extreme position on the right of the state to impose norms on a society…the best example being the party’s position against abortion.


When different groups take different extreme positions, the result is polarization within the society and the breakdown in the basis for all consensual government—the ability to compromise. The stalemate in Congress these days is a perfect example of this phenomenon.


But a much more important outcome of political polarization is the revival of tribalism, as blood relations or like minds join together for what they perceive to be self-protection or the opportunity for self-aggrandizement during this period of turmoil. Since financial deregulation began more than 3 decades ago, the bankers, the hedge fund managers, and those who operate private equity funds have all exhibited tribal traits.


What do I mean by that, and how do those traits affect us directly?


Well, in order to explain that, I have to provide you with an example of effective, anti-tribal nation-state leadership that you can use as a comparison. And the best example I can think of is the presidency of Harry Truman.


Harry Truman was a smart man. In fact, he is probably the most under-rated president in American history. To begin with, he was a fervent democrat (with a small “d”), and believer in pluralism and the sharing of responsibility and national wealth. The Marshal Plan encapsulated almost everything he stood for.


The reasons for his success in elevating the entire Western world from the chaotic after-affects of World War II can be best summed up in two of his more pithy statements. He kept a sign on his desk reading “The buck stops here.” In other words he held himself accountable to all the people of the United States for everything that happened in the US government during his watch.


He also used to say “It’s amazing what can be accomplished if you do not care who gets the credit.”


Unfortunately for us all, it’s too bad that neither of these statements applies to the Middle East.


In recent weeks, we have all seen examples of the refusal by leaders in this region to apply Truman’s maxims. In Israel, Netanyahu tried to take all the credit for putting out the Carmel forest fire. But then, when the state comptroller handed down his detailed report on how and why Israel’s biggest forest was destroyed, not one of the politicians criticized by the comptroller, including Bibi, was willing to take responsibility for the massive failure in leadership.


In the Arab world, one can trace all the street protests to the failure by all the leaders there to abide by Truman’s precepts.


But as we have seen in recent years, his two aphorisms no longer apply in the United States as well. In its stead, tribalism has reared its head. One problem that those concerned with the collapse in governance in Congress in particular fail to recognize is that tribalism can and has reached the United States.


There have been a lot of articles written recently about the rise of a class system of haves and have-nots in the United States. That is because class warfare was a familiar theme up to the collapse of the Soviet Union, and so it has been only natural to analogize between the current situation and something that happened in the recent past and is familiar to most people. As well, Marxism continues to be studied and debated in academe. As a result, most of these critics cannot recognize tribalism even when they see it.


The current situation in Libya is highly instructive in his regard. The Libyans recently held elections. The two main Islamist parties were defeated by a coalition of tribally-based parties. Because the Islamists were defeated for the first time since real elections began taking place in the Arab world, pundits in the West, and especially in the United Statesm, almost universally declared that “the liberals had won.”


Of course nothing of the sort had happened. Almost all the independent non-Islamist party candidates were either clan and tribal leaders, or people designated by the tribes to run for office on their behalf. If you look at a map of the election results, you will find that the voting was almost strictly along clan lines. Liberal democracy was never an issue in the election. The preservation of tribal rights was. But that issue was apparently invisible to the Western commentators.


A further, intensive look at the politics of the Middle East is therefore very helpful in explaining patterns of behaviour we now see appearing in the West, because no country in this region, not even Israel, has ever managed to replace tribalism with a true secular nation-state.


Tribalism, whether in the form of religious groupings such as the Haredim in Israel, or the Druze and Alawites in Syria, or formal tribes such as the Bedouin or the tribal groupings in Libya, or ethnic groups such as the Kurds, have continued to retain considerable power in countries throughout the Middle East.


In the Arab states, tribalism and the discipline needed to maintain tribal cohesion through punishments doled out in the name of “family honour,” both of which date back to the pre-Islamic an even pre-Biblical times, continue to infuse political considerations. Therefore, with such a long history of behaviour to guide us, it is possible to make direct useful comparisons, for example, between the Tuaregs in Libya, the Haredim in Mea Shearim, and the brokers on Wall Street


So now, here are a few salient points on how tribal politics plays itself out in this region.


One of the most important things to keep in mind is that liberal democracies are dependent on a belief in pluralism and majority rule. For liberal democracies to thrive, they need a strong, educated Middle Class to provide new ideas, entrepreneurs, and lots of taxes.


Tribalist politics although usually believed to be highly authoritarian, is based on consensus by members of the group. It resists novelty or invention and so does not require that there be a strong educated class. Generally-speaking, entrepreneurship and external regulation in any form is frowned on because it might upset the status quo. So too, a broad education is resisted because it might lead some members of the tribe to question the tribe’s basic precepts.


Most importantly, tribalist governance within the boundaries of a multi-cultural nation-state is essentially parasitic because it requires that the majority support the lifestyle that the minority rapidly becomes accustomed to after it seizes power.


And finally, when tribal minorities take power or at least take charge of the public agenda, they tend to do so without any self-felt need to behave responsibly towards the majority or address the majority’s needs.


When it comes to dispute resolution, a central feature of political conduct in this region is a belief that group safety and group wealth can only be achieved by attaining victory over any would-be competitor. There is no such thing as “friendly competition.” Only after victory has been declared does a victor then begin to think about how harshly or leniently it will deal with the defeated population. In this area of the world, real compromise, where both sides are willing to trade crucial assets or interests in return for long-term stability is rare if not nonexistent.


In the Middle East, there are basically two forms of domestic political warfare—that conducted by two highly-centralized and hierarchical bodies such as the Egyptian army and the Egyptian Moslem Brotherhood, and that conducted by tribes against centralized authorities, such as the recent war and the recent election in Libya. In extreme cases, such as in Syria, a tribe, such as the Alawites, can actually take over the reins of the central authority.


In general, in this region, a political stalemate does not usually lead to compromise, but to a “sulha,” or “reconciliation,” which too often means nothing more than a cease-fire until one of the groups comes to believe that it has gained enough power to become a victor…and then the fighting begins again.


This is one reason why Anwar Sadat believed he needed to be able to claim a victory in the Yom Kippur War before he could negotiate a peace agreement.


Negotiations within states or between states in this region follow a regular pattern. First, the two sides present their maximalist demands. Then, the side that most wants an agreement, and as a gesture of supposed good will, will offer a compromise on one issue in order to get the talks going. This is immediately perceived by the other side to be a sign of weakness. As a result, the second side then usually rejects the offer as inadequate, and uses that as an excuse to break off the talks.


If and when the two sides meet again, the first side says that it is now time for the second side to offer up an equivalent compromise measure. In classic Western diplomacy, the second side does just that—or a neutral mediator cajoles it into doing so. The second side then makes its offer and the two begin to inch towards an agreement. In professional terms, it’s called “Getting to Yes.”


Not so in the Middle East.


In keeping with tribal politics, the second side announces that the first side’s initial offer of compromise was so pitiful as to be worthless. Therefore the first side’s initial position, minus the compromise already offered, must from now on be used as a baseline for further talks. According to the side that has yet to offer up any equivalent compromise, it is up to the first side to first up its offer before any progress can be made. If the first side refuses, the second side, feeling empowered, says it is going home and won’t come back to the negotiations until the first side makes a better offer.


If you think that sounds like a Turkish rug market…or, say, the talks between the Iranians and the West…or, maybe, the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians… or how about between the CEOs of failed banks who oppose new regulation in financial markets but then demand government rescue funds so that their companies can pay them whopping bonuses…or even the bargaining between the Israeli prime minister and the Haredi parties, you’re beginning to get the hang of what I’m talking about.


In Israel, tribalism has always existed on many levels. In the past, the Labour Movement was no less tribalistic in its behaviour than the Sinai Bedouin. The most notable non-Haredi example in Israel today is the use by candidates in party primary elections of what have come to be called “vote contractors.” These individuals are usually local political bosses who deliver blocs of votes, made up of family members or friends or dependents, to particular candidates in return for a fee.


But Israel’s financial oligarchs run them a close second.


Maybe the greatest impact that tribalism has is almost never discussed. In order to press their positions, tribes tend to base many of their public statements on exaggerations that are so great they create what I call “The Big Lie.” These are falsehoods that are so monumental that they are ignored…for too long. By repeating them endlessly, though, the tribal leaders end up distorting other people’s perceptions about what is really going on within the society. The greatest danger of big lies is that if they do become accepted as part of normal daily discourse, those who know them to be falsehoods, after a while and out of disgust, drop out of the public debate…and so the tribes gain in relative strength. This then accelerates the process of polarization within the society where the lying is taking place.


But undermining big lies usually requires intensive investigative work.



We have been witness to a growing number of big lies in recent years. I’ll give just three examples.


The most obvious example, of course is President Assad’s claim that there is no civil war in Syria, only an attempt by the government to put down attacks on the state by foreign terrorist elements.


In Israel a big lie that I have spent a lot of time refuting over the years, but which has nonetheless has remained part of the country’s political discourse because it has been so often repeated by the settlers, the Haredim and those on the far right (all of whom exhibit tribal tendencies) is that the so-called “leftist Zfonim,” the well-to-do North Tel Avivians and their equivalents elsewhere in the country, have managed to escape doing their share of military service. The objective, of course has been to delegitimize these three groups’ critics.


The thing is, though, that all the surveys, even those undertaken by right-wing think tanks, have demonstrated that those who identify themselves as being on the left, in fact have been more willing to “fight for the country” than self-proclaimed right-wingers.


The evidence was further strengthened by a survey published just last week by the Municipal Department of Education in Tel Aviv that showed conclusively that the so-called “Zfonim” who graduate from Tel Aviv high schools actually serve in higher numbers, are more likely to join combat units, are more likely to join top-flight “combat assistance” units such as intelligence and electronic warfare departments, and are more likely to volunteer for officer training than the national average.


And a third example is the claim made on behalf of the United States’ wealthiest one percent that they create jobs. In fact, all the evidence shows that because of mergers, asset-stripping by leveraged buyouts, and outsourcing, the very opposite has been the case.


Britain has now exposed an almost unimaginably extreme example of this form of behaviour. And it is the best example we have at the moment of what happens when tribalism, in this case by bankers, is allowed to run rampant in our globalized world. Even the swaps deals under which banks made bets that they could not pay off, or created securities they knew would fail, but nonetheless peddled them to clients as a safe investment (which set off the world economic crisis) pale by comparison with this latest scandal.


The narrative traces how Barclays Bank and at least 2 other British banks manipulated what is called “the Libor Rate.” This is the interest rate that banks in London charge each other for loans. Since almost all the major banks in the world have offices in London, this rate has become the standard used throughout most of the world.


I’ll try to make this very arcane story very short. Basically, every morning 18 of the biggest banks in London, the equivalent of clans in a tribal system of financial governance, declare how much in interest they are willing to pay for loans from other banks. Almost immediately, 360 trillion dollars in loans around the world—from adjustable rate home mortgages to student loans to credit card charges—are adjusted. To give you some idea of how much money is involved, 360 trillion dollars is five times the GDP of the whole world.


By falsifying their declarations the banks may have made over 5 trillion dollars in the past 6 years…and screwed billions of people.


All these actions I have talked about tonight followed a similar pattern. Tribal-style politics has emerged in nation-states big time. Tribalized minorities that did not accept the norms of the majority, have been gaining power and influence because they lie consistently and know that, in the end, whatever mistakes they make and whatever costs and hardship they impose on others, will be paid for by the majority so that that most important of social conditions, stability, can be restored. In other words, based on their own axiom that greed is good, and despite all the pain they cause, they have actually been acting rationally.


The advantage that these successful minorities have had is based on the simple fact that rational behaviour on their part is not necessarily what most of us would consider reasonable behaviour towards the majority. The idea of fairness doesn’t even enter their minds.


So, if anyone ever asks you whether there is any difference in the political behaviour of President Assad, or Haredi leaders such as Eli Yishai, or the Executives on Wall Street, you can answer, honestly, “None!”


And if anyone asks you “Why can’t you guys get your act together?” you can answer just as honestly “For the same reasons you guys can’t.”





The Trivialization of the Zionist Experiment


January 2012


After covering and analyzing events in the Middle East for more than 45 years, I have learned that it is often the very things that the media fail to cover that drive events in this region. This truism applies equally to Israel and the Arab states.


Take the series of crises that Israel has undergone in recent years—almost all of which were either predicted or predictable. Israelis have witnessed the murder of a prime minister, multiple economic collapses, multiple teachers’ strikes, doctors’ strikes, strikes by the social workers, a huge growth in disparities in incomes, a growth in poverty, attacks by politicians on the justice system, including the Supreme Court, rioting and terrorism by the so-called “hilltop youth,” a steep rise in the cost of living, a mass public revolt over the cost of living, an attempt to demean women in public places and a massive fire in the Carmel forest—to name but a few of the salient events Israelis have lived through.


And you’ll note that I haven’t even mentioned anything dealing with the peace process or foreign relations.


Most of the events I did mention could have been avoided or their impact at least limited.


At first glance, there would appear to no connection between these various events. But as I hope to show in this article, all of these phenomena are closely interrelated and they are the product of the trivialization of the Zionist experiment.


The Zionist movement was founded in the belief that the only way to solve the so-called “Jewish problem” of discrimination and pogroms was by establishing a nation-state in which Jews could take on all the roles necessary to create a functioning modern state, from garbage collection to negotiating with foreign leaders. The idea was revolutionary at the time because it was based on the premise that work, not merely prayer and waiting for the messiah, could and would bring about the establishment of the third Jewish commonwealth.


The term, “the Jewish problem” was actually a misnomer because the Zionist movement’s founders were trying to solve a great number of problems that the Jews were facing at the time.


For that reason, the greatest emphasis of the early Zionists was on creating what was called “the new Jew”—one who could live what was called “a normal life.” Among many other things, this included enabling Jews to find employment in their own chosen field of endeavour, and life satisfaction through work. In fact, for many of the early Zionists, especially the socialists, work became almost a new form of religion.


The idea was that, in the new order, Jews would be able to fulfill their personal longings because, in a Jewish-run state, they would be able to use their natural capacities for something other than just surviving. This meant that Jews could even return to many fields of endeavor from which they had been excluded for two thousand years, such as farming or leading an army or…running a country.


Very quickly, the Zionist movement became divided into four basic ideological streams—the socialists of various stripes, the nationalist liberals, including the Revisionist Movement, the religious nationalists, and the Canaanites, who sought just to live among the Arabs who were already resident in Mandatory Palestine.


Significantly, with the exception of the tiny group of major citrus plantation owners, there was no classical, right-wing political movement that was based on landholding, minimal central government intervention in the economy and inherited wealth.


In other words, at its most basic level, the focus of the Zionist movement was a humanitarian one, based on a belief that politics and state-building should aim not just at enabling Jews to survive as a group, but also at encouraging the personal fulfillment of each individual Jew as a human being. That was one reason why, if only for a short time, the idea of establishing this Jewish homeland in Uganda was also considered seriously.


Each political group’s ideology—the way each perceived how the future state should be constructed—was a crucial contribution to this effort, because it provided each of the groups with a comprehensive framework for approaching the task that it had undertaken—and a stated set of long-term objectives to which the ideology’s adherents committed themselves.


Even more importantly, having a comprehensive ideology that included all the elements of governance such as social policy, an economic policy, an approach to military planning and other things, forced the leaders of each movement to work hard to constantly revise and refine their ideology to cope with the ideology’s faults and lacunae…and changing needs and circumstances. This meant having to constantly change priorities among any number of social and political ideals to which the ideologists adhered. And that took work—hard work. Maybe the best example of this approach to managing change during the pre-state period was the painful and divisive decision to accept the UN partition agreement.


Every once in a while, as I go blind reading 6 point type and obtuse footnotes, one fact or statistic leaps out at me and seems to encapsulate or summarize everything I have been reading. As I waded through all the data on Israel this year, one graph in one report—in this case by the highly respected Taub Institute—did just that for me.


It showed that up to 1975, Israel had been remarkably successful in becoming a “normal” society.


One very important measure of “normality” in any society is its productivity, when compared to other states. As this graph showed, in Israel, in 1975, productivity, which is measured as the GDP per person per hour worked, had almost reached the level of the G7, the major industrialized nations. In that year, productivity for both was about 23 dollars per hour worked. However, now, the gap between the two has widened again—big time. Israel’s productivity in 2008 was about 35 dollars per hour worked, while the average among the G7 was about 47 dollars.




In other words, the gap in the standard of living of Israelis and the nations Israel seeks to emulate has grown remarkably in the past 35 years—despite the fact that those Israelis who do work, work more hours per week than the residents of all but two other OECD countries (The United States and Mexico). The reason most often given for the gap is that only 62 percent of Israelis of working age are actually employed, as compared with 77 percent of Norwegians.


But that is not the sole reason.


“What went wrong? What has happened in the past 35 years to make Israelis so “abnormal?” Why do they accomplish less than others despite appearing, at least, to be putting in more effort?”


Almost all the academic studies on the subject have focused on the fact that fewer Haredim and fewer Arabs work. But I think that there is more to the phenomenon than that.


After reading just about everything I could read about Israel, I think it is possible to reduce the reasons for the slowdown in the move to “normality” to two critical factors—the death of ideology and its replacement by an addiction to euphemisms—and changing attitudes by the country’s politicians about what constitutes work…including the work that adhering to a flexible ideology entails.


As I noted earlier, it was these two things, a comprehensive approach to governance and hard work designed to achieve rationally-set, long-term goals, that had been critical to the success of the Zionist movement and had enabled Israel grow from a war-torn, bankrupt state populated largely by refugees from the Holocaust and the Arab states into a functioning nation-state.


But in recent years, there has been a shift in political power in this country from workers to work-avoiders. And this has changed the country’s political, economic and social playing field beyond recognition.


When most people think about major events in this country’s history, they usually point to the UN partition resolution in 1947, the War of Independence or the 6-Day War.  Until I read that graph, I did the same. But now, in retrospect, I have become convinced that 1975 was no less a pivotal year because in that year, political ideology finally died, and the country’s politicians began to shift their emphasis from doing real work to what Harvard professor Ronnie Heifetz has called “work avoidance.”


Heifetz defines work avoidance as a tactic that people use to escape from doing the work they are supposed to do. The idea is that people make themselves appear to be so busy doing so many things that don’t matter so that they can flee the need to tackle the real issues that they have been mandated to deal with.


The very idea that Israel’s elected representatives, for example, may have been spending their time avoiding doing their jobs during the last 4 decades may seem outrageous. But, according to every academic study that has been done on the subject, more than 70 percent of the decisions taken by the governments during this time were never implemented—nor was there ever any intention to implement them. And Yossi Kuchick, a former director general of the Prime Minister’s office, says that the number is actually over 90 percent.


Next, think of all the meetings that must have been held prior to the government making its decisions to approve one law or another, or the number of studies undertaken prior to those meetings that involved thousands of civil servants over time, or the costs involved.


Think too of all the special studies done by experts in their fields, and the conclusions that were never implemented.


And then think about the number of crises that were predicted in advance by the state comptroller or some august public inquiry committee—from the committee that predicted that Israel would soon be facing a water shortage to the two comptroller reports that castigated the government for failing to establish a proper fire-fighting agency equipped with aircraft to fight forest fires.


Finally, think too about problems that are so obvious to you that you didn’t need the comptroller or an investigating committee to identify them—from road congestion that results in the loss of hundreds of millions of shekels to the economy each year to the vast overcrowding in the country’s hospitals, to the utterly inhumane failure to resolve the plight of the 300,000 Israeli residents who are not registered as Jews or Moslems or Christians and so are incapable of even being married in the same country that they defend with their lives during their army service.


And then try to convince me—or yourselves—that there has no been epidemic of work avoidance on a massive scale by the country’s politicians.


Instead of work designed to prevent crises, we have been witnesses to serial, post-facto, crisis management.


So how did this situation, in which Israelis have limped from crisis to crises, come about? How is it that so many people are being paid to do a job…and fail to do it—and are still not fired?


All of which brings me back to 1975—or rather to the period of 1974-1976.


By then, Labour had lost its way. It had been in power for so long that governance had come to be seen as a right. Self-examination had become almost a sin, and crony mismanagement and corruption had become rife. There had not even been a programme put in place to allow an orderly passage of power to the next generation—at a time when the founders were dying off at an increasingly rapid rate. As a result, the Labour party and its affiliate, the Histadrut, which had accumulated huge human and financial assets over the years, would soon become politically, financially and intellectually bankrupt.


The Likud, which would soon take power, was also in turmoil. Originally a party based on a set of social and liberal democratic political principles, it had become a populist party in order to attract the votes necessary to gain office for the first time.


The National Religious Party too was in the midst of a revolution. It had once a been a party led by rationalists and worldly men dedicated to reason and to resolving social issues—especially through the search for pragmatic, halachically-acceptable solutions to the problems Jews were encountering in the modern world.


But by the mid-1970s, though, the NRPs old guard was being challenged by a younger generation that had been brought up in the closed confines of the yeshiva—and for whom a narrow, mystical dedication to achieve national redemption through the control of all of the Biblical “Land of Israel” had become its primary and virtually only goal.


Even more importantly, while previously the NRP’s leaders had formulated policies and then run them by the rabbis to ensure that they conformed to halacha, the younger generation began to seek out the rabbis first, and then tried to craft their policies to match the rabbis rulings. In other words, they used the rabbis, who may have had no comprehensive knowledge of the subject at hand, in order to escape having to confront real, pressing issues.


And almost invisible to all, a social and economic revolution was also building. In 1975, a year after it had been founded by a returning Israeli, Intel’s first research lab in Israel was beginning its first project. As well, in that same year, the first group of students from the first course ever established in Israel for the study of computer science, graduated from the Hebrew University. Until then, anyone wishing to work in computer programming had to become a mathematician, a physicist or an engineer first.


With no agenda for action to debate, the Labour party began to focus more and more on personality contests, political manipulation, and intra-party conflicts for power than on formulating a platform—political work avoidance at its most extreme and usually an almost terminal illness for political parties. The man most responsible for this state of affairs—and the man who probably has done more than any other to undermine Israeli democracy in recent years—was Shimon Peres.


It was he, and not Ariel Sharon or Menachem Begin, who was the real godfather of the settler movement. In a desperate attempt to try to keep the support of the NRP, just prior to the 1976 elections, he negotiated the establishment of Elon Moreh, the first settlement in Samaria—without even taking into consideration what the long-term consequences of that decision would be. As I will show in a moment, the whole settlement programme then became the biggest work avoidance scheme in Israeli history.


After Labour lost the election, instead of doing the same sort of hard work of reassessing its platforms and actions as the socialist parties in Europe did during this period, Labour began a series of internecine wars within the party—most of them orchestrated by Peres, who could not imagine any government in Israel without him.


Labour tried to join every coalition government it could—and because it refused to focus on creating its own political agenda, it deprived the country of one of the most important agents of democratic government, an effective, fighting, loyal opposition that is prepared to take over the reins of government when the government in power has failed in its duties.


While Labour soon had less and less to offer voters, the Likud went in the opposite direction by trying to all things to everyone. Instead of prioritizing government spending—arguably to most important function of any government—it went on a spending spree. The primary culprit here was David Levy, who managed to turn what had been an ideologically-based party into a populist one.


The combination of overspending and the first Lebanese war eventually drove the country into bankruptcy. At one point, government spending reached the awesome figure of 109 percent of GDP, and inflation skyrocketed to 450 percent.


Over at the NRP, things were also getting worse and worse. Although the party claimed that it was still following the teachings of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook, who had died in 1935, it was actually becoming a party of monomania, focusing almost entirely on the teachings and narrow interests of Kook’s son, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook. While the elder Kook had emphasized the Jews’ obligation to all mankind, and the need to adapt the Halacha to modern circumstances, the younger Kook was a fervent, xenophobic, nationalist isolationist for whom established religious practice was inviolable.


As a result, from being a party that had based its approach on compromise, professional expertise and rational thinking, the NRP became a party in which sincerity, tradition and religious conviction had become the supreme values. Knowledge of a particular field of human endeavour, other than religion, was no longer considered to be a qualification for public office.


Very quickly, this single-minded belief in the redemptive value of settlement, took the place of careful study of the nations problems and searches for solutions to those problems. So, among many other things, the plight of the poor communities on the periphery was ignored because any development funds the party could attract, were shunted to the settlements.


At this point, this belief and an increasingly emphasis on stringent religious practice became one of the greatest rationales for work avoidance in Israeli history—matched only by the ultra-Orthodox factions’ new-found belief that Torah study by everyone (even those incapable of doing so) was superior to making a living.


By focusing so heavily on settlement and outward signs of piety, the NRP slowly but surely abandoned many of its founding principles—especially the desire to find solutions to national, as opposed to strictly sectoral problems. As part of this process, it eventually gave up its control of the rabbinical courts and even the chief rabbinate (which had been established especially for the elder Kook), where much of the real job of marrying and adapting Halacha to modern life should take place.


Eventually, having abandoned so many of their founding principles, the religious nationalists found that they could not marry couples as they saw fit, and even their conversions were no longer accepted by the ultra-Orthodox, who had taken control of these bureaucratic positions.


More importantly, by increasingly isolating themselves in self-made ghettos, the national religious became more isolated from and more unable to communicate with the secular population.


In order to excuse its behaviour, the movement began coining euphemisms about itself. For example, it started called itself “right wing.” Of course it was nothing of the sort. Unlike all classic right-wing conservative movements, it believed in central planning and high taxation in the service of nationalist settlement. In other words, it had become more a Russian-style Bolshevik movement than anything else.


Other euphemisms, such “hilltop youth” and “price tag” have also since entered the Israeli political vocabulary.


But, to my mind, the best example of the national religious flight from responsible, honest work has been its decision not to confront the implications of the murder of Yitzchak Rabin. Instead of soul-searching why a national religious adherent had murdered the prime minister, as the rest of the country does on the anniversary of Prime Minister Yitzchak’s assassination by a national religious adherent, the national religious schools invented a new holiday in order to avoid the work of introspection. For the first time in Jewish history the Biblical Rachel’s death (which is believed to fall on the same date) became a date of note. That is certainly the trivialization of one of the most traumatic events in modern Israeli history at its most extreme.


The growing power of the ultra-Orthodox (known as the Haredim) as the balance of power in the government did not have an impact just on the NRP, but on Labour and the Likud as well. There cannot be a better example of a desire to enter into work avoidance than the decision by the major parties to welcome the Haredim’s entry into Israeli politics in a big way. That is because the Haredim’s supreme ethos is work avoidance in order not to have to confront the task of adapting to modern life.


But not only are they supreme work avoiders, by, among other things, refusing to earn a living or defending the country, the Haredim have become supreme enablers for the other parties to avoid work as well.


Whenever you hear a Haredi flack try to justify their lifestyle and proclaim that they are saving Jewish culture, you should always remember that the Haredim are anti-Zionist and really don’t care whether the Zionist experiment, certainly a central part of modern Jewish life, goes down the tubes.


In fact, they have a stake in making Zionism appear to be a trivial exercise. That is partly because they themselves have no ideology—only discrete, religious dogmas. Therefore they are incapable of addressing those issues that come with statehood. All they really care about is ensuring that they get enough money from other Jews to pay for their flight from having to cope with modernity and its challenges.


One of the ways by which they enable work avoidance by the other political parties is very simple. Since the 1985 economic collapse, the Finance Ministry has been mandated to focus almost solely on preventing another economic catastrophe and hyperinflation. In order to do so, it spends most of its effort trying to prevent excessive government spending by setting revenue and spending goals.


When the Finance Ministry prepares its budget, it first lays out projections on revenues and then presents the government with options for cuts or additions in spending in order to prevent the budget deficit from getting out of hand. When the Haredim enter the government, they make no bones about the fact that they are there primarily to foster their own sector’s interests—especially money for yeshivas that don’t teach the core curriculum of math, science, history, English and civics…and thus condemn their pupils to a life of unemployability. When the pupils grow up, these unemployables then draw money out of the state kitty for welfare benefits, but don’t add to the kitty because they pay little or no direct taxes.


The Haredi focus on spending for their own purposes then sets off a contest among the other ministers to protect and find additional spending for their own sectoral interests. By the time all the money has been divvied up, there is no way that national spending priorities can be set—which, as I said earlier, is the primary job of any government. So, by default, the need for things like roads, hospitals, and secular education are simply ignored.


It is important as well to always keep the Haredim’s claims of service to the country in perspective. For example, their claim that they are repository of “authentic Judaism” is a historical lie. Haredism, as we know it today, was actually an invention of the 17th and 18th centuries as a reaction by Ashkenazim to their social and economic plight and the seductions of the Enlightenment.


But because they have been so successful with this ploy, once they face a particular problem, all they have to do to avoid dealing with it is to take some Biblical or Talmudic passage to the extreme, make new demands for religious observance, and then blame their failure to confront the real problem at hand on those who have not behaved in the newly-prescribed manner. When they are criticized for this behaviour they claim that it is all a secular conspiracy. The separation of men and women on buses serving Haredi neighbourhoods, which had not existed before 1997, is but one recent example.


Not only that, by claiming to be the ultimate arbiters of a particular situation, even if they do nothing, they have been able to relieve the other parties of the need to confront new and unfamiliar challenges—not the least of which has been the desire by tens of thousands to convert to Judaism—something that has not happened since the days of the Second Temple.


I have included the high-tech folks in this survey because, although they are extremely hard workers, ironically, they too have been work-avoidance enablers. For one thing, they were able to create a bubble—a labour market that was almost totally independent of government funding or government regulation. This meant that the high-tech workers did not feel an obligation to join the public debate when work avoidance by the politicians became an epidemic.


Not only that, the high-tech workers’ very success as major sources of foreign exchange and tax revenues has enabled successive governments to avoid having to make difficult spending priority decisions. As a result, for example, precisely because the amount of tax revenue from high-tech kept growing, the government was even able to avoid feeding this golden goose during the past decade. The simple fact is that while high-tech workers were earning more and more money for the country, less and less money was being spent on producing future high-tech engineers and scientists…and more and more money was being spent on producing unproductive unemployables and work-avoiders.


In effect, Israel, like most of the Arab states has developed a rentier economy. A rentier economy is one in which natural resources are used up, but the revenues produced are not reinvested in productive, job-creating enterprises. Israel doesn’t have commodities, such as timber or minerals as major natural resources that can be tapped with ease. As the country’s politicians have blathered on for decades, and as the World Bank’s studies have shown, Israel’s only real natural resources—other than its new-found gas fields—are the minds of its people. And work avoidance by the politicians is wasting this precious, renewable resource.


The failure to set national, as opposed to sectoral priorities, has in fact trivialized the potential contribution the nation’s best minds and hardest workers do and could make to their country.


Inevitably, all those productive people who have suffered under this system have rebelled. The recent series of strikes by teachers, doctors and social workers who were being vastly underpaid, the consumer street protests, and the flight of academics to other countries are just one set of examples. For example, 24 percent of the foreign-born university teachers in the United States are now Israelis.


But the rebellions have taken other forms as well.


Maybe the most important of these rebellions has been the constant appeals to the Supreme Court. I think that it’s only natural that when the politicians fail to do their job that those who are affected would appeal to professional advocates to aid them when approaching what they view as a neutral body in order to seek redress.


Some, such as the consumer protesters or the four mothers who laboured to get Israel to withdraw from Lebanon, manage to attract the press to their cause.


A few even set up research units to document and to justify their complaints about work avoidance by the government.


The reactions by those politicians who came under attack inevitably followed very quickly. The politicians who were doing the least real work began leading campaigns attacking the very outfits that had exposed the politicians’ failings—such as the Supreme Court, the Finance Ministry, public protesters, journalists and NGOs.


The first and most common tactic was to label the complainants with some indefinable epithet such as that they are “leftist” or “anti-Zionist” or “Nazi” or “anti-democratic”—whatever those terms may mean.


If that doesn’t work, a second-best option has been to raise conspiracy theories or to begin trumpeting a new or old security threat.


Another, frequently used technique has been the use of political spin and the re-writing of history. The best recent example of that was the introduction that Netanyahu’s spinmeisters wrote to be delivered by the master of ceremonies before Netanyahu spoke at the memorial to those who died in the Carmel forest fire disaster.


In a masterpiece of cult-of-personality flackery that would have done Kim Jung Il’s cronies proud, the master of ceremonies at the event was forced to intone that Netanyahu had been the one who had  foreseen the disaster, and that it was he who had been the first to ask for international support, etc, etc.


Naturally, no mention was made of what the state comptroller had found…that the government had been wholly unprepared to fight the fire.


If spin fails, some politicians try to appear to embrace the challenge and promise change, but then, just as quickly, renege on their promises. The best recent example has been Netanyahu’s treatment of the Trajtenberg report, which had been ordered by the government, ostensibly to address the issue raised by the street protesters. Originally he had promised to abide by all the report’s recommendations. But now we find that he has decided not to implement the central recommendation, which was to cut the defence budget and use the savings for other social purposes.


Bibi also used another well-worn maneuver to the same end. Secret reserve spending funds are always hidden away in some obscure provision in the budget bill. For example, in 2011, a big chunk of the money was hidden in the section dealing with housing loans to young couples. The budget set aside 1.5 billion shekels for this task—a very noble idea. But it just so happened that the interest rate for these mortgages was set at a level that was higher than what most people could get from the banks. But instead of lowering the interest rate and thus responding to the protesters, the left-over 780 million shekels was then handed over to the Defence Ministry—thus even increasing the ministry’s budget when that same money could have been used to provide public housing. Altogether, these kinds of shenanigans increased the defence budget by over 5 billion shekels in that year.


Another common technique is simply to ignore a problem. For example, successive Israeli governments have all failed to deal with the rule of law—the foundation of all modern democratic states. They all chose to turn a blind eye to the issue of violence and terrorism by extremist settlers, who have uprooted Palestinians’ trees, stolen the Palestinians’ olives and poisoned their sheep for many years. The current government was only roused to appear to be doing something about what the army now belatedly calls “Jewish terrorism” when these extremists decided that they were immune to prosecution and began attacking the very Israeli soldiers who had been sent to defend them.


If a court judgment goes against their wishes, the politicians invariably then begin attacking the courts. The recent attempt to pack the Supreme Court and to make judicial appointments subject to Knesset approval is the latest and most dangerous stage in the attempts to delegitimize the High Court.


Another thing that has happened is that the courts have even been bypassed. For example, by law, anyone who knows of a case of suspected paedophilia is required to report it to the police—and this especially applies to the law-makers themselves. But when such suspicions were leveled against one of the senior leaders of the national religious movement, Rabbi Motti Eilon, the movement, with the acceptance of its political leaders, set up a court of its own, which sentenced Eilon, who might otherwise have been subject to a long prison term, to exile in the Galil. It was only when Eilon repeatedly broke the terms of his banishment that the police were informed and a formal complaint registered.


If journalists do their job and uncover malfeasance, the press also becomes the target. The latest attempt to pass a law that would vastly increase the penalties for libel even if no damage can be proven, is again yet another stage in the attempt to strike fear in the press. That move also came at the same moment that the Knesset members once again failed to pass an updated code for their own conduct.


The recent attempt to ban Israeli NGOs from receiving research money from foreign governments, while not also prohibiting such payments by private, interested individuals and corporations, is another example of an attempt to silence those who have collected data on the politicians’ failures. One may disagree with the NGO’s political agenda, but trying to limit their capacity to gather facts undermines the very system of democratic rule.


Another too-often used technique is to create a diversion. For example, in late 2011, the state comptroller issued a devastating report on the lack of preparedness by local authorities in the event of a natural disaster or a major missile attack on the country. Clearly the growing missile threat by Iran and its proxies is the single greatest external existential threat that Israel currently faces. If war were to break out again, thousands, tens of thousands and even hundreds of thousands of Israelis could be killed. But did the politicians even address the issues the comptroller had raised?




Instead, they all focused on that most trivial of issues—whether a small group of virulently anti-Zionist religious extremists could prevent women from walking on the same sidewalk as men.


Another way of avoiding criticism is to play with the statistics—which brings me back to the graph I mentioned at the beginning. When the consumer revolt began to gather steam, the government beat its breasts by pointing to the continued rapid growth in GDP, while the economies in Europe were in a meltdown. Essentially, Bibi and Finance Minister Yuval Steinmetz argued that “you’ve never had it so good.” But, a closer look at the figures showed something quite different. While imports were growing at a heated pace and raising the GDP, export growth, the lifeline of the economy, was much slower. When the final figures did come out, they showed that for the first time in 7 years, Israel had had a current account deficit.


But worse than that, much of the growth in GDP had come from the two areas the protesters had taken to the streets about—the rapidly rising cost of housing and the rapidly rising cost of food and fuel. The failure to prepare for an economic downturn meant that in 2012, the government had to rush through emergency tax increases to cover the increased sectoral and defence spending and the drop in the growth of income and corporate taxes.




In conclusion, so long as “Jewish problems” remain unaddressed, the Zionist experiment is being trivialized—and by trivializing it, it is being endangered.


The rabbis, who have become ever more involved in politics, have wanted power, but refuse to take responsibility for what they do or do not do. In particular, they have been leaders in fostering work avoidance in others—not least because they have failed to take the personal and spiritual and intellectual effort to speak out on issues of critical, existential importance to the nation.


By now, you may have become steamed up about the fact that I have discussed the Haredim, the National Religious Movement and the Likud—and have made no real mention of Labour or Kadima.


I didn’t forgotten them. My problem is that, while the parties that make up the ruling coalition are in a position to do something, the opposition has decided to do nothing. Therefore, I have nothing to say about the opposition parties because they have chosen to make themselves irrelevant—another form of work avoidance.


At best, they have belatedly reacted to events. But they have yet to produce a real agenda of their own or to lead a fight for anything. Instead, they have simply sat back and waited for the Likud to fail enough, so that voters will turn to the opposition out of sheer fatigue, frustration and disgust.


The country is currently being divided in ways that don’t fit the old patterns of Mizrahi/Ashkenazi, religious/secular or whatever. In one camp are those who cannot tolerate change and in the other are those who seek change—even if this means greater uncertainty and ambiguity. Because of the stalemate between these two camps, and the inability of those in power to bridge the gap, the only time that real change comes to Israel is when there is a crisis that cannot be ignored. Of course, once the crisis passes, the ongoing need to work for change is forgotten.


And one last point. I think that it is particularly noteworthy that the three people who worked hardest to defeat the raft of bills that would have undermined Israeli democracy and the Israeli legal system were Knesset Speaker Ruby Rivlin, and Ministers Benny Begin and Dan Meridor—the three remaining Revisionist ideologues in the Likud. It is especially noteworthy that Rivlin and Begin are among the staunchest supporters of the settlement project, but they realize that there is more to governance than settling the Whole Land of Israel or following one single dogma at the expense of real work.


Saudi Arabia: Where Money Is Expected To Buy Anything And Everything

One of the hardest things about being an analyst is figuring out what I don’t know. Former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was made the butt of innumerable jokes when he told a press conference in 2002 that:


[T]here are known knowns; there are things we know we know.
We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.


He was actually presenting a very profound problem that people trying to comprehend our complex world find very daunting.


But what I would like to discuss is a simpler matter—I hope. What does it mean when people choose to stop thinking about a known matter—especially when that known matter has a profound impact on their lives?


Specifically, have you noticed that after a brief flurry of news reports about women protesting to be permitted to drive themselves, demonstrations by some Shiites, the sending of Saudi Arabian troops into Bahrain to put down the rebellion there, and the appointment of a new crown prince, that the Saudi governments’ activities have all but disappeared from the newspages?


If you look closely, this kind of coverage falls into a well-established pattern. News about Saudi Arabia almost invariably amounts to a rash of front page headlines—and then little more.


And yet, Saudi policies affect almost everyone on the planet—particularly our cost of living, the subject that led to the mass protests and food rioting in many parts of the world over the years.


And it’s not as though many of the things that the Saudis are doing haven’t been documented.


Part of the reason for the silence about Saudi Arabia has been the Saudi government’s very carefully planned policy of keeping peeping eyes away from the kingdom. But another no less important reason has been the media’s lack of interest in dealing in depth with the supposedly inscrutable Saudi leadership.


So what I would like to do is to try to help you to penetrate that screen and to introduce you to the mindset of the Saudi leadership.


In Egypt, the important thing to remember is that none of the political groups there has an agenda for action that is designed to solve the nation’s problems. And when I wrote about Syria, I emphasized the social, ethnic and religious divisions there. So, in the case of Saudi Arabia, the main thing to keep in mind is that everything that the government there does is directed at one thing: preserving and stabilizing the power of the House of Saud—even when that means destabilizing anyone and everyone else on earth.


At the heart of that strategy is a belief by the Saudi leadership that oil, and the money acquired from selling oil, can buy anything and anyone. One thing that money and oil certainly have bought is a very specific image of Saudi Arabia in the media.


Saudi Arabia is usually referred to in the media as being pro-Western. Nothing could be further from the truth. As I will show in just a moment, if anything, the Saudis are virulently anti-Western. The only thing that the Saudis are “pro” is “pro” the House of Saud. In all other areas that interest the Saudi government, it has adopted the most cynical anti-Western approach imaginable. Any relationship between Saudi values and Western values is purely coincidental.


The base of the House’s power lies in a pact agreed to in 1744 between a tribal chieftain in the centre of the Arabian Peninsula named Muhammed bin Saud, and Muhammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who had founded a particularly puritanical and extremely strict branch of Sunni Islam. In effect, Saud offered Abd al-Wahhab protection, while Abd al-Wahhab enabled the Saudi family to claim that its decisions are all being sanctioned by God. Being able to claim that God is on your side has always been a big political asset everywhere.


But as the years passed, the royal family’s fortunes ebbed and flowed. It was only in the wake of the First World War, with the destruction of the Ottoman Empire and the military defeat of the competing el Rashid tribe, that the House of Saud could make its final dash for absolute power.


The thing is that the royals since then have had good reason to be concerned about their hold on power. The kingdom could only be founded in 1932 after Abdul-Azziz Saud’s forces had destroyed an even more religiously-extremist Bedouin army called “the Ikhwan,” and massacred its leaders.


Even then, though, being a royal was not without its dangers.


Abdul Azziz’s son and successor, King Saud was deposed by his brother, Faisal.


And Faisal was assassinated by his nephew in 1975.


Faisal’s successor was his half-brother, King Khalid. And it was really he who succeeded in guiding his relatives to previously unheard of wealth in the wake of the 1976 oil shock.


But even with all its wealth, the Saudi royal family has nonetheless had to face many of the same problems that have beset all the other authoritarian Arab leaders. It is inherently a repressive, autocratic regime. For that reason, its security forces are basically divided into two groups—a small corps, the National Guard, that is personally loyal to the leaders; and the regular army, which is deliberately less well-trained so that it cannot launch a coup. In other words, the regular army is basically canon-fodder and a job placement service. It cannot really defend the country. For that, the Saudis have always relied on others.


This, by the way, is the same military structure that was present, for example in Libya and Syria.


So, it is therefore no wonder that in 1979, when King Khalid faced two great challenges—the revolution in Iran, and the takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by mystic Moslem extremists—he had to call in his real military reserves. The immediate threat of an attack by Iran was resolved by relying on an American air umbrella.


The mosque, though, was only retaken after a siege of more than two weeks and the deaths of dozens of Saudi soldiers. When the Saudi soldiers failed to achieve their objective, the real guardians of the regime, the folks who eventually retook the mosque—a group of French commandos—were called in to do the job. Since non-Moslems are forbidden entry into the holy cities of Islam, the French soldiers were quickly and conveniently converted to Islam for the purpose. I don’t know for sure, but I assume, that they renounced their conversion as soon as they had left Saudi soil.


Parenthetically, I wonder whether that would make them subject to Saudi Arabia’s penalty for apostasy—the death sentence—if they ever returned to the country on a visit.


But that wasn’t the end of the threats to the Saudi regime. Beginning in the 1990s, the country became beset by a wave of home-grown terrorism—including the well-known attacks on the foreigners’ Khobar Towers compound in Riyadh—which has continued to this day.


As a result of that growth in Islamic terrorism, the Saudi system of governance was tweaked a bit, but not substantially altered.


These tiny tweaks are often, inaccurately, mislabeled as “liberal reforms” in the media.


One of the reasons for most peoples’ misunderstanding of the country, and one of the reasons why Saudi Arabia is so rarely discussed in real depth in the foreign media, is that its government’s decision-making processes are said to be so opaque. But it’s not so much that the decision-making process is opaque, it’s that the system of governance is so unfamiliar to most people that they have difficulty in comprehending it.


For example, everyone has been talking recently about the dictatorships and monarchies that run Arab states, but none of these countries has a name quite like the country whose capital is Riyadh. No one I know of has ever referred to Mubarak Egypt or Assad Syria. Even Jordan is called the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.


But I don’t know if you have ever thought about it, but the very fact that the oil-rich country is called the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia means that the entire country and everything in it is considered by its rulers to be the personal possession of the House of Saud.


So, before I go any further, here is a very brief outline of how the country is run


It is an absolute monarchy, and the constitution is declared to be the Koran.


In other words, the king is the supreme authority in all secular matters, but his decisions must be vetted first by the religious leadership to ensure that they are in keeping with Sharia law. That is the procedure that gives the decision the sanction of God.


The king is also the prime minister and the judge of last resort. And since there are neither elections nor a parliament, all laws are issued by royal decree only. To ensure that the king’s orders are carried out, most of the important positions in the civil service are held by the 7,000 princes, while the most senior positions, such as government ministerships and the regional governorships, are usually allotted to the two hundred or so direct male descendents of King Abdul Azziz.


The king personally hires and fires the ministers.


This system has led to the entrenchment of one of the most corrupt governments in the world. The Saudi princes have become fabulously wealthy, not because of whatever salary they may receive from the state, but because they can and do influence government loans to businesses and government purchases of goods and services. This has made bribery endemic throughout the kingdom.


There is a consultative assembly of tribal leaders, wealthy individuals and members of the royal family, known as the majlis a-shura; but all the members are appointed by the king and the body has no legislative power.


Decision-making, therefore, involves a long, drawn-out process. First, there is an attempt to create a consensus within the royal family. Then, the ideas are passed by the tribal sheiks and the wealthy urban businessmen, before finally being vetted by the ulema—the council of Islamic scholars.


In other words, any proposed decree is first approved by all the important power centres in the country before the public is even told.


Since the country has been beset by extremist Islamic terrorism, approval by the ulema has become crucial to maintaining the House of Saud’s legitimacy. And despite its reputation for being reactionary in the extreme, the ulema has shown itself to be extraordinarily flexible when its own interests are at stake. The agreement to bring in the French commandos is but one example.


The great test of the Wahhabi/Saud alliance in modern times came in 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait. The royal family was afraid that their country would become Saddam Hussein’s next target. They needed a protector and patron, and so, with the ulema’s approval, the king invited American forces into the country for the first time. This decision was met by very considerable opposition from the more extremist Islamic ranks, which were appalled by the idea that heretics, who hadn’t been converted, were being invited into the home of Mecca and Medina. But the ulema’s blessing also then enabled the royals to crack down on any and all dissidents


Despite the government’s actions, though, domestic terrorism continued to grow. In fact, the rise of local terrorism and the growth of al Qaeda can be traced to this one decision. So too can the decision in 2003 not to join the coalition that took part in the invasion of Iraq in the wake of 9/11.


In return for agreeing to the king’s desires, the ulema has been granted far-reaching powers—including the right to approve or veto the ascension of any member of the royal family as king.


Since all the potential candidates for the kingship invariably hold ministerial positions first, this gives the clerics an enormous capacity to influence day-to-day affairs in the kingdom. Maybe the ulema’s greatest influence can be seen in Saudi Arabia’s foreign relations, where almost all the foreign aid and much of the country’s diplomacy are directed at promoting the extremist, intolerant, Wahhabi form of Islam.


There are a lot of popular misconceptions about Saudi Arabia. Probably the most common one is that the country itself is wealthy. That is simply not true. Saudi Arabia’s per capita GDP is about 24,000 dollars—only about two-thirds of that of Israel. And the vast majority of the country’s wealth is concentrated in the hands of the royal family and its cronies.


Because of its almost total reliance on oil, the state has always been very vulnerable to alterations in world oil prices. For example, in 1980, after the oil shock, the Saudis were left with 180 billion dollars in financial assets. But then the price of oil began to fall, and by the end of 2002, because of their profligate spending, they had ended up being in debt to the tune of 176 billion dollars.


One of the primary reasons why Saudi Arabia has not developed a more broad-based economy is that it, like Syria, has had a largely rentier economy. That is, it has extracted natural resources from its soil, but the bulk of the money earned from oil has gone into consumption and investment abroad, rather than into investment in the country that would produce jobs for the Saudis themselves.


The second major problem is the education system, which focuses on rote learning, memorizing the Koran, and the study of how to apply Koranic teachings to modern life. Even in university, religion is a compulsory subject—and is based on a hate of unbelievers such as Jews, Christians, Hindus and non-Wahhabi Islamic sects. As an article in the Guardian newspaper puts it, the primary goal of the education system is “to maintain the rule of the absolute monarch by casting it as the ordained protector of the faith, and that Islam is at war with other faiths and cultures.”


This same curriculum, by the way is used in all the madrassas supported by the Saudis outside their country—such as those in Pakistan, which has led to the steep rise in religious extremism there.


Domestically, this means that Saudi university students usually lack the critical analytical skills needed to compete in a modern economy after they graduate.


Another reason is that the country, for religious and xenophobic reasons is basically inhospitable to foreign investment. Naturally, foreign companies that are involved in the petroleum business are welcome. So too are companies like Alcoa, which has set up a huge aluminum smelter to take advantage of the cheap fuel available.


But not only are these companies viewed by many as heretic-owned colonial enterprises, the legal framework they are expected to operate in is difficult for Westerners to even begin to comprehend or cope with.


I’m now talking about Sharia Law. When Westerners and even Arabs talk about Sharia Law, they tend to think only about how it oppresses women, and about some of the punishments such as stoning, beheading in the public square, public lashings and the amputation of hands of serial thieves.


But there is another aspect of Sharia law that I have never seen described in the press, but it has been one of the crucial lynchpins that have been use to maintain national stability and the clerical/royal family alliance.


In Sunni Islam, there are four schools of religious law. However, there is no code of law as such, such as the Torah or British common law. Therefore, no one can know in advance how a judge will decide a particular matter for which there is no tradition. This particularly affects things like modern commerce, where contracts, and the penalties for breaching the terms of a contract, are expected to be inviolable.


Even more confusingly, though, Islamic law is not bound by the idea of precedent. In other words, no judge is required to take into account the reasoning and the decision of any other judge when dealing with a similar case. And here is the kicker. Judges are not even bound by their own previous decisions.


So, naturally, people with influence try to get their cases tried before a judge whom they know or believe will be sympathetic to them. This then leaves the judges open to bribery, pressure and corruption—especially by the royal family.


In Saudi Arabia, the kings have promulgated decrees dealing with issues not covered under Sharia Law, but these are referred to as “regulations,” not “law” to indicate that they are subservient to any arguments that can be brought under Sharia Law.


As well, there are no jury trials. In many cases, those arrested are not even told which crimes they have been charged with. Most are not allowed to see a lawyer. Instead, they are often tortured until they confess. Most trials are held in secret, where the accused are presumed guilty until proven innocent. Many of those arrested can be held indefinitely without a trial—and their families are often not even informed about their incarceration.


A problem that is endemic to this judicial system is that the accused often cannot prove their innocence because they are not even allowed to cross-examine witnesses, present new evidence, or use a legal defence.


The death penalty can be imposed for crimes such as apostasy, sorcery and witchcraft. And public lashings can be imposed for crimes such as the failure to pray or neglecting to fast. When witnesses are allowed to testify, the word of one man is given the same weight as that of two women.


One of the major problems that the kingdom will face in the coming years is the same one that has affected all the Arab states—a growing youth bulge in a country with what is basically a static economy. And many of these young people come from the poorest socio-economic segments of the population.


This could cause the same kind of unrest that we have seen in Egypt and Tunisia—which the Saudis are doing everything they can to avoid. I’ll say more about that in a moment.


As I noted at the outset, conventional wisdom has it that Saudi Arabia is pro-Western, pro-American, and an American ally.


I would now like to spend most of the rest of my remarks challenging that thesis.


To begin with, the value systems in the West and in Saudi Arabia are totally different. I’ll give but two easy examples. We believe in equality of the sexes. In Saudi Arabia, women are not even allowed to leave home without the permission of a male guardian. We cherish freedom of religion and freedom from religion. In Saudi Arabia, there are about 25 million people. A fifth of them are foreigners. And about 1 million of those foreigners are Christians. But while those Christians are required to observe Ramadan, they are forbidden to celebrate Christmas and Easter—even in the privacy of their own homes. The last Catholic priest in the country was expelled in 1985 for having celebrated mass in a private home. Even celebrating St. Valentines day, through the areligious purchase of red roses or red plush animals is forbidden.


The Western nations have basically accepted this form of oppression in order to assure oil supplies—even when this acceptance undermines other Western interests.


As I have intimated up to now, the Saudi system of governance has evolved a peculiar, self-supporting triangular relationship between the Saudi royalty, the clergy and the rest of the world. The royal family relies on the clerics for power. The clerics, however, spread religious extremism. The West tolerates this spreading of extremism at the very time that it has launched a massive war on the terrorism that this religious preaching engenders—in order to preserve its access to Saudi oil. The Saudi family then uses these revenues from the oil it sells to support the clerics, who support the growth of terrorism against everyone except the House of Saud…and on and on.


You should also remember that 15 of the 19 hijackers during 9/11 were Saudis. Saudis make up the largest foreign contingent fighting with the Taliban and Saudis make up the second-largest group of prisoners being held in Guantanamo. Furthermore, as Hilary Clinton put it in 2009, “Saudi Arabia remains a critical support base for al Qaeda…and other terrorist groups…Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding for Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”


But there are many areas other than religion, when Saudi policies are at odds with Western interests. Because of time restraints, I’ll deal with only two of them—the policies designed to deal with the armed threats to the House of Saud, and water.


I’ll start with water. Water is as important an issue in the Middle East as is oil. Everybody talks about the concept of “peak oil”—the point where fossil fuel production will no longer be able to keep up with demand. But almost no one mentions the idea of “peak water.” But that is precisely where Saudi Arabia is at today. As I have already noted, Saudi Arabia is suffering the same kind of growth in population and youth bulge that the other many other Arab states are going through. A big difference, though, is that the Saudis also use an average of 950 cubic metres of water a year per person—twice the world average, and three times as much as Israelis use.


But, and this is a big “but,” only 10 cm of rainwater falls on the country each year.


Just to give you some idea just how acute the water shortage is, despite having spent more than 20 billion dollars, or about 20 percent of Saudi oil revenues in the construction of a water infrastructure and the supply of water during the past decade, Riyadh still only gets drinking water once every two and a half days and Jeddah gets it only once every 9 days.


When I have discussed the economics of the region in other blog posts, I put a heavy emphasis on current account deficits—the difference between export earnings and import costs. Saudi Arabia also suffers from a deficit—a water account deficit. Some of the deficit is made up through desalination. But that doesn’t help many areas in the country’s interior—with the exception of Riyadh, which is fed by a 476 km-long pipeline that brings it desalinated water from the coast.


All told, Saudi water demand has increased by 500 percent in 25 years, and it is now expected to double again in the next 20 years. One of the major problems with desalination, is that not only it is a heavy polluter because it demands a lot of fuel, and thus creates climate change, the salt waste from desalinating has meant that parts of the Arabian Gulf are now 8 times saltier than normal, and this has affected marine life and fishing catches—an important source of protein.


The difference between what Saudi Arabia uses and what it gets in the form of rainfall or from desalination is covered by dipping into what is called “its fossil aquifer”—an underground reservoir that was laid down during the last ice age 15,000 years ago. As in Syria, any water that is taken out of that aquifer is literally irreplaceable.


Part of the problem is that agriculture uses up more than 85 percent of the country’s average annual water usage. As happened in Syria a couple of decades ago, the Saudis began planting huge areas with wheat—and had to use huge amounts of water from the fossil aquifer for irrigation. The idea was to provide food security. But this was hugely wasteful of an irreplaceable resource. So, in 2008, the government decided to phase out wheat growing and to end it by 2016.


But then new problems arose. The farmers began planting date palms and growing more forage for animals—both of which need more water than does wheat. Since date-growing and the raising of livestock have a strong pull on the Saudi national psyche, the government was hard-pressed to prevent this shift in agricultural production.


To make up for lost domestic wheat production, the Saudis began importing water in the form of crops grown elsewhere. Beginning a few years ago, the Saudis began following the initial example of the Chinese, Indians and South Koreans and started leasing huge tracts of land in Africa from corrupt governments for a pittance. In some cases it has paid little as 75 US cents per hectare. Crucially, that price has included the water rights to the property as well.


That has had a major impact on the region and the world. First of all, almost all the land that was leased is in Sudan and Ethiopia, which control the headwaters of the Nile. But Egypt too is now suffering from a peak water crisis and needs every drop of Nile water that it can get. Any water used upstream is no longer capable of being used downstream in Egypt. In other words, in their search for food security, the Saudis are not above weakening the poor Egyptians—their ostensible allies.


But that’s not all. A few figures should give you some idea of what is involved. The latest statistics indicate that Saudi businessmen, using Saudi government loans, have bought or leased 5,520,000 hectares of land in Sudan and Ethiopia. All these properties come with water rights. To give you some idea of what that means, in Israel the total amount of land under cultivation is only 300,000 hectares, and only 190,000 hectares of that is farmed with irrigation.


Not only that, the Saudis not only use the land to grow wheat, vegetables and cut flowers for sale in the Arabian Peninsula, they also use the land—and the water—to grow a lot of rice. And while it takes 1400 litres of water to produce 1 kilo of wheat, it takes 3,400 litres –two and a half times that amount to produce an equivalent amount of rice. The Saudis now say that they intend to grow 7 million tons of rice over the next 7 years. That means that they will be effectively imported 2 quintillion, 380 quadrillion litres of water from growing rice alone.


But that’s not all. In order to give the Saudis that land, the governments in Africa had to declare the properties as “state lands”—even though they had been in the hands of the same families for generations. This has turned hundreds of thousands of people, especially the pastoralists, into serfs—a sure recipe for eventual social unrest in a strategic part of the world where rebellion is already endemic.


And to top it all off, the terms of the leases permit the Saudis to repatriate 75 percent of all the produce. So, in 2011, after a devastating drought in the region, because the food the Saudis grew was being exported instead of being consumed locally, Western taxpayers had to send relief supplies to the affected region through the UN World Food Program in order to prevent famine. Nonetheless tens of thousands of people are still estimated to have died from hunger.


It’s a nice deal if you can get it, isn’t it?


But now let’s get on to how the regime gets everybody else, including you and I, to pay for protecting the House of Saud.


As the Saudi regime perceives things, The House of Saud faces only two real security threats—from Iran and from its own people.


The Saudis got a real scare when the so-called “Arab Spring” broke out. To counter the threat, the government launched a huge crackdown on the Saudi Shiites, who happen to be concentrated in the area that also contains the largest, most productive oil fields. Fortunately for the government, it is also the area that is also the least inhabited by foreign journalists; and so the brutal techniques used to suppress the Shiites went largely unreported.


As well, as part of its quest to damp down unrest, the government decided to buy off the most restive parts of the population by increasing the budget by 130 billion dollars over 5 years. This meant, among other things, flooding the civil service with incompetents who couldn’t otherwise get jobs in the private sector.


The Saudis also gave 4 billion dollars to Egypt, 400 million dollars to Jordan; and promised Bahrain 10 billion dollars over 10 years. That meant, though, that the Saudis needed oil to be priced at 85 dollars a barrel, instead of 63 dollars as had previously been the case. The Saudis did have the option to increase production in order to bring the price of oil down and still maintain the country’s revenue flow. But even though its production capacity is about 12.5 million barrels of oil a day, it has still been pumping only 9.8 million barrels. So it needs high oil prices to pay for its expenditures—which affects everyone.


And as a signal of future intent, it announced that its plans to increase production capacity from 12.5 million barrels a day to 15 million barrels, were being cancelled—even though domestic oil consumption in the next few years is expected to exceed the amount exported. In other words, as time passes, there will be less and less Saudi oil available on world markets to halt the rise in oil prices—one of the main reasons why Western countries have always been so quiescent about the human rights violations in the Arabian Peninsula.


So, in effect, as I said, we are now all being taxed to help the Saudi regime try to prevent domestic unrest. And the irony is that while the Saudis depend on high oil prices, that also makes their own food production more expensive. And so that is another reason for the move to Africa. Once the subsistence farmers in Africa have been turned into serfs, their pay is only a dollar a day—so that makes the Saudi factory farms particularly profitable, while other farmers, elsewhere  in the world, struggle to pay their fuel and fertilizer bills.


This decision not to expand production appears to be a long-term policy to maximize profits even if this weakens Western economies. As I mentioned and cannot emphasize enough, one of the reasons for the Saudi’s clout in the West has not only been its huge oil reserves, but its production reserves. In other words, the West has been under the belief that when the crunch comes, the Saudis will dump more oil on international markets in order to keep prices from getting totally out of hand and causing a world depression.


The Saudi’s decision not to increase its production reserves should undermine those fundamental Western assumptions, especially because the Saudis own use of oil is rising at a dramatic pace. Gasoline in Riyadh costs only about 60 US cents a gallon. There is therefore no incentive in Saudi Arabia to save energy, and so much of it is wasted. But gasoline usage is not the only problem. The Saudis are using increasingly prodigious amounts of oil to desalinate water and 1.2 million barrels of oil a day to provide electricity for, among other things the massive increase in the use of air conditioners.


And that is why, despite the recession in the West, oil continues to be expensive. Expensive oil means not just higher gasoline prices, but also higher costs to everyone for everything from food to electricity—in effect another consumption tax on consumers everywhere in the world.


Again, that is a super deal if you can get it. But, again, that’s not all.


We know from Wikileaks, that the Saudis told the United States to “cut off the head of the snake” in Iran. You should note that the Saudis used the word “you” not “we.” That is because the most effective sanction that could be imposed on the Iranians would be to cut the price of oil. Iran used to base its budget on oil at 115 dollars a barrel. But in 2011 it acted drastically and cut all sorts of subsidies in order to create a budget based on oil at 83 dollars per barrel—less than what the Saudis now need. Anything above 83 dollars automatically provides additional funding for Iran’s nuclear efforts.


Why hasn’t there been an outcry from those Western governments who are now fighting the possibility of another recession, but whom the Saudis expect to take on Iran for them? The answer is simple, but based on a clever premise. The Saudis, as before, when there have been high oil prices, are in the midst of buying 70 billion dollars worth of arms—60 billion from the US alone. Arms purchases provide not only profits to Western companies that operate strong lobbies with their governments, they provide something that Western politicians value even more during a time of economic crisis—jobs, especially at a time when unemployment is high and the Western countries are cutting back on their own arms purchases.


Nonetheless, the Saudis decision to emphasize immediate issues instead of long-term planning is having an effect. Relations between Riyadh and Washington are at a low ebb because of the American’s support for the democracy movement in the Arab states, while the Saudis are trying to build and strengthen a federation of Arab monarchies. This tension may very well increase if the revolutionary movement in the Arab world spreads.


But there are other factors also coming into play. While the Saudi’s budget needs are growing quite dramatically, at about 10 percent per year, the world economic crisis, which the Saudis have fostered because of their oil policies, is, ironically, putting an effective lid on an increase in oil prices.


The problem the Saudis face look basically like this: The Jadwa Bank in Riyadh now estimates that if the Saudi budget keeps growing as it has, the Saudis will need oil at 320 dollars a barrel by 2030.


But, new production capacity, especially in Libya and Iraq, will soon be coming on line. And the legal problems I already mentioned, and the high cost of Middle Eastern oil, are driving Western oil companies to focus their oil searches elsewhere. New discoveries have already been made off the coast of Angola and Brazil. And the oil companies have has major technical successes in extracting oil more efficiently from American shale deposits and the Canadian tar sands. Both these sources will soon be adding billions more barrels of oil and natural gas to the world’s energy reserves.


This shift to other oil production centres cannot but have an effect. Domestically, while 2.2 million jobs were created in Saudi Arabia between 2005 and 2009, only 9 percent went to Saudi citizens—despite the rapid growth in population and the need to create jobs for Saudi youngsters. And the Saudis refusal to countenance a rise in oil production and a drop in oil prices, has prevented those countries that fear Iran’s nuclear programme from delivering a short, sharp blow to the Iranian economy that might lead to greater domestic unrest and the possibility of an overthrow of the mullahs there. A Saudi attempt to drive down the price of oil would undoubtedly be painful in the short term, but it is the most effective tool available against Iran. But the Saudis are unwilling to take on that burden.


All these issues are compounded by a uniquely Saudi problem. Up to now, the succession to the monarchy has been based on transferring rule in the country, not to the sons of the recently dead ruler, but to one of his brothers or half-brothers, according to their age. And while Abdul Azziz sired at least 30 children by multiple wives, the remaining children are now quite old.


Therefore, one of the most urgent matters facing the House of Saud now is how will the future kings be chosen.


One of the ways the family was able to preserve unity was by alternating the kingship between the different clans within the royal family—in other words, between the children of the different wives that Abdul Azziz had. But now, as the need to chose a king from the third generation of Abdul Azziz’s progeny approaches, this system can no longer work.


Unless an agreed new system can be decided upon, divisions and competition within the royal family may increase. And that could lead to the thing the royal family has always feared most—instability within the family itself. In other words, even with all their oil wealth, there may not be enough money available in the future to pay off all those princes seeking power. And if there isn’t enough money to satisfy them, there certainly won’t be enough money available to satisfy the aspirations of the masses.


Reform in Saudi Arabia has always moved at a glacial pace. But the window available for launching true reforms is now closing. Protest within the country has so far been limited by the ulema’s fatwah that any rebellion against the government is a breach of Sharia law and is forbidden by God. But without reform, the Saudi royal family may have to face revolts from too many quarters for it to cope with—from disgruntled members of the royal family, from ordinary Saudis wanting real jobs, from Islamic extremists, from the Africans who have become neo-colonial serfs, and maybe even from Western oil consumers who are now finding alternate sources of fossil fuel energy.


Syria: At War With Itself


A year ago, mass demonstrations had spread throughout Syria, but the situation had not yet degenerated into the widespread violence we see today. At the time, pundits and analysts were predicting President Bashar Assad’s imminent fall—just as they are doing today.


However, despite all the events that have taken place the past year, including the fact that more than a hundred people are now being killed every day, and tens of thousands have fled and become refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, Assad’s political and military base has remained largely intact.


To understand why that has been so, we have to go way back to the time when Syria, as a modern state, was founded following the implementation of the Sykes-Picot agreement in 1924.


Until World War I, what we today call “Syria,” had been a four hundred year old governate of the Ottoman Empire that had included what today are the nation-states of Lebanon, Jordan and Israel.


Ottoman rule had been extraordinarily successful because it was largely based on the premise that all the tribes and religious groupings in the empire could enjoy extensive local autonomy so long as they did not rebel against the central authority and paid their taxes and bribes fully and on time.


And here comes the crucial point. In order to prevent the development of opposition alliances, governance was strictly vertical. In other words, the head of each tribe or religious or ethnic community was held responsible for the behaviour of everyone in his group and reported directly to the governor or one of his appointees. In return, these heads were given all sorts of perks and were allowed to charge fees for services to members of the group such as facilitating appeals to the central administration. In other words, the policy was one of divide and rule by separating the groups, then balancing the interests of each minority group…and finally by preventing them from forming alliances.


Following Turkey’s defeat in World War I, Britain and France divided up the Levant between them, in accordance with their geopolitical interests. And, in doing so, they made the same mistakes they had made in colonial Africa. Frontiers were drawn on maps with largely straight lines and without usually taking into account demographics or traditional tribal boundaries. The one major exception was the creation of Lebanon by the French so that the Christians would have a mini-state in which they were at least a plurality.


Another interesting exception was Israel’s northern border, which neither follows a river-bed nor is delineated by a straight line. That is because Britain insisted that the boundary line there follow the Biblical account that the kingdom of Solomon stretched from “Dan to Beersheba.” That is why Metullah today is in Israel and not in Lebanon.


One very important aspect of colonial rule was that, as in Africa, the colonial overlords, unlike the Ottomans chose a different form of divide and rule, and favoured one or more of the minorities within their jurisdiction in the belief that these minorities would be more dependent on the rulers and thus more loyal. Unlike the Ottomans, the European imperialists preferred that the various tribes and denominations actively compete with each other so that they would not form coalitions that might threaten colonial rule.


The opposition groups that did form were thus anti-tribal, favouring pan-Arabism (as in the case of Baathism in Syria and Iraq) or pan-Islamism (in the form of the Moslem Brotherhood in Egypt) as an alternate way of fighting colonial rule.


Once they gained independence, however, most of these countries were inherently unstable because of the residual resentment towards what had been the privileged minorities. In a search for stability, most of these countries were ultimately taken over by ruthless military cliques and their cronies. And since the colonialists had favoured minority groups when it came to allocating positions in the civil service or the military prior to independence, after independence, several of these minorities were in a position to eventually be able to seize the reins of government.


What we are seeing today, though, is the final collapse of the Sykes-Picot agreement, and all its attendant colonialist trappings. As I will show in a moment, the official boundaries of Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria have remained intact in form, but they have all but disappeared in practice.


On the surface, the situation appears to be chaotic. Western journalists and Western diplomats have decided who are the bad guys in all of this, but they have yet to figure out who are the good guys…and even whether there is a good guy. In Syria, there are currently about 100 different armed groups to choose from.


I would like to argue, though, that the situation is far less chaotic than it appears to be…and that the warring factions are all acting according to a very similar and clear rationale.


Without even knowing who he was, they are attempting to prove that the 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes was right. Hobbes, writing in the wake of the bloody English civil war, famously declared that “the life of a man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” And we live in a world in which it is everyone against everyone else. Certainly if you live in Homs or Der’aa these days, that is only too true.


Therefore, according to Hobbes, the only way to control the worst excesses of man’s selfishness is by investing the sovereign with absolute power.


The thing is that, in Syria, each of the opposition groups believes that it is the one that should have that power.


Washington diplomats and Western journalists have portrayed the so-called “Arab Spring” as a struggle for democracy. The fact is, though, that it really makes little difference whether the main opposition forces in the Middle East today are religiously or tribally-based, they are not out to introduce democracy as Westerners understand the term, but to seize absolute power—or at least to prevent some other group from seizing absolute power.


Therefore, the rest of my remrks will be devoted to trying to explain what the Hobbesian approach to politics means from the perspective of those taking part in the civil war in Syria, and how it influences their behaviour. In essence, my remarks will constitute an introduction to the updated version of what we have long called “Byzantine politics.”




As I keep arguing, major events, such as those we have been witnessing for more than a year and a half in the Arab world do not just happen by themselves, but are invariably the product of processes that have been underway for a long time.


For the sake of simplicity, I am going to date the beginning of the current process to the Six-Day War.


So, let me begin by first introducing the main actors in this drama. And I’ll start with those who are furthest away from the actual fighting.


Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War came as a shock to the entire Arab world and threatened to undermine all the governments that had been party to that defeat. The resulting internal instability eventually enabled Hafez el Assad to seize power in Syria, Saddam Hussein to take over the rule in Iraq, and the Egyptian military to consolidate its hold over Egypt after the peace agreement with Israel.


But an even more important outcome of the Six Day War was that the Israeli-Arab conflict became a centerpiece of the ongoing American-Soviet conflict for world influence. Up until that war, Israel had not even been a back-burner issue for the US State Department…more like a back of the closet issue. However, after De Gaulle changed French policy and chose to side more with the Arabs, the US chose to step into the resulting vacuum, and use its influence with Jerusalem to try to lever the Soviets out of Egypt.


The expulsion of the Soviets from Egypt, and especially the two oil shocks that followed the Yom Kippur war ensured that events in the Middle East would continue to keep the Middle East issue at the forefront of American concerns for the decades to come.


The breakup of the Soviet Union further reduced the Russian’s ability to influence events in the region. However, Vladimir Putin has since tried to increase Russia’s involvement in what Russia still considers to be its vulnerable strategic back door. The main venue for this renewed contest with the United States has been the UN Security Council.


Slightly closer to the region itself, and especially in the wake of the American fiasco in Iraq, two non-Arab Moslem countries, Turkey and Iran, in a battle for regional hegemony, chose to take sides…with Shiite Iran supporting the Alawites and Shiite Hizbollah, and Turkey supporting the Sunni Moslems.


With the weakening of Egypt as the leading political force in the Arab world, the primary challenger to these attempts by non-Arabs at hegemony has become Saudi Arabia, and most recently Qatar.


It’s important to note that with the notable exception of Iran, none of these countries has sent its own troops to fight in Syria.  In other words, the Syrian civil war has now also become an international proxy war.


Iraq has been playing a very peculiar, but understandable role in all of this…out of the spotlight. I’ll be talking about the Iraqis too in a few moments…And I won’t forget about Hizbollah either.


Within Syria, during the past year, little has actually changed…at least not when it comes to organized support for and against the regime. The country remains riven by religious, ethnic and class clefts. There are even two rebel councils—one based in Turkey and the other in Egypt.


Because of the opposition’s inability to unite, the civil war has retained all the trappings of Hobbesian-style tribal warfare. In Syria, tribal warfare has meant that all the sides have been going for total victory; and this has made attempts at compromise and diplomacy totally fruitless.


This has also meant that violence has been privatized, with almost every group in the country, including the government itself, forming its own militia—either for self-defence or for attack. The government, for example, has made extensive use of what are called “the Shabiha,” a group of mercenary guerilla fighters whose job is to do battle with all the other militias at the same time.


A further complication has been the arrival of jihadists from outside the region who have no domestic loyalties and are out to try to impose Moslem extremism as a way of life for everybody.


The regime’s basic support system, the army, has, though, remained largely intact…despite some well-publicized desertions, mainly by Sunnis, to the opposition. It is important to recognize that most of the soldiers who have switched sides did not actually take part in trying to put down the revolt. Almost from the outset, they had been confined to barracks because their loyalty to the regime was in doubt.


What has changed though is that precisely because only regime loyalists have been assigned to putting own the revolt, even though the conscript army is made up of soldiers from all swaths of the population, it has lost its popular legitimacy and credibility. That means that if and when the regime falls, there will be no central body capable of asserting control.


Politically, there have been also some defections by what had previously been non-military Sunni supporters of the regime, but the impact of their desertion has been insignificant.


Far more importantly, there are no signs yet of major defections by the Christians and the wealthy Sunni merchant class, without whom the regime could not survive.


But that is not the only reason that the regime has been able to hang on.


And now we come to the crunch. The Druze, the Kurds, and the Bedouin tribes have been staying largely on the sidelines, and this has had a profound effect on the war to date.


The most immediate and most visible impact of their absence from the battlefield has been the current stalemate, with Assad enjoying a great advantage in weaponry, skilled manpower, communications, command and control systems and maybe even in motivation because the Alawite soldiers seem to be convinced that if they lose, the rebels will try to wreak terrible vengeance.


As a result, if we assume that the external factors remain as they are…in other words that Russia and China maintain their diplomatic support for the Assad regime, and that the US and Europe do not intervene directly in the fighting as they did in Libya…it would appear that the only way that the stalemate can be broken is if those parties that are sitting on the fence or those non-Alawites who still support the regime join the rebellion as well.


At this moment, it appears unlikely that they will do so—at least not until it becomes clear which side is winning so that they can pick up a share of the spoils.


So, in order to understand what is really going on, it is important to first look at the motivations and actions of those who are not fighting.


It is very important to remember that the fighting opposition of Sunni Moslems remains deeply divided, with each group fearing that the other is about to make a power grab; and that all the parties fear the Moslem Brotherhood and its affiliates. Even el Qaeda is divided into separate militias. The appearance on the battlefield of an additional, well-disciplined group of fighters such as the Kurds, the Bedouin or the Druze could thus turn the tide of battle to one side or another.


By the way, I hope I haven’t implied that these three parties haven’t been doing anything. It’s just that you have to know where to look and what to look for to understand what is happening—and why the three haven’t joined the fighting in any meaningful way..


But, in order to do that, I first have to give you a bit of background. The media have focused primarily on the fighting going on in the major urban centres. But, over the past year, one of the most significant changes in the nature of the fighting has been the intensification of the warfare taking place in the areas along Syria’s western, northern and eastern borders.


There are many reasons why the fighting has now become intense in these areas. The opposition wants to set up autonomous zones within Syria where it can have the freedom of action to plan assaults and be assured of resupply of arms and equipment. The current fighting in Aleppo has as its major tactical goal, an attempt by the rebels to create an autonomous zone in the north with a supply corridor from Aleppo to the Turkish border.


But no less importantly, the regime’s support from the Sunni merchant class in Aleppo has been dependent on the government’s capacity to hand out exclusive import permits. If the border crossings fall to the opposition, civilian imports by these Sunni merchants may be restricted…or worst of all from the government’s point of view, taxed by the opposition.


But now we come back to the issue of the non-combatants. The Kurds, the Bedouin and the Druze all of live near or in border areas. Ironically, precisely because they are in the most strategically-crucial area of the conflict, the non-combatants have been awarded a degree of immunity from the war raging around them. Each of the warring sides wants the non-combatants as an ally, but just as importantly, each wants to avoid doing anything that may make the fence-sitters join the other side.


And so we come to one of the most important political changes that has taken place in Syria in the past year. And that is the reversion by all the major local actors in the region to a neo-Byzantine system of politics.


All the powers and the proxies in the conflict have been trying to get each of these three big groups to join its camp, or, as a second-best, to prevent these three groups from joining the conflict on the other side. And they are doing so, by trying to play on the conflicting interests of the non-participants.


It all sounds very theoretical. But it is hardly that.


To begin with, you have to take into account the fact that one of the most important demographic changes that took place as a result of the creation of nation states in the region was that people moved out of their traditional tribal areas and redoubts to other parts of the country in the search for jobs. However, first in Lebanon, as a result of the civil war there, and later in Iraq, when that country became engulfed by Sunni-Shiite fighting, ethnic cleansing was carried out on a large scale.


As a result, largely-homogeneous ethnic and religious enclaves, such as those that existed under the Ottomans, were reestablished. This same process is now also underway in Syria. Those within the enclaves view their positions as a place where a “last stand” is taking place, and therefore their primary interest is to first ensure that the enclave is strengthened as much as possible.


This process of re-Ottomanization is particularly noticeable in Syria’s border areas, which the non-combatants are treating as redoubts. The non-combatants have been aided by another feature of Ottoman rule—the fact that there were no formal borders separating members of the same tribe.


The frontiers of Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq were always porous and easily breeched by smugglers and by families and tribes that had been formally separated by the colonial frontiers.


But today, as each of the ethnic and religious groups seeks allies in the face of instability, these formal, colonialist boundaries are being largely ignored by one and all. As a result, the Kurds move freely between Syria and Iraq, while the Bedouin have been making increased contact with their kinsmen in Iraq and even as far away as Saudi Arabia.


Jordan, by the way, has so far suffered the most, from the Arab spring and the growth in the violence in Syria, Iraq and the Sinai. Its economy has taken a big hit because the pipeline bringing gas from Egypt to Jordan keeps getting blown up by Salafists and the Bedouin in the Sinai, and this has raised energy costs. And because of all the family ties I have been talking about, Jordan has become a nation of refugees—Palestinian, Iraqi and now Syrian—who do not work, but who do require welfare assistance.


There is also one fillip to this process of creating open borders that shouldn’t be ignored.


The porousness of the borders has also enabled al Qaeda to move its foreign fighters back and forth between Iraq and Syria with ease.


Al Qaeda’s warriors, most of whom do not come from Fertile Crescent countries, had originally arrived on the scene in the wake of the American invasion of Iraq. Assad allowed them to land in Syria and make their way to Iraq as a way of punishing the Americans there because of the sanctions Washington had previously imposed on Syria.


Now, these same fighters from all over the Moslem world are making their way back to Syria to challenge the Assad regime—and are using Iraq as a refuge and a place for resupply and R&R in time of need.


Al Qaeda’s and the other Salafist groups’ influence on events in Syria has so far been relatively limited, and has been restricted to a few well-publicized but strategically insignificant suicide bomber attacks. But they could become big time spoilers if and when Assad departs the scene and a negotiated settlement between the various confessional groups is attempted.


In other words, this disregard for formal boundaries by all the parties has meant that the greater part of what was once called “the fertile crescent” has now become a single battleground—but one without a single or even a pair of dueling potential sovereigns.


As a result, because no single body has yet to establish hegemony, each of the tribes and ethnic groups has been reorganizing to protect its own interests and to take advantage of any opportunities that arise…in an almost perfect model of Hobbes’s conception of man’s true nature.


For example, the Bedouin everywhere in the Middle East have always resisted attempts at control by central governments. Central governments try to keep the peace by paying off the sheikhs. As a result, in Syria, the Bedouin sheikhs continue to get their traditional pay-offs and perks and so still pay obeisance to the regime.  In return for the payoffs, they have kept their men largely out of the fighting unless there is a provocation by government troops.


But the younger Bedouin have long chafed at the fact that the central government had always ignored their interests while pumping oil out of a region that is largely populated by Bedouin. As a result, with the sheikhs’ apparently silent blessing, some of the youngsters have been turning more and more to their Saudi and Iraqi kinsmen, and thus also to the anti-Assad Saudi government for economic support…which includes payment for smuggling arms to the Saudi-supported Sunni Syrian rebels.


Talk about playing both sides against the middle.


The elders milk the central Syrian government for what they can get and the youngsters play up to the wealthy Saudis and Qataris who are trying to weaken Assad. It’s win-win for both the elders and the youngsters.


But that’s not all. Some of the Bedouin tribes with relatives in Iraq play a different game. They have been helping guide convoys bringing Iranian arms through Iraq to the Syrian government forces, while also extracting protection money from government-supported convoys taking Syrian agricultural and other exports to Iraq.


But if you think that that is a complicated political situation, the politicking undertaken by the Kurds is absolutely mind-boggling.


It’s hard to know even where to start with this one.


Under the Sykes-Picot agreement, the Kurdish heartland was divided up between Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria.


For years, Kurdish rebels, belonging to the Iraqi-based, Kurdish independence party, the PKK, have been carrying out a terrorist war against Turkey for years.


There are also offshoots of the PKK in Syria as well.


None of the nation-states like the Kurds within their borders, and wish that they would simply disappear. The Kurds return the enmity. For example, neither Turkey nor Syria ever extended full civil rights to their Kurdish populations, and most recently, talks between Kurdish leaders and Syrian opposition figures held in Cairo broke down when the Kurds demanded that Syria no longer refer to itself as an “Arab state,” and accept the Kurds as a distinct people.


As a result, most of the Kurds’ efforts in recent years have been directed at achieving greater autonomy in their respective countries—and expanding the areas under their control.


But now things get really complicated. Turkey, in its attempt to achieve regional hegemony, has thrown all its weight behind the Sunni rebels in Syria and the Sunnis in Iraq, and has used every opportunity to undermine the Iranian-supported Assad regime and the Iranian-supported Shiite government in Iraq.


But Ankara is also terrified that if the instability continues, the Kurds in all four countries will unite and demand independence.


Worse still, in Syria, the job of consolidating the political and military autonomy of Syrian Kurdistan has been undertaken largely by the PYD, the main Syrian affiliate of the PKK.


As a result, recently, with his usual bombast, Turkish President Erdogan, even went so far as to begin saber-rattling along the Syrian-Turkish boundary. In addition to providing logistical support to the Syrian rebels, he has noisily moved Turkish troops up to the border with Syria opposite the three main Kurdish enclaves there. He has even threatened to invade those enclaves if terror attacks against Turkey are launched from this area. That has made for great drama and satisfies some of Erdogan’s domestic political needs. But, to be honest, in the end, the move has been virtually meaningless.


That is because the Kurdish elders in Syria have no interest in getting involved, at least for moment, in the Syria civil war or in invading Turkey. Like the Bedouin and the Druze, they are most interested in strengthening their enclaves by using the time available and any money forwarded by the central government.


In Iraq, the Kurdish leadership has been just as active, or even more so, creating what is in effect an autonomous Kurdish region in the north of the country.


But, as you may have gathered over the years, nothing in the Middle East is simple.


The economy of the Iraqi Kurdish region has been bustling. But that economic growth is largely the product of the huge growth in trade between Turkey and Iraq. Virtually all the trade between the two countries passes through the Kurdish areas. In other words, the Kurdish areas have become dependent on pro-Syrian rebel Sunni Turkey for its economic growth.


But that’s not all. The pro-Iranian, pro-Alawite, Shiite-led Iraqi central government covers about 95 percent of the Kurdish area’s budget—a good reason for the Iraqi Kurds not to rebel or encourage others to rebel.


Thus, out of pure self-interest, the Iraqi Kurds cannot afford to alienate either the Sunni Turks or the Shiite Iranians, and so have also counseled the Syrian Kurds not to choose sides either.


And now we come to Hizbollah.


For the past decade, Hizbollah has been putting most of it efforts into trying to take at least de facto control over the Lebanese government. However, the rebellion by the Sunnis in Syria has also energized the Lebanese Sunnis who have been chafing at Hizbollah’s actions, particularly their suspected involvement in the murder of Lebanese Sunni leader Rafiq el Haririariri..


Not only that, over 30,000 refugees have flooded into Lebanon, bringing with them gruesome tales of Alawite atrocities.  And several border towns in Lebanon have been virtually taken over by the rebels—which, in turn, has led to firing and even raids into Lebanon by Syrian military forces.


The increasing tension between Lebanese Shiites and Sunnis has now also led to regular firefights between the two groups in the Lebanese port city of Tripoli.


Hizbollah, and the Shiites, are now at least a plurality, if not a majority in Lebanon. In the past few years, they did manage to overcome historic Sunni prejudices against them by presenting themselves as the only true “resistance” against Israel. But Hizbollah has never been a totally independent entity. It has always been dependent on Syria and Iran for money, logistics and arms supplies. It has thus not only sided with the Assad government, there is some evidence that it has even sent some its warriors to Syria to fight on Assad’s behalf.


The reaction in the rest of the Arab world to Hizbollah’s support of the Assad regime has been swift. According to a poll conducted by the Pew Center, in recent months, support for Hizbollah in Egypt has fallen by 36 percentage points, and by 25 percentage points in Jordan.


Domestically, Hizbollah’s behaviour has further sharpened ethnic and religious divisions in Lebanon. According to the Pew Poll, while 94 percent of Lebanese Shiites support Hizbollah, 94 percent of Lebanese Sunnis are now opposed to it. In other words, the longer the slaughter in Syria continues and the more intense the sectarian divisions in Lebanon become, the greater is the chance of renewed civil war in Lebanon. In order to divert attention from these domestic problems, Hizbollah could then choose to once again heat up the border with Israel.




To conclude, we also have to look at what is going on in Syria from a macro, and not just a localized point of view.


The Assad government has been weakened, but it is not yet on the point of collapse. The Syrian army has been engaged in a scorched earth policy and will likely continue to do so. This has led to an increasing number of Sunnis becoming refugees. If and when they try to return, they may find it difficult or even impossible to return to their homes because other groups that have remained and are interested in reestablishing sectarian enclaves may have become squatters.


No less importantly, because of the scorched earth policy, the Syrian army is losing its legitimacy. Therefore, should the Assad regime finally collapse, there may be no vehicle available to impose order on the country. Among other things, as in the Sinai, extremist jihadists may then attempt to create even greater instability.


It is not unimaginable that an alliance between jihadists in Syria and the Sinai could then lead to a series of hit and run raids on Israel, and a war of attrition such as we have not experienced since the 1970s.


Fear that the jihadists may take control of even part of Syria’s huge stock of chemical weapons could also encourage Israel or the NATO countries to launch a preemptive assault on those chemical weapons stores.


Should Israel feel impelled to intervene in Syria, the political and military situation throughout the Middle East could then become infinitely more complicated.


Not only that, the Israeli economy is already under strain because of the economic slowdown in the rest of the world. Nonetheless, circumstances have forced it to spend huge sums building a fence along the Egyptian border and strengthening its military presence there.


Should the Bedouins shift their smuggling efforts from the Sinai to the Jordanian border, Israel may be forced to spend even more money to build a fence along the Arava.


The border region with Hizbollah remains tense, and Israel is therefore also spending huge amounts on anti-missile and anti-rocket defences to counter Hizbollah’s stockpiling of rockets.


And, if you haven’t forgotten, Israel is still contemplating a massive military assault on Iran’s nuclear capabilities.


In other words, Israel could be facing a multi-front war in the near future.


Syria: Tribalism

Note: This lecture was first delivered in August 2011, but has certainly stood the test of time

One of the most frustrating things for me as I read through the press reports about the revolts in the Arab world is the failure of journalists and commentators to put the events into some sort of historical perspective. They treat the mass protests as some sort of spontaneous movement that just happened by itself. But, invariably, major political and social upheavals, unless they are caused by some sort of natural disaster—and sometimes precisely because they were triggered by a natural disaster that could have been foretold—are inevitably the product of processes that have been underway for some time.


That is why sometimes trivial events end up leading to social explosions. All the mass protests need is a seemingly-insignificant event to act as a trigger. In the Israeli-occupied territories, the first intifada broke out in 1987 in the wake of a traffic accident after an Israeli truck driver had rammed into a car from Gaza, and the Tunisian revolt broke out after a municipal worker had handed out a ticket to the owner of a cart for having sold vegetables without a permit.


Nowhere is this axiom about major events being the product of long-tern processes more true than in Syria. And nowhere in the Arab world are current events, including the government’s response to the protests, more shaped by the country’s past than in Syria.


Syria is the Arab country that is most riven by historic ethnic, tribal and religious disputes. If you think that Lebanon is a political basket case because of inter-communal competition for power, you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet.


For centuries, Syria prospered, not so much because of what it produced indigenously, but because it was on the main caravan route between Asia and Europe. Two events at the end of the 19th century turned the country’s economy into a basket case. I have never seen either of these events mentioned in any of the recent news reports about the country.


The first was the opening of the Suez Canal, which disrupted the main trade route running through the country. This led to the abandonment of whole towns and villages that had lain along the trade route and that had depended on supplying the caravans with supplies for their living. The economic crisis then led to the country’s first mass exodus of people, to new commercial centres such as West Africa and Brazil. This also led to a change in the country’s demography because many of the emigrants were Christians.


However, the crisis also strengthened the position of the urban  Jews and the Christians because, unlike the Moslems, who lived in closed communities based on clan and tribal relations, the Jews and many of the Christian groups, especially the Armenians, had extensive economic contacts abroad and were able to rebuild their commercial positions.


The second event is almost totally unknown in the West. Most of you have probably heard about the genocide of the Armenians undertaken by the Turks during World War I. But I very much doubt that you have ever heard of the Assyrian genocide that also took place between 1904 and 1921. During that period, the Turks, employing Kurdish soldiers, slaughtered an estimated 500,000 to 750,000 indigenous Christians, who could trace their ancestry back to pre-Biblical times, and the initial rise of Christianity.


This led to yet another mass exodus of Christians—largely to Brazil. Thus, within 40 years, the country lost a large proportion of its entrepreneurial and commercial class. Today, there are an estimated 6 million people of Arab origin living in Brazil—a large portion of them of both Christian and Syrian extraction.


The twin genocides naturally led all the minorities in Syria to welcome the protection of outside forces.


Modern Syria was established out of the old Ottoman Empire after World War I, when the British and the French carved up what had been called the “Levant” between them. In keeping with French colonial policy everywhere, Paris tended to favour minority groups over majority groups in order to divide and rule. That, in fact, is why Lebanon was created—as a homeland in which the minority Christians would be in control. All the entrepreneurial minorities in Syria, whether they were Assyrians, Armenians, or Jews welcomed French protection and became ardent Francophiles—thus increasing the suspicions of the Sunni Moslem majority.


One of the after-effects of Ottoman rule was that the country had become a conglomeration of petty fiefdoms. Under the Ottoman Millet system of governance, all the religious and ethnic groups were given a significant measure of self-governance in return for those groups imposing discipline on their followers, ensuring that taxes were paid, and preventing political challenges to the Sultan’s court.


At the time that the French took control, the Syrian elite consisted of two groups of wealthy Sunni Moslems—the rural landowners and the urban businessmen who had made their money because of their close ties to the Ottoman throne—and Jewish, Armenian, and other Christian businessmen and traders who were centered in Allepo and Damascus.


The Jews and the Armenians formed two, basically self-sufficient blocs, each united by a common religion and ancestry. However, the Moslems were divided into competing clans and tribes, while the indigenous, Arab Christian Assyrians were split into often-competing church groups.


You have probably never heard of most of these church groups—because most of these ancient churches are local ones that have never had the PR clout of the Vatican or the other major Christian Orthodox denominations.


In addition to the Greek Orthodox and Catholic churches, the Christian community in Syria is made up of churches, some of whose earliest texts are written Aramaic, the lingua franca of Christ’s time. The major ones are the Maronites, the Melkites, the Chaldeans, the Syriac Orthodox, the Assyrian Church of the East, and the Syrian Jacobites.


In addition, the country’s population includes Sunni Moslem Bedouin, Kurds, Circassions, Turkmen and a relatively small number of Shias and mystic Sufis, as well as two sects that are viewed as heretics by conservative Sunni Moslems—the Druze and the Alawites.


In order to avoid persecution, both these latter groups had long ago retreated to mountain redoubts where they lived basically self-sufficient lives.


When Syria gained its independence in 1946, and established a republican democracy, the Sunni-run government had enormous difficulty in coping with all these competing interests. The country was essentially ungovernable. Ironically, the situation was compounded when Israel was founded, and most of the Jews left and took with them their international commercial contacts and entrepreneurial skills.


It was at this point that three major political streams, each based on a different demographic foundation, began to take shape. The Moslem Brotherhood, operating from the mosques, began to grow. The Sunni Moslem elite took control of the military. And a new political party that sought to unite all Arabs under the banner of a programme based on Arab nationalist and secular socialist principles—that was called the Baath (or renaissance) Party—was established by a Christian, Michel Afleq and a dissident Sunni Moslem, Salah al Bitar. Both of them were French-educated.


After the elected government failed to get its act together, the Sunni-controlled military launched its first coup in 1949. This led to even greater political instability because the military itself was so riven by clan disputes. Coup followed coup in rapid succession. All told, in the first decade of independence, the country went through 20 governments, which tried 4 times and failed to draft a new constitution that would be acceptable to all.


Because the Sunni generals distrusted each other so much, they began an intensive effort to attract the Druze and the Alawites to join the officer corps by offering them free education and various other perks. One of those afforded such an education was an Alawite named Hafez el Assad.


Neither the Alawites nor the Druze was seen as a potential competitor to Sunni hegemony. The Druze believe in being loyal to whichever ruler is in power. And the otherwise persecuted Alawites were so poor and so despised by the Sunni majority that they were not viewed as a threat.


But the military coups and countercoups continued.


I have tried to total them all up, but failed because historians can’t agree which ones were “real” or not, because some of these efforts lasted only for a few hours. As the political instability increased in intensity, the various minorities, and especially the increasingly educated Alawites, were being attracted to the Baath Party as an escape from their social marginalization and persecution.


One of the reasons for the party’s success is that it was organized in much the same way that an underground guerilla organization is. It was divided up into cells of 5 or 6 members, and the cells had no contact with each other. Within each cell there was one contact man who was in charge of reporting to one single individual from the party’s hierarchy. For that reason, the party was almost impenetrable to the intelligence apparatus. But for the same reason, it is no wonder that the party fostered a culture of conspiracy.


In 1963, the Baath party finally staged a coup of its own, and succeeded. It has been in power in Syria ever since. But by the time it seized power, the Baath Party too had become divided between a more moderate civilian faction and a group of Marxist hardliners centered in the military’s officer corps. To make a very, very long story short, the party became afflicted with intense factionalism. There were constant coups and counter-coups within the party itself. In 1966, there was a particularly bloody coup, after which an extremist military faction took power; and Afleq and al Bitar, the founders of the movement, were sent into exile.


However, at that time, a somewhat more moderate—and I emphasize the word “somewhat”—Baathist faction led by Hafez el Assad began to gather strength within the army. Following the disastrous 6 Day War, this faction grew in numbers quite quickly. Finally, after the Syrian army had been bloodied once again—this time by outnumbered Jordanian Legionnaires—when Syria invaded Jordan in the wake of the so-called “Black September,” of 1970, Assad launched his own, successful coup.


This Alawite was initially welcomed by the general public—and especially by the poor Sunni peasantry that saw the Alawites as a suppressed minority like themselves. As well, the public in general was exhausted from years of political and economic instability.


Assad immediately set about consolidating his regime. In effect, he began treating the Baath Party, the military, and the state as one in the same. However, he began his rule with one distinct disadvantage. As I noted earlier, the Alawites were viewed by conservative Sunnis as heretics; and Syrian law required that the president of the state be a Moslem.


As a result, Assad began intensive negotiations with Musa Sadr, the leader of another oppressed minority, the Shiites in Lebanon. It was a marriage made in heaven. The Shiites were seeking a powerful patron to protect them from the predations of the Sunnis and Christians in Lebanon, and Assad was seeking legitimacy. Syria took the Shiites under its wing, and, in return, Sadr, a Lebanese who had been trained as a theologian in Teheran, declared that the Alawites were a branch of  Twelver Shiism—the mystic group led by Ayatollah Khomeini. In order to do so, however, Sadr had to have his decision ratified by the clerics in Iran.


As a result, henceforth, Assad became beholden to the Iranian clerics; and after the revolution in Iran, the Iranians used their clout to influence Syrian policy.


Once the deal with the Shiite leadership was consummated in 1973, Assad, having lived through all those coups and counter-coups, began a massive crackdown on his domestic, political opponents and instituted a reign of terror. According to former Defence Minister Mustafa Tlas, for years, as many as 150 of Assad’s alleged opponents were executed each day in Syrian prisons. The campaign of fear culminated in the massacre in the city of Hama in 1982. After the Moslem Brotherhood had risen up in revolt there, Assad sent in the army and leveled the city, killing 10,000-30,000 people. Significantly, news of the massacre only reached the world a month after the turning of Hama into a parking lot had taken place.


But Assad didn’t just use sticks, he also had carrots to hand out.


He carefully cultivated both the Christians in Aleppo and Damascus, who were deathly afraid of the growing Sunni Moslem Brotherhood underground, and the traditional wealthy, urban Sunni businessmen. The Christians had deep memories of the twin genocides that had taken place earlier in the century at the hands of Sunnis. And the urban Sunni businessmen were quite willing to be bought off with any perks Assad could hand out in the increasingly centralized economy. Moreover, Assad also made it a policy of promoting loyal Sunni officers within the military so that if there was an Alawite commander of a unit, his deputy would be a Sunni—and vice versa.


But Assad relied most of all on his newly-legitimized, fellow Alawite tribesmen.  Not only were they given most of the senior posts in the military and the multitude of secret services, they were also favoured when it came to handing out civil service jobs.


Since most civil service jobs were in the main cities, this led to a slow migration by Alawites from their isolated mountain villages to the main cities, such as Latakia and Homs, where they began to compete with Sunnis for these plum jobs. I’ll be saying more about that in a moment.


Corruption and cronyism, which had always been part of Syrian political and economic life, became entrenched as never before.


Initially, Hafez el Assad was lucky. The 1970s were a time of steady economic growth. Syria’s invasion of Lebanon in 1976, supposedly in order to halt the civil war there, provided Damascus with billions of dollars in new revenues—most notably through unofficial fees leveled by the occupying forces, and the switch from the growing wheat to that of hashish and opium in the Beka’a Valley. The discovery of oil inside Syria, added billions of dollars to the government’s coffers. As well, billions of dollars in aid flowed into Syria from the Soviets, and the Gulf states that were awash in money as a result of the oil shock.


However, very soon, because many of these revenues were being siphoned off by the corrupt elite and were being wasted because of heavy-handed, centralized economic planning. Syria’s economy began to crumble, and there were widespread shortages of even basic foods.


This led the government to inaugurate a policy of agricultural self-sufficiency and even the export of agricultural products. That policy was to have disastrous results.


In particular, the government ordered that arid pasturelands be turned into wheat-growing areas through the use of irrigation. These pasturelands had provided sustenance for tens of thousands of herders from time immemorial. The problem with this policy was that the only water available to grow crops in these desert areas had to come from underground aquifers that had been deposited 40,000 years ago and were non-renewable. Not only that, the soil in these areas was such that it did not absorb water very well, and this led to runoff, waste and the salinization of the soil.


As a result, over a decade, the water table in these regions dropped by as much as 500 meters and more. When the latest drought struck our region just over 5 years ago, the farmers no longer had any water in deep wells to tide them over the crisis. Hundreds of thousands of sheep and goats died, and 600,000 families fled to the slums of the main cities in order to survive.


But because modern industry had not been developed, there were few if any jobs available.


So dire did their condition become, that many began to feel that they had nothing worse to fear—not even the power of the Syrian military. That loss of fear would lead directly to the protests we see today.


All the protests were triggered by one seemingly insignificant event—the arrest of a group of teenagers in the southern city of Der’a for having painted some graffiti on some walls. After being arrested, they had had their fingernails pulled out as punishment.


Der’a had been particularly badly hit by the drought—and the government’s failure to provide any relief. The treatment of the children further inflamed passions, and people began to demonstrate. The protests then spread to the slum areas of the bigger cities, where locals had already been in competition for jobs with Alawite newcomers, and to which many of the dispossessed farmers had fled.


The next locus of protest was the desert oil-producing area of Dier el Zahour, which had provided the government with most of its foreign exchange revenues, but which had not been given very much in the way of development funds.


Hama, which had been so traumatized in 1982, joined the protests only at a relatively late stage. However, it did soon become one of the main protest centres.


The government’s response was to employ the army units and the intelligence services that were controlled by Alawite officers—notably the Revolutionary Guards and the 4th army division controlled by Bashar Assad’s brother, Maher. The government feared that if it used units that were primarily manned by Sunni Moslem conscripts, those soldiers might refuse to fire on Sunni civilians—as had happened in Egypt.


The government, however, faced two major problems. The first was that the protests spread so quickly to so many other places that the government could not concentrate its limited number of reliably-loyal forces in one place and deal with one revolt at a time—as Hafez el Assad had done with Hama. The second was that the advent of cellphones and the internet had allowed widely different groups to communicate with each other—and no less importantly with the outside world through video clips.


The government initially tried to deal with small towns on the periphery, but that only led to a well-publicized flight by these refugees over the border into Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, where they were interviewed extensively by foreign television networks—thus embarrassing the government even more.


This approach also had the detrimental side effect of thinning out the forces available even more. The problem of troop fatigue and the limited number of loyal forces was exacerbated by the protests that erupted in the slums of Damascus and at the University of Aleppo. Fearful of the reaction of the Christians and the wealthy Sunnis, Assad’s forces have effectively divided Damascus into two by setting up what is in fact a cordon between the slums and the centre of the city. Likewise, the university in Aleppo is sealed whenever a demonstration erupts there.


The reason is that the only two groups that have been sitting on the fence throughout the uprising have been these same Christian and the secular Sunni merchants who are based in these cities. Most analysts agree that these two groups both fear the Moslem Brotherhood and hold the key to Assad’s attempts to hold onto power. Should they side with the protesters, Assad would fall soon. As in Iran and Turkey, the merchants are the ones who ultimately decide whether a government will rise or fall; and you should keep in mind that the Christians, as a bloc, and despite emigration, still make up a significant proportion of the population and are about as numerous as the Alawites.


At the moment, there appears to be a standoff. The forces loyal to Assad simply cannot cope with the masses of armed protesters.


But that does not mean that things are static. A dynamic is underway. The government’s costs are getting out of control, while its revenues are dropping precipitously.


As might be expected, security expenses have ballooned. And in an attempt to quieten some of the unrest and retain the loyalty of the civil servants, the government has also hiked civil service salaries and restored subsidies on gasoline.


However, the economy is contracting, and GDP is now expected to drop by about 3 percent this year. Tourism, which had contributed 25 percent of the country’s foreign exchange earnings, has now dropped to virtually nothing. Exports are estimated to have dropped by 30 percent—in part because Egypt and Libya, significant importers of Syrian goods, are also in the midst of their own crises.


Officially, at least, the country has $18 billion in reserves. But they are falling at an estimated rate of $70-80 million a week. Foreign investment has also collapsed. For example, early on in the protests, the Qataris froze plans to invest $900 million in two electrical power plants; and $500 million in other investments were also been put on hold.


There is also a credit crunch. An estimated 8 percent of all deposits have been withdrawn from the country’s banks, so there is less money available for loans to the government or to anyone else. Some of you may have been following the stories about what will happen if the credit rating agencies such as Fitch, Moody’s and S&P were to lower their credit rating for the US or Europe. But you should know that Syria, because of its closed economy, has no credit rating at all—and therefore can’t borrow any money on international markets to tide it over the crisis.


In the past, the Syrians could always look to the Gulf States for bailout loans, but that safety net now looks less safe. The Gulf States are in a quandary. On the one hand, they have always hated the Baath Party, and view the Alawites as heretics. However, they are also deathly afraid that the protests sweeping the Arab world will reach them too. A success by the protesters in Syria could have a major impact on the small Gulf States own restive populations. So, for the moment, they have chosen to sit on the sidelines—at least where Syria is concerned.


The Iranians have apparently offered billions dollars in aid, but because of Iran’s own economic problems, that kind of funding cannot last indefinitely.


Far more importantly, Syria is now feeling the effects of its economic policies of the past three decades. Syria has had what economists refer to as a rentier economy. In other words, it has been depleting its natural resources, but because of corruption and economic inefficiency and waste, it has not invested enough of the money earned from those non-renewable resources in other forms of economic assets.


Particularly significant is the fact that oil production is dropping, and the country is expected to soon become a net importer of fuel.


But possibly the most insidious threat to the regime comes from a totally different direction.

The country, which had once benefitted from an abundance of water, is now running out of the stuff—and the water that is available is not being brought to where it is needed.


As I mentioned earlier, the country has now wasted most of its ancient underground water reserves. But because of increasing drought, a rapidly-growing population, and water usage by its neighbours, it is now also running out of surface water as well.


Largely because of climate change, the river flow in the Yarmouk River Basin, which among other things, supplies water to the beleaguered town of Der’a, has declined by more than half since 1960—from an average of about 600 million cubic metres a year to about 250 million cubic metres. During the summer months, the flow falls to as little as one tenth of that level.


The same is true for some of the other rivers. One of the country’s most important water sources, the Orontes River, which flows from Lebanon, through Syria to Turkey, has now become a polluted cesspool. In fact, because the government has failed to invest in sewage treatment plants, pollution has become so bad in some areas that epidemics of e. coli and salmonella have become a regular occurrence—which has led the government to ban food production on some river banks that used to be among of the most productive agricultural areas of the country.


Turkey’s decision to dam up the Euphrates River, the biggest river running through Syria, has also had a major impact. The river flow at the border with Iraq is now a bare 9 billion cubic metres a year, down from 27 billion cubic metres per year before the dam projects were begun. In Iraq, the results have been disastrous. 90 percent of the marshes, which used to provide much of the country’s fish protein, have now dried up.


But even if Syria did want to pump more water from the Euphrates to more arid regions, it couldn’t because it has failed to build the necessary pipelines—and if it did take more water, it could invite war from Iraq.


This situation has given the Turks enormous leverage over both Syria and Iraq in the Turks’ competition with Iran for regional hegemony. Turkish Prime minister Erdogan’s self-felt freedom to intensely criticize of the Assad regime was but a warning to the Syrians of the sanctions he can impose. In other words, Turkey is now using water as a political hostage—which seriously limits Syria’s room for political manouevre.


Because of all of these water-related factors, Syria now also faces the threat of desertification over 60% of its land surface area.


The real problem the country faces though, is that, even if the armed revolt succeeds and the government loses power, because of the rentier economy that was in place for so long, no new government will be able to take advantage of what had been a once in a civilization’s lifetime opportunity to build a modern economy. Syria, which once was in the competition for regional hegemony has been reduced to a state with minor political and economic assets, but a lot of arms.


What his means in geopolitical terms is that, in the future, Syria can be a spoiler because of the trove of missiles and rockets it has acquired from the Iranians, but it will never become a regional leader as it long believed it could be.