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This distinctive new strategy for regime overthrow adopted by the White House originated far from Washington, and was apparently opposed by most of the country’s senior military command and by the State Department under Colin Powell. In the early 1980s Israel’s security establishment had developed ideas about dissolving the other states of the Middle East to encourage ethnic and religious discord (Chapter 3). This was in essence a reimagining of the regional power structure that had existed under the Ottomans – before the arrival of the European colonialists and their forced reordering of the Middle East into nation states – but with Israel replacing the Turks as the local imperial power. In this way, hoped Israel and the neocons, large and potentially powerful states such as Iraq and Iran could be partitioned between their rival ethnic and sectarian communities.

For Israel, this outcome was seen as having four main benefi cial consequences, all of which would contribute towards the related goals of strengthening Israel against its regional challengers and weakening the ability of the Palestinians under occupation to resist Israel’s long-standing plan to ethnically cleanse them from within its expanded, 1967 borders. First, the ‘Ottomanisation’ of the Middle East would bolster the infl uence of other minorities in the region – such as the Kurds, Druze and Christians, all of which had been marginalised and weakened by the existing system of European-imposed nation states – against a more dominant Islam, in both its Sunni and Shia varieties. Israel would be able to make and exploit alliances with these minorities, as well as provoking conflict between the Sunni and Shia, and thereby prevent the emergence of the biggest threat facing Israel: a secular Arab nationalism. Second, by destroying the integrity of other Middle Eastern states, and leaving their former inhabitants feuding and weak, Israel could more easily dominate the region militarily and maintain its privileged alliance with Washington. Its role as the region’s policeman, though one spreading discord rather than order, would be assured. Third, it was hoped that instability in the region – particularly in Iraq and Iran – would lead to the breakup of the Saudi-dominated oil cartel OPEC, undermining Saudi Arabia’s infl uence in Washington and its muscle to fi nance Islamic extremists and Palestinian resistance movements. And fourth, with the Middle East in chaos, and much of the Palestinian resistance already dispersed to refugee camps in neighbouring states, Israel’s hand would be freed to carry on with, and complete, the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians from the occupied territories, and possibly from inside Israel too (for more on this last ambition see my earlier book, Blood and Religion).

Israel’s moment arrived with the attacks of 9/11 and the rise of the neocons, who persuaded the rest of the Bush Administration that this policy would be benefi cial not only to Israel but to American interests too. Control of oil could be secured on the same terms as Israeli regional hegemony: by spreading instability across the Middle East. That was why the US broke with its traditional policy of rewarding and punishing strongmen, and resorted instead in Iraq to regime overthrow and direct occupation, as described in Chapter 1. Notably, this policy was opposed by both the oil industry and the US State Department, which wanted a dictator in place in Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s removal, assuring the safe passage of oil to the West. Divisions within Washington that surfaced during Bush’s second term can be attributed to differing views on the wisdom of the neocon strategy. Whether the same model would be applied to Iran, despite a determination by Israel and the neocons to continue the experiment, was unclear at the time of writing. However, the build-up to an attack on Tehran, including the related assault on Lebanon in 2006 and a planned strike against Syria afterwards, is documented in Chapter 2.

Finally, it should be noted that the model of discord Israel and the neocons are pursuing was tested in the laboratory of the occupied Palestinian territories over several decades (Chapter 4). Interestingly, a possible lesson that might have been learnt from that ‘experiment’ was ignored: that in seeking to destroy Palestinian nationalism, and hopes of meaningful statehood, Israel encouraged a greater Islamic fundamentalism among some Palestinians that offered a new and different kind of threat. Similar developments can be detected in the deepening of Islamic extremism in areas of the Middle East, and particularly in the growing popularity of the Shia militia Hizbullah, even among Sunni Arabs, after its resolute engagement with the Israeli army’s 2006 assault on Lebanon.

Nonetheless, Israel and the neocons may have believed that there were benefits to be derived from the growth of Islamic radicalism too. With the rise of Hamas in the occupied territories, Israel was further able to exploit Western fears of Islam as a ‘global threat’. The question of what to do with the Palestinians has increasingly been tied to the question of what the West should do about Islamic extremism. Israel has therefore been nurturing a view of itself as on the frontiers of the West in an epoch-changing clash of civilisations. In particular, Israel and the neocons have seized the opportunity presented by the ‘war on terror’ to reshape the Middle East in their own interests. It is no coincidence that, today, many features of the US occupation of Iraq echo features of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinians. It is also not entirely accidental that in dragging the US into a direct occupation of Iraq that mirrors Israel’s own much longer occupation of the Palestinian territories, Israel has ensured that the legitimacy of both stands or falls together.

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Israel and the Clash of Civilisations. Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East
JONATHAN COOK