Friday, August 22, 2008

Israel’s Strategic Straits

P. David Hornik | 8/22/2008

With increasingly belligerent Russia accusing Israel this week of providing military aid to Georgia, Syrian president Bashar Assad is in Moscow for talks on possible strategic arms deals. It’s no coincidence; Russia, which has at least kept up a pretense of weighing Israeli concerns about the strengthening of its foes, is now signaling a tougher line. As for Assad, the sudden status as peace partner that Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert bestowed on him a few months ago already seems to be evaporating in the Hobbesian scramble.

On Tuesday Russia’s deputy chief of staff Col.-Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsy told a Moscow press conference that “In 2007, Israeli experts trained Georgian commandos in Georgia and there were plans to supply heavy weaponry, electronic weapons, tanks and other arms at a later date, but the deal didn't work out.”

Indeed, the “deal may not have worked out” because in the months leading up to the Russian-Georgian hostilities Israel had been rejecting new arms sales requests from Georgia. Russia is much bigger than Israel and, based on an assessment that a Russian-Georgian collision was imminent, Israel decided not to risk further piquing the bear.

A bear, though, that wants to be piqued—in other words, to fill the gap left by U.S. and Western strategic weakness—is a different matter. A state-certified Russian “analyst” told Syrian television that “The …military assistance provided by Israel to Georgia in its war against Russia will affect…Russia’s attitude toward Arab states. Russia will reexamine its ties with Israel, and it is not unlikely that Moscow will now decide to increase its military assistance to Arab countries in conflict with Israel, including Syria.”

The “assistance” could reportedly run from installing highly accurate Iskandar missiles in Syria to building Russian military, naval, and air bases there. Russia is also expected to deploy its S-300 anti-aircraft missiles in Iran by early next year, and Syria is also said to be bidding for S-300s.

Further darkening the clouds in Israel’s security environment is Hezbollah’s growing consolidation of its dominant role in Lebanon, with the new national unity cabinet having asserted “the right of Lebanon, its people, its army and the resistance [Hezbollah] to liberate its land”—code for attacking Israel. Hezbollah has also been pushing an accord with Lebanese Salafist groups in a bid to ease Shiite-Sunni strife and further unite the country behind Hezbollah’s aims.

The events led Olmert to send a clear warning to Beirut this week. During a visit to the headquarters of Israel’s Home Front Command, he remarked that “In the Second Lebanon War we had much greater means and capabilities, which we avoided using since [during that war] we fought against a terror organization and not a country. In this context, if Lebanon turns into a Hezbollah state, we won't restrain our response.”

Much depends on who’s going to be leading Israel in the near future. In the primaries for Olmert’s Kadima Party scheduled for next month, precipitated by Olmert’s legal troubles, the frontrunners are current foreign minister Tzipi Livni and current transportation minister Shaul Mofaz. A victory—and success in forming a new coalition—by Livni, who has no background in security matters and has been a lackluster chief diplomat bending to U.S. and Western demands, wouldn’t augur well. A government led by former chief of staff and defense minister, relatively hawkish Mofaz would offer more hope for functioning effectively in the Middle Eastern jungle.

A failure by either Livni or Mofaz to form a new government would mean new general elections—a test of whether the Israeli public has learned anything since the disastrous March 2006 vote that ushered in Olmert’s government, particularly the fact that only leaders who understand where Israel is situated—a backward, volatile region where military achievements substitute for the lack of achievements in any other sphere—are fit to be at Israel’s helm.

Israel’s public and leaders also need to grasp that in the waning days of the Bush administration and with his successor still unknown, U.S. understanding for Israel’s strategic concerns can hardly be taken for granted, and that the survivors in a jungle are those carrying the biggest sticks.
P. David Hornik is a freelance writer and translator living in Tel Aviv. He blogs at He can be reached at

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