Analysis & Opinions - -- Middle East Roundtable

The Sparks That Light the Fires

| December 16, 2010

The flames in one of Israel's most beautiful areas were extinguished a week ago, but decades will be needed to restore the environmental devastation. Neither Israel nor the Middle East has decades to deal with its problems. The Middle East is smoldering, on the verge of a conflagration.

The good news is that Israel was given a badly needed wake-up call and its grossly insufficient firefighting capabilities will finally get a major upgrade. The bad news, as in 2006, is that the wake-up was needed to begin with and required numerous fatalities. Usually, only two or three people have to die before the government finally deals with some major danger, such as "red" roads or railroad crossings.

The even worse news is that we may badly need the improved firefighting and other civil preparedness capabilities in the coming years. In the three primary scenarios for military conflict in the coming years—a further round with Hizballah, a strike against Iran and renewed strife with the Palestinians—the home front is likely to be hit hard.

Hizballah now has approximately 45,000 rockets, a vast arsenal dwarfing the 13,000 it had in 2006, of which 4000 were actually fired. If a similar ratio is maintained next time, Israel could face a barrage of 15,000 rockets or more. If just some of these cause fires, the recent blaze may pale in comparison. The next round with Hizballah is probably just a question of timing; the current flap in Lebanon over the international investigative tribunal may provide the spark that lights that fire.

Significant international sanctions have been imposed on Iran. No one, however, the Obama administration included, truly believes that sanctions will stop Iran's nuclear program. Sometime in the next few years, we will face a moment of reckoning. Computer viruses and other means can delay this, but a military strike may still prove necessary and could cause massive retaliation against Israel. Further Iranian progress toward a bomb, let alone a declaration thereof, may provide the spark that lights that fire.

With the peace process deeply mired in a mutual lack of vision and leadership, renewed confrontation with the Palestinians may also be near. Some warn of a third intifada, probably an over-hyped threat; why should the Palestinians resort to such drastic means when one piece of charcoal, carelessly thrown in a forest, causes such destruction? An outrage committed by the radicals on either side, a single Qassam rocket that hits a school or playground, could provide the spark that lights that fire.

Various intra- and inter-Arab developments could do so as well, e.g., the ongoing Sunni-Shiite enmity, including the Sunni Arabs' deep fear of Iranian hegemony and nuclear weapons. Egypt and Saudi Arabia will soon face critical processes of succession, which could lead to domestic instability and even to their transformation into radical Islamist states. Both have large armies equipped with the very latest American weaponry, which could fall into radical hands, and Egypt could rejoin the war-fighting camp. Lebanon may still come apart. The West Bank and Gaza will likely remain divided for years, the PA may be taken over by Hamas, or collapse due to its own lack of legitimacy. Iraq may implode, or fragment, following the final American withdrawal. The future of the regimes in Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Sudan is similarly unclear. The burgeoning populations of the region, including a huge youth bulge, are increasingly confronting the combustible mixture of an absence of economic opportunity, political freedom and social restrictions.

The tragic fire in Israel almost begs the question; so what's new? Time and again, we encounter the same decision-making pathologies; the same focus on the immediate future, without long-term planning and preparations; ministries that operate as autonomous fiefdoms, rather than an integrative cabinet; coalition maintenance above all else; crisis management and improvisation. Decisions are taken but not implemented, such as 100 million shekels budgeted for firefighting half a year ago because "everyone knew" it was the weak link in emergency preparedness, but not allocated. Our leaders continually refuse to take responsibility.

In the absence of a concept, languages lack words. It is thus not entirely surprising that Hebrew lacks a recognized word for "accountability". Sticklers will note that a new word, "akhrayutiut", has begun making the rounds. Much like the concept itself, however, it has yet to take hold.

It is time for both Israel's leaders and the region's to be held accountable. We cannot afford too many more fires.

The only glimmer of hope is that the skeptics who view Israel as a "nation dwelling alone" in a hostile world were once again proven wrong. Eighteen countries, including Egypt, Jordan, Turkey and the Palestinians, sent emergency firefighting assistance. If and when we finally succeed in extinguishing the flames of the conflict, we will find that we have far more friends than we knew.

Chuck Freilich was a deputy national security advisor in Israel and is now a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and an adjunct professor at Harvard, NYU, Tel Aviv University and the Herzlia Interdisciplinary Center. His book on national security decision-making processes in Israel will be published in the coming months.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Freilich, Chuck.“The Sparks That Light the Fires.” -- Middle East Roundtable, December 16, 2010.