By Jonathan Cook
The Electronic Initfada
19 December 2006
The era of the Middle East strongman, propped up by and
enforcing Western policy, appears well and truly over. His
power is being replaced with rule by civil war, apparently
now the American administration's favoured model across
Fratricidal fighting is threatening to engulf, or already
engulfing, the occupied Palestinian territories, Lebanon
and Iraq. Both Syria and Iran could soon be next, torn
apart by attacks Israel is reportedly planning on behalf
of the US. The reverberations would likely consume the
Western politicians like to portray civil war as a
consequence of the West's failure to intervene more
effectively in the Middle East. Were we more engaged in
the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or more aggressive in
opposing Syrian manipulations in Lebanon, or more hands-on
in Iraq, the sectarian fighting could be prevented. The
implication being, of course, that, without the West's
benevolent guidance, Arab societies are incapable of
dragging themselves out of their primal state of
But in fact, each of these breakdowns of social order
appears to have been engineered either by the United
States or by Israel. In Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq,
sectarian difference is less important than a clash of
political ideologies and interests as rival factions
disagree about whether to submit to, or resist, American
and Israeli interference. Where the factions derive their
funding and legitimacy from -- increasingly a choice
between the US or Iran -- seems to determine where they
stand in this confrontation.
Palestine is in ferment because ordinary Palestinians are
torn between their democratic wish to see Israeli
occupation resisted -- in free elections they showed they
believed Hamas the party best placed to realise that goal
-- and the basic need to put food on the table for their
families. The combined Israeli and international economic
siege of the Hamas government, and the Palestinian
population, has made a bitter internal struggle for
control of resources inevitable.
Lebanon is falling apart because the Lebanese are divided:
some believe that the country's future lies with
attracting Western capital and welcoming Washington's
embrace, while others regard America's interest as cover
for Israel realising its long-standing design to turn
Lebanon into a vassal state, with or without a military
occupation. Which side the Lebanese choose in the current
stand-off reflects their judgment of how plausible are
claims of Western and Israeli benevolence.
And the slaughter in Iraq is not simply the result of
lawlessness -- as is commonly portrayed -- but also about
rival groups, the nebulous "insurgents", employing various
brutal and conflicting strategies: trying to oust the
Anglo-American occupiers and punish local Iraqis suspected
of collaborating with them; extracting benefits from the
puppet Iraqi regime; and jockeying for positions of
influence before the inevitable grand American exit.
All of these outcomes in Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq could
have been foreseen -- and almost certainly were. More than
that, it looks increasingly like the growing tensions and
carnage were planned. Rather than an absence of Western
intervention being the problem, the violence and
fragmentation of these societies seems to be precisely the
goal of the intervention.
Evidence has emerged in Britain that suggests such was the
case in Iraq. Testimony given by a senior British official
to the 2004 Butler inquiry investigating intelligence
blunders in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq was
belatedly published last week, after attempts by the
Foreign Office to hush it up.
Carne Ross, a diplomat who helped to negotiate several UN
security council resolutions on Iraq, told the inquiry
that British and US officials knew very well that Saddam
Hussein had no WMDs and that bringing him down would lead
"I remember on several occasions the UK team stating this
view in terms during our discussions with the US (who
agreed)," he said, adding: "At the same time, we would
frequently argue, when the US raised the subject, that
'regime change' was inadvisable, primarily on the grounds
that Iraq would collapse into chaos."
The obvious question, then, is why would the US want and
intend civil war raging across the Middle East, apparently
threatening strategic interests like oil supplies and the
security of a key regional ally, Israel?
Until the presidency of Bush Jnr, the American doctrine in
the Middle East had been to install or support strongmen,
containing them or replacing them when they fell out of
favour. So why the dramatic and, at least ostensibly,
incomprehensible shift in policy?
Why allow Yasser Arafat's isolation and humiliation in the
occupied territories, followed by Mahmoud Abbas's, when
both could have easily been cultivated as strongmen had
they been given the tools they were implicitly promised by
the Oslo process: a state, the pomp of office and the
coercive means to impose their will on rival groups like
Hamas? With almost nothing to show for years of
concessions to Israel, both looked to the Palestinian
public more like lapdogs rather than rottweilers.
Why make a sudden and unnecessary fuss about Syria's
interference in Lebanon, an interference that the West
originally encouraged as a way to keep the lid on
sectarian violence? Why oust Damascus from the scene and
then promote a "Cedar Revolution" that pandered to the
interests of only one section of Lebanese society and
continued to ignore the concerns of the largest and most
dissatisfied community, the Shia? What possible outcome
could there be but simmering resentment and the threat of
And why invade Iraq on the hollow pretext of locating WMDs
and then dislodge its dictator, Saddam Hussein, who for
decades had been armed and supported by the US and had
very effectively, if ruthlessly, held Iraq together? Again
from Carne's testimony, it is clear that no one in the
intelligence community believed Saddam really posed a
threat to the West. Even if he needed "containing" or
possibly replacing, as Bush's predecessors appeared to
believe, why did the president decide simply to overthrow
him, leaving a power void at Iraq's heart?
The answer appears to be related to the rise of the
neocons, who finally grasped power with the election of
President Bush. Israel's most popular news website, Ynet,
recently observed of the neocons: "Many are Jews who share
a love for Israel."
The neocons' vision of American global supremacy is
intimately tied to, and dependent on, Israel's regional
supremacy. It is not so much that the neocons choose to
promote Israel's interests above those of America as that
they see the two nations' interests as inseparable and
Although usually identified with the Israeli right, the
neocons' political alliance with the Likud mainly reflects
their support for adopting belligerent means to achieve
their policy goals rather than the goals themselves.
The consistent aim of Israeli policy over decades, from
the left and right, has been to acquire more territory at
the expense of its neighbours and entrench its regional
supremacy through "divide and rule", particularly of its
weakest neighbours such as the Palestinians and the
Lebanese. It has always abominated Arab nationalism,
especially of the Baathist variety in Iraq and Syria,
because it appeared immune to Israeli intrigues.
For many years Israel favoured the same traditional
colonial approach the West used in the Middle East, where
Britain, France and later the US supported autocratic
leaders, usually from minority populations, to rule over
the majority in the new states they had created, whether
Christians in Lebanon, Alawites in Syria, Sunnis in Iraq,
or Hashemites in Jordan. The majority was thereby
weakened, and the minority forced to become dependent on
colonial favours to maintain its privileged position.
Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982, for example, was
similarly designed to anoint a Christian strongman and US
stooge, Bashir Gemayel, as a compliant president who would
agree to an anti-Syrian alliance with Israel.
But decades of controlling and oppressing Palestinian
society allowed Israel to develop a different approach to
divide and rule: what might be termed organised chaos, or
the "discord" model, one that came to dominate first its
thinking and later that of the neocons.
During its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, Israel
preferred discord to a strongman, aware that a
pre-requisite of the latter would be the creation of a
Palestinian state and its furnishing with a well-armed
security force. Neither option was ever seriously
Only briefly under international pressure was Israel
forced to relent and partially adopt the strongman model
by allowing the return of Yasser Arafat from exile. But
Israel's reticence in giving Arafat the means to assert
his rule and suppress his rivals, such as Hamas, led
inevitably to conflict between the Palestinian president
and Israel that ended in the second intifada and the
readoption of the discord model.
This latter approach exploits the fault lines in
Palestinian society to exacerbate tensions and violence.
Initially Israel achieved this by promoting rivalry
between regional and clan leaders who were forced to
compete for Israel's patronage. Later Israel encouraged
the emergence of Islamic extremism, especially in the form
of Hamas, as a counterweight to the growing popularity of
the secular nationalism of Arafat's Fatah party.
Israel's discord model is now reaching its apotheosis:
low-level and permanent civil war between the old guard of
Fatah and the upstarts of Hamas. This kind of Palestinian
in-fighting usefully depletes the society's energies and
its ability to organise against the real enemy: Israel and
its enduring occupation.
The neocons, it appears, have been impressed with this
model and wanted to export it to other Middle Eastern
states. Under Bush they sold it to the White House as the
solution to the problems of Iraq and Lebanon, and
ultimately of Iran and Syria too.
The provoking of civil war certainly seemed to be the goal
of Israel's assault on Lebanon over the summer. The attack
failed, as even Israelis admit, because Lebanese society
rallied behind Hizbullah's impressive show of resistance
rather than, as was hoped, turning on the Shia militia.
Last week the Israeli website Ynet interviewed Meyrav
Wurmser, an Israeli citizen and co-founder of MEMRI, a
service translating Arab leaders' speeches that is widely
suspected of having ties with Israel's security services.
She is also the wife of David Wurmser, a senior neocon
adviser to Vice-President Dick Cheney.
Meyrav Wurmser revealed that the American Administration
had publicly dragged its feet during Israel's assault on
Lebanon because it was waiting for Israel to expand its
attack to Syria.
"The anger [in the White House] is over the fact that
Israel did not fight against the Syrians ... The neocons
are responsible for the fact that Israel got a lot of time
and space ... They believed that Israel should be allowed
to win. A great part of it was the thought that Israel
should fight against the real enemy, the one backing
Hizbullah. It was obvious that it is impossible to fight
directly against Iran, but the thought was that its
[Iran's] strategic and important ally [Syria] should be
Wurmser continued: "It is difficult for Iran to export its
Shiite revolution without joining Syria, which is the last
nationalistic Arab country. If Israel had hit Syria, it
would have been such a harsh blow for Iran that it would
have weakened it and [changed] the strategic map in the
Neocons talk a great deal about changing maps in the
Middle East. Like Israel's dismemberment of the occupied
territories into ever-smaller ghettos, Iraq is being
severed into feuding mini-states. Civil war, it is hoped,
will redirect Iraqis' energies away from resistance to the
US occupation and into more negative outcomes.
Similar fates appear to be awaiting Iran and Syria, at
least if the neocons, despite their waning influence,
manage to realise their vision in Bush's last two years.
The reason is that a chaotic and feuding Middle East,
although it would be a disaster in the view of most
informed observers, appears to be greatly desired by
Israel and its neocon allies. They believe that the whole
Middle East can be run successfully the way Israel has run
its Palestinian populations inside the occupied
territories, where religious and secular divisions have
been accentuated, and inside Israel itself, where for many
decades Arab citizens were "de-Palestinianised" and turned
into identity-starved and quiescent Muslims, Christians,
Druze and Bedouin.
That conclusion may look foolhardy, but then again so does
the White House's view that it is engaged in a "clash of
civilisations" which it can win with a "war on terror".
All states are capable of acting in an irrational or
self-destructive manner, but Israel and its supporters may
be more vulnerable to this failing than most. That is
because Israelis' perception of their region and their
future has been grossly distorted by the official state
ideology, Zionism, with its belief in Israel's inalienable
right to preserve itself as an ethnic state; its confused
messianic assumptions, strange for a secular ideology,
about Jews returning to a land promised by God; and its
contempt for, and refusal to understand, everything Arab
If we expect rational behaviour from Israel or its neocon
allies, more fool us.
Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in
Nazareth, Israel. His book, Blood and Religion: The
Unmasking of the Jewish and Democratic State, is published
by Pluto Press.