Shir Hever: Israel’s Syria strategy to weaken Hezbollah and profit from chaos

Shir Hever Interview on The Real News Network – 7 May 2013


Shir Hever is an economic researcher in the Alternative Information Center, a Palestinian-Israeli organization active in Jerusalem and Beit-Sahour. Researching the economic aspect of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, some of his research topics include international aid to the Palestinians and Israel, the effects of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories on the Israeli economy, and the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaigns against Israel. He is a frequent speaker on the topic of the economy of the Israeli occupation.


PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.

Israel apparently has bombed inside Syria, as most people that follow the news know by now. Originally, the propaganda or PR around this event was that they were bombing chemical weapons on their way to Hezbollah. Now the story seems to be they were taking out some kind of advanced rocketry (we’re told by The Washington Post, at least) that was being sent from Iran to Hezbollah. One way or the other, Israel does not seem to be hiding the fact that they made such a strike.

Now joining us to discuss Israeli strategic thinking in all of this is Shir Hever. Shir is a political economist. He works regularly with The Real News. He joins us now where he’s working in Germany.

Thanks for joining us again, Shir.


JAY: So what do you make of what Israel’s tactical strategic positioning is towards the current situation in Syria?

HEVER: I think it’s very important to keep in mind that the Israeli strategy is very short-term. While a lot of regional forces like Turkey and global forces, the United States and Russia, are playing a complicated game and manipulating what’s happening in Syria, Israel is mostly concerned about its domestic politics.

The Israeli government is in a tight position at the moment, because John Kerry, secretary of state for the U.S., had some visits to the region, tried to restart the peace negotiations. And in so doing, he mentioned and tried to revive the Arab peace initiative. And that puts Israel in a very difficult position, because the Arab peace initiative is a very reasonable offer. Israel has no intentions of accepting it. And if this sort of pressure continues, Israel will be exposed as unwilling to work with the United States and unwilling to negotiate with the Palestinians.

A few weeks ago, the Israeli prime minister, Netanyahu, came to a comedy show as a guest star. And in that comedy show, they asked him, well, are you going to restart the peace negotiations, are you going to resume the peace process, and he said, you know, there is a lot of clashes around the Middle East, the Middle East is very heated up right now, so maybe it’s not a good time.

This gives us a very good idea of what exactly he stands to gain from the civil war in Syria. As long as there is fighting, as long as there is war, he can just keep distracting from the fact that he’s actually not doing it.

JAY: And we did a story a few days ago. We quoted Daniel Pipes, who’s a pretty well-known neocon pundit, academic, who was very closely connected to Likud and the sort of right-wing opinion in Israel. And he overtly said, essentially, whichever side–meaning Assad or the opposition–whichever side seems to be getting weak, that side should be strengthened by the West–in other words, even support Assad if Assad seems to be losing–in order to keep the civil war going–essentially, let your enemies kill each other–and didn’t seem very concerned about what happens to the Syrian population caught between them.

And then is there not another part to this in terms of Israel’s interest, that as long as there’s such chaos and Assad’s so weak, they can do exactly this, they can bomb something on its way to Hezbollah, and, it seems, without–I should say, with impunity?

HEVER: Yeah. But we should also from a historical point of view remember that Assad’s regime, and also his father’s regime, were both–Hafez al-Assad, his father–have both been relatively convenient neighbors for Israel. Although there is no peace between the countries, both Hafez al-Assad and Bashar al-Assad have generally kept the ceasefire in place and haven’t tried to provoke any kind of action against Israel.

This could change, of course, if the regime in Syria will change. And one of the things that is discussed inside Israel is whether actually Israel should do something in order to protect Assad. And part of that is also the sort of propaganda that you hear a lot in Israel, as if the rebels are actually working for al-Qaeda, all of them are al-Qaeda. And that sort of talk is very common in the Israeli media.

So, suddenly Assad, who was the terrible enemy of Israel–and, in fact, Israeli politicians and activists have been interrogated, imprisoned for visiting Syria, for meeting Assad and talking to him. Now, suddenly, there is a shift and he’s becoming a sort of possible almost ally of Israel.

And one somewhat cynical view is that this attack against Syria over the weekend has in some extent strengthened Assad, because it was an attack against the Syrian army loyal to the regime, a military base. Forty-two soldiers have been killed, according to some sources, in these attacks. And Assad therefore immediately could claim this is something that proves that the rebels are supported by outside groups, that Israel is helping the rebels, Israel is part of the groups trying to overthrow the regime. And that to some extent actually gives him more legitimacy.

I seriously doubt that the Israeli government has formulated their attack in such a way to try to give Assad more popularity and more legitimacy.

I think that if we try to analyze why Israel decided to attack Syria all of a sudden, the reasons are more–have a lot more to do with two things. One of them is the real fear inside Israel that the technological superiority that Israel wields over the region will weaken. Israel’s army is in a state of crisis, a long-term crisis, mainly because conscription rates are dropping because the soldiers are not willing to–are not as motivated as before and not willing to risk their lives as before. And that makes Israel more and more dependent on the military companies, on the military technology, on their ability to use unmanned drones and sophisticated missile systems and so on.

This particular attack, initially they said it was against–to stop chemical weapons from being shipped to Hezbollah. Later they changed the story and talked about Fateh-110 missiles. These missiles are, as they are reported in the media, lightweight, very accurate, and can be launched without too much preparation and too much facilities. That means that Israel will find it very difficult to intercept those missiles, and that those missiles could actually target Israeli airfields or Israeli sensitive antennas and so on. That’s exactly what Israel is afraid of. That would mean that Israel will lose its technological edge to some extent. And that would open the question why is Israel not negotiating, why Israel is not activating any kind of diplomatic channels. And they wanted to prevent those missiles from reaching Hezbollah at any cost, because that would make it very difficult for Israel to launch raids on Lebanon at will, as Israel has often tried to do.

JAY: And Israel certainly assumes, rightly or wrongly, that if there ever is an attack on Iran, Israel thinks that Hezbollah might, as an ally of Iran, attack from Lebanon. And they want to, I assume, take out whatever advanced capability there that they can.

HEVER: Well, that might be one reason for it. But Israel has so far never attacked Iran directly, only very indirectly, through some complicated cyber means. But Israel has attacked Lebanon so many times. And Hezbollah’s main reason and call for popularity inside Lebanon is that they protect Lebanon from Israel, or at least try to protect Lebanon from Israel. Israel bombed Lebanon over the years many times. In 2006, for the first time, Hezbollah was able to launch rockets back at Israel to such an extent that actually caused significant damage.

One of the things that the Israeli army was very much concerned about and the Israeli public was concerned about, the Israeli government was concerned about: what if one of those rockets would hit a sensitive facility, for example, a fuel reservoir? And because of that concern, Israel has not launched a massive invasion against Lebanon since 2006, and instead focused most of its violence against Gaza, the Gaza Strip. But that means that if Hezbollah will have the ability to intentionally target sensitive areas inside Israel, then maybe Israel will just not have the option of attacking Lebanon anymore. That’s something I don’t think the Israeli government is willing to forego.

JAY: And [crosstalk] just let me–this is an important point here, because there’s–you know, in the Western media there’s sort of this presumption that Hezbollah is just waiting to get enough arms so they can attack Israel. And, you know, Hezbollah’s always painted as sort of the more likely aggressor in this scenario. But even when I’ve been in Israel and other times when I’ve read, you know, top Israeli intelligence people, especially after they retire, they all talk more or less that Hezbollah’s in a defensive position, that, you know, if Israel left Hezbollah alone, it’s not–there’s no reason to think Hezbollah would attack Israel.

HEVER: Yeah, that’s absolutely true. And the main argument that Hezbollah still has against Israel is that Israel continues to occupy a piece of Lebanon called the Shebaa farms. And actually if Israel would withdraw from that territory, it’s very doubtful that Hezbollah would try any kind of further attacks against Israel.

But what you said before about Iran does deserve some mention, because we do see some interesting development here of Israel’s and the U.S. relations. Netanyahu has pushed Obama very strongly over the past years to what is known as the red lines policy regarding Iran, so that Obama would declare openly what are the red lines that will cause the U.S. to intervene against Iran. And, of course, that is also something that’s mainly concerned with domestic policies within Israel, because Netanyahu is too afraid to launch a direct attack against Iran, or has been so far too afraid to launch a direct attack. But if he can show that he made the U.S. make such a move, that he forced Obama’s hand, that would make him seem like a hero of Israel’s security.

Now, Obama, so far, refused to comply with that demand. He didn’t say exactly what is the red line that will make the U.S. bomb Iran or invade Iran. But Obama did make a speech, a very–using very similar words, very similar terminology, speaking about Syria, and speaking specifically about the use of chemical weapons. And shortly after that speech, Israel claimed that there was a use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime in Syria, which was originally taken with some skepticism in the U.S. But Chuck Hagel decided to accept this intelligence report coming from Israel, possibly also because otherwise he would, within the U.S., be perceived as not faithful enough to the Israeli intelligence, doubting the Israeli intelligence for no reason.

And, of course, as soon as–we know that there are red lines. The red line is chemical weapons. Israel claims chemical weapons were used. Then Israel attacked Syria. Then that puts Israel in a position where they can act freely and the U.S. cannot actually do anything to withhold Israel, even if the consequences of that attack might further destabilize the region.

JAY: Do you get any sense that Israel wants the United States to militarily intervene in Syria? You seem to see a difference of–serious difference of opinion here. As I said, Daniel Pipes, who I think shares a lot of the opinions or speaks for some of Likud and right-wing Israel, seems to argue against any kind of intervention and says, you know, let the two sides kill each other and support whichever one is getting weaker. But then you have The Washington Post in an editorial say, it’s time for U.S. intervention to end the war quickly. They don’t exactly spell out what that intervention is, but they talk about the spreading of this Sunni-Shia split and how this might affect Lebanon and become a wider regional war. They don’t mention the role of Saudi Arabia and Qatar in all of this, who are fueling all of this. Then you have somebody like Bill Keller writes in The New York Times, Syria is not Iraq, and suggesting an intervention in Syria would not be fraught with the same danger Iraq was. What–in the context of that, what’s going on in terms of Israeli thinking, as far as one can ascertain?

HEVER: Israel–the Israeli elite, especially the military elite, the ministers of defense over the past few years have developed a very delicate strategy of brinkmanship, because on the one hand, the Israeli economy and the Israeli military system depend on constant chaos, constant fighting, constant threat of terrorism. And that is something that fuels into Israel’s military industry. And I want to say something about that too.

But on the other hand, a lot of more, let’s say, sane, reasonable people in Israel know that you can go too far, you can go past a certain point in which this threatens Israel’s stability, that it could harm Israel’s economy, like what happened in 2006 when Hezbollah was actually able to fight back, something that the Israeli military is not really ready for. So they’re always trying to choose their targets which would be the easy targets, mainly attacking the Gaza Strip, which is defenseless, or almost defenseless, and not attacking countries like Syria, who still have an army.

So in that–and Netanyahu in that context represents a sort of moderate voice, because despite of his very right-wing rhetoric and very sort of xenophobic politics, he’s after all a pragmatic politician and so far has chosen very carefully the sort of targets he’s–is tangling with so as to avoid a situation where Israel loses control over the situation.

But on the other hand, you have all these military companies. That’s, I think, a point that we cannot forget. If we compare this attack against Syria this year to the attack that Israel had against Syria in 2007–there was also a raid at the time, and that raid was–the Israeli army didn’t take responsibility for it, the Israeli government didn’t take responsibility for it. It was kind of understood in the international media that probably this is an Israeli attack. Probably no other force in the region has the ability to launch such an attack. But Israel never actually took responsibility and never claimed that it was an Israeli attack.

If we look at this attack this weekend, the situation is very different. Officially, the Israeli army didn’t claim responsibility for the attack, the Israeli government didn’t claim responsibility. You have this absurd situation in which the Israeli newspapers, when they want to talk about this attack, they refer to foreign sources. They say, according to foreign sources it was an Israeli attack, but–so, assuming if it was indeed an Israeli attack, let’s say, this and that, but we cannot know for sure.

But at the same time, the Israeli army has leaked the specifics of the attack, what kind of mechanisms were used to attack. And they even gave the brand names of two missiles developed by the Israeli military company Rafael, which is the same military company that developed the Iron Dome system that was used against Hamas-fired rockets from Gaza. And the Rafael company produced these two missiles. They’re called Popeye and Spice. And one of the things that these missiles can do is, apparently, attack a fortified target, because those military bases were protected by concrete walls, and they could punch through those concrete walls. And they could also be fired from far away so that the Israeli Air Force could claim that they’ve actually never entered Syrian air space. They’ve–hover just out of reach and fire these missiles into Syria. So we have this absurd situation where the Israeli Air Force is actually telling how they did this attack, but not admitting that they actually did this attack.

JAY: And why do you think they leaked this?

HEVER: Because these missiles are going to be sold now. If we look at the Iron Dome system that was used against Hamas-fired rockets in the attack of November 2012, three months after the Iron Dome system was deployed, there was a weapon trade show, trade fair in India in which the Iron Dome system was already offered for sale. And I think it’s very likely that the Popeye missiles and Spice missiles have just gotten their publicity, and now they are going to be sold to armies around the world and bring many profits to the company Rafael.

JAY: Alright. Thanks for joining us, Shir.

HEVER: Thank you, Paul.

JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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