Ehud Yaari characterizes his friend Bernard Lewis, the eminent scholar of the Middle East, as possessing “this ability to see into the future.” Over a recent dinner in Israel, Yaari asked Lewis what he thought the Middle East would look like in fifty years. Without hesitating, Lewis leaned over the table and said decisively, “Any Arab who can will be out of here.”
Yaari’s face is lined with his decades as Israel’s foremost Middle East commentator; his mouth is etched into a frown at the grim outlook for the region. Speaking on February 18 to the participants in Write On For Israel—the Jewish Week’s two-year Israel advocacy course for high school students—at the Channel 2 studios in Neve Ilan, Israel, Yaari expertly traced a cutting analysis of the Jewish state’s political situation.
“We are witnessing a process that will be extended,” began Yaari. With ten wars raging in the Middle East, Yaari warned that the region is imploding. Yaari described Israel today using Ehud Barak’s moniker “a villa in the jungle,” keeping itself insulated from the bloody chaos outside while also providing aid to others. Much of this humanitarian assistance is currently directed toward Syria, said Yaari, but Israel is not helping the rebels—although she is exceedingly interested in the endgame there.
Instead, explained Yaari, Israel’s immediate security priorities are maintaining peace with Egypt and with Jordan. The 1978 Camp David Accords did not usher in an era of close ties between Israel and Egypt. Only recently, in the aftermath of the 2013 Egyptian coup d’état, has Israel enjoyed very close cooperation–much of it in secret–with Egypt. This is especially significant for Israel where the Sinai Peninsula is concerned. Yaari told the group that Israel has encouraged Egypt to send the army into the Sinai—even though that is not allowed under the terms of their peace treaty—in order to combat the hundreds of Islamic State fighters there, who are collaborating with Hamas. The Egyptian army is cumbersome and most of what it accomplishes is containment, but Yaari nonetheless stressed the importance to Israel of the Egyptian operations in the Sinai.
Preserving the 1994 peace treaty with Jordan is also a vital Israeli interest because Jordan serves as a strategic buffer zone between Israel and the hostile glares of Iran and Iraq. As Syrian refugees continue to pour into Jordan amid flames licking through the region, Israel has been keeping close tabs on the stability of her ally. Yaari underscored that Israel will have to intervene should Jordan be seriously threatened.
Widening his penetrating gaze, Yaari pointed to three competing Middle Eastern projects in whose outcomes Israel has a considerable stake. He spoke first about Islamic State. For the most complete understanding of what drives the Salafi jihadist militant organization, Yaari referred his audience to the recently published book, “The ISIS Apocalypse,” by William McCants, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Yaari emphasized that at the heart of Islamic State’s unique doctrine lies “The Management of Savagery,” a book published online in 2004 by Islamic strategist Abu Bakr Naji. The book lauds extreme cruelty as both a crucial tool for expansion and a sure path to becoming a better Muslim. With a group driven by such an ideology now on Israel’s northern border, in the Sinai, and increasingly among Palestinians (primarily in Gaza), the Jewish state certainly has reason for unease about this particular project.
The Iranian project, according to Yaari, represents a second, even greater menace to Israel. Yaari maintained that Iran does not truly want to go nuclear; in his judgment, Iran would prefer to remain narrowly below the line of nuclear capability, so as not to spur other Arab states to acquire their own arsenals. Rather, Iran is fixated on attaining regional hegemony. Yaari expressed alarm that Iran, intent on modernizing her army, is now busy concluding colossal arms deals with Russia. In just ten years, estimated Yaari, Iran will be a major military power. Yaari also noted the danger posed by the hundreds of thousands of militia fighters throughout the Middle East who are under Iranian sway.
Yaari is under no illusions about Iran’s stated aim of annihilating Israel. Observing Iran’s sweeping activities in the region, Yaari asserted that Iran is trying to expand its influence all the way to Israel. Consequently, Israel wants to see Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step aside, since he is “an indispensable link” in the Iranian chain. Yaari said that Israel has genuine reason to worry that Syria will become an Iranian colony and the Golan Heights will in turn become a frontline. Eyes flashing, Yaari radiated contempt: “I’m not going to talk about Obama or his policies…”
Yet Yaari excoriated the White House anyway. President Barack Obama, assessed Yaari, views the Middle East as “a pain in the neck” and does not trust his allies in the region. Hence, the United States has deserted its Middle Eastern friends—not only Israel—and created a void. Similar criticism of American fecklessness in Syria, noted Yaari, has entered the pages of the New York Times via columnists like Roger Cohen.
Yaari called the Syrian ceasefire plan negotiated by Secretary of State John Kerry—whom Yaari described, quoting Moshe Dayan, as “a good guy, in the bad sense of the word”—a Munich. That historical reference, Yaari clarified, is relevant not only because he thinks the plan is one of foolhardy appeasement, not least because it hands Aleppo to Assad, but also because that is what was being said about the plan in the Arab media.
Echoing Bernard Lewis, Yaari affirmed that within 5 to 15 years what happened in Syria will repeat itself in other Arab states. He told his audience that Egypt, despite the strong hand of her military regime, is in fact very unstable and vulnerable. Yaari stated further that even for Saudi Arabia, an entrenched power that has long been a bulwark of American foreign policy in the region, the long-term prospects are dim.
As Islamic State and Iran unfurl their respective influences in the Middle East, a third project grips Israel’s attention: that of the Palestinian people. The Palestinians, explained Yaari, have decided that Palestinian nationalism is not about the two-state solution. It is not about obtaining a state. It is not about Palestine. Instead, Palestinian nationalism today is about Israel—or rather, about getting rid of Israel.
Yaari outlined the Palestinians’ current strategy: either runaway statehood—through a unilateral Israeli withdrawal, as with Gaza—or run away from statehood. The latter route means clinging to occupation, which the Palestinians anticipate will eventually lead to their absorption into Israel and thus the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state.
As a result, said Yaari, the Palestinians will keep saying no to Israeli proposals. “So,” Yaari asked himself aloud, “what do you do when your partner for peace is not interested in standing up on its own feet?”
What Israel needs, submitted Yaari, is a strategy to compel the Palestinians to accept statehood. Yaari believes Israel ought to put forward an exceptionally generous offer—such as 85% of the West Bank in return for security guarantees—to which the international community would push the Palestinians to agree. Were the Palestinians to reject such an offer, it would become abundantly clear to the world that the Palestinians simply do not desire a two-state solution. Unfortunately, lamented Yaari, Israel does not presently have the necessary political setup to execute this strategy.
With that idea—that is, the two-state solution—nonviable, the Israeli political sphere has begun to tilt in favor of separation. Under this plan, brought to the forefront of the news in January by opposition leader Isaac Herzog, Israel will complete the barrier between Israel and the Palestinian territories while the Israel Defense Forces (hopefully) temporarily continues to control the West Bank.
Yaari supports separation because, as he emphatically said to his audience, “I don’t want a binational state.” One way or another, argued Yaari, Israel needs to separate itself from the Palestinians to avoid the otherwise inevitable dissolution of Israel’s Jewish character (and thus of Israel). Nevertheless, Yaari counseled that even after divorce from the Palestinians, Israel will still be in the same bedroom with them—albeit with “a cactus between the two twin beds.”
Like many Israelis, Yaari recognizes the necessity of Palestinian independence but is simultaneously wary of the other side’s intentions. In the 1990s, Yaari was “crucified” by the Israeli media for speaking out against the Oslo Accords, agreed to by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat. During an exclusive interview on the day the Oslo I Accord was signed, Yaari explained his stance to President Bill Clinton.
Clinton—about whom Yaari says “He is amazing. He should be the president again. He is amazing”—perceived that Yaari was not enthusiastic about the agreement. He asked Yaari why. Yaari answered Clinton that in 1979, he had heard Egyptian President Anwar Sadat say, “No more war, no more bloodshed” when Egypt and Israel signed their historic peace treaty.
“Mr. President,” Yaari added, “I didn’t hear Arafat say ‘No more war, no more bloodshed.’”
Avi Siegal is a senior at SAR Academy in NY, and was a participant in the 2016 Write On For Israel program.
Since its inception over 13 years ago, Write On For Israel has educated and empowered more than 500 top high school students from the greater New York area to become informed about world issues affecting Israel and campus leaders when in college. Founded by Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The Jewish Week, Write On uses the lens of journalism to transform Jewish teens into confident spokespeople and opinion leaders in preparation for the challenges they will face at college and beyond. Learn more about the program here.