Advocating for democracy in this brutal region reeks of 'ignorance, wishful thinking and patronization'

Defense minister ridicules notion of democracy in Mideast

In remarkable address, Moshe Ya’alon decries attempts to establish Palestinian state, says flatly that Assad used nerve gas, warns Syria not to cross Israel’s red lines

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Moshe Ya'alon (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)
Moshe Ya'alon (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)

In a remarkably candid speech in which he ridiculed the notion of democracy dawning in the Middle East, and denounced efforts toward Palestinian statehood, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon on Sunday also emphasized that Israel would respond forcefully to any Syrian attack and asserted that Syrian President Bashar Assad was behind a recent lethal chemical strike on civilians outside Damascus.

Israel will stay out of the conflict in Syria “unless the red lines we’ve set down are transgressed,” Ya’alon said. “Our neighbors in Syria realize that if they challenge us, they’ll meet the force of the IDF.”

Israel has asserted that the transfer of nonconventional or other “game-changing” weapons from Syria or Iran to Hezbollah would be seen as an act of war and would elicit a response. Several alleged Israeli airstrikes in Syria over the past year have been seen as responses to such actions.

In a broad lecture that focused on Western misconceptions about the Middle East, the defense minister confirmed that the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons against its own citizens and said that Israel would be affected — whether or not US President Barack Obama opted to follow through with plans to attack Syria.

“We are preparing for the consequences of action and the consequences of inaction,” Ya’alon said at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism’s security conference in Herzliya. “Every such decision has consequences for us.”

He confirmed that earlier in the day he had participated in another in a string of security assessments about the situation in Syria and added, “The bottom line was, as we expressed before Rosh Hashanah, that whoever planned on going on vacation over the holidays can carry on with his plans, and in my estimation they will go ahead unhindered.”

Ya’alon called the Obama administration’s plans to strike in Syria — which, he said, is the second-strongest supporter of global terrorism, after Iran — a “punishment against the regime of Bashar Assad,” and confirmed that the Syrian ruler had “crudely used chemical weapons against his own citizens.”

The White House claims that over 1,400 people were killed in the August 21 attack.

The bulk of Ya’alon’s talk, however, was devoted to setting out his broader vision of the region, and it focused on the danger of clinging to preconceived notions. For instance, he claimed that the uprisings in the Arab world began on the day in December 2003 that US soldiers pulled the bedraggled Saddam Hussein from his hole and not with Mohammad Boazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia in 2010.

Surging as far back in time as the Sykes-Picot Treaty of 1916, which dictated the eventual parceling of the Middle East among the world powers, Ya’alon said that just as the nation state was right for Europe at the time and wrong for the Middle East, so, too, is democracy today — as ushered in at the ballot box — wrong for the region.

Advocating for democracy, he said, in a region where death is frequently valued over life, reeked of “ignorance, naiveté, wishful thinking and, no less important, patronization.”

He also voiced outright surprise that, despite the upheaval in the Arab world, there was still a movement to push for the founding of a Palestinian state.

“One of the most incredible things in a period when the notion of the nation state is collapsing before our eyes is that there are those who are trying to advance, in one way or another, the founding of yet another nation-state — even as it remains unclear how the people of Jenin are connected to the people of Hebron, and uncertain that there is a common denominator between those in Judea and Samaria and those in Gaza,” he said. That section of the speech was the more remarkable because his own prime minister and Likud party leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, is explicitly committed to a two-state solution, and recently reentered negotiations with the Palestinians, brokered by the US, aimed at precisely that outcome.

Ya’alon also touched on the 9-11 attacks, which he said had changed the perception of terrorism: from a limited criminal act requiring a police response to an armed assault and an act of war. He further praised the Patriot Act and the ensuing international cooperation against terror and said that, had the international cooperation in 2001 been similar to what it is today, “I can say with near-confidence that the 9-11 attacks would not have happened.”

His primary message, though — the one with which he began and ended — related to an ever-changing reality and the way it often clashes with fixed conceptions about the Middle East: “We must truly ask ourselves every day what has changed, so that we remain relevant, so that we don’t prepare for the wars of the past and the challenges of the past but rather to be able to deal with the challenges of the present and the future.”

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