In his new book, The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict, Jonathan Spyer maintains that what was once called the Arab-Israeli conflict has evolved into something with a different coloration, and that the Islamist side — at least declaratively — underestimates Israel’s ongoing resilience. Spyer, a researcher and Jerusalem Post columnist, has been clarifying the situation in the Middle East for years. Not only does this book not disappoint. It displays whole new dimensions of his talent.
Spyer could not have been better qualified to write it. A British immigrant in Israel for two decades and a scholar of the Arab-Islamic Middle East, he has both academic and firsthand knowledge of both worlds, complete with risky escapades to Lebanon and other regional countries. Skillfully interwoven with its analytical sections, the book’s memoir-like passages reveal Spyer as possessing not only compelling intellectual but also literary gifts.
The old Arab-nationalist effort against Israel, in Spyer’s telling, “met its Waterloo” in the Six Day War of 1967. It was replaced by a sustained PLO terror campaign — which also went down in defeat, in the First Lebanon War of 1982. Five years later came the First Intifada — also aimed at wearing Israel down (this time with riots and moral pressure), and also quelled, by the early 1990s.
By that time, though, Israel — particularly its old secular-Ashkenazi elite — had indeed grown tired of the conflict, thinking, in the heady optimism of the post-Cold War world, that the Palestinian side must have, too. The Palestinians could be brought around, the logic went, with enticements: a state on the one hand and economic development on the other. Thus was born what came to be called the Oslo peace process.
By the autumn of 2000, however, Israel did not find itself at peace but under a savage Islamist assault — though Prime Minister Ehud Barak had pulled the IDF from Lebanon in the face of Hezbollah attacks and offered Yasser Arafat the fabled Palestinian state at Camp David. (It was contemptuously rejected).
The old, ostensibly nationalist Fatah, the dominant part of the PLO, played a large role in the latest onslaught. But a brazen cross-border kidnapping of Israeli soldiers by Iranian-backed Hezbollah, and suicide bombings by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, two Iranian-backed Palestinian organizations of a decidedly religious bent, brought home its Islamic character.
It was a time of surging confidence for the Islamist camp. Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon particularly inspired a view of the Jewish state, in Spyer’s words, as a “temporary, ephemeral and flimsy” phenomenon — inherently, essentially, doomed. But they, says Spyer, were wrong. While its old elite has lost much of its spunk, Israel itself has not weakened.
Instead, he maintains, it has changed. In the army, national-religious soldiers, heavily overrepresented among officers and elite combat soldiers, have replaced the scions of Israel’s former secular-socialist elite. The “new Israeliness,” Spyer suggests, “is steeped in a comfortable [though] not particularly rigorous attachment to the symbols of Jewish tradition,” including “the Temple Mount, the Hebrew language,” and “the Jewish festivals[.]” This “immensely powerful complex of images and ideas” forms a “bedrock” of strength, ultimately more solid than the latest wave of humiliated rage, known as Islamism, coming from the other side.
That does not mean Israel has not faltered over this past decade of Iranian-propelled Islamist aggression. It did so, egregiously, in its badly mismanaged 2006 war against Hezbollah in Lebanon. Toward the end of that conflict, Spyer was part of a reserve tank force sent into Lebanon in a pointless mission that took a fellow soldier’s life. It was then that “my comrades and I glimpsed for a moment what it would look like if things did not hold together” — if, that is, Israel were to collapse as its Islamist and formerly Arab-nationalist enemies have claimed that it will.