From the Golan Heights, the tragic legacy of the West’s botched response to the Arab spring is all too visible

In Israel, you have an up-close-and-personal view of Obama’s greatest mistake.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

At the Decks bar and grill in Tverya, on the sea of Galilee, the proprietor – a pleasant woman with an American accent – is explaining the exchange of hostilities on the Israeli-Syrian border.

Her finger traces along the grain of the wood. “They went here,” she says, barely shifting her finger over one side of the grain to indicate the Golan Heights, Israeli-occupied territory that was struck by 20 missiles, reportedly from Iran (though the government in Tehran disputes this). “And in response, we went like this.” She smashes her hand down flat on the other side of the table, indicating the retaliation against Iranian military installations, which killed at least 20 soldiers (though the Israeli government disputes the figure) and weakened Tehran’s military presence in Syria.

She was not speaking triumphantly, or ruefully, but matter-of-factly. This is how it goes: this is how it has to be.

That’s the orthodoxy in the Israeli defence establishment. Because the country is so small – it is a touch smaller than Wales and its population is less than London’s – the only way it can remain safe is through a disproportionate response to military threats, or so the theory runs. That is part of the thinking behind the response to protests on the Gaza border on 14 May, when the Israel Defence Forces fired live ammunition at marchers and protestors.

Capital ideas

The protests and the bloody response have overshadowed the opening of the American embassy in Jerusalem. As far as the Israeli government and people are concerned, the country’s capital is Jerusalem: it hosts its parliament, the prime minister’s residence and the central bank.

But the Palestinians also claim Jerusalem as their capital, and the sensitivity of who governs the city is one reason why most foreign countries base their embassies in the coastal city of Tel Aviv (although they maintain consulates in Jerusalem as well). That has long been a source of division between Israel and the rest of the world: David Ben-Gurion, the left-wing leader who was the country’s first prime minister, called the United Nations’ attempt to declare Jerusalem an international city, governed by the UN rather than Israel, “null and void” in 1949.

For prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, the embassy move is a diplomatic coup as it symbolically underlines American support for Israel’s enduring claim to Jerusalem. But only relative minnows are inclined to follow the US: so far, just Paraguay and Guatemala.

Yet regardless of how popular Netanyahu may be at home, the reality is that there will be no enduring peace between Israel and Palestine that does not recognise the importance, both politically and spiritually, of Jerusalem to both sides.

The city’s tourist traps seem to be several steps ahead of the politicians. In the same outlets you can buy Jewish, Christian and Muslim relics of dubious provenance at inflated prices, and pro-Palestinian T-shirts are sold alongside ones celebrating the Israel Defence Forces and the intelligence agency Mossad. “The one thing that’s really sacred here,” our guide quips, “is the dollar.”

Long nights

Even on the Golan Heights, which I visit the day after the exchange of missiles between Israel and Iran, there is something to buy: the imaginatively named Golan Heights Café sells not only tea and coffee, but sculptures made by a local artist from decommissioned military hardware.

But when I – and other journalists on our trip, organised by the pro-Israel lobby group Bicom – arrive, the café is closing despite it being not long past 4pm. The workers explain apologetically that they need to head home and sleep, as they anticipate an interrupted night.

That’s not because of tensions between Israel and Iran, but because of the shelling by pro-Assad forces of Al-Suwayda, one of the few remaining Syrian rebel-held cities, barely more than 180 kilometres away from where we stand. On a clear day, you can see as well as hear the mortars being fired on the city, as Assad completes his terrible victory over the remaining dissidents.

Good neighbours

It’s embarrassing to think about what the nations outside Syria, both elsewhere in the Middle East and in the West, have chosen to care about and not care about. Here in the United Kingdom, the political class has made peace with Bashar al-Assad winning the civil war through a variety of brutal means – but it objects to his regime’s use of chemical weapons. What that objection means in practice is the occasional token missile strike on a vacant airfield and another round of Jeremy Corbyn-bashing by the Conservative press.

In Israel, the IDF runs Operation Good Neighbour, which brings injured and sick Syrians from the battlefield and into Israeli hospitals, treats them, and then promptly returns them to Syria. Just as in the UK, Israel objects to the consequences of Assad’s victory but its response (like ours) still falls far short of offering a solution.

Obama’s failure

Israel is perhaps the only country in the world in which Donald Trump polls better than Barack Obama. While Obama has much to recommend him, in Israel you have an up-close-and-personal view of his greatest mistake.

At almost every point, the Western response to the Arab spring was an unmitigated disaster. Piecemeal and contradictory intervention in Libya has led to a failed state dominated by competing militias. Piecemeal and contradictory non-intervention in Syria has led to a failed state dominated by Assad, who will endure but as a client either of Vladimir Putin’s Russia or the Iranian republic. Israel is determined to prevent the latter happening – and war between Israel and Iran may yet be the final bitter legacy of Obama’s mishandling of the Arab spring. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Israel and the impossible war