Lately, we hear the word ‘unsustainable’ a lot. The US deficit, the Italian and Greek economies, celebrity marriages, etc. Here are two more situations, both in the Mideast, that are unsustainable. In both cases the crunch will come in a matter of months.
People think I’m a pessimist! Listen to David P. Goldman (‘Spengler’):
Egypt is about to turn into Somalia-on-the-Nile, with unlimited leakage of weapons to Hamas in Gaza. That makes an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians about as probable as the return of the Pharaohs. The simple inattention of the world community to Egypt’s impending catastrophe astonishes. Last week we learned that Egypt’s liquid foreign exchange reserves were down to about $13 billion, about two months’ import coverage in a country that imports half its caloric consumption. A huge current account deficit due to the collapse of the tourist industry and workers’ remittances is partly to blame, but billions are leaving the country each month in capital flight.
On May 27, Sarkozy hosted the leaders of the Group of 8 industrial nations in France. The G8 promised $20 billion in aid to Egypt and Tunisia, and Sarkozy said that the amount might double. Since then, the subject has dropped out the news. If aid to Egypt was on the agenda of the Group of 20 meeting in Cannes Nov. 3, where Sarkozy called Netanyahu a “liar,” it went unreported by the whole media. Last May’s emergency package evidently has been forgotten, because the Europeans are too busy figuring out how to bail out Italy and their own banking system, and Obama doesn’t want to defend a massive new foreign aid package in the 2012 elections.
To make things even worse, the pipeline carrying Egyptian natural gas to Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria was blown up yet again, for the seventh time since the fall of Mubarak, costing Egypt millions of dollars of lost revenue each day.
Israel will get needed fuel in some other way, and in a couple of years will be self-sufficient thanks to its newly-discovered Mediterranean gas fields. But the 81 million Egyptians will not be able to eat their gas.
Leaks about the IAEA report, which more or less recognizes what we have all known for years — that Iran is developing nuclear weapons — gave rise to a remarkable public debate in Israel about whether to attack Iran and try to at least delay its program, and also to numerous reports that such an attack, with or without the support of the US and the UK, is actually in the works. I think that the familiar cliché that “those who tell, don’t know; and those who know, don’t tell” is applicable here.
Nevertheless, there are some things that we can assume are true. One is that Iran’s threat to unleash Hizballah and its rockets in the event of an attack on its nuclear facilities is credible. Should this threat deter Israel in the event that Iran crosses the red line (wherever that may be)?
I think not. If Israel does not attack Iran because of fear of Hizballah, then the threat of Hizballah will not diminish, and Iran will proceed to develop nuclear weapons. At the end of the day, Israel’s position would be far worse.
Could Hizballah destroy Israel? Of course not. But Israel’s options vis-a-vis Iran are limited by the sword hanging over it from the north. Not only that, but with Hamas becoming more dangerous as Egypt falls into chaos, more resources will need to be committed to the south. And if war breaks out with Hamas, then Hizballah could become an additional front.
Maybe Israel’s planners think that Syria will fall to the Sunnis, supported by Turkey. Then perhaps Hizballah’s supply lines would be cut and it would wither away. Lebanon might fall into the Turkish orbit rather than Iran’s. My guess is that this would be better for Israel, despite Erdoğan’s flamboyance.
But who knows how long it would take? Less time than for Iran to go nuclear? I doubt it.
I think that Israel needs to deal with Hizballah preemptively, on its terms, not Iran’s. That means either before or at the same time as an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. But keep in mind that an attack on Iran by Israel alone would require a major effort for Israel’s air force. It might be impractical to do both at the same time. The ideal tactic would be a simultaneous attack by the US on Iran — the US has the capability to do a much more complete job — while Israel goes after Hizballah. It’s not impossible, but I think it’s unlikely.
Note that even though Hamas is much weaker than Hizballah, it presents a unique problem which Hizballah does not: who will take over if Israel crushes Hamas? Israel does not want to re-occupy Gaza, nor does Egypt. But there are plenty of Lebanese who would be happy to see Hizballah’s power broken.
It seems to me that the logical thing for Israel to do is to remove the threat of Hizballah. As in 2006, I think that much of the Arab world and Turkey will tacitly support such an undertaking to the US, and therefore Israel — also as in 2006 — will be given time to complete the job. Of course it will not be able to completely screw up as it did in 2006, but I think the leadership and the Army are much better prepared now.
There are many dangers, such as direct Iranian intervention or — probably worse — Iranian sponsored terrorism against the US aimed at forcing the US to rein in Israel. The fact that Obama is perceived as weak would encourage this.
But I think it comes down to this: would Israel prefer to fight Hizballah now, or underneath an Iranian nuclear umbrella? It has a few months, at most, to decide.
The status quo is unsustainable.