Middle East expert fears trainwreck in region if Iran emboldened

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An Iranian-backed war against Israel involving Hezbollah in Lebanon on one end, and a Saudi peace deal on the other, could be in the air, according to author Joel Rosenberg, who has spoken with leaders in the region.

“I write about worst case scenarios,” said Joel Rosenberg.

The author of political thrillers has also become a witness to history in the region in recent years, meeting monarchs and political leaders as the Abraham Accords took shape. As such his political thrillers, the fourth of which has just been released, can be a window into what might happen in the region, gleaned from real life scenarios.

“One of themes of my novels is this: To misunderstand the nature and threat of evil is to risk being blindsided by it. I’m not trying to predict a Third Lebanon War is going to happen, much less in 2021. I don’t want it to happen at all.

“But a novel can act like a war game, it can take people into threats and dangers that they may not be thinking about and help them imagine what could happen if American leaders are blindsided by threats they don’t see coming,” he says.

The last time I saw Rosenberg was in Dubai during the brief window when thousands were traveling daily from Tel Aviv to Dubai.

In December he met the UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs for an interview he published at All Israel News. In the past he has met the King of Jordan and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman in Saudi Arabia.

In November I spoke to Rosenberg after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Saudi Arabia. His views tend to reflect some of the tectonic changes taking place in the region.

Now he has a warning, and it is one that is mirrored, in a way, by his recent book. “The Second Lebanon War in 2006 was horrible. But I actually believe that the Lebanon theatre is the most likely next major war in the Middle East, and possibly even in 2021.

“In the 34 days of the Second Lebanon War, we saw 4,000 missiles fired by Hezbollah at Israel – but in a Third Lebanon War, we could see 4,000 missiles a day being fired at Israel. I am very concerned. This is the type of thing that could erupt at a moment’s notice.”

He says that in his new book Beirut Protocol, a former US Marine named Marcus Ryker, gets caught up in a war that breaks out on the Lebanese border. “In The Beirut Protocol, the US is trying to finalize a historic peace agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia. But the US is also worried that Iran is going to try to use the peace process to foment trouble,” he says.

If this reminds us of what is actually going on in the region, it is for good reason. Like Tom Clancy’s books, which looked at real concerns during the Cold War era and after, this is about the here and now.

In his book, the Secretary of State is coming to the region to try to finalize the peace deal. On her way to Riyadh, she plans to stop in Israel and wants to tour the border with Lebanon and get a briefing on the latest threat from Hezbollah, he says.

Today, in the non-fiction world, the US administration has said that it supports a possible peace deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Rosenberg encourages us to look at Lebanon as a major focus and one the US should take seriously.

He notes that the US was more focused on Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s. “But in recent years, very little attention has been paid to Lebanon.”

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He says that the Biden administration is “beginning to take a series of actions that looks very weak toward Iran. There is a growing sense among senior Israeli officials that they may have to go back to the way they were thinking in 2012 – that if the US and international community don’t take decisive action either diplomatically or militarily to stop Iran from getting The Bomb, then the IDF may be forced to launch pre-emptive airstrikes against nuclear facilities inside Iran.”

These concerns have been made clear by Israeli defense officials in recent weeks. Warnings about Iranian nuclear enrichment have been made public. In addition Israel is concerned about Iran’s role in Yemen and its threats from Syria, as well as Hezbollah.

“Israeli official are increasingly worried that the Biden administration could stumble into a weak and ineffectual Second Nuclear Deal,” says Rosenberg. “What people don’t realize is that Iran’s number one way of striking back at Israel is not primarily with Iranian missiles but with Iranian-built missiles – 150,000 of them – positioned in Lebanon and all aimed at us here in Israel.”

He has a bitter warning for the future as well. “That type of scenario – with thousands of missiles raining down on Israel every day – could completely overwhelm Israeli missile defense systems. That is a terrifying prospect and not just for Israel. It could also pull the US into a war inadvertently and the Biden administration must take this seriously.”

This is an important issue that is not well understood sometimes. During the Trump era Israel was given a free rein to do as it wanted. Israel’s choices, given that blank check, was generally to keep the status quo. That meant continuing the so-called ‘Campaign Between the Wars’ in Syria by carrying out airstrikes on Iranian targets. It also meant warning about Iran’s ballistic missile and drone programs.

Most important, Israel concentrated resources on the northern threat, and eschewed a cycle of conflict with Hamas.

Now things may be changing. Iran is threatening the US in Iraq with rocket attacks. It is hammering Saudi Arabia with almost daily ballistic missile and drone attacks which are escalating.

It attacked an Israeli-owned ship in the Gulf of Oman. “If the White House and State Department make Israel feel vulnerable, and don’t find a way to force Iran to back down on its nuclear program – if Biden cannot or will not find a way to neutralize the Iranian threat – then Israel won’t sit around and do nothing.

“Israeli leaders may feel they have no other choice but to strike Iran, and the implications for every country in the region – and for the US – are huge,” says Rosenberg.

Rosenberg knows that some people may judge his warnings as those of a novelist, but they are to be taken seriously. “I write political thrillers to thrill people – to get their heart pumping and the blood pressure soaring. I want them to stay up reading all night and because they just can’t put my book down.

“But I also write these novels to get people thinking. Most people don’t want to be educated. They want to be entertained. But in books like The Beirut Protocol, I’m trying to do both.”

While he began writing fiction, in many ways his fictional world has come to intersect with the real world because he has been invited to meet the very leaders he was writing about in the countries he was covering. This is an instance where art imitates life which imitates art.

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“It has been one of the great surprises and fascinating elements of my career that I have been invited to meet with American leaders, Israeli leaders, Arab leaders at the highest levels. Presidents and prime ministers. Kings and crown princes. Spy masters and special forces operators,” he says.

 

“I didn’t see this coming. When I started writing novels, I didn’t expect world leaders to read them. But in a way I have been given access to leaders because they don’t see me as a journalist. They know I am writing fiction. And yet they agree with the idea that a novel on the New York Times bestsellers list can sometimes be the better way to communicate threats and dangers and fears that they have – and warnings they want to deliver – than through classic journalism,” asserts Rosenberg.

He harkens back to Clancy, whose books were read by Ronald Reagan, the Cold warrior. A bit like how US military planners wondered how Dr. Strangelove got some things right about US nuclear strategy and also key aspects of B-52 operations, Rosenberg describes how he analyzes the region.

“In my case,” he said. “I’m operating in a grey zone between classified information and open source. I’m not actually dealing with classified information. But sometimes I’m using off-the-record conversations with world leaders and current and former senior intelligence officials, and that is a new way of writing a thriller and not everyone gets a chance to do it.”

In his latest novel he hasn’t factored in the prospect of a new administration. However, “one of the key points I’m making is that officials in Washington and Brussels and elsewhere don’t always recognize is that efforts to make peace in the Middle East, while right and noble, can also draw actors into the mix who are literally determined to blow up the peace process,” he says.

“When you get closer to making Middle East peace, you need to brace yourself for counter-actions by terrorist forces and terror states that are hell-bent on keeping Israelis and Arabs from making peace. Making peace is the right thing to do, but never think for one moment that you’re operating in a static environment. I want to show in my thrillers that every action has a reaction,” he said.

“There are forces that are hell-bent on making sure that Arabs and Israelis never make lasting peace and they will do everything in their power to create war and terror to prevent peace from taking hold.”

Rosenberg is focused today on the prospects of Israeli-Saudi peace. “I want to see it happen. And I believe it can. But I also want to show people that such a peace treaty is going to be far more explosive and controversial to the extremists in the region, from Iran to Hamas, Hezbollah and Houthis.

“Why? Because the Saudis are the custodians of the Two Holy Mosques,” he notes. “For them to make peace with Israel could very well set off the mullahs in Tehran and all their allies. So that is something that we have to sort of understand and factor in.”

He is concerned that the US has already relaxed its previous terror designation of the Houthis in Yemen. “Biden strikes me as more desperate than Iran to get back into the deal. This has all the makings of emboldening the terror masters in Tehran… I think Tehran is getting ready to attack Israel.

“I think the mullahs are making it clear that if the US or Israel try to do something to neutralize their nuclear program, they have 150,000 missiles in Lebanon aimed at America’s number one ally.”

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To stop a train wreck in the region requires a careful balance. “I believe Biden thinks he is threading the needle carefully on the whole issue of Mohammed bin Salman’s culpability in murder of Jamal Khashoggi,” he says.

The US has released a report pointing to the crown prince but hasn’t sanctioned him. “If you accuse an ally of cold-blooded murder but don’t offer proof, will that ally take that well And then you add to it taking the Houthis off the Foreign Terrorist Organization list, even as they fire missiles at the capital of our main ally. This is a very dangerous situation. There is a risk of a train wreck,” he says.

However, there could be a silver lining in that a Saudi Arabia under pressure from the US might be more inclined to a peace deal with Israel. “Because of the Iran threat and possibility of US abandoning the Saudis, the Saudis may decide that they need a strategic alliance with Israel sooner rather than later.”

Rumors over the last months have pointed to that possibility, as well as some kind of closer alliance between Israel, Bahrain, the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

The author is realistic on the trajectory of Saudi Arabia. He points to how Turkey has recently become more extreme and hostile in its rhetoric while Saudi Arabia is trying to move in a different direction. “They want to become a moderate and friendly and peaceful country. Turkey under [President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan is going in absolutely the wrong direction. Rosenberg sees the possibility of peace with Riyadh.

“My recommendation is if they truly believe they should make peace with Israel for their own national interests, then they should do it as soon as possible. A Saudi-Israeli peace deal will dramatically change Americans’ view of Saudi Arabia for the better. It is the one move that the Saudis can make that will break through to the American people and show Americans and the world that the Saudis truly are trustworthy and long-term partners for peace.” He has said this  directly to the Crown Prince and senior Saudi leaders, he says.

“The region is changing very fast. It used to be that if Israel got itself in a war in Lebanon or with any Arab group or state, this would drive back any Arab desire to make peace with us. But I no longer think this is the case. The Saudis are now experiencing what Israel has experienced for years, where Iran and its proxies fire rockets and the world hates you for defending yourself.”

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