January 11, 2009
In decades to come, when the Middle East’s history for this era is written, the current war in Gaza will be deemed a skirmish in the great Arab-Persian; Sunni-Shia; Arab nationalist-Islamist; Iran-Syria versus Egypt-Saudi Arabia conflict that is going to be the region’s–and perhaps world’s–main feature for the rest of our lifetimes.
The Arab-Israeli conflict, as it existed from 1948 to the late 1980s or thereafter, is over. Whatever they say in public, all the Arab states except for Syria have basically withdrawn from active participation. Indeed, strong statements in speeches and media have long been a substitute for action. Egypt, Jordan, and the PLO signed peace agreements with Israel, which may not have yielded warm relations but certainly ended their direct involvement in any conflict. The Persian Gulf and north African Arab states are just not focused on it.
Why has this happened? There are basically four reasons why the Middle East today is totally different from that of the previous period.
First, almost all the Arab states–Syria being the exception–concluded that they could not defeat and destroy Israel. This came about both due to the experience of war and to the collapse of the Soviet bloc, their main ally in the conflict. To stir people’s passions over an unwinnable conflict is profitable for rulers–to distract them from their own dictatorial government–but defeat by Israel could bring down the regimes. Even Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein turned toward trying to dominate the Persian Gulf rather than fight Israel.
Second, the Arab states have become preoccupied with other problems. Those with oil–Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates–focus on making money and enjoying the good life. Those without–Egypt, Jordan, Morocco–strive to survive. Both groups need good relations with the West: the poor to get aid, the rich for markets and safe places to invest.
Third, they concluded the Palestinians were incapable of defeating Israel militarily or making peace with Israel diplomatically. Once the PLO signed an agreement with Israel in 1993, intended to produce a political settlement, Arab states were freed from their obligations. They didn’t even give the Palestinians much economic aid, most such help coming from the West. Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat was quite unpopular in the Arab world, being viewed as corrupt and untrustworthy. His successors were seen as weak. Why, they asked, should Arab rulers let Arafat and the PLO determine their policy?
Fourth, the Arab world is beset by a new conflict which takes up much of its attention and resources: the radical Islamist challenge to Arab nationalist regimes. Ö² In every country, the conflict is waged, sometimes violently, at others times through propaganda battles and electoral maneuvers. The Palestinians, too, fought among themselves along these lines. After winning an election victory and then making a deal for a coalition government, Hamas turned on its nationalist rivals and drove them out of Gaza by force.
Every Arab state is battling Hamas’s friends inside its own borders. In Lebanon, Hizballah Shia Islamists bully Sunni Muslim, Christian, and Druze rivals. Bloody civil wars between Islamists and nationalists erupted in Algeria and Egypt; terrorist campaigns swept Saudi Arabia and Iraq.
Finally, the Arab states face a powerful Iranian-Syrian axis whose clients include Hizballah, Hamas, and Iraqi insurgents. This is a danger far exceeding the largely fabricated one from Israel and Arab rulers know it. In response to the Hamas attacks on Israel, Tariq Alhomayed, editor-in-chief of Al-Sharq al-Awsat, proclaimed that Hamas is the tool of Iran and “Iran is a real threat to Arab security, as today it launched a war against Egypt, tomorrow against Saudi Arabia, and then the whole house of cards will collapse.”
That is how the current fighting is being viewed in the leading circles of the Arab world, not as an Arab-Israeli struggle but as part of the Islamist-nationalist conflict. Hamas and Hizballah, Egyptian Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit proclaimed, are at war with Egypt and want to bring war and chaos to Egypt as they have in their own countries.
Hamas and its allies see the issue in similar terms. Why, asked deputy Hizballah leader Naim Qassem according to a MEMRI translation, “is Gaza besieged? Because the people of Gaza and Palestine have rejected the humiliating political options, and have chosen the proud political option of Jihad×ÂĂ?â??Ă?â??€“the option of resistance.”
What does this really mean? To accept “humiliating political options” signifies a compromise peace which would gain a Palestinian state in exchange for accepting Israel’s existence. It also means getting along with the West rather than fighting against it. “Resistance” is a favorite codeword coined by Syria’s regime for a program of battling for decades, sacrificing many thousand lives, using terrorism, fighting wars, and staying intransigent until final, total victory is achieved. The goal is to destroy Israel, expel Western influence from the Middle East, and make every regime a radical Islamist dictatorship.
Aside from the catastrophic cost and bloody defeat that this strategy entails, Qassem is leaving out a lot more. The Palestinian Authority-ruled West Bank isn’t besieged, it’s prospering. There’s no fighting because the nationalists there don’t glorify the sacrifice of everything to carry out an ultimately losing jihad.Ö²
Inasmuch as the West rescues Hamas from its own mistakes, the result will be strengthening radical forces throughout the region, demoralizing moderates, and ensuring even more violence and suffering in future. Vladimir Lenin, leader of the previous big revolutionary movement, Communism, predicted that democratic states would sell their enemies the rope that would be used to hang themselves. Radical Islamists are counting on it. Relatively moderate Arab nationalists fear it. Israel is fighting to prevent it.
*A version of this article was published in the Ottawa Citizen, January 1, 2008
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).