Saturday, 1 November 2014

The Arab world and Israel: new possibilities

          The old certainties that governed Middle East politics for decades are being turned on their head, as much of the Arab world descends into a self-destructive maelstrom of brutal and bloody violence.  Syria and Iraq, Algeria, Libya and Yemen have all succumbed to sectarian savagery. Egypt is fighting Hamas-supported jihadists, whose activities spill over from Sinai into attacks in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez.  Lebanon is torn apart by bitter Sunni-Shi’ite conflict (the Shia element, Hezbollah, supported and funded by Iran), and the fighting erupts on to the streets of Beirut.  Even Jordan is combatting Islamist factions intent on destabilising, if not overturning, the regime.

There is a "civil war within Islam between moderation and extremism," said Jordan’s King Abdullah last week.  "If the military battle takes a brief time, the security and ideological war might extend for 10 or 15 years." Abdullah's remarks come amid heightened fears of increased radicalization in Jordan, prompted by Amman's participation in the anti-Islamic State (IS) coalition.  Jordan's former prime minister, Maruf al-Bakhit, has warned that up to 4000 Jordanians support the extremist and violent Salafist ideology preached by the militant Islamist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian behind multiple attacks against US, Iraqi and Jordanian targets, and who the CIA claims beheaded two US citizens in Iraq.

Among the few islands of stability to be found in this turbulent Arab ocean are, perhaps, Tunisia, where democratic elections have just ousted the ruling Islamist party, Ennahda, in favour of the secular Nidaa Tounes party – and the economically and politically stable Morocco.  Also holding out against the increasing chaos in the Arab world are the authoritarian, and often brutally draconian, Gulf states – the antiquated monarchies and emirates. 

          Together with Egypt these currently stable regimes, led by Saudi Arabia and including Qatar, are those to whom the US and the West now look to help stem the apparently irresistible rise in the power and influence of IS.  They are also the elements within the Arab world which Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu had in mind in his speech to the UN on September 29, when he suggested the idea of a working alliance between Israel and those Arab states opposed to militant Islamists in general, and IS and Iran in particular.

Egypt and the Gulf states, Saudi Arabia among them, do now realize that they and Israel face many of the same dangers – the most pressing being a nuclear-armed Iran, and militant Islamist movements gaining ground in the Sunni world. Netanyahu, building on this new political reality, tried to turn a cherished belief on its head.

“Many have long assumed that an Israeli-Palestinian peace can help facilitate a broader rapprochement between Israel and the Arab world,” he declared. “But these days I think it may work the other way around – namely that a broader rapprochement between Israel and the Arab world may help facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian peace.”

He was, in effect, inviting the active involvement of a range of Arab countries into the peace process.  If successful, this would certainly counter the latest ploy of Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, which is to by-pass peace negotiations altogether, seek UN approval of a sovereign Palestinian state, and isolate and delegitimize Israel in the UN courts of justice.  Netanyahu’s suggestion did not come out of the blue.  Behind it, and in a sense backing it, is the Arab Peace Plan.

Back in March 2002 a summit conference of the Arab League had been arranged in Beirut. A few days ahead of the meeting King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, then Saudi’s Crown Prince, electrified the assembled Arab foreign ministers by floating a peace plan for Palestine-Israel.

Basically, he called for peace with Israel in return for Israel withdrawing from all territories captured in the 1967 war, and a “just settlement” of the Palestinian refugee crisis, including the possibility of financial recompense for those who could not return to Israel. The plan was discussed for a week, amendments were incorporated, and it was adopted on March 28, 2002. The quid pro quo for Israel’s agreement to the plan would be that all 22 Arab States would consider the Arab–Israeli conflict over, sign a peace agreement and establish normal relations with Israel.

The Arab League has since readopted the plan on several occasions, and in 2013, on the initiative of US Secretary of State, John Kerry, agreed a modification to the territorial requirements, involving the idea of “land swaps”.  The Obama administration has formally incorporated the plan into its Middle East policy.

Israel has never officially responded to the proposals, but reactions to it have divided, as might be expected, between right- and left-wing political opinion. Perhaps the median view was set out by Israel’s ex-president, Shimon Peres. At the time he applauded the “U-turn” in the Arab attitude towards peace with Israel, though “Israel wasn’t a partner to the wording … it doesn’t have to agree to every word.”

So the basis for a rapprochement between the Arab world and Israel is actually in existence.  Could one envisage an Arab League summit, with Israel at the table, discussing details of a détente between Israel and the PA?  Stranger things have happened.  Think of the President of Egypt landing at Ben Gurion airport on his way to address Israel’s parliament. If Abbas can try by-passing face-to-face negotiations, why not Israel?

        An interesting question is whether such a reconciliation could ever include Qatar, now considered rabidly anti-Israel and passionately pro-Muslim Brotherhood extremists in Egypt, Gaza and elsewhere.  Yet it is not generally realized that Qatar enjoys the distinction of being the first Gulf sheikhdom to have had official relations with Israel the two countries opened trade relations in 1996 and, as a matter of interest, when Qatar was awarded the right to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup it declared that, despite the fact that it does not recognise Israel, Israel would be allowed to compete in the tournament if it qualifies.

Qatar’s espousal of radical Islamist groups started in 2009 when, in protest at Israel’s military incursion against Hamas in Gaza, the state broke its trade ties with Israel. But what has been broken can be mended, and perhaps a reconciliation between Qatar and Israel is not, in current political circumstances, as remote a possibility as it might once have seemed.

All the elements of a more pragmatic and mutually advantageous relationship between the Arab world and Israel seem to hand, and need only to be assembled.  As Bob Dylan once sang:
     …he that gets hurt will be he who has stalled.
There’s a battle outside and it’s raging.
It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changing.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 2 November 2014:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 7 November 2014

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