Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, addressed the United Nations General Assembly on September 29, 2014. Examine what he said, and it is clear that he is in the process of developing a new pragmatic approach to those political problems, emanating from the Middle East, that encompass the Western world. Will he be able to persuade its leaders of the validity of his vision?
Two main aspects of his concept strike a novel note.
The first is his use of the term “militant Islam”, not once but many times, and how he explains it. It is not, he says, militants as such; nor is it Islam. Militant Islam, he asserts, is a self-defining entity composed of organizations with a common objective which is – and he demonstrates this with chapter and verse – to dominate the world. Contrasting the support that the UN General Assembly gave President Obama for confronting ISIS, with their opposition to Israel for confronting Hamas, he says: “They evidently don’t understand that ISIS and Hamas are branches of the same poisonous tree. ISIS and Hamas share a fanatical creed, which they both seek to impose well beyond the territory under their control.”
His equating of the self-styled Islamic State with Hamas is not new. Netanyahu has drawn that parallel several times, even though – so far – it has not met with general acceptance. Recently the US State Department spokeswoman said there was no comparison. But Netanyahu makes a stronger case when he defines what he now understands militant Islam to be – groupings of Islamist extremists, no matter what name they give themselves, no matter where they operate, who share a fanatic ideology.
“Boko Haram in Nigeria; Ash-Shabab in Somalia; Hezbollah in Lebanon; An-Nusrah in Syria; the Mahdi Army in Iraq; the Al-Qaeda branches in Yemen, Libya, the Philippines, India and elsewhere. Some are radical Sunnis, some are radical Shi'ites. They operate in different lands, they target different victims and they even kill each other in their quest for supremacy. But they all seek to create ever-expanding enclaves of militant Islam,” he asserts, “where there is no freedom and no tolerance – where women are treated as chattel, Christians are decimated, and minorities are subjugated, sometimes given the stark choice: convert or die. For them, anyone can be an infidel, including fellow Muslims.”
Netanyahu draws a comparison between militant Islam’s ambition to dominate the world, with the same global ambition of the Nazis in the mid-twentieth century.
“The Nazis,” he says, “believed in a master race. The militant Islamists believe in a master faith. They just disagree about who among them will be the master of the master faith.”
Will militant Islam have the power to realize its unbridled ambitions? His answer: Yes, if the world fails to understand that militant Islam encompasses also Iran.
“For 35 years,” he says, “Iran has relentlessly pursued the global mission which was set forth by its founding ruler, Ayatollah Khomeini, in these words: ‘We will export our revolution to the entire world, until the cry "There is no God but Allah" echoes throughout the world…’ And ever since, the regime’s brutal enforcers, Iran's Revolutionary Guards, have done exactly that.”
And now Iran stands on the brink of realising its aim of becoming a nuclear military power. Netanyahu begs the P5 + 1 (the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany), who are negotiating with Iran over control of its nuclear program, not to be “bamboozled” into an agreement that will remove the sanctions it still faces, and leave it with the capacity of thousands of centrifuges to enrich uranium.
“It’s one thing to confront militant Islamists on pick-up trucks, armed with Kalashnikov rifles,” says Netanyahu. “It’s another thing to confront militant Islamists armed with weapons of mass destruction.”
“ISIS must be defeated,” he asserts. ”But to defeat ISIS and leave Iran as a threshold nuclear power is to win the battle and lose the war.”
That is one of the two strands of innovative thinking that Netanyahu offered the General Assembly. The other was to step onto very thin ice indeed – the concept of a working alliance between Israel and those Arab states opposed to militant Islamists in general, and Islamic State and Iran in particular.
“After decades of seeing Israel as their enemy,” he declared, “leading states in the Arab world increasingly recognize that, together, we and they face many of the same dangers. Principally this means a nuclear-armed Iran and militant Islamist movements gaining ground in the Sunni world. Our challenge is to transform these common interests to create a productive partnership – one that would build a more secure, peaceful and prosperous Middle East.”
The ice is thin because, however willing some Arab governments may be to enter into a recognised relationship with Israel, they would find difficulty in carrying popular opinion with them. Netanyahu must understand this, but he soldiers on.
“Many have long assumed that an Israeli-Palestinian peace can help facilitate a broader rapprochement between Israel and the Arab World. 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.”
To achieve that peace, he asserts, not only Jerusalem and Ramallah need be involved, but also Cairo, Amman, Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and elsewhere. He is, in effect, inviting the active involvement of Arab countries into the peace process.
This concept he carefully links to his earlier argument. He points out that Israel's withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza created two militant Islamic enclaves on its borders from which tens of thousands of rockets have been fired at Israel.
“Israel cannot have territories from which it withdraws taken over by Islamic militants yet again. That would place the likes of ISIS within mortar range – a few miles – of 80% of our population.”
So any peace between Israel and the Palestinians involving other Arab states must be anchored in mutual recognition and what he calls “rock solid security arrangements on the ground”. Not without reason Netanyahu asserts that today there is a new Middle East presenting new dangers, but also new opportunities. Israel, he maintains, is prepared to work with Arab partners and the international community to confront those dangers and to seize those opportunities.
“Together,” he says, “we must recognize the global threat of militant Islam, the primacy of dismantling Iran’s nuclear weapons capability and the indispensable role of Arab states in advancing peace with the Palestinians.”
Published in the Eurasia Review, 1 October 2014:
Published in the Eurasia Review, 1 October 2014: