Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Middle East Realpolitik

American diplomat and author, Dennis Ross, goes so far as to assert: "Most Arab governments want Israel to be strong when it comes to Iran, Hizbollah, Hamas, and Syria." He believes that "common interests" between Israel and the Arab countries, on issues such as Iran and confronting the Islamists, are larger than commonly believed. He believes that pushing the peace process forward will help strengthen Arab co-operation with Israel on such threats. In short, he is convinced that realpolitik will be guiding future political action in the Middle East.

The term "realpolitik" was coined by a nineteenth-century German writer and politician, though the concept it embodies can be traced back to Niccolo Machiavelli's "The Prince", published in 1513, the classic study of power, its acquisition, expansion, and effective use.

"Realpolitik" has assumed various shades of meaning over the years. Today it is generally accepted to denote politics based primarily on practicalities rather than ideology, morals or principles.
To what extent does it govern the actions of the main players in the Arab-Israeli dispute?

Well it was surely realpolitik behind the speed with which the Arab League convened a special meeting on 3 March to back Mahmoud Abbas's participation in the proximity talks with Israel that had been so painstakingly organised by US special envoy, George Mitchell – and, indeed, at the equally speedy endorsement and go-ahead provided by the Palestinian Authority a few days later. For cast to one side were the pre-conditions that had been cited by Abbas as the reason for not coming to the table – a full cessation by Israel of construction in West Bank settlements and in Jerusalem.

Whether realpolitik will triumph, and the proximity talks actually go ahead, given Israel's inept and provocative actions of the past week, it will be fascinating to observe. The next set piece, which will certainly be aimed at keeping the proximity talks initiative on the rails, will be the meeting of the Quartet in Moscow this coming Friday.

Realpolitik involves pursuing political objectives without regard to morality. Power, its acquisition and its retention, are the supreme considerations. However realpolitik does not extend across the total spectrum of political consideration. What the concept ignores, I would suggest, are the ideological motives that might lie at the root of unprincipled action.

Examples? Just two, for considerations of space – though there's many a book still to be written on the subject.

Consider Hamas. Its founding charter commits the group to the destruction of Israel and to the replacement of the Palestinian Authority with an Islamist state on the West Bank and Gaza. So ideology certainly underlies the organisation's rationale. Realpolitik, however, has governed its pursuit of its objectives, in respect both of Palestinians and of Israelis.

There is no conflict more bitter than between members of the same family, and straight after the elections of January 2006, even though they trounced the rival Fatah party, Hamas immediately inaugurated a struggle for power. In June 2007, in a bloody coup, they ousted Fatah from the Gaza strip altogether, and seized control. For the next twelve months Hamas pursued its struggle against Israel by firing hundreds of rockets indiscriminately into towns adjoining the border, until the six-month truce brokered by Egypt broke down and Israel launched its Operation Cast Lead into Gaza. Not much morality in either case.

Or take Israel. Israel's political stance, too, has a strong ideological base – the determination not to be ousted from the "national home for the Jewish people", as it was defined in the Balfour Declaration issued by the British government in 1917. This was the basis for the Mandate to govern Palestine, granted to Britain by the League of Nations, and later of the 1947 UN Resolution recommending partition - virtually a two-state solution.

The basic principles underlying the establishment of Israel, however, were never a justification for its pursuing expansionist policies back in the 1970s and 1980s regardless of the consequences for the Palestinian population, or pursuing them subsequently. There is a strong argument for believing that Israel's victory in the Six Day War in 1967 contained within it a pitfall that entrapped much of the nation – the "Greater Israel" concept that bedevilled national political action for the next twenty years. Another way of regarding this period, perhaps, is that it was a phase that Israel and the region as a whole needed to pass through, in order to allow the two-state concept at last to gain some general consensus both within Israel and in the Arab world generally. Small comfort though, in that view, for the people kept waiting for the light to dawn on both parties.

Now Israel and the Palestinian Authority seem on the brink of starting a dialogue, brokered by the United States, with the two-state solution as a basic objective. Whether the principal parties believe that an agreement would stick, or would bring the Israel-Palestine story to a happy ending, is doubtful. Realpolitk, however, dictates that the attempt should be made, in order to placate world opinion if for no other reason.

The truth is that the fulcrum of political attention in the Middle East is not, currently, Israel-Palestine, but Iran. Much of the Arab world, with the notable exception of Syria, regards Iran's present political activities with little short of alarm. Iran's nuclear ambitions are but thinly veiled, and if allowed to come to fruition would totally destabilise the Middle East. For a nuclear and militantly Islamist Iran would then pose a major political threat to many "moderate" Arab states, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia; it would shift the internal balance of power in such Muslim countries in favour of the Islamist extremists who are intent on overthrowing those governments (Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak has spoken of Iran seeking to 'devour the Arab world').

The fact is that Iran is trying to create a coalition with Syria, with Hizbollah in Lebanon and with Hamas in Gaza. Last Friday, during a visit to Tunisia, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is reported to have blamed Iran for impeding the possible reconciliation, brokered by Egypt, between his Fatah party and its arch-rival Hamas. “Iran doesn't want Hamas to sign the Cairo reconciliation document,” said Abbas, adding that the Palestinians should be “free from Iranian tutelage.”

The fact, of course, is that the practice of realpolitik is open to any sovereign state, and the state apparently most skilled in its deployment appears, at the moment, to be Iran itself. That argues for those nations and alliances opposed to Iran's ambitions, nuclear or political, to get their act together. Perhaps investing in a copy of Machiavelli's "The Prince" might be a good first step.

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