An Israeli waves a flag during a parade marking Jerusalem Day at the Western Wall in 2009. (Darren Whiteside/Reuters)New alliances with Arab nations are positive but unstable, and old enemies are most dangerous when in a weakened state.
One of the most radical changes in the labyrinth of the Middle East is the near cessation of the old formal hostility of the Arab nations to Israel. That does not mean that the destruction of the Jewish state is not still a commandment among hundreds of millions of Arab speakers throughout the Middle East in general and on the proverbial West Bank in particular.
Rather, a number of currents has convinced most of the Gulf monarchies, frontline Arab states such as Jordan and Egypt, and the other North African nations that of all the existential crises in the world threatening their regimes, Israel is no longer perceived as their font.
Instead, elemental dangers to Israel arise mostly from Iran, Iranian-backed Hezbollah in the badlands of Syria and Lebanon, and Turkey. Why this fundamental realignment?
One reason, of course, is Iran’s likely soon-to-be nuclear status. Iran detests Israel. But such hatred is relatively recent and dates from 1979 — unlike the ancient schisms between Shiite and Sunni, Persian and Arab, and the Straits of Hormuz versus the Persian Gulf.
Arab nations believe that a nuclear Iran will threaten them explicitly. They assume that a messianic Tehran is quite capable of carrying out what would be serial nuclear threats. And they are certain that such constant tensions would embolden Shiite minorities in their own states, much like millions of Eastern European Germans of the 1930s were suddenly deemed oppressed, and believed that they could be liberated only by eventual protection from and incorporation into Hitler’s ascendant Third Reich.
In theory, a few cash-rich Arab nations could nuclearize as easily as Iran. But, in fact, their economies are embedded within the West that does not so readily aid proliferation. And their countries are much less able to hide Korean, Chinese, or Russian help in building nuclear facilities.
Such vulnerabilities make them strangely dependent on Israel’s own nuclear capability — not in the sense that Israel would go to war to save Riyadh from an incoming Iranian nuke, or do much if there were widescale Sunni–Shiite civil wars erupting throughout the Middle East.
Rather, Arabs, in the-enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend fashion, hope that Iran directs its animus mostly at Tel Aviv, which likewise sees Iran, not Arabs, as its greatest immediate threat.
Indeed, if there exists a continuing strategic threat to Israel from the Arab world, it will be its increasing pressure on the Jewish state to get into a one-on-one fight with Iran. The Arabs could then play the role of Joseph Stalin from 1939 to 1941, when he gleefully saw the western campaigns of his new partner of convenience, Hitler, as a win-win that would weaken both the double-dealing Nazis on his new Polish border and the hated capitalists of the Western democracies.
A second reason for the Middle East’s realignment is that the U.S. is now the world’s largest producer — and soon exporter — of oil and gas, making it more or less immune to Arab strategic pressures. Even more important: While the U.S. can no longer be manipulated by the Arab world, the latter certainly can be by the U.S., given that the exporting lifeblood of the Gulf requires free passage through the Straits of Hormuz, the guarantee of which is beyond all the collective naval and air resources of Arab nations.
Only the U.S. can keep the straits open for global commerce, for the viability of the Arab exporting regimes, and for the survival of oil importers such as Europe and China. When Iran disrupts oil traffic, prices rise, but this is not altogether the evil that it once was to the United States, given America’s energy-producing dominance.
By the same token, Israel is now energy-independent and may soon become a major regional oil-producing partner and exporter. It is not just that Washington does not fret about an oil embargo of America; it does not worry about an oil cutoff to Tel Aviv either.
Third, in terms of strategic space, Israel’s most recent major enemies, Iran and Turkey, are distant, not on its immediate borders as in the past, and both are alienated from the U.S. More fundamentally, Iran and Turkey border a few Arab states, not Israel — a fact that reinforces the worry over Iranian nuclear weapons to come. In wars of the past, Israel prepared for a Syrian-Jordanian-Egyptian triplex assault. Now the first is an apostate failed state; the second, a quiet supporter; and the third, a de facto ally. As for the Palestinians, their own flirtations with anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli Iran have proven politically disastrous in the Arab world.
We may think of Turkey and Iran as widely distinct entities: Sunni vs. Shiite, Ottomanism vs. Persian, and NATO ally vs. pariah to the West. But the Arab world sees the pair’s new on-again, off-again alignment as a hostile northern anti-Arab crescent stretching from Europe to the Arabian Sea.
In other words, at a time when Turkey’s alienation from NATO, its estrangement from the European Union, its falling-out with Washington, and its increasing hatred of Israel might have made it more amenable to the Arab world, the very opposite has occurred. Recep Erdogan’s clumsy embrace of a new Ottomanism means one thing in the West and quite another in the Arab world once ruled by Istanbul for centuries. Erdogan’s hatred for Israel earns Turkey as little currency in the Arab world as Tehran’s similar anti-Israeli venom.
A fourth development has fueled these bizarre realignments: the radical change in American administrations.
Whatever the pretenses of the Obama diplomats, the Arab world viewed the Iran deal, the Obama administration’s earlier silence about the Green Revolution in Iran (in stark contrast to its intervention into the so-called Arab Spring and its misadventure in Libya), and the talk of justified, enhanced Iranian presence in the Middle East as a sort of community-organizing effort, an ACORN-like project for the oppressed on a Middle East scale. The Arabs were to play the role of The Man, while the Iranians and Shiites were to be the inner city in need of community organizing and empowerment.
In other words, at best, Arabs saw Obama’s plan as a naïve, warped effort to elevate the formerly ostracized at their own expense. At worst, they judged it an idiotic effort to allow a nuclear Persian Shiite hegemony that was supposed to keep wayward Arab states in check — convenient to the U.S. in its balance-of-power triangulations.
For decades the Arabs pressured the U.S. to break with Israel or at least privately assure them that Israel was no longer the preeminent American ally in the region. Once Obama began to do that, the Arabs suddenly objected that the world had changed — once-taboo support for Israel was now good for the Middle East.
Trump had no such qualms in recalibrating Obama’s Middle East policy and restoring the special relationship between Israel and the United States, and by extension America and the Arabs — at the expense of both Iran and Turkey.
In fact, one reason there is oddly little Middle East criticism of Trump’s restored tilt to Israel is that the Arab world views the realignment as a useful slap at Iran and Turkey, and a strategic enhancement to nuclear Israel, which the Arabs, privately, believe really would never preemptively strike any Arab capital with a nuke. In sum, the Arab world is relieved that the U.S. sees Iran and Turkey as its primary Middle East challenges.
The Middle East also interprets a volatile, mercurial Trump as a more reliable ally than a predictable, smarmy, and elegant-sounding Obama, and so feel they can be more overt in their new realignments. To the Arabs, Israel may be an SOB, but it is now perceived as one of their own SOBs, and Americans should know that better than anyone given their own prior Cold War realpolitik.
The downside of the new Middle East?
Iran and Turkey, in terms of both conventional and strategic power, are far stronger than the collective Arab world — and for now far crazier. Under the Trump doctrine of strategic realism, it is hard to envision any scenario of intervention in the Middle East on behalf of any beleaguered Arab state — a fact known to both our allies and enemies.
Moreover, throughout history, the greatest dangers often follow new realignments, whether because they are inauthentic and thus treacherous, or owing to the natural sense of laxity, naïveté, and reduced vigilance that sets in during periods of seemingly enhanced strategic advantage.
Think of the Soviet euphoria that followed the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact — and soon led to Operation Barbarossa, or the misplaced American hope that the outlier Shah had turned Iran into a permanent pro-American and pro-Israeli ally in a sea of Arab hatred, a partnership that saw American weapons and thousands of American Westernizing contractors flowing into Iran prior to 1979.
In early April 1945, the U.S. was still supplying its wartime ally of convenience Moscow with essential materiel; two weeks later, by late April 1945, Truman had all but concluded that the Soviets and Americans were not just enemies but headed toward global confrontation.
Or perhaps worst of all was the misplaced 1970s notion in America that the original outreach to Mao’s genocidal China as a Cold War counterweight to Soviet expansionism could be followed by democratizing and humanizing the Chinese Communist party, as it joined the family of nations — as if we would all go back to the Chinese–American goodwill of the prewar period.
That naïveté entailed ignoring the inherent criminal nature of Chinese Maoism — and soon nearly a half-century of patent and copyright theft, technological appropriation, dumping, currency fraud, and mercantile commercialism that turned China into a very rich global monstrosity. China paid back American gullibility with utter contempt as the proper wage of its naïveté and perceived moral weakness.
Finally, failing states, or even those who are not but imagine themselves to be, are the most dangerous, especially as they become ostracized and isolated. Japan by 1941 was an international pariah, but one that had convinced itself that only a surprise preemptive war would reverse its long-term disadvantageous and worsening relationship with the U.S. And Saddam Hussein had wrecked Iraq in a disastrous war with Iran, subsidized by many Arab states — one of which he treacherously attacked and overran in 1990 to inaugurate the first Gulf War.
Israel’s immediate surrounding strategic neighborhood has recently become far more positive for it. After all, for now, Israel does not face simultaneous existential threats from both Iran and the Arab world. But that unexpected upturn will demand more vigilance than ever, given the lessons of the past: Alliances of convenience with antithetical states rarely last and do not always ensure long-term security, while enemies like Iran that are declining and desperate grow especially dangerous.
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