Modern history


Parliamentary politics, like that other great English invention, football, is a method by which rival parties can struggle for victory without violent conflict. Both sides in the struggle observe the same rules and share certain common principles. Both accept either victory or defeat with grace, because both know that victory can never be total nor defeat final. And just as conflicts of interest and policy between rival parties in a democracy can be conducted peacefully, so, too, can conflicts of interest and purpose between democratic states be pursued without resorting to war.

The position is different when the contending forces are defined, not by politics, not by economics, but by religion. For the old-style religious believer—there is some change among some modern believers—the conflict is not between rival beliefs, rival truths or rival interests; it is between truth and falsehood, and the upholders of falsehood have no rights in the present and no hope for the future. The unequivocal duty of the upholders of truth is to gain power and use it to promote and enforce that truth.

Even the nonreligious may admit the value of religion in moral, cultural and, above all, personal life. But many, even of the pious, are compelled to recognize the dangers of religion organized as a political force. In the fledgling or embryonic democracies of the Middle East, where cooperation in conflict is still a new and little-known concept, religious parties tend to become fundamentalist, and fundamentalism, by its very nature, is ruthless and uncompromising. Opposing democratic parties may cooperate within the state, rival democratic states may cooperate even in their international disagreements, but for fundamentalists there is no compromise, and dealings between rival contenders fall naturally and inevitably into the familiar forms of jihad and crusade.

How would this affect relations between Israel and its neighbors? Democracies may negotiate and compromise with other democracies. For religions, this is much more difficult and, for fundamentalist religions, impossible. Democratic Turkey was, until quite recently, Israel's closest partner in the region, with a steadily expanding range of commercial, political, cultural and military relations; fundamentalist Iran is the most implacable opponent of the peace process and will remain so unless and until there is a change of direction in Iran itself.

The Arab-Israel peace process began, not because of a change of heart on either side, but because of a change of circumstance—exhaustion and the realization that the wars in which they were engaged were unwinnable. Israel is no longer the state created by its founders, a pioneer society, rough and tough in its ways, austere and dedicated in its beliefs. It is becoming an affluent and liberal society, still patriotic but less willing to pay the costs and endure the hardships of maintaining an occupation over unwilling subjects. The Intifada brought this home. After a long struggle, the Israelis succeeded in containing it, but it became clear that they could only maintain their authority, if at all, at an unacceptable cost, both moral and material, and with an unacceptable transformation of the very nature of Israeli society.

On the Palestinian side, too, there was a growing realization that their war aims were unattainable by force of arms and that the continuation of armed struggle against Israel would entail increasing burdens for their own Palestinian people and command decreasing support among their Arab kinsfolk. The decisive change came after two major miscalculations by the Palestinian leadership. They had already made a major mistake by choosing the Axis in the Second World War. They compounded this error by choosing the Soviets in the Cold War and Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War. One may speculate how events would have evolved had the Cold War ended with the collapse of the United States. But it did not, and with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) found itself without a superpower patron. This loss was aggravated by Palestinian support for Saddam Hussein in the Gulf crisis and war in 1990–91. The loss of goodwill in the United States and among the other Western members of the coalition was comparatively unimportant. Much more serious was the loss of the goodwill of the Arab members of the anti-Saddam coalition—the Saudis, the Kuwaitis and the other Gulf states, who had been their strongest supporters and, more important, their paymasters in the struggle against Israel. They now became increasingly reluctant to pay and were even willing to think the unthinkable—a deal with Israel.

A peace process was thus inaugurated in the early 1990s between an isolated and weakened PLO seeking to salvage something from the ruins of their hopes and an affluent Israel ready to sacrifice some of its gains in order to achieve security for the remainder. A soldier-politician of stature, Yitzhak Rabin, made Israel's call after his election in 1992. The Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was brought into the West Bank and Gaza from his exile in Tunisia. Peace seemed possible, but Arafat came back unrehabilitated, and the years to come would show the folly of that choice.

Perhaps there was no alternative to Yasser Arafat; the leaders in the Palestinian territories had been too cowed to negotiate with Israel. The peace process born of this diplomacy would lurch from crisis to crisis. The Arab states gave it some cover but never fully embraced it. On balance, that diplomacy was better than the scenarios of confrontation offered by the radicals in the region. But the strategic environment was to be radically altered by a new Iranian push into the old conflict between Israel and the Arabs. The Iranians were keen to upstage the Arabs on a matter so central to the Arabs themselves. And the very balance of terror has been changed by Iran's pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. This is a threat that far outweighs Syria's menace, or the menace posed by Saddam Hussein while in power. Under the terms of the old standoff between Israel and the radical Arab states, a measure of deterrence held. To be sure, the Arab radicals desired the destruction of Israel but Israel's sophisticated weapons precluded a knockout victory. The Iranian threat is of a different magnitude.

There is a radical difference between the Islamic Republic of Iran and other governments with nuclear weapons. This difference is expressed in what can only be described as the apocalyptic worldview of Iran's present rulers. This world-view and expectation, vividly expressed in speeches, articles and even schoolbooks, clearly shape the perception and therefore the policies of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his disciples.

Even in the past it was clear that terrorists claiming to act in the name of Islam had no compunction in slaughtering large numbers of fellow Muslims. A notable example was the blowing up of the American embassies in East Africa in 1998, which killed a few American diplomats and a much larger number of uninvolved local passersby, many of them Muslims. There were numerous other Muslim victims in the various terrorist attacks of the last 15 years.

The phrase "Allah will know his own" is usually used to explain such apparently callous unconcern; it means that, while infidel, that is, non-Muslim, victims will go to a well-deserved punishment in hell, Muslims will be sent straight to heaven. According to this view, the bombers are in fact doing their Muslim victims a favor by giving them a quick pass to heaven and its delights—the rewards without the struggles of martyrdom. School textbooks tell young Iranians to be ready for a final global struggle against an evil enemy, named as the United States, and to prepare themselves for the privileges of martyrdom.

A direct attack on the United States, though possible, is less likely in the immediate future. Israel is a nearer and easier target, and Mr. Ahmadinejad has given indication of thinking along these lines. The Western observer would immediately think of two possible deterrents. The first is that an attack that wipes out Israel would almost certainly wipe out the Palestinians too. The second is that such an attack would evoke a devastating reprisal from Israel against Iran, since one may surely assume that the Israelis have made the necessary arrangements for a counterstrike even after a nuclear holocaust in Israel.

The first of these possible deterrents might well be of concern to the Palestinians—but not apparently to their fanatical champions in the Iranian government. The second deterrent—the threat of direct retaliation on Iran—is, as noted, already weakened by the suicide or martyrdom complex that plagues parts of the Islamic world today, and is without parallel in other religions or, for that matter, in the Islamic past. This complex has become even more important at the present day because of this new apocalyptic vision.

The moderate Arabs play a more conventional game and have opted for a cold peace with Israel. For many in the region, their caution is trumped by the radicalism of Iran and its bravado.

While the peace process could well continue because neither side can afford to abandon it, there is unlikely to be any increase in good will or friendly relations between Israel and the Arabs. If anything, the movement is in the opposite direction, as greater contact brings greater tension and more opportunity for mutual suspicion and resentment. Attempts to allay these suspicions have often served only to augment them. Deep Arab suspicion is likely to remain whatever government rules in Israel, though Israeli policies may increase or reduce it.

The literature available in Arabic about Israel and, more generally, about Jews, Judaism and Jewish history is overwhelmingly anti-Semitic, based largely on leftovers from the hate literature of the Third Reich. No correctives are available or, in most countries, permitted; even films in which Jews—individually or collectively—are portrayed in a sympathetic or favorable light are usually cut or banned. Arab soldiers and businessmen who have direct personal dealings with Israelis have a realistic appreciation of their human strengths and weaknesses. So too do a small and increasing group of statesmen. The academic establishment, the professions, and—most consistently and effectively—the media are, and will probably long remain, hostile. But there are already some bold spirits—poets and playwrights, philosophers and scientists—who dare seek dialogue and an end to struggle. If the peace process survives, there will surely be more. Among Palestinians there is a growing readiness to meet and even cooperate with Israeli colleagues. Elsewhere, and particularly in countries that have treaty relations with Israel and are therefore, as they see it, exposed to a threat of Israeli economic and cultural penetration, attitudes are, if anything, hardening. The few who think otherwise are fiercely denounced by their more obdurate compatriots.

This may change with the passage of time and a growth in self-confidence in the Arab world. Until then, the Israelis would be wise to concentrate on economic relations and to content themselves with the cessation of armed conflict and the development of the minimum structure of contact and communication between neighboring states that are at peace or, to be precise, not at war.

In time, resignation may grow into tolerance, tolerance to acceptance, acceptance to goodwill and even friendship. But this is clearly not imminent, and attempts to hasten the slow process of improvement might halt or even reverse it. The likeliest—and the best—prospect for the coming years is a cold peace in which Israel might expect minimal cooperation from the political and diplomatic establishment to avoid war. Businessmen may cooperate for mutual profit, soldiers out of mutual respect, politicians in recognition of a common enemy. But many intellectuals have none of these motives, and, with few but increasing exceptions, they will trail after the peace process rather than precede and advance it.

In an era when pan-Arab nationalism and the imperialisms against which it was directed have faded into an ever more remote past, the struggle against Israel remains the only common Arab cause, and only Israel's actions can from time to time revive the flagging fortunes of pan-Arabism. Some Israeli actions have already done more for the pan-Arab cause than any Arab leader since Gamal Abdel Nasser. Similarly, Israeli extremism, both nationalist and religious, is nourished and encouraged by the tendency of some Palestinian organizations to resort to bloody terrorism every time there is a hitch—or a success—in the negotiations.

The peace process still has a long way to go, on a path beset with obstacles and ambushes. It may be halted, deflected or even reversed by acts of folly or fanaticism or by the deadly combination of the two. Even the inexperience of new leaders may cause grave damage. These dangers may come from either side and may provoke a comparable response from the other. But as long as the international and regional circumstances which brought the parties to the negotiating table remain in effect, the peace process will continue, surviving both setbacks and crises. If the peace process has not yet achieved peace at a time when these circumstances no longer apply, then the prospects for Arabs and Israelis alike will be very dark.

In the long run the future of Arab-Israel relations will be determined by the outcome of the overarching regional struggle between democratic and fundamentalist ideologies, by the choices made by the peoples and their leaders. The triumph of democracy would eventually lead to a genuine and not merely formal peace. The triumph of militant fundamentalism on either side can only result in continuous and increasingly destructive struggle. The choice between democracy and fundamentalism will, of course, be profoundly influenced by the pace, or lack, of economic betterment. Democracy and tolerance come easier to the affluent than to the indigent.

The Arab-Israel conflict is not the only factor for war in the region. Other wars, though attracting less attention in the outside world, have lasted longer and caused more devastation. They could easily resume. An obvious starting point for a new war would be an act of aggression by one of the radical and militant regimes. One possibility is Syria, perhaps in the form of a quick, limited move to seize the Golan Heights. But the Syrian autocracy of Hafiz al-Asad and his son Bashaar is no match for Israel. In the Syrian scheme of things, primacy over Lebanon is of much greater importance than the restoration of the Golan Heights. Another possible objective, the incorporation of Jordan and Greater Palestine into Syria, would involve a full-scale war with Israel; this Syria's rulers would probably prefer to avoid. Similarly, the Syrian claim against Turkey for the lost province of Alexandretta would entail unacceptable risks. The Syrians, for all intents and purposes, have written off Alexandretta, and the border between Syria and Turkey has acquired a sense of permanence.

Inside Iran an almost classical situation for aggression and expansion prevails. An ageing and tiring revolutionary regime enjoys control of a vast network of terror in the region and beyond and of a powerful armory of conventional and, no doubt soon, unconventional weapons. The stress on nuclear development, in a country rich in oil and gas, can mean nothing else. The regime faces mounting discontent among ever larger sections of the population at home. The Iranian revolutionaries are in many ways following the path of their French and Russian predecessors—the struggle of radicals and pragmatists, the terror, the Thermidorian reaction. It is not impossible that the Iranian Revolution, too, may culminate in a Napoleon or a Stalin. They would be wise to remember that Napoleon's career ended at Waterloo and St. Helena and that Stalin's legacy to the Soviet Union was disintegration and chaos.

Revolutionary war is not the only threat to the Arab states. There is also the danger of old-fashioned territorial claims by more powerful neighbors—sometimes for part, sometimes for the whole, of the national territory. Syria has threatened the independence of both Jordan and Lebanon; for three decades (1976–2005), Syria's writ ran in Lebanon. It was the good fortune of the Lebanese that American power came to their rescue during a particularly assertive interlude in American diplomacy. Iraq has attempted by various means to make good its claims to Kuwait. It could do so again in the future, though the new Iraq that emerged out of the war of 2003 is unlikely to resume the adventurism of the prior dictatorship. Iran lays claim to the whole of Bahrain and has other unresolved territorial disputes in the Gulf area. It may develop claims on Persian-speaking Tajikistan and western Afghanistan. There are other smaller disputes on virtually all inter-Arab frontiers. Though these may for long periods be dormant, they can always be revived for immediate tactical or long-range strategic purposes.

One such is the Egyptian claim to the Sudan. At one time this claim, with the slogan "Unity of the Nile Valley," was a major theme of Egyptian nationalist ideology and later foreign policy. For some time now the claim has been tacitly abandoned, but it could easily be revived.

Perhaps the most artificial of all the Arab states is Libya, invented by the Italian ministry of colonial affairs in December 1932. Historically, Cyrenaica, the eastern half, was usually associated with Egypt; Tripolitania, the western half, with Tunisia. The frontier between Libya and Egypt was, after some disputes, resolved by negotiation between the masters of these two countries, Italy and Britain. Egyptians might well feel that they are not bound by such imperialist pacts. Some future Egyptian government, tired of the repeated failures of Egyptian policy in southwest Asia, might turn its attention to the more promising opportunities of Africa. Both Libya and the northern Sudan are tied to Egypt by bonds of religion, language, culture and history. The political structures in which they live are alien and artificial in origin and are deteriorating visibly in our time. Some form of union with Egypt might seem an acceptable solution to their, as well as to Egypt's, problems.

In recent years there have been several attempts, by free choice or by armed conquest, to merge two or more Arab states into some larger union. Almost all have failed. There may well be more attempts of both kinds, but their chances of survival are not great. There is of course one example of unity: the hegemony that Syria exercised in Lebanon. But this never had the consent of the Lebanese. It was a reign of political oppression and economic plunder. It harked back to the "fraternal" merger between the Soviet Union and its satellites. That grim Syrian chapter in Lebanon offers the Arabs, if anything, a cautionary tale as to the fate of the weak in the face of unchecked power.

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