Two years ago, Abdulateef al-Muhim, the former commodore of the Saudi Navy, wrote an article for the Arab News that provoked deep controversy. The Arab world, he argued, has many enemies, and “Israel should have been at the bottom of the list.”
“The real enemies of the Arab world are corruption, lack of good education, lack of good healthcare, lack of freedom, lack of respect for human lives, and, finally, the many dictators who used the Arab-Israeli conflict to suppress their own people,” he wrote, adding, “These dictators’ atrocities against their own citizens are far worse than all the full-scale Arab-Israeli wars.”
Twenty-four months later, now that the Arab Spring has dissolved into a mosaic of horrors, his argument seems more convincing than ever. In fact, the real controversy should have been the fact that it was ever controversial at all. After decades of corrupt dictatorships and rising Islamism, a brief glance across the region reveals that the blood of Sunni and Shi’ite spatters almost every cobblestone from the Levant to the Gulf, while severed heads litter the highways.
Alexandria – once a cradle of cosmopolitanism and learning – has collapsed under the weight of Islamism. The once-liberal cities of Beirut and Cairo have fallen prey to illiterate and barbarian fanatics and oppressive juntas.
Libya and Yemen have spiraled into sectarian violence – not to mention Syria and Iraq.
Gone are the final resonances of the Islamic golden age. Such is the level of turmoil that the only stability left in the Arab world can be found in the authoritarian, and often brutally draconian, Gulf states.
As the pre-eminent Lebanese journalist Hisham Melhem put it in a recent Politico essay, “Is it any surprise that, like the vermin that take over a ruined city, the heirs to this self-destroyed civilization should be the nihilistic thugs of the Islamic State [IS]?” In the context of this tragic, wholesale collapse of a formerly magnificent civilization, the Arab preoccupation with the Jewish state is ill-advised at best, and a diversionary tactic at worst.
Now this point is being driven home by IS.
The newly-arisen jihadist group has shown itself to have such a malign influence on Arab stability that it has been uniting traditional enemies in opposition, on the basis of the ageold principle that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Tacit strategic understandings are now in place between the United States, Iran and Syria, something that in normal circumstances would have been unimaginable.
“The fact is there is a role for nearly every country in the world to play,” said US Secretary of State John Kerry in a speech to the UN Security Council last month. “Including Iran.”
Benjamin Netanyahu might not share Secretary Kerry’s newfound affection for Iran. But in his recent address to the UN General Assembly, he made it clear that Israel and the Arab world are finding their interests increasingly aligned.
“After decades of seeing Israel as their enemy,” he said, “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.”
Moreover, Netanyahu made clear that thawing relations with its neighbors is firmly in Israel’s long-term interests. “A broader rapprochement between Israel and the Arab world may help facilitate an Israel-Palestinian peace,” he said.
Indeed. Ehud Barak once described Israel as “the villa in the jungle,” but with the recent polarization of regional forces that IS has triggered, this metaphor may become a little less apt.
Ironically enough, it seems that the instability that is sweeping through the region may incrementally draw Israel and its neighbors together, as more Arab leaders are forced to tacitly come around to Abdulateef Muhim’s point of view.
This shift is most visible, perhaps, in the Arab world’s growing acceptance of a degree of Israeli cooperation in its battle against IS.
IsraAID has supplied beds, blankets and food to over 1,000 families in the Kurdish city of Duhok, in northern Iraq. It is understood that Israeli reconnaissance satellites have provided intelligence to warplanes in action against IS, including those from Arab states (though information linking it to Israel was “scrubbed out”). And the Jewish state has also been sharing travel information about Western citizens who are suspected of joining the jihadis.
These are, of course, small steps, and it would be a mistake to dismiss Arab antipathy toward Israel as if it could be easily resolved. But if stability is ever going to be achieved in the region, the coalition would do well to consider involving Israel – which has by far the most powerful local military force – more comprehensively.
The fact is that from a pragmatic point of view, Israel is becoming the natural ally that no Arab state wants to acknowledge. In terms of human suffering, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute pales in comparison to the huge upheaval taking place around it.
As the pressure from IS builds, previously unthinkable alliances have to be considered, at least via back channels. Islamic militancy is a primary threat for Israel, and unlike the United States it is firmly located in the neighborhood; has a great deal of muscle; and has less public opposition to the idea of taking the fight to the enemy.
In the final analysis, the conclusion is unavoidable. The time is approaching for Israel to quietly play a greater part in the struggle that rages around it. After all, it is in the mutual interest of both sides; and the Arab world needs all the help it can get.The writer is a British journalist, broadcaster and novelist, author of The English German Girl.