A really new Middle East

Israel must never forget David Ben-Gurion’s and Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s dictum that only the Jewish state’s own capability to defend itself would assure its security and eventually bring about peace.

October 20, 2016 20:52
4 minute read.
IDF soldiers

An Israeli solider removes the flag from a rooftop in Hebron as troops force Jewish settlers out of homes they said they had purchased from Palestinians. (photo credit: REUTERS)

In retrospect, perhaps the most misleading expression spawned by the ill-starred 1993 Oslo Agreement was that of a supposedly “New” Middle East.

The originator of the term, the late Shimon Peres, though previously an opponent of Palestinian statehood, genuinely (and Yitzhak Rabin more reluctantly) believed that “Oslo” and the perspective of Palestinian statehood would automatically lead not only to a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but also to a new, more peaceful and stable reality in the Middle East as a whole.

In this respect, he echoed the long-held (and in some quarters still held) view among Middle East “experts” in the American and international foreign policy crowd that were it not for the Palestinian issue, most problems in the region, including that of the West’s problematic relationship with the Arab world, would have been long resolved.

Prof. Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser to president Carter, rarely addressed any Middle East subject without prefacing it with the statement that the “Road to Baghdad” (or Damascus, Cairo, etc.) “leads through Jerusalem,” implying that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – usually adding that this would require concessions especially on the part of Israel – was the way to any positive developments in the Middle East. Those “experts” ignored, among other things, the fact that by far the greater majority of wars and upheavals in the Middle East since the end of the Second World War had nothing to do with the Palestinian- Israeli conflict.

Most of the world applauded the Oslo agreement (though some critics observed that it could easily fit in as another chapter in Barbara Tuchman’s March of Folly) while Israelis who had initially been supportive soon soured ― with buses blown up by Palestinian terrorists in Tel Aviv and elsewhere. But it took the dramatic unraveling of the entire region and the ensuing turmoil created by the Arab Spring, the rise of al-Qaida, ISIS and other Islamic terrorists on the one hand, and Iran’s terror promoting and destabilizing activities on the other, to open the eyes of most of the world as to the real symptoms of the Middle East situation (though even today there are those who still refuse to accept this reality, and declare the Palestinian problem to be the root of everything that has gone wrong in the region).

There were two basic misapprehensions regarding the supposed link between the Palestinian issue and Peres’s approach: namely, that the Arab world and especially its leaders – notwithstanding their declared empathy for the lot of the Palestinians – did not necessarily see their particular national and geopolitical interests exclusively through the prism of the Palestinian- Israeli conflict; and on the other hand, that many Arabs and significantly most Palestinian Arabs, did not (and do not) see the creation of a Palestinian state in parts of “Palestine” as their real aim, but rather the total disappearance of the State of Israel.

A frequently raised argument by the opposition and outsiders against the policies of the present Israeli government is Israel’s alleged isolation in the international arena. While this is true and has been for decades at the UN and other international bodies – for reasons which had nothing to do with the political profile of any particular Israeli government or its policies, but rather with the membership makeup of these bodies – Israel today is in fact less “isolated” than it has been for a very long time. This is evidenced among other things by the budding of an actual new Middle East – ironically caused by factors which are very different from those envisaged at the time by Peres.

Prof. Walter Russel Mead, formerly of Yale University and currently at Bard College who is recognized as one of America’s foremost foreign policy mavens, pointed out in a recent article that “in Asia, in Africa, in Latin America, Israel’s diplomacy is moving from strength to strength – virtually every Arab and Middle Eastern leader thinks that Bibi is smarter and stronger than President Obama – and as American prestige across the Middle East has waned under Obama, Israel’s prestige, even among people who hate it, has grown.”

Mead concludes that “the value of Israeli power to a Sunni world worried about Iran has led to something close to a revolution in Israel’s regional position... Israel’s neighbors may not like Bibi, but they believe they can count on him...”

Mead is not alone in his assessment. Articles in a similar vein appeared in the July-August issue of the prestigious Foreign Affairs magazine, and in the Israeli press by Hebrew University Prof. Elie Podeh, usually not known as an unqualified admirer of the present Israeli government’s policies. In addition, a recent book from the Harvard University Press lists Israel among countries “whose economic and military capabilities make them increasingly significant in their regions and beyond.”

Still, most matters in the Middle East are built on shifting sands, and what seems stable and promising one day may change the next, so that even with a New Middle East in the making, potentially also leading toward rational solutions to the Palestinian conundrum, Israel must never forget David Ben-Gurion’s and Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s dictum that only the Jewish state’s own capability to defend itself would assure its security and eventually bring about peace.

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