Borderline Views: The enemy of my enemy is my enemy

In 30 years of being privileged to live in this amazing country, I don’t remember greeting a New Year with such pessimism.

By
January 4, 2016 21:52
saudi embassy tehran

Flames rise from Saudi Arabia's embassy during a demonstration in Tehran January 2, 2016. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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I celebrate the New Year on Rosh Hashana, not December 31. I have to admit that at midnight last Thursday I was asleep and missed the fireworks – not that this past year, especially in the Middle East, gave much cause for celebration or optimism for the coming year.

On New Year’s Day itself we were subject to a horrific gun attack in the very heart of Tel Aviv, a place which is perceived as being just about as far away from our regional conflicts and violence as it is possible to conceive. And if we thought that things couldn’t get worse in the Middle East, the Saudi decision to execute 48 prisoners on the charge of terrorism, and the immediate Iranian response, has made this region even more of a tinderbox than it had already become during the past year, with the expectation of bloody revenge and reprisals between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims just around the corner.

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It wasn’t that long ago when most of the world, largely ignorant of the ethnic composition of the Middle East, perceived the region as homogeneous, consisting of Arabic- speaking Muslims. Most people were totally unaware of the diverse ethnic and religious groups which made up the region. As long as there was relative stability and our nice comfortable lives in the West were not being impacted, we were largely unconcerned about the internal geopolitical realities of the Middle East. As long as the oil kept flowing at a reasonable price, the Western world was happy to maintain its distance. When the oil-rich countries of the region decided to invest in the Western European and North American economies, even better.

It didn’t matter that most of the countries were ruled by despotic dictators. Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Assad family in Syria and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt weren’t exactly strong on human rights or democracy, but they maintained regional stability, which ensured a geopolitical regime the world could live with. A sort of geopolitical immorality which suited everyone.

The fact that the artificial borders which had been drawn up and superimposed upon large swaths of the region almost 100 years ago were unfair to many of the region’s religious and ethnic groups, such as the Shi’ites in Iraq or the Kurds in Iran, Iraq and Turkey, to name but a few, was of concern to nobody as long as the newly formed states maintained a strong rule of law within and a stable relationship with the outside world.

It all finally began to unravel in the 1970s, starting with the rise to power of the Shi’ite clerics in Iran, followed by Russian intervention in Afghanistan and, some years later, the political belligerence of Saddam Hussein.

Each of these events led to a Western reassessment of the region, with military intervention taking place in Afghanistan (Russia) and Iraq (the Western powers). The existing regimes were toppled, but what came in their place was unplanned, unforeseen and not a great deal better.



No one – not the world’s leading diplomats and political analysts, and not the learned scholars of international relations, forecast the even greater turmoil and instability that was to emerge during the next two decades.

When, 20 years later, against the growing backdrop of regional and global fundamentalism and terrorism, we fooled ourselves into believing that the light of democracy was finally visiting the region as a result of what we too quickly termed the “Arab Spring,” it didn’t take long to fall flat on our faces again. For a few months, perhaps a year, we believed that grassroots protest and democracy, starting in Tunisia, spreading through Egypt and followed by other parts of the region, signaled the victory of the forces of good over evil and would rid the region, once and for all, of its despotic regimes. Globalization and cyberspace would bring about the regime change which would embrace the democratic and open culture of the West. How quickly were we all proven wrong.

No one foresaw the emergence of Islamic State, just as no one had foreseen the rise of al-Qaida. The very idea that Saudi Arabia would face an ideology more fundamentalist and ruthless than its own was unthinkable.

When the Arab Spring broke out, Israel was silent. Our leaders didn’t like to admit that the self-defined champion of democracy in the Middle East preferred the continuation of the neighboring dictatorships to the uncertainty of grassroots democracy throwing up the sort of regime that would become openly belligerent toward Israel.

Democracy, the will of the people, which so many of us believe in, threw up fundamentalist regimes that did not have any place whatsoever for Israel in their midst.

Having experienced the dangers of both Hamas and Hezbollah during the previous decade, it was almost impossible to imagine that there could be even worse threats waiting for us across the border. But that is exactly what has emerged during the past year. Israel can be thankful right now that our many enemies all hate and loathe each other much more than they hate us, at least at the moment. And while Israeli leaders don’t make too many public statements on the issue (which itself is a rarity), every new conflagration, such as the Saudi execution of the Shi’ite cleric over the weekend, works to our benefit as they each turn their fearful wrath and religious hatreds against each other in what is rapidly becoming the biggest bloodbath since the end of World War II.

But neither should we fool ourselves into thinking that this will remain the situation forever. If there is one common enemy regarding which most of the radical groups in the region are united, it is the Jewish State. And even a long-term pro-peace activist like myself, who strongly believes that the continuation of occupation is bad for Israel and that we must find our way to some form of two-state solution or power-sharing arrangement with the Palestinians if we are to maintain a Jewish and democratic state, is not so naïve as to believe that the resolution of the Israel-Palestine impasse will have any affect on the attitude of the region’s religious fundamentalists toward Israel.

The geopolitical situation of the region is so unstable that none of us would dare to predict what the region will look like five years from now.

Will the massive Western intervention and air strikes bring about an end to Islamic State? Unlikely.

Will Russia now emerge as a major peace broker for the region, given its intervention in Syria and its warm relationship with Israel – another scenario which could never have been envisaged just a few years ago? And where is Israel’s major strategic ally, the United States, when its image and status in the wider region have probably never been at such a low ebb as right now? At the best, we may have some intelligent guesses, but none of us have answers. There are so many unknowns.

So many potential scenarios and so many unforeseeable developments which may occur in the next year and which no one is predicting at the moment. Our best analysts have little idea of what is about to happen or what is waiting for us around the corner and we shouldn’t be deceived into believing that they have anything other than short-term answers to immediate problems as they arise.

As though our regional concerns, greater than they have been since the signing of the Camp David Peace Accords with Israel almost 40 years ago, were not enough, we have a few ongoing problems at home. A third intifada has commenced, including the indiscriminate attack in the heart of Tel Aviv last Friday, the first day of the new civilian year. And it’s not about to go away.

Our internal differences are as great as they have ever been, with the language of Left-Right discourse displaying animosity to an extent which is hard to remember even in this highly opinionated society. It doesn’t exactly create the greatest unity against our external foes when the neo-Zionists of the Right label their left-wing foes traitors and self-haters, while groups on the Left label their right-wing opponents fascists and Nazis.

In 30 years of being privileged to live in this amazing country, I don’t remember greeting a New Year with such pessimism. Life will continue as normal under what in any other country in the world would be described as a situation of abnormality. Make no mistake about it, we will continue to enjoy the quality of life which this country has to offer, despite its problems and its conflicts.

But I would like to think that come next December 31, I may have better reasons for wanting to stay awake those few extra hours, and might have something to celebrate as the fireworks go off. At this moment, I’m not convinced.

The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences and professor of geopolitics at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.

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