The leaking of millions of American diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks is a disturbing phenomenon primarily because it will make future diplomacy more difficult and, in particular, will undermine US credibility in such matters.However, the documents’ revelations should finally put to rest the double game that the Arab world has been playing for decades with regard to Israel and other threats in the region.I remember as if it were yesterday the public reaction in the Arab world when Israel destroyed Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981.
Condemnation of Israel was unanimous, with accusations being tossed around about Israeli alleged aggressive and expansionist aims. Meanwhile, the now-defunct newspaper The Washington Star captured the real situation in an insightful editorial. The Star said: “The Arab world will criticize Israel by day and sleep better at night” because of what Israel had done.
These words ably summarized a history of Middle East realities which were never more relevant than in our current world.
While the Arabs on a daily basis talk incessantly about the great Zionist threat to the region, their actions have long betrayed a very different and more rational fear. Let’s recall that the Arabs, like many others, have believed since the 1960s that Israel has had a nuclear weapons arsenal (Israel has never confirmed nor denied this). One would have thought, considering all the propaganda about “expansionist Israel,” that a nuclear-armed Zionist state would have been seen as the greatest threat to the Arab world and that a sense of urgency would have emerged to develop nuclear weapons of their own.
During all these years, however, with the exception of the two “crazies” among the Arabs, Saddam Hussein and Khaddafi, none of the other Arab states ever felt the need to embark on their own nuclear programs; this despite the huge oil revenues which could have enabled them to buy expertise and materials.
It was a classic example of voting with their feet, of actions speaking louder than words. Despite the vicious rhetoric, the Arab states understood what Israel was about and had no deep fear of a nuclear Israel.
Today, however, as the Islamic government of Iran moves toward a nuclear capability, there have been repeated reports of programs beginning at least in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Commentary similar to the Washington Star editorial has surfaced indicating the growing Arab concern about an Iranian bomb, only to be met with the usual Arab denials and change of subject back to the Palestinian issue.
Now come the revelations from the diplomatic cables.
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia repeatedly called on the U.S. to “cut off the head of the snake,” referring to Iranian leadership. The United Arab Emirates defense minister, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, in 2009 urged U.S. action against Iran, framing this in terms of the danger of appeasing Iran because, he said, “Ahmadinejad is Hitler.”
So much for two assumptions, that of Israel as the greatest enemy of the Arabs and that of the Palestinian issue being the sine qua non of Arab diplomacy. None of which is to deny Arab hostility toward the Jewish state or of the need to resolve the Palestinian problem, but only to put things in perspective.
What is so clear from these documents, what some of us were saying all along but were often criticized for allegedly simply expressing the Israeli view, is that the threat of a nuclear Iran is indeed the greatest threat to civilization. The Arab fears as reflected in these documents will lead the Arab world to take two contradictory but dangerous steps should the world not find a way to stop the Iranian program.
Serious nuclear programs will inevitably move forward leading to the ultimate nightmare scenario, a Middle East with nuclear weapons proliferating, a formula for nuclear Armageddon. And, at the same time, Arab appeasement of Iran, under the rubric of, if the U.S. isn’t serious about curtailing Iran, we Arabs will find a way to live with them. And so the Iranian threat would grow.
All of this signals another wake up call. The international community has responded much more effectively during the past year with stronger U.N. and other sanctions against Iran, to the credit of President Barack Obama. These steps have begun to bite but, according to most experts, not fast enough to stop the Iranian program.
Now that it is as clear as can be that the Arabs themselves are demanding firmer U.S. action, the time has come for even stronger pressure on the Iranian regime. Progress on Israeli-Palestinian issues is important in its own right and should be pursued. We cannot afford, however, to use that as an excuse not to focus on what everyone in the region (besides Iran’s terrorist allies) understands to be the true threat to peace and security.