The headlines leave no room for any doubt: History in the making, as a circle of Arab states officially enter into full normalization and formal peace with Israel extends beyond Egypt and Jordan. Persistent reports circulate to the effect that three or four more states will join, including the Wahhabi Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
There is something about the word “historic,’’ a term that I, for one, hesitate to use. I believe that events need the perspective of time and results to substantiate the praise which we attach to them. In this case, however, I do not hesitate. We indeed are witnessing a historic process, and alongside “historic,” the word “process” is a key one. This is so, because the current events are the results of a process that started a few decades ago.
Intellectuals are the ones who tell us in their writings about “something” new, a development which is of significant proportions, something that will have consequences, so when it happens we know how right they were. Such was the case with historian Bernard Lewis, who already in 1976 wrote about “The Return of Islam” (Commentary, January 1976), and such is the case with Fouad Ajami, another great historian, whose writings decades ago about the state of the Arab world provide us now with such a great understanding of the transformation happening in the Middle East.
This “something” has turned Israel from being the odd man out, the bogey of Arab hatreds and frustrations, into a legitimate actor within the system of Arab states and relationships in the Middle East. Read Ajami and get a clearer sense about the fundamental causes of what is unfolding now.
Ajami (1945-2014) was a Lebanese-born Shi’ite Muslim of Persian origin (Ajam means Persian in Arabic), who arrived in the US in 1963 and later became a naturalized American. In Foreign Affairs (Vol.57, Issue 2) in 1978, Ajami wrote that “political ideas turn to ashes and leave behind them a trail of errors, suffering and devastation... An idea that has dominated the political consciousness of modern Arabs is nearing its end, if it is not a thing of the past. It is the myth of pan-Arabism.” This was written after Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem, before the Iranian Revolution and the Iran-Iraq war, all events which greatly shaped a new Middle East. With it were planted the seeds of a new approach towards Israel, and in fact regarding the role of this conflict in the overall list of real national priorities of Arab states.
The end of pan-Arabism had more to do with the classic Arab and Palestinian concepts of the conflict with Israel. Both Nasserite Pan-Arabism as well as the Ba’athist version of the ideology-turned-myth were focused on the destruction of Israel as a goal of the utmost importance.
From the Palestinian perspective, clause six of the Palestinian National Covenant stating that achieving Arab unity and “liberating Palestine” were inseparably tied to each other became irrelevant. Hence, with Pan-Arabism being in the “ashes,” the very conflict with Israel, while continuing to exist, lost both its driving force and urgency.
But just explaining the demise of Pan-Arabism was not the only contribution of Ajami to understanding the real Middle East. He published two classic books on the region.
In The Arab Predicament; Arab political thought and Practice Since 1967 published in 1992, Ajami described the political and intellectual crisis sweeping the Arab world as a result of the 1967 military defeat, leaving no stone unturned. This is a theme he returned to in The Dream Palace of the Arabs: A Generation’s Odyssey published in 1998.
In these books, Ajami did not predict peace or normalization with Israel. Futurism was not his field, but he portrayed an Arab world in a state of despair created by the collapse of hitherto revered ideological concepts, in which disillusionment and deep-seated cynicism and frustration were the order of the day. Ajami himself, needless to say, made his full, unconditional peace with Israel. He visited Israel and befriended many Israelis. I am lucky to have been one of them.
After the horrific events of September 9, 2001, the UN started publishing yearly reports commissioned by mostly Middle Eastern experts (no Israelis, of course) about the overall human conditions in the Arab world. The picture emerging was depressing. The Arab predicament described was not only the one so artfully written by Ajami; it was one of near complete collapse of the entire fabric of society.
Here is what happened: The combined effect of the collapse of political and ideological concepts coupled with the deteriorating socioeconomic conditions and the challenges presented by new aggressive and menacing forces such as revolutionary Iran inevitably led to the so-called Arab Spring of 2011. It was the culmination of a long process, rather than the instigator of it. Hundreds of thousands of Arabs protested in the streets of Arab capitals, but something was missing.
There was no “Israel” in the protests, which clearly reflected a spontaneous display of feelings. In a way, the Arab Spring protests proved that the conflict with Israel had ceased to be the Aladdin’s lamp of the Arab masses. They started looking for a new one.
“Islam is the solution” was not a new idea. In fact – as of the 1970s when Lewis wrote his seminal piece mentioned above and surely since the Iranian Revolution in 1979 – it was very much a popular and well-heard outcry. Still, even that proved to be controversial and divisive. The one year of Muslim Brotherhood control in Egypt was a colossal failure. And Iran’s Shi’ite challenge to the Sunni world has been perceived as a complete anathema to the natural course of history as understood by both Sunni regimes and masses.
Put together, this is the Arab predicament, and it is not about Israel. It is about themselves.
Let us move to more recent events in order to get a realistic picture of the current situation. The US moved its embassy to Jerusalem in 2018, a step which led to a wave of almost apocalyptic predictions about an upsurge of violence, and as we all know, nothing of the sort has happened.
When the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, with the tacit and obvious support of Saudi Arabia, signed full normalization agreements with Israel, the Arab masses were quiet, with hardly any popular protest or any sign of agitation. Even the Palestinian protest has been muted and clearly orchestrated from above.
The most vocal opposition comes from two non-Arab states, Turkey and Iran. The very fact that these countries are the flag-bearers of opposition to peace in the Middle East is the strongest indication of the changes in the region. The Arab predicament reveals itself most strongly when non-Arabs tend to wear the mantle of resistance to Israel left behind by so many Arabs themselves, and no less importantly, also by so many Arab regimes.
Ironically, Israel instead of being the external threat, is becoming a possible solution to the threat, which is now presented by others.
The Arab League recently rejected Palestinian appeals to condemn the current agreements with Israel. This is the same Arab League whose secretary general, Azzam Pasha of Egypt, rejected any compromise with the Jews, declaring (as quoted in Akhbar Al Yom, 11 October 1947), “I personally wish that the Jews do not drive us to this war, as this will be a war of extermination and momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Tartar massacre or the Crusader wars.” Well, some real change has occurred after all, and it’s so good that it has.
The writer is a Middle East expert who has taught at Tel Aviv University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Bar-Ilan University, Cornell University, City College of New York and York University (Canada). He is currently at the University of South Carolina, where he was chosen as best professor for 2019 by the student newspaper