My Word: Terror war and peace in the Middle East

The region is realigning to face common threats – terrorism by Sunni jihadists and Shi’ite Iran.

 A WORKER carries flagpoles in preparation for the Negev Summit in Sde Boker on March 27. (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
A WORKER carries flagpoles in preparation for the Negev Summit in Sde Boker on March 27.
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)

Israel is used to going from an emotional high to a despondent low at roller-coaster speed, but this week stood out even by the country’s usual frenetic standards. It was a classic case of the split-screen phenomenon. 

On Sunday, March 27, one news screen showed footage of the preparations for the historic two-day Negev Summit – an unprecedented peace parley attended by the foreign ministers of four Arab countries as well as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and hosted by Israel’s Alternate Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid at a hotel in Sde Boker. 

By the evening, the pictures had drastically changed. Pride and positive energy were overtaken by tears and fears. News of the summit was overshadowed by the images from the terror attack in Hadera. Two 19-year-old Border Police officers, a Jewish woman who had immigrated from France and a Druze man from Galilee, were killed by an Arab Israeli from Umm el-Fahm who had in the past been arrested for crimes relating to support for ISIS. 

Two nights later, five people were killed in another attack – this time in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, perpetrated by a Palestinian Fatah supporter. The three Israeli victims were two rabbis – including one who used his body to shield his infant son in a stroller – and a courageous Christian Arab police officer who managed to kill the terrorist before succumbing to his own wounds. The two other victims were foreign workers from Ukraine.

Overall, the appalling toll of terrorism reached 11 victims within eight days, including the four people killed in Beersheba last week by an ISIS-supporting Israeli Bedouin man.

 Scene of terror attack in Bnei Brak, March 29, 2022 (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV) Scene of terror attack in Bnei Brak, March 29, 2022 (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV)

The heartbreaking coverage of the funerals of the Bnei Brak victims merged with the broadcasts of President Isaac Herzog’s official visit to Jordan’s King Abdullah II in Amman.

And there you have it. The new and old Middle East. A region realigning to face common threats – terrorism by religious Muslim extremists: both Sunni Islamic State and nuclearizing Shi’ite Iran.

The Negev Summit followed hot on the heels of the surprise trilateral meeting between Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed in Sharm e-Sheikh last week and in terms of an expression of shifting Middle Eastern sands surpassed it. The summit hosted by Lapid and attended by the foreign ministers of the US, Egypt, the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco, took recognition of the Jewish state, the normalization of relations, and strengthening ties a stage further.

Part of the diplomatic rearrangement evident this week was a role reversal with Israel taking center stage by providing the bridge between the US and the Arab countries rather than the US creating the connecting platform.

Behind the closed doors at the Kedma Hotel in Sde Boker, Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif Al Zayani reportedly spoke of building a “mini-NATO” of countries facing similar security challenges.

The summit sent out a message clearer than ever that Israel is not only part of the region, it is a major player – and it’s here to stay. Israel’s diplomatic activity and standing are at an all-time high, the terrorists want to bring it down.

The Palestinians, of course, played their usual role of party-poopers, condemning the gathering as a “summit of shame” aimed at “liquidating” the Palestinian cause. Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday reluctantly condemned the Bnei Brak attack, saying: “The killing of Israeli and Palestinian civilians will only lead to a deterioration of the situation ahead of Ramadan” and warning against “settler violence.”

The PA seems to accept it as natural for there to be a wave of terrorism ahead of and during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. But Abbas knows that the incitement in Palestinian media and schools, combined with the PA’s pay-for-slay policy of compensating the families of terrorists, could eventually backfire on his tottering regime. In another sign of the tensions within Abbas’s own party, a Fatah leader in Jenin distanced himself from Ramallah rather than the murders in Bnei Brak, and reportedly described the terrorist as dying “a heroic martyr’s death.”

The resurgence of ISIS, meanwhile, threatens everyone, including Arab Israelis – the vast majority of whom want to live normal peaceful, prosperous lives – as well as Abbas’s Fatah movement and Hamas in Gaza.

THE NEGEV Summit was another expression of the new age that began when Israel signed the Abraham Accords in 2020, credit for which goes to former-US president Donald Trump and previous prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Blinken met with Abbas and spoke of the two-state solution. Jordan’s King Abdullah II also made a rare trip to Ramallah, before Herzog’s visit to the palace in Amman, presumably over shared security concerns. But to a certain extent, the summit is another sign of the de-linking of Israel’s diplomatic process from the Palestinian issue. 

Europe and the US might be unwilling to acknowledge it, but there are more pressing concerns in the region than the more than seven-decade-old Palestinian issue. The regional actors themselves are well aware of the real priorities.

Chief among the concerns is Iran and the likelihood that a new nuclear deal reviving the 2015 JCPOA is imminent. A new deal along the old guidelines presents an even worse threat to Israel and the Gulf states, boosting both Iran’s nuclear capabilities and providing an influx of funds for terrorism.

When Bennett tweeted a message to the Saudis on Saturday expressing sorrow for “the horrific attack by the Iranian-backed Houthis,” adding that it is “further proof that Iran’s regional aggression knows no bounds,” it was not something he thoughtlessly fired off in the heat of the moment.

As the prime minister noted, the missile attack on the Aramco oil storage facilities in Jeddah reinforces concerns about Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp being removed from the US Foreign Terrorist Organization list.

Saudi Arabia was not physically present at the Sde Boker gathering but you can be sure that it was monitoring the event closely.

Amid the new configurations and ties, it will be pertinent to keep eyes also on the role of Bashar Assad in Syria, who survived the Arab Spring with Russian help, and on Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey who is also showing signs of wanting to repair relations with Israel – out of strategic needs rather than a sudden newfound love, of course.

RUSSIA’S INVASION of Ukraine in February created widespread tremors. Both the energy crisis and the expected shortages of wheat and other commodities are high on the agenda in the Middle East as elsewhere, straining relations between the US and the Gulf.

The whole world is watching what happens next – and that includes Russia itself; Iran, whose tentacles of terror spread from Lebanon to Yemen and are felt globally; North Korea, which continues to test the ballistic missiles it is meant to have relinquished; and China, eying democratic Taiwan. All of them are reassessing what they can get away with. What are the red lines and in whose blood will they be drawn?

In a chilling testimony to the small world of global jihad, MEMRI TV, part of The Middle East Media Research Institute non-profit organization, shared footage from a Palestinian wedding where guests danced to a catchy tune and poisonous lyrics.

“Harden your heart, oh Putin. Increase your attacks. Banish them to Palestine and we will marry Ukrainian women,” sang Mohammed Arani in the video. “Also, we say to China: Invade Taiwan! This way we will smash the nose of the Americans, who make the [Israeli] airplanes.”

I don’t know who the bride and groom are but it was a match made in hell, not heaven.

The goal of terrorists everywhere is to kill as many people as possible and spread fear. Our response should be to stay alert during the ups and downs, and not give in to fear and threats. 

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