Arabs on the fence

The Rice-Gates mission is revealing tremendous dissonance.

saudis 88 (photo credit: )
saudis 88
(photo credit: )
In Egypt on Tuesday, after meeting with the foreign ministers of six Gulf states, Egypt and Jordan, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told reporters: "There clearly is concern... in the region that the US will somehow withdraw precipitously from Iraq or in some way that is destabilizing to the entire region." Yesterday, Gates and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice held meetings in Israel. In addition, after US Ambassador to the UN Zalmay Khalilzad obliquely criticized Saudi Arabia for not acting constructively in Iraq, the Saudis announced that they would attend a regional summit with Israel later this year, and would consider renewing full diplomatic ties with Iraq. The Rice-Gates mission, in other words, is revealing tremendous dissonance between old policies and new realities, along with tiny corrections to reduce the gap. On the one hand, the Sunni-led Arab states are united in their concern over the rise of Iran and are begging the US not to run from Iraq, which they believe would allow Teheran to fill the ensuing vacuum. On the other hand, they are adjusting their policies minimally in an effort to deflect criticism, without fundamentally changing outdated approaches that run counter to their own interests. This is most evident with respect to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Arab states, not the Palestinians per se, we must remember, created the Arab-Israeli conflict. These states played a major role in tipping the scales toward radical Palestinians before Israel's establishment, invaded Israel in 1948, and created the PLO in 1964, when Gaza, Judea and Samaria were held by Egypt and Jordan. For the last 60 years, including during the heyday of the peace process in the mid-1990s, most Arab states have continued to wage diplomatic warfare against Israel, maintaining their trade and diplomatic boycotts. Several months ago, for example, the Arab states broke with the international consensus and fought Israel's inclusion in the International Red Cross, even though they were being asked to simultaneously include Israel and "Palestine" in this purely humanitarian organization. All of this is painfully anachronistic. The new reality is that rejectionism has completely boomeranged against the Arab states. Iran has all but completed a hostile takeover of the anti-Israel camp, which now consists mainly of Teheran's proxies and allies - Syria, Hizbullah, Hamas and al-Qaida. The supposed intractability of the Arab-Israeli conflict directly serves Iranian ends, and therefore directly threatens the Sunni-led Arab states. The Arab states cannot have it both ways. They want the US to be successful in its confrontation with Iran, but the US is hamstrung and distracted by the war in Iraq and the Arab conflict with Israel. They cannot urge the US to act while barely lifting a finger to remove impediments to action that are largely of their own making and certainly within their power to ameliorate. In addition to helping instead of hindering the US in Iraq, the Saudis and other Arab states can take serious steps to dismantle the monster they created and continue to feed: the Arab-Israeli conflict. Attending a conference would be nice, but it is substance that matters. The key substantive things they can do is to stop their diplomatic warfare against Israel, drop their illegal trade boycotts, combat the rampant anti-Semitism in their countries, and start openly breaking it to the Palestinians that their "right of return" can only be to a future state of Palestine, not to Israel. None of this should be seen as a bridge too far, but rather as basic steps that must be taken. Nothing less is required to start reversing the current negative momentum, which favors Iran, and shift it to where it should be, with the United States. Egypt and other Arab states can complain and cajole about the Iranian threat all they want, but this is meaningless without concrete actions that materially help the US and Europe turn their focus to where it indeed needs to be, on Iran. Bolder action from the US and Europe on Iran would help shift the Arabs in such a constructive direction - much more than large arms sales - since the more the US looks like the winning side, the more likely the Arab states are to climb off the fence and join in support. The Arab states, however, should realize that they already have much more to lose from risking an Iranian victory with their timidity than from helping the US out of its current quasi-paralysis.