My Word: Common interests, common enemies

"Under the current circumstances, there is an opportunity for new alliances," though in the Middle East defense is the driving force.

Kerry with Arab League delegation 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Kerry with Arab League delegation 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
There are certain phrases that simply sound better in French. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, is one of them. The more things change, the more they stay the same sounds much better than the other French expression that sprang to mind last week: A la guerre comme à la guerre, in time of war you must act as if at war, or when times are hard you must accept that and act accordingly.
Actually, it was talk of peace that was buzzing around – again – this week when the small but powerful Qatar proposed an old-new initiative, saying the Arab world wouldn’t demand a full return to pre-1967 lines.
The timing was unexpected: I had barely finished reading about the probably Hezbollah-launched drone downed in the North; the fatal terror stabbing in Samaria; and the successful IAF targeting in Gaza of a terrorist reportedly behind the firing of Grad missiles from Sinai on Eilat in the South. Syrians were still massacring each other just over our northern border, amid talk of the use of chemical weapons, and the IDF held a call-up exercise that was such a surprise that some reports said Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon himself had been unaware of it in advance.
I was less taken unawares, however, by the initiative itself. Not only is Qatar putting itself on the map wherever it can, it is also interested in rearranging the map. It is even an associate member of La Francophonie (OIF), an organization representing French-speaking communities around the world, although perhaps 1 percent of its population speaks the language, while Israel, where some 10 percent are French-speaking, has been denied membership. Money talks, and the larger the amounts the more multilingual it is.
Qatar’s investments can be found in places as diverse as the German car industry, the Italian fashion scene, French soccer, and significant London landmarks like Canary Wharf, the new Shard mega-tower and the world-famous Harrods store and Park Lane InterContinental Hotel.
In a report in The Guardian on the Park Lane purchase, the paper said: “The latest announcement comes after a run of deals that are thought to have resulted in Qatar investing £3bn in European real estate in the 12 months to mid-August 2012, the equivalent to six weeks’ revenue from the country’s liquefied natural gas exports, according to Reuters.”
That it invested some $400 million in housing and infrastructure in Gaza, by these standards, seems to be small fry in financial terms, but it is obviously noteworthy in the geo-political sense.
Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani has managed to foster – or purchase – the image of a progressive pro- Westerner, particularly among those who (equally absurdly) talk about Saudi Arabia (the sponsor of the original peace initiative) as “moderate.”
But, as the Arabic proverb puts it, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
There are reasons that Qatar and other Gulf states are interested in getting involved in the peace process – and it has very little to do with wanting to see Binyamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas pleasantly sharing a plate of humous. Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium, unlike many other Western football stadiums, won’t be displaying the Fly Emirates logo anytime soon, even though quiet trade contacts between Israel and the Gulf exist, to the benefit of all.
It wasn’t any French-speaking state that recently banned Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. Bahrain last month became the first Arab country to blacklist Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah’s Shi’ite terror movement. And it wasn’t out of concern for what Nasrallah now and again threatens to throw at Israel. It was partly because the Sunni minority that rules Bahrain is scared of further unrest like the protests by the Shi’ite majority that swept the country during the Arab Spring, and were quelled with the help of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Above all, the Gulf countries are afraid of the influence and power of nuclearizing Iran.
In a strange confluence of interests, Israel finds itself on the same side as the Saudis and UAE. It is the same reason that Israel and Turkey need to calm the stormy waters surrounding the Gaza flotilla of May 2010. The reason is the threat from Syria and Iran.
It doesn’t matter what Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan really thinks of Netanyahu; what matters are the mutual dangers and enemies (and if Jerusalem and Ankara can also patch up trade ties, so much the better for both).
Israel is also reportedly interested in ensuring it will be allowed to fly in Turkish airspace if necessary.
The Hezbollah drone, by the way, was not the only significant aircraft spotted in the Mideastern skies recently. According to a report in the foreign press, Jordan has opened its airways to Israeli pilot-less planes monitoring the border with Syria.
Just as Israel is not alone in fearing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, it is not the only one keeping a wary eye on the possible spillover from the Syrian civil war, and Jordan is at least as concerned as Israel with the potential for a Palestinian uprising in the West Bank that could topple the Hashemite monarchy.
Meanwhile, Israel, Jordan and Sunni-dominated Arab states are all interested in preventing Iran expanding its power base in largely Shi’ite Iraq once the US pulls out.
Being hemmed in by the Palestinians, Iraq and Syria does not make the Jordanian ruler feel any safer than Israel feels with Hezbollah and Syria to the North and Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Egyptian regime to the South.
UNDER THE current circumstances, there is an opportunity for new alliances. The old/new initiative and American efforts notwithstanding, peace with the Palestinians looks as unlikely as ever, but undoubtedly intelligence is being shared among all those who fear that weapons and particularly the means of unconventional warfare could fall into extremist hands. For while I snigger at the thought of Saudi Arabia being considered moderate, I realize it could be worse: There are Islamists who make the Saudis seem like a benevolent democracy.
That’s why the US recently promised major arms deals to Israel, Saudi Arabia and the emirates.
In an ideal world, we would be drawn together by the common dream to develop and grow. But this is the far-from- ideal Middle East. Here, we are driven by the need to defend ourselves.
The Saudi initiative, which turned into the Arab League initiative and has been rebranded under Qatar’s banner, is nothing new. Yet it brings with it a message of peace: not with the Palestinians, but with the Arab states that face common threats.
We can – and will – argue over borders but the latest move is a sign that the Arab League recognizes that Israel is here to stay. More important it recognizes that Israel’s stability and survival is vital for their own defense.
We can’t be bought by Qatari money, but now would be a good time for Israel to cash in on the common interests.
The writer is the editor of The International Jerusalem Post.