For decades in the Middle East, the most reliable political tool often seemed to be the Israel card, the idea that by condemning Israel, blaming it for the Arab world’s problems, and claiming that those who were insufficiently militant on the issue were traitors.
But the Israel card doesn’t work anymore, at least not in the way it used to do so. True, the rise of revolutionary Islamism has focused more hatred against Israel. Yet at the same time — and this analogy is imperfect — it is less of a single-issue movement. As revolutionary Islamists seek to destroy their rivals (nationalist, moderates, and each other) and fundamentally transform their own societies, they are kept pretty busy. Jibril Rajoub, a senior Fatah official and supposed moderate, may insist that Israel is the main enemy of the Arabs and Muslims, but the Arabs and Muslims aren’t paying much attention. The Palestinian Authority which his group runs- — and which rules only on the West Bank- — has no Middle Eastern patron at all.
The Sunni-Shia conflict is deepening, with clashes already taking place in Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and above all Syria. Indeed, the Syrian civil war is a full-scale contest between the two blocks. Even Muslim Brotherhood think-tanks have said that the Shia, and especially Iran, are more dangerous threats than is Israel.
The chance that these two blocs would cooperate against Israel is close to zero. It was different a few years ago. Before the “Arab Spring,” Iran seemed set to become the region’s Muslim superpower. If Tehran obtained nuclear weapons (sometimes referred to as the “Islamic bomb”) it was expected to wield growing influence throughout the Arab world.
Today, however, that situation has reversed itself. Sunni Arabs, whether they are Islamists or anti-Islamists, openly hate and fear Iran. A nuclear weapon in Tehran’s hands would not increase its strategic or political influence. Iran faces a Sunni wall against its ambitions and it is almost without Arab allies.
As for Hizballah, Iran’s sole reliable ally, it is not able to attack Israel from southern Lebanon. Thousands of its soldiers are tied up in Syria to keep an arms’ supply open, help the Bashar al-Assad regime win, and protect Shia villagers. It also faces growing opposition from Sunni Muslims, financed by the Saudis and stirred up by hatred over Hizballah’s actions in Syria, and within Lebanon itself. Plus the fact that the Lebanese don’t want to be victimized by Hizballah going to war with Israel given the damage suffered in the last round in 2006.
And what of the Syrian regime itself? For decades it held Syria together in large part by portraying itself as the most courageous, militant force rejecting peace with Israel and striving to wipe that country off the map. As late as three or four years ago, President Bashar al-Assad’s strong support for Hizballah, opposition to the “peace process,” and championing of Sunni terrorists in Iraq was enough to hold the country together. Yet the seeds of Sunni Islamism he planted in Syria because it supported him at the time have now blown up in his face. His anti-Israel credentials don’t matter anymore in mobilizing support for his continued rule.
This disintegration and the multiplication of issues and enemies is not, of course, due only to the Sunni-Shia issue. There has also been a sharp revival of Arab identity against the Turks and Persians. The region’s history of such ethnic clashes has been revived. If the Syrian civil war ends in a rebel victory, the winners will soon turn against their Turkish patrons. Indeed, while the trade between the two countries is still growing, the Syria issue has driven a deep rift between Turkey and Iran, who are supporting opposite sides.
Even Muslim Brotherhood Egypt and Muslim Brotherhood Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, have fallen out, albeit perhaps temporarily. The Egyptian government is unhappy that Hamas has not cracked down enough on the Salafists in Gaza and the Sinai who want to attack it.
In addition, Egypt — busy with internal transformation, domestic conflicts, and economic problems, wants Hamas to keep things quiet on its border. Israeli officials describe current security cooperation with the Egyptian government, or at least the intelligence services and military, as being quite good. Disputes between Muslim Brotherhood groups and even more radical Salafists are creating problems in Egypt and Syria.
Another factor is the economic catastrophe that is striking or going to hit much of the Arab world. The incompetence and bad policies of the Islamists are making a mess. In Iran, of course, this is heightened by international sanctions. The obsessively anti-Israel strategy of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has become unpopular as being unnecessarily provocative.
The fact is, that Syria is wrecked for many years to come; that Iraq is not in good shape due to internal battles; and that Egypt is on the verge of disaster. Obviously, the attempt to stir up hatred against Israel as being responsible for these problems in order to mobilize popular support is tempting.
But what can be done about it? Israeli flags can be burned in Cairo; tourism there may become impossible; and the embassy could be closed. Yet will Egypt court war, with a reluctant military, the need for international financial aid, and the possibility that the United States could cut off the arms’ supply? Unlike the Arab nationalists, who could depend on the USSR, the Sunni Islamists have no big-money patron, at least outside Qatar.
Finally, something has been learned by the Arab masses and leaders over the last half-century. The old cries that Israel could easily be destroyed by cooperation and determination don’t seem quite as persuasive in the face of many Arab military defeats. There’s a lot more caution. Among the elites there’s even the idea that Israel can be an asset in their struggle against Iran. Here’s an article by Abdulrahman al-Rashed, who I’ve previously called the best journalist in the Arab world who is here expressing the general view of the Gulf Arabs.
I don’t want to overstate the case. Moves toward peace — with Islamists in power or looking over the regime’s shoulders and eager to inveigh against treasonous moderation — are unlikely. Vicious propaganda will continue unabated. Terrorism will be launched at every opportunity.
Ironically, this change coincides with a frenzied effort to reduce support for Israel in the West, including in Jewish communities through boycotts, sanctions, divestment, and massive misinformation. One wonders at times whether this campaign is a substitute for relative disinterest in doing much in the Middle East itself. Perhaps this is taken as justifying inaction or perhaps it is seen as still another attempt to find a victorious strategy when so many others have failed. As an Australian journalist, Brendan O’Neill, put it, the Palestine issue “has become less important for Arabs and of the utmost symbolic importance for Western radicals at exactly the same time.”
Perhaps someday, if and when revolutionary Islamists have consolidated power in several countries, the situation will change again. But until then, yelling “Israel” at a crowded rally- — at least in the Middle East- — will not prove a panacea for the political problems of Arab governments and politicians.