Numerous doom-and-gloom articles have been released in the past few months concerning the “Iranian Axis” in the Middle East after the nuclear deal was passed by President Obama. There are legitimate concerns about the lifting of many sanctions going to Iran, particularly in light of the Islamic Republic sending Shiite militias to fight in Syria, Yemen and Iraq, especially since Hezbollah–its most prized possession, based out of Lebanon–is getting valuable battle training in the deserts of Syria fighting against Sunni jihadists like ISIS. Even though Hezbollah has lost over a thousand fighters in a war that is distracting it from targeting Israel, it’s rocket arsenal has surged in numbers and capability. Already, Israel has started preparing its military for a possible third war with the Shiite jihadist outfit. But perhaps there are other ways to take down the Iranian Axis.
The Gulf Cooperation Council, shortly followed thereafter by the Arab League (with the notable and perhaps obvious exceptions of Lebanon and Iraq), listed Hezbollah as a terrorist organization in recent months. The reasons for this are different than the reasons Israel and some Western countries consider Hezbollah a terrorist entity. Whereas Israel and its Western partners believe that its genocidal goals towards Israel and tactics of using civilians as human shields are the clearest indication of it being a terror group, Arab countries list it as one for two different reasons: it fights against their proxies in Syria, and it is an arm of Iran’s imperialistic ambitions for dominating the Arab World. Meanwhile, Arab countries are scrambling, under the table, to increase cooperation with Israel. Like Israel, they view Western countries (most notably, the USA) as recently unreliable, naive, and eager to abandon the region; Sunni jihadists as a threat to the order and stability of the region; and Iran as the cause of the region’s problems in recent years (in contrast to how Westerners now seem to view it as a possible solution).
One of the arguments Arab Imperialists and Muslim Supremacists have against Israel is that once a land becomes dominated by Muslims or Arabs, it should always remain in their hands. This is why even after being defeated in 1948 by a small Jewish state, surrounding Arab countries continued to try–and failed– to wipe out Israel in 1967 and 1973, and later even assisted jihadist outfits trying to accomplish the same thing. Now, however, a different approach has occurred, and the argument of “get off of Arab land” is applied to another historic rival of the Arabs. Besides ISIS, al-Qaeda, Palestinian terrorist groups, and others, many Arab states or organizations seem to have resigned themselves to Israel’s existence as a Jewish state. Even in Saudi Arabia, once the heart of opposition to Zionism, a campaign is underway by some among the media to criticize the anti-Jewish racism prevalent in Saudi, and wider Arab, society. Some Saudi officials are meeting with Israeli ones in instances that can only be approved by the government, leading Iran and Hezbollah to condemn the Saudis as “allies of the Zionist regime”. While Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries continue to insist there can be no normalization of ties with Israel until the Palestinian problem is resolved “in a just manner”, it appears that actions speak louder than words. Some suggest that Arab nations in the region are preparing for normalized ties with Israel, as they put travel restrictions on Lebanon, cut ties with Iran, and begin to cut aid going to the Palestinians. The focus on Palestinians has diminished in light of the nuclear deal with Iran and the Arab Spring; even the 2012 and 2014 Israel-Gaza Wars, which occurred during the Arab Spring, have fallen to the back burner as the slaughter in Syria continues.
The argument of “occupying Arab lands” has shifted from Israel to a much more ancient enemy–Iran. Avi Melamed’s 2016 book, Inside the Middle East: Making Sense of the Most Dangerous and Complicated Region on Earth, describes the wider Arab mindset on Iran: “pure Islamic values and traditions are Arab ones…the Arabs view Persians as pagans, which is not compliant (sic) with the essence of Islam.” They regularly call Persians derogatorily as majus, referring to their Zoroastrian roots. Meanwhile, in the Persian narrative, their proud history as an empire fell into ruin by the “barefoot soosmar khor (lizard eater)”, a derogatory way of referring to Arabs. These two civilizations have been enemies for millennia, and clearly nothing has changed. But what has changed is the narrative regarding “occupied” lands. In the 20th and early 21st Centuries, “occupied Muslim lands” was more regularly used by Arab media, as the focus was on Israel, as a Jewish state, occupying Palestine, in the Arab Muslim narrative. Now, the more common phrase appears to be “occupied Arab lands”, as Iran is also a Muslim country, albeit non-Arab. With Iran’s proxies and influence lording over Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, it is seen as an illegitimate, foreign colonial power meddling in Arab affairs & Arab homelands. While the Assad regime in Syria and Hezbollah were once championed by Arab societies as heading “the resistance” against Israel, now they’re loathed by more and more for killing fellow Arabs and doing the bidding of Tehran. Hezbollah flags are burned in protests by rebel groups in Syria and their supporters elsewhere, and Hassan Nasrallah, whose last names means “triumph of G-d”, has been defamed with Arabic hashtags calling him a pagan. Some racist political cartoons in Arab newspapers have started to shift from depicting “Zionists” (Jews) to “Safavids” (Persians; Safavid refers to the old dynasty which liberated the Persian Empire from Arab rule). None of this means that Arab society at large in the region–perhaps even the world–is ready right now to be best buddies with Israel or end their anti-Zionist and racist rhetoric, but it does mean perhaps they are on a slow road to acceptance of Israel as a reality, and are more focused on their traditional foes.
So what does any of this have to do with Israel? For too long, Westerners and Israelis have talked of a Shiite-Sunni split being the primary reason for the hostilities between Iran and the Arab World. While this is certainly a factor, the contempt between the two civilizations/societies is much older than that. It would be in Israel’s interest–and the West’s–to make this more widely known among their populations, via media, historians, and experts, and to start taking advantage of it. While Jews living in Arab countries were treated as second-class citizens and at numerous times faced violence (particularly in the 20th Century), at other times, such as in al-Andalus (Muslim Spain), the two Semitic peoples seemed to get along quite well, or at least coexist with each other. This is also the case, largely, in Israel with its minority Arab community existing with equal rights as the Jewish majority. This has never been the case with Iran and the Arabs, and doesn’t look like it will be anytime soon. Westerners and Israelis who don’t wish to fight with Iran or Arab enemies would find it in their best interest to play both sides. When Western officials discuss the situation in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere with the Iranians, it would suit them to drop hints or use language that reignites the humiliation suffered by the Persians when they were colonized by Arab armies during the Muslim Conquest in ancient times, and hint that they can regain some of their lost prestige from expanding their influence into these areas. Likewise, when these Westerners speak with their traditional Gulf allies, Egypt, or other such countries, particularly when listening to their concerns about Iran, it would behoove them to use the words “empire”, “expansionist”, or “occupier” when referring to Tehran. For Israeli officials discussing the threats of Hamas and Hezbollah, this job can in some ways be even easier when they meet with Arab officials about the Iranian and jihadist threat. All they need to do is speak of how Hamas, Hezbollah, and their supporters are traitors to the “Arab brethren” by furthering the goals of an emboldened, colonial Iran and being more loyal to “fake Muslims” sitting in Tehran or Isfahan rather than the Sunni majority spread throughout the Levant, Gulf, and Maghreb.
Will it always be successful? Maybe not, but I say it’s worth a try to plant the seeds of a traditional hate in the minds of one’s rivals and foes if it means Israel and its allies can avert an expensive and bloody war with jihadists and/or Iran. Some may say such a strategy is “immoral”, “exploitation” or “spreading racism and hate”. But to me, anything that stops Israeli or Western troops from dying or being injured in a war with savage foes is the moral thing to do. The civilized world right now seems to have no desire–even if it has the means–to confront the modern warlords, terrorists, and militias in the Middle East. In that case, it should turn them on each other, and do what Menachem Begin did when Iraq and Iran fought thirty years ago: wish both sides the best of success.