The English Speaking Friends of Tel Aviv University (Friends of TAU) hosted Professor Asher Susser at its most recent monthly lecture. Susser, who earned his PhD in Modern Middle Eastern History at TAU and is presently the Director for External Affairs of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies there, has taught for over twenty-five years in the university’s Department of Middle Eastern History. His lectures are consistently incisive, well-organized, and full of insights. Below I will try to summarize Professor Susser’s informative remarks.
Revolution and violence are the key watchwords for the Arab experience over the last several years. For even longer, there has been a mass immigration of Arabs and other Muslims from North Africa and the Middle East, primarily to Europe, due to the decline and failure of Arab nationalism.
The secular Arab nationalist movement (Pan-Arabism) reached its pinnacle in 1958 when Egypt and Syria united under the banner of the United Arab Republic. Within three years the union had dissolved, although Egypt declined to change its name for a further decade. The crisis is ideological and can be summed up as the failure of secular Arab nationalism and the rise of sectarian, religious movements.
The decline of the Arab world (with some exceptions, notably the oil-rich states) predates the disastrous defeat to Israel in the Six Day War of 1967. In 1962 Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt invaded Yemen, a war which can be identified as Egypt’s “Vietnam.” The Arabs haven’t recovered from this war yet, which saw Saudi Arabia, the preeminent oil power, defeat the revolutionary-minded Egyptians.
The unadorned fact is that the Arabs can’t support themselves. In the year 2000, they numbered 280 million. Today, there are 370 million Arabs and soon their number will exceed 400 million. Who will provide for them? They themselves are not up to the task. This is the genesis of the crisis, civil war, and mass emigration of the Muslim Arabs. [The Christian Arabs have long been fleeing their oppressive Muslim brothers, a fact that is all but ignored by the rest of the Christian world.]
Islam is the traditional and most prominent identifying feature of the Arabs. The differences among the various Muslim sects are very important, especially between the Sunnis (nearly 90% of all Muslims) and the Shiites. It was the failure of Pan-Arabism that magnified the splits between the sects, producing religious nationalism. In contrast to other peoples, the Arabs [and the neighboring Muslims of (Sunni) Turkey and (Shiite) Iran] have reverted to religious tradition more than people in other regions, especially Europeans, who are trending away from religion.
In the Arab world, religion and state were never separate. The resilience of traditions like honor and faith has remained strong, promoting societies of tribes, not individuals. So-called honor killings are a good example. A close family member will be willingly sacrificed for the good of the society: Tribe above all.
Applying this concept to Iraq, the failure of the US in Iraq was assured. America failed because the disparate Iraqi groups resisted secular top-down reforms. Cultural differences among groups (Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, Christians) were ignored in the rush to empower individual citizens; but individuals per se had no clout because they didn’t identify themselves as “Iraqis.” The dictator Saddam Hussein had quashed sectarianism. After his demise, there was a reversion to sectarian religion and the inevitable internecine warfare.
The Sunni credo is that society is subservient to Sharia (Muslim law). But which Sunni sect determines what Sharia is? Each group claims legitimacy for its own interpretation. Infighting among competing groups, all Sunni adherents, leads to chaos. Gaza is a typical example, with the terrorist Hamas contending with other terrorist groups..
The Shia credo is government by jurisprudence of the rulers, not Sharia. Radicalism unites groups under government control. From Hezbollah in Lebanon to Houthis in Yemen, all fall under the influence of the ruling power. This is Shiite Iran’s advantage, despite the fact that Iran isn’t an Arab country. Iran took advantage of the fortuitous downfall of its archenemy Hussein and filled the vacuum left after America’s withdrawal.
ISIS, a Sunni group, rose to power in response to the Iranians’ ambition to rule over the Arabs. Declaring itself a caliphate (Islamic State), it is currently fighting Iran and its proxies (Hamas, Hezbollah, etc.) Lately, ISIS has lost some ground to America and other Western countries and their unlikely ally, Iran. Israel is an ISIS target but it’s not at the top of the list. By the way, ISIS is far from invincible and it probably could be defeated by the Jordanian army.
Iran, the dominant regional power, uses money and force to get what it believes in. Iran even spends money it doesn’t have, such as $2 billion/month to prop up Bashar al Assad’s regime in Syria. From Iran’s point of view, control in Syria is needed to preserve the “Shiite Crescent,” the swath of Iranian control from Yemen, through Iraq and Syria, into Lebanon.
For Iran, gaining control of the Golan Heights is crucial in its battle against Israel. But Iran has limitations. Its GDP per capita is just half that of Israel. Losing battles in the Syrian north are endangering its ally Assad and his Alawi (a small offshoot of Shia Islam) sect. Defectors among Assad’s followers are common due to poor morale. Shiites must be imported from Lebanon (Hezbollah), Iran and elsewhere to defend Assad. But is Assad finished? That outcome is not assured, but what is certain is that the Arab states are falling apart.
Fear of the Arabs in the 1950s caused Israel to turn nuclear. After the 1967 and 1973 wars, the Arabs declined both militarily and economically [except for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Emirates]. The result is forty-plus years without war against Arab states, such as Egypt, Syria and Jordan. However, the growing non-state actors (i.e. Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad) have certain advantages which reduce the effectiveness of Israel’s larger and more powerful defense forces. The Arabs, and Israelis too, are becoming more religious, which we can see in Jerusalem. [Jerusalem is increasingly becoming a city of Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews.] There are stabbings, vehicular homicides, Temple Mount riots against Jews, etc. Jerusalem is, as always, a flashpoint of religious conflict.
In conclusion, Professor Susser outlined choices for Israel:
1. Gaza: control it militarily from outside (today) or from inside (previously).
2. West Bank and Jerusalem: continue to control it from within, but face more international problems of delegitimization. Alternatively, come to a peace agreement.
There are “Musts” that Israel must retain:
Israel is a 1st world state and can’t be allowed to fall from that status. The education of enough high-skilled tech workers is insufficient; that must be addressed. There is a big problem in the ordering of priorities: building settlements versus social needs. Settlement building needs to be curtailed to improve Israel’s standing with the West.
Yes, said Susser, Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people. Population-wise, west of the Jordan River, the Jews are about equal in population with the Arabs there. But while fertility rates are now roughly equivalent, that is not the whole picture – the Muslims are gaining because they marry much younger. [This outcome is the subject of much debate.]
Yet, Israel is a forerunner of Western society. It must find a way to remain a legitimate member of family of nations. Maintaining the status quo is not good enough. Why? Because Western diplomacy requires nothing concrete from the Palestinian Arabs, just from Israelis. The West appears to be ready to force Israel to enable a State of Palestine on most of the territory beyond the 1949 armistice lines. Israel has only 10-15 years before this prediction becomes reality, according to Susser.
AS FOR ME, I gained new insights from Professor Susser’s great knowledge of the region. I was with him up until nearly the end but I don’t agree with his conclusions. For now, I don’t see anything else possible except the status quo. With the region in great turmoil, how could Israel be expected to agree to a State of Palestine adjacent to its population centers and occupying much of the strategic highlands? Israel has made numerous concessions to the Arabs, evacuating Jews from Gaza being perhaps the worst example. What did Israel gain from these unreciprocated moves? NOTHING.
Israel must control the mountain ranges and the Jordan Valley, or else it cannot defend itself. Nor can it enable a Palestinian entity in Judea and Samaria to be linked with Gaza across Israel’s territory. Finally, satisfying the demand that ALL “Palestinian refugees” be accommodated inside of Israel is both ridiculous and impossible. Whatever one’s conclusions, Professor Susser’s lecture was very enlightening and the Q&A period could have gone on for hours.