Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Israel’s Shifting Enemy List: From Arab to Moslem

Even when a country is focused on its immediate concern, as is Israel today vis-à-vis Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran, it is worth zooming out to take in the larger and long-term picture. In this case, there are solid signs for some optimism.

It has been standard, conventional wisdom that Israel has been in an existential struggle with the Arab world. That’s been true for over a century, but to a large extent that is no longer the case. Israel’s struggle is now almost exclusively with parts of the Moslem world. This is not a distinction without a difference; rather, it is not only critical to understanding where the country’s main challenge lies, but from a macro-historical perspective it also constitutes very positive news.

No need to detail the history of Arab animosity to the Zionist cause. Briefly, from the Balfour Declaration onward (Britain’s announcement in 1917 that it supported a Jewish homeland), the Arab world – inside “Palestine” under the British Mandate and continuing after the State of Israel was established in 1949 – was virulently and violently against any such state for the Jews. Several serious pogroms in the Holy Land (1921, 1929, 1936) and invasion of five Arab armies (1948) showed how serious they were in their antipathy to Jewish sovereignty, continuing in 1956, 1967, and 1973 (Arab states at war with Israel) and local fedayeen attacks throughout the 1950s.

The turning point came with the Egyptian peace treaty in 1979; Jordan followed in the 1990s and recently the Gulf States with the Abraham Accords. And although Saudi Arabia and a few other Arab countries have not signed a peace treaty with Israel, it is clear from their stated intentions that they will do so when the circumstances are propitious. True, the other two contiguous Arab states – Lebanon and Syria – are far from suing for peace, but as countries they are far too weak for any significant hostility (with one large exception I’ll get to in a moment).

What or who is left? Iran and its proxies. Here we get to the crux of the matter. Iran is not “Arab,” nor has it ever been. Not in its own eyes nor in its neighbors’ perception. Iran sees itself as Persian, an ethnicity predating the beginning of Islam by over a thousand years. True, it is now Moslem, but it is Shiite – a minority sect within Islam, constituting a mere 10% of the world’s Moslems.

Its proxies are also Moslem, but although they are Sunni – for reasons of pure opportunism and Iranian cash they are willing for the time being to join the Iranian fray against Israel. Clearly, without Iran’s massive support, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Yemenite Houtis, and Iranian-supported militias in Iraq and Syria, could not exist for long.

This all means that there has been a tectonic shift in the Middle East vis-à-vis the Jewish State. This is no longer an Arab-Israeli, ethnic conflict, but rather a struggle between two religious civilizations – or at least the more extreme wings of each.
Does this make any practical difference? Absolutely yes. In political science, one of the basic keys to understanding conflict (within groups in one country, or between nations) is the question as to whether there are overlapping cleavages or cross-cutting ones. In the former case, each area of strife piles one on top of the other, so that each side has several bones to pick with the other side. An example of this in the U.S.: most religious people are right-wing politically, live in rural or exurban areas, and tend to be less educated; most secular are left-wing, live in urban areas, and have higher education. Thus, there is far less interaction between the two sides, and more reasons not to work cooperatively with the other side. However, in a cross-cutting situation, you could be religious, highly educated, and live in the city – where you would be in constant contact with someone who was secular, but also highly educated. Thus, the two of you have some things in common to offset your religiosity difference.

By removing the ethnic factor from the Middle East conflict, leaving only the religious component, ethnically Arab countries can more easily find a way to cooperate with Israel. What do they have that is cross-cutting with Israel? The desire to get ahead economically through education, technology, commerce etc. Iran, on the other hand, continues to maintain ethnicity (Persian) and religion (extreme Islam) as an overlapping counterpoint to Jewish ethnicity and Judaism.

In a sense, this is good news for Israel as it can focus on one specific enemy (with proxies) and not the entire Middle East Arab neighborhood. However, Israel’s main policy thrust has been to fight Iran’s proxies, north, south, and east – and not the core of the rotten apple: Iran itself. True, Israel has made moves against Iran’s nuclear program, but its anti-Israel troublemaking goes well beyond that.

There is more long-term, potentially good news. First, other Sunni states (Arab) are also deeply concerned about Iran’s regional troublemaking (e.g., supporting Yemen’s Houtis). This is another cross-cutting issue area for Israel and the moderate Arab countries. Second, the problem lies with Iran’s government and not its people, as the latter have shown through several attempted uprisings in the past few decades. Thus, Iran as a whole is not monolithic in its anti-Israel antipathy; in fact, it seems to have lots of quiet support among the Iran’s general populace.

In sum, looking at the conflict from a macro-historical perspective, the changes are truly tectonic: they have moved slowly but inexorably in Israel’s favor, with the circle of its enemies gradually decreasing. Oct. 7 shows that earthquakes can still occur on the path to a more normal existence regionally, but those same subterranean trends are moving us closer to the promised land (and region) of great promise.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) presently serves as Academic Head of the Communications Department at the Peres Academic Center (Rehovot). Previously, he taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published five books and 69 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book (in Hebrew, with Tali Friedman): RELIGIOUS ZIONISTS RABBIS' FREEDOM OF SPEECH: Between Halakha, Israeli Law, and Communications in Israel's Democracy (Niv Publishing, 2024). For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see:
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