The Middle East is becoming more and more complicated by the week. Take for example the week that just ended. In order to move the so-called “peace process” forward, the President of Egypt, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, suggested that an Israeli national unity government be established. Naturally the Egyptian president had the Israeli Labor Party in mind when he made his suggestion. In fact, Isaac Herzog leader of the Labor Party had been holding extensive negotiations with Prime Minister Netanyahu. But at the last second, Bibi switched his plans to the hard right and Russian-Jewish leader Avigdor Lieberman.
With Lieberman’s acceptance of the Defense Ministry portfolio, Israel’s new government will total sixty-seven. This will most likely make it secure for the next two years. Why did Bibi switch after the Egyptian government had made such a high-profile diplomatic suggestion? Sisi, after all, had not acted without the backing of the other Sunni Arab states within the region. In fact, the Egyptian president had gone out of his way to emphasize the stability of the entire region as reason to move on the so-called “peace process”. And it isn’t as if Sisi and Netanyahu don’t have a close relationship. They do. They talk to each other almost every week.
So what gives? Bibi obviously has decided to move closer to the Russians. He knows that he can’t count on the French or President Obama. The Iran nuclear deal and failure to act in Syria have made the intentions of the current Washington administration all too clear. Even the prospect of a US veto within the UN Security Council can no longer be taken for granted. Meanwhile diplomacy with Turkey has been stymied. Bibi has been told in no uncertain terms that Israel would alienate the Egyptian president due to Ankara’s support for Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. Bibi also knows that Palestinian rejection of the concepts of both a Jewish state and a permanent Israeli presence within the Jordan River Valley make a viable two-state solution unworkable.
The Israeli prime minister also knows that the Russians have become key players in the Middle East, and their position in Syria is not about to change. In fact, it’s in Israel’s interest to have a stronger relationship with Moscow. The Syrian civil war is far from over and Russia’s presence places a restrictive cloak on both Iran and Hezbollah. The longer the war goes on, the deeper will be the pro-Iranian losses. Moscow wants a political solution with the secular elements within the Syrian opposition. Unlike Iran, they are not wedded to Assad. With the Russian-speaking Mr. Lieberman as Israel’s defense minister, the dialog between Jerusalem and the Kremlin can only deepen.
Then there is the Kurdish question. Unlike one hundred years of Muslim rejection of Israel and calls for a Palestinian state (which Israel accepts in strict conjunction with its security requirements), the world has been silent about the plight of the Kurds. Vastly outnumbering the Palestinians, Kurdistan has the potential to dominate the geo-strategic position of not only the Arabs, but Turkey and Iran as well. Russia has moved closer to the Kurds in Syria, and Moscow has even opened an office of the PKK-affiliated PYD in Moscow. This has caused more than a little discomfort with the government in Ankara. But the Kremlin sees the Kurds as a positive force within the greater Middle East. Unlike Jihadist Salafism or political Islam (The Muslim Brotherhood, ISIS, al Qaida and Iran for example), Kurdish democracy could become a real force for moderation within a region in dire need of moderation.
But a Kurdish state is not about to happen any time soon. Turkey would risk war with Russia before it would allow a PKK-dominated northern (Syrian) corridor to be established along its southern border. This northern Syrian border territory is to Turkey what the West Bank is to Israel. Both areas are vital for both Turkish and Israeli security, not unlike the Crimea or the eastern Ukraine is for the Russians. So why do the Sunni Arabs and Turkey persist on a complete Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank in order to establish what they refer to as a “brave peace”. The key Israeli question is, brave for whom?
This takes us back to President Sisi. Certainly as an ex-general he must know the strategic value of the Jordan River Valley. He also knows the true intentions of Hamas and the PLO. So too does the King of Jordan and the Gulf Sunni Arab states. Even the Israeli Labor Party would demand that Israel have a permanent border presence on the Jordan River. Unless the Palestinians are willing to allow themselves to be surrounded by Israeli border security, there can never be a viable West Bank two-state solution.
Stability within the region is indeed important as a vital wall against Iranian aggression, but Israel simply cannot sign on without a permanent border position at the river. The Muslim Brotherhood (as President Sisi knows) is still a potent force within not only Egypt, but Jordan and Syria as well. And while the stability within the region might be advanced by a workable peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, it is the rejection of a secure peace for Israel by the Palestinians which negates progress.
Hamas and the PLO are waiting for either an Islamic Turkey or an Islamic Iran to prove dominant within the region. This is the simple reality of the situation. Israel understands. So too do the Russians. Bibi would rather go to his political right than risk a big mistake with forces to his left. No offense to the Egyptian president, but a Russian-speaking Israeli Minister of Defense appears to be a better bet than an untested Labor Party Minister of Foreign affairs. ISIS appears beyond the pale for everyone, but ISIS is NOT an existential problem for Israel. The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, Jordan, Turkey and Egypt is, indeed, an existential problem. And like our good friends, the Sunni Arab states know, Iran is also the quintessential existential problem for us all.
Yes, we need each other. Israel and the Sunni Arabs states must come to a permanent regional security architecture. But to rely on the Palestinians is to accept rejection not peace. Israel would rather see what Moscow has in mind for the region. Israelis now understand that American hegemony within the region is at an end. I believe that the Sunni Arab states understand this reality also. However, the Middle East is essentially adjacent to Europe and Russia. Russia will simply not allow the Muslim Brotherhood to take over Syria, and that’s a good thing.
On the other hand, Obama flirted with the Brotherhood. Israel and Egypt need to stand together against Hamas in Gaza. Also the West Bank and Syria must never become bridgeheads for political Islam of any stripe (Sunni or Shiite). If Jordan were to ever fall, to Iran and/or the Muslim Brotherhood, a vast war would become inevitable.
A regional security regime must come before an Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative. The current regional status-quo situation cannot hold forever. Syria needs both US and Russian support to achieve a moderate secular democracy. The current situation is ripe with the possibility of a serious miscalculation between the Kurds, Turkey and Russia involving the imposition of a NATO Article Five situation. Israel, Egypt and the other Sunni Arab states must find a new regional peace initiative to place before the great powers in order to establish a sense of direction within the region of the Middle East. As President Sisi suggested, regional stability has become essential. But stability with Israel is the last thing Hamas and the PLO want.
The concept of anti-hegemony and world politics organized for a permanent peace should become the criteria upon which the new Middle East security architecture is laid. This structure for regional peace must hold itself up as an example to both Europe and East Asia. At the very center of this new security system, the idea of a Middle East nuclear-weapons-free zone will become essential for its success.
Egypt and Israel must work hand in hand to achieve a Middle East which is both peaceful and prosperous. This will require serious compromise from both sides. Our destiny is to live together in peace as neighbors, friends and the children of the Covenant of Abraham. But it is our choice whether or not we can begin to make such a destiny real. The fundamental question between Arab Muslim and Israeli Jew revolves around our relationship to G-d. Because G-d promised us both a future of peace and harmony, we cannot allow ourselves to snub our mutual Divine Architect.