The Israeli-Arab-Islamist-Iranian Conflict

There is a myth circulating around the Israeli election that the regional dimension (specifically the Arab Peace Initiative 2002) could be used as leverage to unravel the contradictions inherent in the 1947-1949 war for Palestine. The so-called 2002 Arab Peace Initiative was nothing more than the exact same plan initiated in 1981 by the king of Saudi Arabia. This initiative has never enjoyed the full weight of approval by either the Palestinian or the Israeli population. But now with the region immersed in its worst conflagration since the days of the Ottoman and Persian empires, elements of the Arab world have once again trotted out King Fahd’s most unattractive plan.

It’s as if an Israeli retreat to the indefensible 1967 lines held the key to a utopian ending to the current conflict. This can only be called delusional thinking. The inter-ethnic, intra-ethnic, international, inter-religious and intra-religious struggle now engulfing the failed region known as the Middle East cannot be solved by the IDF. The purpose of the IDF is defensive. It is to protect the Jewish population of Israel from the myriad of threats now emanating from this inferno of a region.

What could little Israel possibly offer the Saudis and the Jordanians which could justify such a “lucrative” offer? Israel certainly couldn’t occupy (in order to save) Syria from the dreaded Iranian enemy. And if the Moslem Brotherhood, Hamas, Nusra and ISIS were ever to join forces against Jordan (from their bases inside and outside the country), Israel would be hard-pressed to enter the urban fray in Amman and the other Jordanian cities. Without the West Bank, Israel would have one heck-of-a-time just surviving the Hamas missile onslaught into Tel Aviv. In the face of such potential events, the Arab Peace Initiative is not only irrelevant, it’s a recipe for complete disaster. What good are full relations with Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Gulf states, if these states can’t be protected? The answer is obvious. The plan as currently constituted would leave all the forces of moderation vulnerable.

The region of the Middle East (specifically the Levant) cannot be saved without the full commitment of the UN Security Council acting in harmony. A synchronization of big-power policy is the only answer to overthrow Assad, dismantle Hezbollah, defeat ISIS, reinvigorate the democratic Syrian spring, empower multi-ethnic and multi-sectarian tolerance, initiate a permanent regional stability, and help find a secure solution to the seven-decade war for Israel-Palestine. Victory cannot be achieved within the scarce resources of hegemonic national interests or the authoritarian nature of religious extremism. Only an international effort will suffice. Within this context Israel and the moderate Arab states could certainly have a very positive and important role to play. But the Arab Peace Initiative, on its own, will do nothing to solve Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on the Iran nuclear program, and only a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the region can stop the slide toward a debilitating and dangerous nuclear arms race.

The Palestinian population lives in Gaza, the West Bank, the Transjordan, Israel proper and the rest of the Levant. There are secular class rejectionists, national rejectionists, pro-Iranian Islamists, pro-Turkish Islamists, anti-national Islamists and even a few genuine moderates both secular and religious. Within this vast array of political forces, Palestinian politics lack the geographic continuity, the permanent democratic structure, and the essential non-coercive religious grounding to maintain a legitimate national leadership for successful final-status negotiations. In addition, it has long been Palestinian strategy that an independent West Bank state was the necessary “first step” in a program directed toward the total liberation of all regions of the lands of Palestine (including Israel proper and Jordan).

It is in this diverse local context that the idea of a much wider Arab diplomatic “cover” was first conceived. Perhaps it was because of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) and the realization by the Gulf states that Sunni Arab Iraq could lose, or for other more nefarious reasons, that such an initiative went forward in the first place. But whatever the reason, unfortunately, the Arab Peace Initiative never went beyond the parochial interests of the Palestinian population itself. The so-called two-state solution has always been a Palestinian construct. Israel has never felt comfortable with the idea of “land for peace”. The land has always been too strategic, and the peace much too fragile. Plus, within the context of the Middle East, Israelis have always viewed themselves as an extremely vulnerable minority population. They’ve seen what has happened to other minority groups (like the Christians). And from a geopolitical standpoint, the memories of a confined strategic depth — in two defensive wars with Israel’s back to the sea — put retreat outside the realm of reasonable action.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict terminology has never been an accurate depiction of the threats posed against Israel within the region. But now the enemies of Israel go far beyond simply the local Palestinians and the rejectionist Arabs of the Levant. They now represent pan-Islamic forces within both the Sunni and Shia worlds. In an age of international social media, the threats to Israel have truly become global in network potential. The Arabs of the old secular-rejectionist camp have teamed up with Iran and Hezbollah, while some Islamist Palestinians also maintain a firm foothold within this camp. Hamas has kept its options open. It has a foot in both the Iranian camp and with the traditional Moslem Brotherhood. The PLO has members loyal to Assad and Iran, and it has members claiming allegiance to the Saudis. Fatah is the same way. I don’t believe any organized Palestinian groups are loyal to Jordan. Even Abbas plays lip service to the Hashemites. In Amman, the royal family fears both Palestinian statehood and (with equal dread) the lack of a solution to the Palestinian problem.

There are now four basic camps in the Middle East. The pro-American moderates are led by Saudi Arabia and would like to see a rapprochement with Israel. The Arab Peace Initiative is their way forward, but the plan represents a past era when the PLO was near monolithic and firmly in the hands of Arafat’s Fatah. The Iran camp includes Hezbollah, Assad, Islamic Jihad and occasionally Hamas. It also represents many in the Shia-dominated state of Iraq. Although this camp is extremely dangerous, it has good relations with Russia and is also on the cusp of a nuclear deal with the Obama administration. The third camp is the Moslem Brotherhood, with affiliates throughout the region. Turkey, Qatar and Hamas are all full-time members, although Hamas gets much of its rocket expertise from Iran. And finally there is the Western rejectionist, anti-Shia, political Islamism camp. This includes ISIS, Nusra and myriad of lesser known names. These groups are anti-nationalist and claim to be rebuilding the Caliphate system of old.

Israel can do little to influence the events of the Middle East without its own plan for the region. The Arab Peace Initiative is as meaningless as “land for peace”. When an Israeli politician speaks of peace within the Israeli political context, everyone understands that the peace referred to is with the US and Europe. In other words, it means an end to Israeli isolation. No one really believes in the Oslo process anymore. But going through the motions in order to satisfy Washington and Brussels is hardly a strategy forward. So certain politicians extoll the virtues of the Arab Peace Initiative as if there were some sort of real logic to the plan. There isn’t. The region needs outside force to establish a pluralistic future for Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. If the US, Russia and China won’t assist to secure peace and moderation in the Levant, moderation and peace will lose out. It is that simple.

The idea that the Obama administration could sign a nuclear deal with Iran — while leaving such a state stronger within the regional context — represents the greatest defeat for the moderate forces. This would be a legacy of shame and brand the US as a country without values or ideals. I simply can’t believe the Democratic Party would allow such a thing to happen. But in this Israeli election season, the status quo will not hold either. Israel needs a way forward in order to defeat the forces of ISIS, Hamas and Iran. Israel needs to connect the nuclear negotiations with the necessity for moderation within the region.

Israel and the moderate Arabs need a bold new plan which could inspire the international superpowers to action. The local solution will require a regional solution, and the regional solution an international one. Israel can maintain its nuclear arsenal, but now only within a failed area undergoing a catastrophic nuclear arms race. However, it could propose a radical alternative — a Middle East nuclear-weapons-free zone. There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come. And as the Arab-Israeli conflict morphs into an unintelligible babble, the old forms of the Arab nation-state system look better and better each day. Add to these forms the concepts of peace, moderation and democracy, and the future success of the Arab and Syrian spring could still be saved. G-d willing — it’s never too late for peace.

About the Author
Steven Horowitz has been a farmer, journalist and teacher spanning the last 45 years. He resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. During the 1970's, he lived on kibbutz in Israel, where he worked as a shepherd and construction worker. In 1985, he was the winner of the Christian Science Monitor's Peace 2010 international essay contest. He was a contributing author to the book "How Peace came to the World" (MIT Press).