Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Israel's changing place in the mideast region

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Update from AIJAC

January 15, 2016
Number 01/16 #02

This Update features three recent pieces on Israel's evolving place in the politics of the Middle East - a region which has changed dramatically since 2011, with large parts devolving into chaos and violence and others living in the shadow of following suit.

First up is a look, by American columnist Ben Cohen, at how Israeli strategic thinkers divide up the contemporary Middle East into four "powers" or alliances of forces. These are: Iran and its allies; the moderate Sunni states such as Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf monarchies; the Muslim Brotherhood, including Hamas in Gaza; and the radical jihadist sphere, including ISIS and al-Qaeda. Cohen quotes a senior Israeli military officer stressing that Israel's strategic interest is in working with the moderate states to renew quiet in the region, which means sharing "common interests of neutralizing Iran and eliminating the jihadi groups." For more on Israeli thinking, including discussion of the effects of US policy on the region, CLICK HERE.

Next up is a plea by Israeli historian and former diplomat Shimon Shamir to recognise how tragic the collapse of the Arab state system has been - and not only for its inhabitants, but also for Israel. Shamir brings his expertise as a historian to bear on the question of why this happened - exploring the failure of the 20th century Arab nationalist movement to create functioning states that did not depend on authoritarianism to hold together, the failures in the economic realm, and especially the region-wide inability or refusal to embrace Western knowledge and technology. He also discusses the failure of these states to contain and channel Islam to "instill values to bring society together", ending up instead by empowering Islamist radicals. For his insightful explanation as to why all this threatens Israel in the long run and Israelis should never rejoice in the misfortunes of their Arabs neighbours, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, academic Daniel Pipes suggests that the UAE may be an exception to this bleak picture, after visiting there.

Finally, American commentator Gary Gambill reminds readers that the once widespread belief that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the key to making progress on most of the region's problems has been completely discredited by the events of recent years. He notes that even the region's extremist groups seem "more interested in fighting the 'far enemy' in the West and subduing 'infidel' adversaries closer to home (Shi'a, Yezidis, Christians, etc.) than in fighting Israel." He argues that Israel was largely used by regional authoritarian regimes as a safety net to allow people to express discontent and embrace an anti-establishment cause - but ordinary citizens across the region today have a great deal more to worry about than Israel. For this reminder of how much the Arab-Israel conflict seems to have dropped off the map of the region's politics, CLICK HERE.

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Israel and the Four Powers

Ben Cohen

Algemeiner, January 8, 2016

 The rulers of the Arab Gulf states are, it seems, increasingly attentive to what Israel has to say about the balance of power in the region. As a rising Shi’a Iran faces off against a Sunni coalition led by Saudi Arabia, the core shared interest between Israel’s democracy and these conservative theocracies — countering Iran’s bid to become the dominant power and influence in the Islamic world — has rarely been as apparent.

Hence the interview given by a senior IDF officer to a Saudi weekly, Elaph, which laid out how Israel analyzes the present wretched state of the Middle East. In the Israeli view, there are, the officer said, four powers that have coalesced in the region. The first power centers on Iran and its allies and proxies, such as the Bashar al-Assad dictatorship in Syria, Shi’a rebels in Yemen and Iraq, and most pertinently for Israel, Hezbollah in Lebanon. The second power contains what the officer called “moderate” states with whom Israel has “a common language” — Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf countries. The third power, one that is obviously waning, is represented in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood, now vanquished in its Egyptian heartland but still reigning in Hamas-controlled Gaza. Finally, the fourth power is another non-state actor, the combined forces of jihadi barbarism like Al-Qaeda and Islamic State.

Israel’s goal in this situation is a modest one. As the IDF officer put it, “There is a danger that the strife will reach us as well if the instability in the region continues for a long time. Therefore, we need to take advantage of the opportunity and work together with the moderate states to renew quiet in the region.”

The key phrase here, it seems to me, is “renew quiet.” Foremost for the Israelis, that means counteracting Iran and especially its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah, and then minimizing the potential for jihadi terrorists to operate on or near Israeli-controlled territory. A broader strategic vision can also be detected here: Ultimately, both Israel and the conservative Arab states share the common interests of neutralizing Iran and eliminating the jihadi groups.

The partnership between Israel and these states is already in operation, at the levels of intelligence sharing and — not for the first time — cautious exploration of trade relations. That there is a strong military dimension as well to all this is entirely conceivable. And for the time being, it seems that neither side wants to expand or contract on their public ties with each other; Israel has long had embassies in Cairo and Amman, but that doesn’t mean there’ll be an Israeli ambassador in Riyadh anytime soon, much less a film festival or trade expo.

There’s another factor that has accelerated the formation of this undeclared, look-the-other-way alliance: the shift in American Middle East policy under President Barack Obama. Some readers will remember that back in 1991, the first Bush administration pointedly left Israel out of the coalition to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, so as not to antagonize the Gulf states. Now, frustration with Obama has compelled these very same states to recognize that they have an existential interest in cooperating with Israel.

You might say that the president deserves credit for bringing about a situation, in the wake of the nuclear deal with Iran, which has compelled the Gulf states to grasp the reality and permanence of Israel as never before. Still, the visions and prophecies of a Middle Eastern equivalent of the European Union, much indulged during the Oslo Accords years in the late 1990s, are not now in evidence, and that’s welcome. For their own reasons, neither Israel nor the Arab states feel obliged to articulate a sense of what their region should look like in the event that the Iranian threat is overcome.

Indeed, there’s a case that doing so would be counterproductive — it would impose political pressures upon a discreet yet strategically vital relationship that above all requires, in the parlance of the IDF officer, the “moderate” states to remain as moderate states. With the reorientation of American policy towards a rapprochement with Tehran, along with Russia’s active involvement in the Tehran-Damascus axis, Israel is the nearest reliable, not to say formidable, power that these countries can turn to.

In the present Middle Eastern context, then, the realism and discretion which has always underwritten Israeli foreign policy continues to prevail. That realism presumably extends to recognizing that regimes like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain might eventually succumb to their internal instabilities, already exacerbated by the further collapse of the price of oil.

When you consider the alternatives, the region’s architecture could be much worse for Israel than it is currently. Long an anomaly as the only open society in the region, the target of Arab military and economic warfare throughout the latter half of the last century, Israel in this century is now a partner in a regional bloc. To be sure, this is a bloc based upon interests, not common values, and is therefore necessarily limited in scope. But in the present storm, and amidst the appalling human suffering generated by the clash of these rival interests in Syria, it’s the closest thing we have to progress.

Ben Cohen, senior editor of TheTower.org & The Tower Magazine, writes a weekly column for JNS.org on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He is the author of “Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014).

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The Tragic Failure of the Arab World, and Why It's Bad for Israel

Following the collapse of ‘Arab socialism’ and demise of the ‘Arab Spring,’ is there any hope that the cradle of civilization will become a superpower once more?


The 21st century is becoming increasingly characterized by the tragedies befalling the Arab world. Tribal, ethnic, regional, religious and other forces are fighting each other for power, while Arab states seem to be coming apart at the seams or even completely crumbling. The historic rift between Sunni and Shi’ite Islam remains as divisive as ever, and jihadists are gaining footholds throughout Arab lands. They give rise to questions about their implications for Arab states in the modern age.

Ever since the Western world first burst into the Arab-Islamist sphere, more than 200 years ago, Arabs have been tormented by the question of why they – the bearers of such a magnificent cultural heritage – now find themselves at such a disadvantage. They have struggled to understand how they could possibly compete with more developed nations.

To hope to achieve this goal, they needed to address four challenges: First, to create sovereign states with functioning national institutions that depend upon cooperative citizens. Second, to develop the capacity to produce technology, which would secure them a competitive position in the world economy. Third, to handle Islam in a way that would instill values to bring society together – like common identity and solidarity – but also neutralize the violent elements that look to restore the ways of the past. Fourth, to shake off the neocolonialist influence and involvement of superpowers, and act independently in the international arena.

These tasks became relevant when the Arab states gained independence, about midway through the 20th century – or, at least, it seemed that they had started to confront these challenges then. In some of the Arab states, revolutionary Nasserist-Ba’athist regimes came to power, and they assumed these burdens. They founded national institutions and created educational systems to indoctrinate the people and enhance the individual’s affinity to the state. They nationalized production, built industrial plants and sent the people to universities, in the hope of advancing their country’s scientific and technological capabilities. They called it “Arab socialism.”

Islam was cultivated as a symbol, but the regimes themselves were secular and kept the Islamic movement subdued. They dismantled the foreign military bases and scrapped foreign military strategies like 1955’s Baghdad Pact, which established METO – a treaty organization (modeled after NATO) that included Britain and Middle Eastern states, but which was dissolved in 1979. The newly independent Arab states sought to establish themselves collectively as a world power and aligned with the African-Asian bloc; they labeled it a kind of “positive neutrality.”

Knowledge deficit

The Arab reality today is very different. The leaders’ glaring mistake was they believed that in this region, “the societies might be weak, but the states are strong.” It transpired that the systems of intimidation and enforcement did not reflect strength, but instead weakness. When the upheavals began, and the non-state factions became more powerful and began preaching a new reality, some of the states collapsed, while others are struggling to maintain their stability.

From today’s perspective, it isn’t hard to explain the phenomenon. It seems that the Arab states, to varying degrees, were hollow entities; their conceptual frameworks were weak. They were created during the modern age and had no names – because such entities did not exist prior to their establishment. The classical Arabic lexicon did not include a word for “state” or “nation.” In its place, the word meaning “dynasty,” or ruling family, was adapted for the purpose. The concept of a nation became synonymous with the idea of a dynasty that rises and falls. Thus, large swaths of the population backed the idea that when the regime falls, the state is no more.

In the West, the thinking tends to be that the toppling of an authoritarian regime might lead to the establishment of a democracy. However, bitter experience has shown that overthrowing the rulers prompts the whole system to collapse, and then the alternative is chaos. This is also the root cause of the failure of the youth that led the Arab Spring. It turned out that while it’s possible to topple a dictator, the proper foundations for fostering democracy in the aftermath – both conceptually and institutionally – were lacking.

There is no escaping the conclusion that, at this stage, most Arab states can only function with some level of stability under authoritarian regimes or traditional monarchies. The challenge of creating nations similar to those in the modern West has yet to be fulfilled.

Similar failures have occurred on the economic front, too. True, there was economic development in some Arab nations that led to prosperity and in some cases even great wealth (Qatar, for example, is the richest country in the world in terms of GDP per capita, while Kuwait is ranked fourth). Arab states need foreign currency to import essential food items, but they don’t receive enough from the selling of natural resources, tourism, people working overseas and, for Egypt, from the Suez Canal.

Arab products are barely represented in the global marketplace. Compare Egypt and South Korea, where the economic conditions were similar when both nations achieved independence. South Korea currently exports everything from high-tech electronics to cars and boats: as a result, its economy is five times the size of Egypt’s.

The dizzying growth of the global economy is based primarily on knowledge, and countries that cannot match the rate of development get left behind. In most Arab countries, the level of scientific and technological know-how does not meet the levels required to support advanced, innovative means of production. A United Nations report in 2002, “Arab Human Development,” called this the “knowledge deficit,” and determined that this was one of three factors hindering development in the Arab nations. Knowledge in the Arab world is not up to par because their schools and universities place too great an emphasis on memorization and rote learning.

The knowledge deficit stems from the fact that openness to the world is low among Arab states. For example, the number of translated books in the Arab world is exceedingly low: A 2003 UN report, “Building a Knowledge Society,” found that, on average, only 4.4 translated books were published per million people between 1981 and 1985 in the Arab states, while the corresponding rate in Hungary was 519 books, and in Spain 920.

Even when Arab states open up to the world and import technologies, the benefits are limited. Global technologies become obsolete very quickly, so those not participating in their production can’t develop effective alternatives. Creativity and ingenuity are so critical these days, but these qualities are lacking in the Arab world. And despite their extremely modern image, even the Gulf states import technology from around the world and the locals have no stake in production.

According to the same 2003 UN report, all of the Arab states combined registered only 370 patents in the United States between 1980 and 2000, while Israel alone registered more than 7,000 and South Korea registered over 16,000. The number of researchers per million people in the Arab world sits at 300, while the global average is 900. The result of all of this is that unemployment rates among young people in the Arab world are among the highest on the planet – between 30 to 50 percent.

Failure to tackle radical Islam

Even the clampdown on Islam in Arab countries did not work so well. Islamist factions weren’t eliminated, despite numerous efforts to that end. Gamal Abdel Nasser sent thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members to jail, as did other nations. Yet comparing the demographics of Islamists at the end of the 20th century and today shows a staggering rate of growth: In 2000, Islamist groups were small, underground factions with limited capabilities; by 2015, they had become large forces with military capabilities and cutting-edge weaponry, and were firmly established throughout Arab lands. They challenge not only local governments, but also the foreign regimes that support those governments. The last 15 years have seen a series of mega-terrorist attacks throughout the world – from the September 11 attacks in the United States to the recent massacre in Paris. During the last five years alone, there has been a stark increase in the number of casualties from Islamic terrorism in various nations – in some cases up more than tenfold in comparison to previous years.

It’s possible that the failure to deal with radical Islam also stems from the fact that attempts to do so were always brutal. Not enough attention was paid to the fact that Islamism (also known as Political Islam) is not only terrorism, but that it represents first and foremost an idea – an idea that is very attractive to many Muslims, especially during times of regional conflict and strife. Many nations failed because they did not see the need to pose an alternative idea, despite the fact that such an idea existed.

During the first half of the 20th century, liberal, humanist and rational streams appeared within Islam – streams that separated religion and state, and found their own intellectual expression. Unfortunately, most Arab state regimes rejected these ideas, choosing instead to embrace a combination that had the worst of all options. The Arab nations could not find a courageous leader capable of sparking the necessary transformation for repelling brutal Islamism and creating a new order that marched with the times.

Also, the aspirations of the first generations to achieve independence went unrealized, and they were unable to prevent a situation in which the end of colonialism would create a vacuum and space for foreign influence. The first sign of this failure was already evident in the days of Nasser: He became the hero of the Arab world when he expelled 10,000 British soldiers from their bases in Egypt, but then quickly brought in 20,000 Soviet “military advisers” (who Anwar Sadat later expelled, in 1972).

The clear turning point was the Gulf War in 1991, when Arab armies fought as part of a coalition commanded and led mostly by Americans, against an Arab leader who was the “Arab bulwark” against Iran. And that’s how it continued: NATO forces were employed against Muammar Gadhafi in Libya; the Iranians are making excursions into Iraq and Syria, as are the Turks; the Russians are intervening in the Syrian civil war on President Bashar Assad’s side; France is asking fellow European Union states to aid in the fight against the Islamic State; and the United States, which had seemingly retreated from the arena, is being pulled back into the fray in both Iraq and Syria.

In Arab states, the regional wars are fierce and the number of casualties over recent decades has reached the millions. Huge waves of refugees are abandoning their countries, fleeing from death and destruction. The refugees mostly express utter despair for life in their homeland.

In a bleak leader article regarding the state of the Arab world published in The Economist (“The Tragedy of the Arabs,” July 5, 2014) , the writer laments the fact that a “civilization that used to lead the world is in ruins,” and declared that the Arab peoples are “in a wretched state.” The remarks call to mind Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz, who was one of the first in Egypt to express support for reconciliation with Israel. He said that peace was justified because of the “need to rebuild civilization.”

Mahfouz knew what he was talking about. There’s no doubt that developments in the region affect Israel. It is a mistake to rejoice in the misfortunes of our neighbors, and praise ourselves for being “the villa in the jungle,” as former Prime Minister Ehud Barak once said. Our borders are not immune to the threats of violence raging around us, and we can get involved in our neighbors’ well-being.

The author is a professor emeritus of Middle Eastern History and former Israeli ambassador to both Egypt and Jordan.

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Does the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Still Matter?

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