Thursday, February 19, 2009

Israel is no longer "a people dwelling alone

Podeh argues that Israeli actions must take into account the reactions of Arab states, who now have some relations with Israel. That is true, but Arab state actions must equally take into account the needs of Israel, otherwise it is pointless. For example, both Saudi Arabia and Qatar fund Hamas. Did they consider that they are not "a people dwelling along?"
  Elie Podeh

The image associated with Israel's society and leaders since its founding in 1948 is the biblical "a people dwelling alone". The siege mentality has been internalized through a variety of socializing agents.

The sense of alone-ness has of course not been a fiction; it is grounded to a considerable extent in historic precedents and a reality of Arab hostility that at times has deteriorated into war. The siege was formally broken when Israel signed a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979. Jordan too signed a peace agreement in 1994, while the PLO and Israel signed a series of agreements during the 1990s. During this period, Israel also developed ties with the countries of North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula (particularly Morocco, Oman and Qatar), even though formal agreements were not signed.

While the emergence of peace agreements did not constitute acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state, it did signal a change in the rules of the game and recognition of Israel as a player in the Middle East system. No longer was Israel a negative unifying force in the Arab world; now it was also a factor inducing divisions.

Still, at times of war or tension between Israel and any Arab actor, Israel has reverted to the familiar pose of "a people dwelling alone". The existence of a collective Arab identity and of an Arab commitment, however vague, to the Palestinian issue, has usually generated rhetorical if not operative Arab unity. This was the case in the First Lebanon War (1982) and the outbreak of both intifadas (1987 and 2000). Egypt and Jordan recalled their ambassadors, reduced their ties to the bare minimum and publicly expressed a clear anti-Israel stand.

The Second Lebanon War and the recent war in Gaza represent a change in Arab state behavior toward Israel. In fact, early signs of this change were evident following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, when Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia and additional Arab states took the side of the West--and indirectly Israel's side--in the resultant first Gulf war (1991).

A more significant change took place when Israel launched a war against Hizballah in Lebanon in 2006: Egypt and Saudi Arabia did not hesitate to openly criticize that organization's irresponsible behavior and blame it for the damage inflicted on Lebanon in the course of the war. Like Israel, they too recognized in Hizballah a dangerous actor that sought to strengthen the status of Iran and the Shi'ites in the region at the expense of the Sunni states. A tacit alliance was created between Israel and certain Arab states, dubbed "moderate", that reflected shared interests. Yet the longer the war dragged on and the more evidence of damage in Lebanon accumulated, the more the "moderate" leaders were obliged to square their position with that of the Arab consensus--as expressed in the clear anti-Israel language of Arab League resolutions and in other international fora.

In the recent Gaza war, Israel found itself in an even more comfortable situation: on the same side as Egypt. Hamas was perceived as a threat to both countries: if Israel was threatened by Palestinian terrorism, Egypt was threatened by the possible aggrandizement of radical Islamic actors who challenge its regime stability. Then too, Egypt and Israel--like additional Sunni states in the region such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan--view Hamas as a tool to strengthen Tehran's position and that of the Shi'ites in the Arab world. Precisely because Hamas, unlike Hizballah, is Sunni, it draws even greater Arab anger for "collaborating" with Shi'ite Iran. Moreover, both the Egyptians and the Saudis resent Hamas having embarrassed the two leading Arab states in the course of long and fruitless negotiations they shepherded between it and Fateh (the Mecca agreement of 2007; the Cairo talks of 2008).

Israeli-Egyptian cooperation in the course of the war in Gaza testifies to the two countries' overlapping interests when it comes to Hamas. This phenomenon, while reflecting to some extent the Arab world's weakness, demonstrates to an even greater extent that the Arab world is behaving like a more "normal" system, in accordance more with interests than with ideologies and identity politics. That this behavior was repeated in both Lebanon and Gaza indicates that this is no chance occurrence.

Of course, we must qualify this optimistic picture with reference to the damage caused by Israel in Gaza. Qatar closed the Israeli trade mission in Doha, Mauritania withdrew its ambassador, relations with Turkey were damaged and Arab society as a whole was angered by the killing in Gaza. Yet beyond these reactions, some of which are reversible, it is important to note that not every Arab-Israel dispute generates automatic Arab unity and isolates Israel regionally. This insight is important insofar as the struggle against regional radical actors will continue during periods of calm as well.

Thus there exists an infrastructure of shared interests that can enable Israel, openly or clandestinely, to advance peace initiatives with Arab actors. The Arab peace initiative, which will again be deliberated at next month's Arab summit in Qatar, affords an excellent opportunity to renew the Israel-Arab dialogue that was halted by the war in Gaza.- Published 12/2/2009 ©

Prof. Elie Podeh chairs the Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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