“The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfils himself in many ways… “ — Alfred, Lord Tennyson: Morte D’Arthur
The old order, unsatisfactory though it was, had become commonplace through long usage, like a worn but comfortable garment. We had, in the words of the Lerner and Loewe song, grown accustomed to its face – namely Israel, a tiny island of Western values set in a hostile and often turbulent Islamic sea, marginally bolstered by lukewarm peace treaties with two of its neighbors, Jordan and Egypt. The consensus, accepted on all sides, was that the perennial Israel-Palestinian dispute was the major cause of instability in the Middle East. Solve that, ran the mantra, and the Middle East would morph into a haven of sweetness and light. Until that happy day, the face of Islam would be set implacably against Israel, the foe of foes.
But out of the innumerable peace negotiations over the years, one inescapable truth emerged. Short of committing hara-kari, Israel could never offer enough. No Palestinian leader, not Yasser Arafat nor Mahmoud Abbas nor anyone who might succeed Abbas, dare sign an agreement that recognizes Israel’s right to exist on what the Palestinian narrative defines as historic Palestine. It would probably be more than his life was worth. From the Palestinian perspective, the insurmountable obstacle lodged within the two-state solution is that one of the states must be Israel. As a result, a state of perpetual antagonism between the Arab world and Israel seemed frozen solid.
The thawing process began with the so-called Arab Spring, back in 2010. If that revolutionary fervor, spreading like wildfire from nation to nation, demonstrated anything, it was that instability had become endemic within the Arab body politic. The Israel-Palestinian conflict counted for very little when set against the burning discontent of the Arab masses with the repression, human rights abuses, state censorship, and other trammels of dictatorship or absolute monarchy under which most existed.
From the flames of the Arab Spring arose, phoenix-like, what is now known as Islamic State (IS). IS gave a quasi-religious vindication to the secular discontent. Its brutality, its utter disregard for accepted standards of humanity – justified in the name of its Islamist philosophy – seem to enhance its appeal in the eyes of Muslim youth the world over, and they flock to its banner.
The mushroom growth of IS, in terms both of territory and influence, is one of the two factors that have conspired to engender a new reality in Middle East politics. The second is the parallel burgeoning of political power and influence of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Just as IS’s self-appointed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declares his intention to impose his version of sharia law on the entire world, so too does Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei – the former proclaiming an extreme version of Sunni Islam, the latter an extreme version of Shia. And just as IS justifies any action, however bloodthirsty or brutal, in support of its aims, so too does Iran, which has developed into the world’s leading state sponsor of terror.
In pursuit of its dream of religious and regional dominance, Iran has indulged in constant attempts, both open and covert, to strike against Western interests and to undermine stable Sunni states across the Middle East. The extent of the concern of Sunni states about the threat posed by Iran was revealed as far back as 2010, in the first batch of some 250,000 confidential documents published by WikiLeaks.
The distinguished Israeli journalist, Ari Shavit, maintained that the WikiLeaks documents “proved that the settlements, the occupation and even the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were not the main problem in the Middle East (but) that the entire Arab world is currently busy with one problem only – Iran, Iran, Iran.”
The leaked cables disclosed that at the time Arab leaders were campaigning for a US attack on Iran’s growing nuclear programme. For example, Saudi Arabia’s then King Abdullah “frequently exhorted” the US to bomb Iran and “cut the head off the snake.” He warned Washington that if Iran acquired nuclear weapons, “everyone in the region would do the same, including Saudi Arabia.”
Abu Dhabi’s crown prince is reported to have urged Americans to “take out” Iran’s nuclear capacity, or even send ground troops. The king of Bahrain said the US “must terminate” Iran’s nuclear programme, “by whatever means necessary”. Zeid Rifai, then president of Jordan’s senate, said: “Bomb Iran, or live with an Iranian bomb.”
So whatever their public pronouncements, the true opinion of Arab leaders about the recently announced nuclear deal with Iran requires little imagination. It accords precisely with the rooted opposition expressed by Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Strengthening Iran’s political clout by endorsing it as a breakout nuclear power is a recipe for continued instability in the Middle East.
In short, both Iran and IS have become existential threats not only to Israel, but to a swathe of Sunni Arab states. Never have the interests of the Arab world and Israel been closer. Which explains why Israel, in its first arms deal with an Arab country, has just sold Jordan twelve advanced unmanned drones. They are urgently needed by the Jordanian Royal Air Force to strengthen the anti-IS campaign being waged across Jordan’s borders in Iraq and Syria. According to Debkafile, a usually trustworthy website concerned with Middle East security, secret operations against IS are being run by a joint US-Jordanian-Israeli war room sited north of Amman.
In recent years, media reports assert, Israeli officials have met counterparts from Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf at nuclear non-proliferation talks in Switzerland. The recently appointed director-general of Israel’s foreign ministry, Dore Gold, and retired Saudi general Anwar Eshki actually appeared together at a Washington conference in June.
That there is unprecedentedly close Egypt-Israel military cooperation in Sinai, combatting IS terrorism, is no longer a secret, but recent reports have suggested covert security cooperation also between Israel and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leaders. Regular, secret flights between Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv have recently been documented, despite the ostensible ban on Israeli citizens entering the UAE.
Even popular anti-Israeli sentiment within these countries may be shifting. A recent poll of Saudi public opinion found that an overwhelming majority regarded either Iran or Islamic State as the major threat. Only a small minority cited Israel as their primary concern, while an astonishing 24 percent of those polled believed that Saudi Arabia should fight Iran alongside Israel.
A change of atmosphere can certainly be detected, but despite covert cooperation, sober reality continues to rule. Mordechai Zaken, a Middle East expert, believes that between the Arab world and Israel, there is “no love, only interests… Most Arab countries would not be happy to declare and expose their relations or cooperation with Israel. In the Middle East, it is not something to brag about.”
An Arab-Israel axis may be in the making, but Utopia is not around the corner.