By Aijaz Zaka Syed
November 8, 2018
There are no permanent enemies and no permanent friends, theorised William Clay, only permanent interests. This principle perhaps best applies to the current geopolitical situation of the Middle East.
Having lived in the region for so long, one has seen one’s fair share of upheavals – coups and revolutions and wars and conflicts. One has had a ringside view of history, as it were, of the region that by design or by accident has been home to most of the world’s worst conflicts since World War II, including the world’s longest running one – the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Lately, there are signs that even this bloodiest and most intractable of conflicts may be drawing to a close. Or is it? Oman stunned people around the world last week by releasing images of a beaming Netanyahu holding hands with Sultan Qaboos. The news of the Israeli leader’s Muscat visit was released only after he was safely back in Tel Aviv.
“These were important talks, both for the state of Israel and very important talks for Israel’s security,” Netanyahu told his cabinet. “There will be more.” He emphasised that the visit had been the result of “extensive contacts” between the two sides and had taken place at Muscat’s invitation.
Speaking later at a GCC security summit in Manama, Bahrain, Oman’s Foreign Minister Yusuf Bin Alawi stressed that Oman is not mediating between the Palestinians and Israelis but only “offering ideas” to help the two sides to come together. More importantly, Alawi called for “accepting Israel” by the Arabs arguing: “Israel is a state present in the region, and we all understand this. The world is also aware of this fact. Maybe it is time for Israel to be treated the same (as others states) and also bear the same obligations.”
Interestingly, Bahrain, a close ally of Saudi Arabia and the United States, came out in strong support of engagement with Israel. In fact, it was Bahrain that first reached out to Israel and is said to enjoy informal ties with Tel Aviv. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir, however, reaffirmed Riyadh’s traditional stance that the Palestine-Israel peace process remains key to normalising relations with Israel.
Yet, without a doubt, the Middle East is undergoing a great churn and a realignment of forces like never before. Even as Netanyahu had been holding talks in Oman, Israel’s culture and sports minister Miri Regev was next door in Abu Dhabi with a delegation to take part in a judo tournament.
As the Associated Press put it, “It was a scene unthinkable just weeks ago: an Israeli cabinet minister, tears of joy filling her eyes, proudly singing her country’s national anthem at a sports event in the heart of the Arab world. The spectacle of Miri Regev singing ‘HaTikva’, which describes the Jewish yearning for a homeland in Zion, was just one in a series of taboo-busting public appearances by Israeli officials in Gulf Arab states that have thrust the once-secret back channels of outreach into public view.”
Known for her strong views on Arabs, Regev later visited Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in a red abaya and white headscarf. A day later, Israeli’s communication minister was also headed to the UAE to take part in a security conference. Besides, Israel’s transportation minister Yisrael Katz is scheduled to visit Oman for a transportation conference where he will present his plan for a possible rail link connecting the Holy Land with the wider region.
These are remarkable developments in a region where Israel’s very name was, not long ago, taboo. Whenever it came up in the context of the Mideast conflict, it understandably evoked strong emotions. Clearly, winds of change are sweeping – although the issue still cannot be openly discussed in the region’s state-controlled media.
Some ‘smart alecks’ in the region have been quick to link Netanyahu’s visit to Iran, suggesting Muscat may be trying for peace between Iran and Israel-US. After all, Oman, which unlike other Arab states has maintained good relations with Iran, had played a crucial role in opening channels of communication between Tehran and Washington under Barack Obama. These parleys eventually led to the Iran nuclear accord with the West.
This theory doesn’t carry much weight though, given the flurry of visits by Israeli officials to the region and the growing isolation of the Palestinians. The dispossessed Palestinians fear that the Trump administration is pushing the Arabs to embrace Israel and force on them what is being hyped as “the deal of the century.”
Clearly, the key to the change of mood in the region is the Iran factor. The relentless media blitz by Israel and its powerful friends in the US has managed to paint Iran as the clear and present danger to world peace as well as to the safety and security of the Middle East. Tehran finds itself totally isolated in the neighbourhood.
The new punitive sanctions by the Trump administration could force many buyers of Iranian oil to beat a hasty retreat. Of course, Iran is not blameless. Its hegemonic ambitions too have divided the whole region.
After decades of fighting and living with Israel, the Middle East’s only nuclear weapons state, and viewing it as their mortal enemy, the Arabs now see Iran, and not Israel, as their archenemy. This is a classic case of ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ and a stupendous victory for Israel’s aggressive foreign policy and Machiavellian realpolitik that it has managed to present Iran as the source of all evil while masking its own destructive role in the region.
Notwithstanding its genocidal war on the Palestinians and occupation of Arab lands, from Egypt to Lebanon and Jordan to Syria, and notwithstanding its deadly pile of nukes pointed at Arab capitals, Israel is telling the Arabs that it is their best friend and that Iran is their worst and common enemy. If you think that is a cruel joke and paradox – well, it probably is.
The Arab-Israel détente clearly has the blessings of the US administration. Trump continues to hold out the grand promise of the “deal of the century” that would once and for all settle the Palestinian question, perhaps by banishing the rest of them from Gaza and the West Bank for good. The Palestinians continue to get killed and persecuted in their own land while the blessed international community with its fine institutions stands and stares.
Now, who wouldn’t want peace in the Middle East and the world at large? God knows enough blood has been spilt in the Holy Land. But can peace be brought about through coercion and use of force without Israel ending its subjugation of Palestinians and ceding a single inch of their land? How long will such peace last if the historic injustices at the heart of this conflict remain unaddressed?
If Israel and its powerful friends indeed want peace, the Arab peace plan remains the best solution yet. It’s worth recalling that the late Saudi King Abdullah had made a historic offer to Israel promising peace and full normalisation of ties by Arab states for complete Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories and a just settlement of Palestinian refugees. The Arab League endorsed the Saudi initiative at its 2002 and 2007 summits.
But Israel has never been interested in finding peace or sincerely resolving this conflict. That would mean giving up the Palestinian and Arab land that it stole in successive wars. This Israeli ‘outreach’ to the Arabs is really about it perpetuating its hegemony and paving the way for the so-called greater Israel.
Aijaz Zaka Syed is an award-winning journalist and editor.