September 25, 2017

The Palestinian-Israeli Track of the Middle Eastern Geopolitics after the “Arab Spring”

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 Vladimir (Zeev) Khanin


Born in Zaporizhzhya, he graduated from the Institute of Africa of the USSR Academy of Sciences in Moscow, Ph. D. (political science). After repatriation, he taught at a number of educational institutions in Israel, lectured at the universities of Oxford and London. Author of many publications in the world media, wrote 9 books, co-author and editor of a number of collective monographs.

Cooperates with Voice of Israel Radio, Radio Liberty, TV Channel 9 of Israel.



Many of those who perceived the political tsunami of the “Arab Spring”, which began in the middle of December 2010 and almost instantly engulfed the Arab world as the beginning of the long-awaited process of social, economic and political modernization of the Arab-Muslim countries of the Middle East, were disappointed by its turning into an “Islamist Winter”, already a few months later.

The last hopes that it was a process initiated by the younger generation of Arabs, who were eager to provide their peoples with economic prosperity and a democratic structure that would ultimately lead to a reduction in the Arab world's backwardness from the Western countries, collapsed with the beginning in 2014 of a new political “season”. Designated, not without sad humor, by Tel Aviv University Professor Eyal Zisser as the “ISIS' (“Daesh”) summer”: entrance into political life of extremist groups, such as the “Islamic State” and similar Salafist movements. Against whom, former radicals such as the “Muslim Brothers” or Hezbollah began to look almost moderate pragmatists. Let us add that the returning of these hopes are not much helped by the followed “Middle Eastern Autumn” of the great powers which — whether they like it or not — started the geopolitical redistribution of the Middle East, exactly 100 years after the well-known agreements of Sykes-Picot. Of course, in a slightly different composition and in changing combinations with regional power centers.


The Israeli “Off-Season”

Israel, the only country in the region with a stable liberal-democratic regime of the Western type, was one of the very few, or even the only state in the region, that all this time was more often a spectator than a participant in this “play” of the revolutionary “seasons”. Maintaining its reputation of a “villa in the Middle East jungle”, Israel preserved the social and economic dynamics gained in the 1990s and the “zero” years of this century that allowed it to complete its transformation into one of the world's leading centers of innovation and technological development (”the-start-up nation”). And in terms of per capita income, the “human development index”, GDP growth rates, unemployment and inflation reduction, as well as the attractiveness of the domestic market for foreign investors, and other parameters, to take quite honorable places in the first and second ten most developed countries of the world.

This does not mean that Jerusalem, with an indifference of a stranger, was watching the destruction, albeit mostly hostile or unfriendly to it, but familiar, and against the background of the current wave of radicalism, relatively moderate Arab regimes capable of, or at least interested in one way or another maintaining a balance of power in the region. On the contrary, Israel was not ecstatic about filling the vacuum that arose instead of the previously seemingly stable Arab states, clan-tribal groups and radical Islamist movements that were always behind the facade of hastily cross-linked “Arab nations”. And it was making considerable efforts to stop the processes that could call into question the effectiveness of the “potential of intimidation” of the opponents of the Jewish state that had developed in the past.

An example is Israel's position on the Syrian crisis, which from its very start was perceived by the Israelis as an internal affair of a neighboring country that has never signed a peace treaty with Israel and is the base, transit and sponsor of a number of terrorist organizations operating against Israel. The strategy chosen by the military-political leadership of Israel included three parameters.

First, to keep to the side of this snarl conflict, with the participation of the B. Assad regime and its allies (the Iranian IRGC, the South Lebanese Hezbollah and the Shiite militias), the self-defense forces of the Kurds and other non-Arab and non-Muslim minorities. And also a wide range of relatively moderate and ultra-radical Islamist groups.

Second, to pursue a line of equal remoteness and balance of approaches regarding the interests of the global (the USA and Russia) and regional (Turkey, Iran, KSA, Qatar and others) states present in the Syrian field, using, if necessary, levers of political or “military” diplomacy.

Third, as long as the situation does not directly threaten Israel's borders, limiting its interference to providing humanitarian assistance (including the treatment of the wounded in Israeli hospitals) and destroying the sources of sporadic shelling of Israeli territory — whoever is responsible for them. As well as the liquidation of the warehouses and caravans of weapons sent from Syria or through it to patronized by Iran Islamic radical groups, which can damage the mechanism of deterrence of these terrorist structures built by Israel.

Interestingly, most of the forces involved in the confrontations in Syria and in the Middle East in general, have often demonstrated readiness, in exchange for Israel's non-interference with these conflicts, to “ignore”, or to unprecedentedly composedly response to the limited actions of the IDF and Israeli special services. It is clear, not because of a positive change in radical Arab nationalists, conservative traditionalists of Arab monarchies, and even more so Islamist radicals' attitude to Jews and Zionism.

Today these subjects are dealing with essentially more relevant for them lines of confrontation and conflicts — Arabs against Persians and Turks, and Sunni Muslims against Shiite Muslims. Moreover, they do not answer the crucial for them question: who will rule the countries with the Muslim majority, and who will dominate the Middle East — knowing full well that Israel has no such demands and ambitions.

Former Secretary-General of the Arab League Amr Moussa
Former Secretary-General of the Arab League
Amr Moussa

Accordingly, the strategy for the survival of the Middle Eastern monarchical and authoritarian “presidential” regimes under the new circumstances has little in common with their historical opposition to the Jewish state. Thus, according to the typical statement by the former secretary of the Arab League Amr Moussa made in March 2012, the interest of Sunni Arabs in the modern era is to prevent the situation when “the Arab Middle East will be controlled by Iran or Turkey”. The same idea was voiced by him in his extensive interview with “The Arab Weekly” five years later. “The majority of the population of the Middle East are Arabs who will never say “yes, sir” to Turkey or Iran. Even if the instruction “to restore order” in the region will come to them [Iran and Turkey] from Moscow and Washington. We have our leaders, such as the Saudis and the Egyptians, and they will find the right way to solve [our Arab] problems”.

As you can see, these statements, uttered at the peak of the “Arab Spring” and at the end of its crisis, had almost nothing in common with the old mantras of these circles about the threat of “the Zionists seizing power in the region”. In fact, in either of interviews A. Moussa, the symbol and ideologue of the “old pan-Arab nationalism”, the cornerstone of which historically was the confrontation with Jews and “new crusaders”, did not mention Israel or the Arab-Israeli conflict at all. Naturally, the traditionally suspicious, unfriendly or bluntly hostile attitude to the Jewish state on the part of regimes and movements, which for many years had to tolerate its presence in the Middle East, or not ready to recognize its right to exist in principle, has not gone away either. And, as in the past, there is also no shortage of trite slogans about “Israel as the main threat to the Arab-Islamic world”, and no lack of standard accusations of “working for the interests of the Zionist enemy”, which are used by the opposing parties in the current round of the conflict.

A different thing happened: the “Arab Spring” and the “Islamist Winter” made it obvious that Israel persistently, but previously without much success, has been trying to bring into the official international practice: the Arab-Israeli conflict, in fact is on the deep periphery of the complex intertwining of community-tribal, ethno-national, intra- and interreligious and socio-class contradictions and problems of the region. As a result, the confrontation with Israel, perhaps, for the first time in 70 years of the armed Arab-Israeli confrontation, for the overwhelming majority of the subjects involved in the current regional conflict turned out to be, as the saying goes, “non-issue”.


From Oslo to Riyadh

And yet, there are two plots that directly or indirectly make Israel a participant in the large geopolitical redistribution in the region of the “Arab Spring” era. Both have to do with its relations with Palestinian Arabs, members of Arab and Arabized communities of different geographical and ethnic origins, living in different regions of the historic region of Eretz Israel (Israel's lands)/Palestine. Including the sovereign territory of Israel itself (within the so-called “green line”) and Jordan, where representatives of these groups have the citizenship of the countries concerned, as well as in the Arab enclaves of Judea and Samaria (in international terminology in the West Bank of the River Jordan) and in the Gaza Strip.

Palestinian Arabs in the Middle East
Palestinian Arabs in the Middle East

Actually, we are talking about these last two categories. As a result of the first Arab-Israeli war (in the Israeli tradition — the 1948–1949 War of Independence), which ended in the victory of the IDF over the armies of five Arab countries that invaded the newborn Israel, these two categories of Palestinian Arabs turned out to be under control of Jordan (which gave citizenship to residents of the West Bank) and Egypt (who did not provide citizenship to the residents of Gaza). And after the Six-Day (or Third Arab-Israeli) War of 1967 — under the control of Israel.

The decades-long “experiment” (carried out from the “on the tip from abroad”) in forming “the Palestinian nation” of these Arab and Arabized communities, has proved even less successful than the schemes of national construction in a number of other Arab regions. For this project, in a package with the water colour topic of Palestinian refugees (with the descent of this status and restrictions on integration), was not the Sunni world's separate goal but rather a convenient lever for diplomatic, political and terrorist pressure on Israel.

Besides, the earlier, but reserved for “a rainy day”, awareness of the “Palestinian problem” as a whole peripheral plot of the current regional agenda was hampered for many years by its long-standing status of almost the only element on which there was at least some consensus in the Arab world. The struggle with Israel for the “rights of the Palestinian people” helped the ruling elites explain any problems — from shortage of essential goods, low level of education and quality of life to climate change in the Arab countries. And accordingly, it ensured the mobilization of public support and the removal of internal tension in most of the stable (or seemingly so) Sunni regimes in the Middle East. That is why the Palestinian theme was established as symbolically important for the vast majority of Arab and Arab-Muslim countries in general.

But at the turn of the past and the present century, a number of the above-mentioned Arab regimes began to experience growing discomfort, and soon realize the destructive nature that the Palestinian-Arabian theme is getting. For against the background of the “ousting of Arab nationalism from the political market” by radical Islamism, it was turning from the tool to transfer internal conflicts outside and thereby to stabilize Arab monarchies and authoritarian “presidential” regimes, into a factor of their undermining from within.

The first wake-up call was the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Yasser Arafat's support to Saddam Hussein's Iraqi forces that occupied Kuwait. At that moment, Ya. Arafat was able to dampen the consequences of this demarche by agreeing to the beginning of the so-called “Oslo process” — a political dialogue with Israel with a view to settling by the “peace in exchange for territories” model. It is clear that the Arab world was ready to allocate a considerable political and financial credit for the idea of creating a Palestinian state, where it would be possible to at last remove the bulk of the problematic population of the “camps of Palestinian refugees” and emigrant colonies of Palestinian Arabs. Moreover, not only from Lebanon or Jordan, where, as we remember, the same Ya. Arafat's PLO nearly carried out a violent seizure of power in 1970, but also — or even, first of all — from the KSA and the principalities of the Persian Gulf.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, U.S. President Bill Clinton, and leader of the PLO Yasser Arafat at the Oslo Accords signing ceremony, 13 September, 1993
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, U.S. President Bill Clinton, and leader of the PLO Yasser Arafat at the Oslo Accords signing ceremony,
13 September, 1993

As the idea of the Palestinian state (as it was laid down in the “Oslo Accords”) was getting exhausted, the original scheme was becoming less relevant, but not the very idea of removing the Palestinian theme from the agenda of the Arab countries, which required continued search for points of their contact with Israel. Presumably, the leaders of the “moderate” Sunni regimes have long understood that the source of the problem is not Jerusalem's “intransigence”. And the fact that the Palestinian-Arab leaders are interested not so much in the prospect of creating their own state, as in the endless struggle for this very state, in the package with the possibility to keep their place in the first lines of international media ratings and the continuation of the process of obtaining and distributing financial injections. Nevertheless, the Saudis and their partners in the Arab League still believed that it was Israel that had to pay (in all senses of the word) for that project.

Such a message was the basis of the so-called “Saudi”, or “Arab Peace Initiative”. Its main parameters assumed the normalization of Israel's relations with the Arab countries, in exchange for fulfilling certain conditions. Namely, withdrawal to the “1967 borders” — never existed in reality, but the idea of which, for various reasons, was entrenched in international information, political and diplomatic practice. And also, the consent to the partition of Jerusalem, getting rid of the Jewish presence in Judea and Samaria (in international terms, the West Bank) and the willingness to give home within the “green line” (that is, the sovereign territory of Israel) to millions of people who call themselves Palestinian refugees and their descendants and/or pay them financial compensation.

It is clear that Israel, which never recognized its responsibility for the occurrence of the Palestinian problem, categorically and regularly refused to accept such conditions of the Saudi initiative of 2002 and especially its Beirut version of 2003, supplemented by the demands of Palestinian Arabs with stricter demands to Israel. In reality, Jerusalem showed potential Arab partners its interest in the very idea of a dialogue with the Arab League countries, but at the same time made it clear that the era of Israel's unilateral concessions was over.

This theme could have appeared regularly for many years on the agenda, and with the same frequency to be archived, if the dramatic events of the “Arab Spring” had not made the previously hypothetical challenge to the survival of the “moderate” Sunni regimes quite relevant. Israel, in this new situation, could not simply offer a way of removing the Palestinian problem which was irritating and destabilizing the region, but was turning into an ultimatum factor in building the optimal configuration of regional security. Moreover, the already existing mechanism for their informal cooperation with Israel in obtaining critical information and security technologies from it, in the light of the current level of threats faced by pro-Western Sunni regimes, is clearly insufficient.

All this, one way or another, pushes at least some of the capitals of the Arab League countries to a more flexible approach to the consideration of Israel's conditions. Which have never been a secret: pro-Western Sunni regimes must pay for “their part of the normalization package”, and part of this price is to remove the Palestinian theme from the agenda in the sense in which it is seen in Jerusalem. In general, there seems to be nothing fundamentally unacceptable for “moderate Sunni capitals” in these positions today. This, actually, was shown by the next Arab initiative of a comprehensive Arab-Israeli settlement, this time presented by President of Egypt, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

The launch in July last year of this initiative was accompanied by the provocative entourage of statements about the continued commitment of Egypt and its partners from the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf and Maghreb, to the idea of creating a Palestinian state. Nevertheless, commentators could not shake the feeling that the entire context indicated that the leaders of these countries care about “Palestinians as much as about last year's snow”. In any case, the “renewed Arab initiative” turned out to be quite comparable to the idea of the “regional peace”, proposed several years ago by the then Foreign Minister, and the current Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and the elements of which since mid-2015 have become part of B. Netanyahu's government's foreign policy agenda.

The main idea of this concept is replacing the old formula “achievement of the Palestinian-Israeli peace as a condition for the settlement of Israel's relations with Arab countries” with the opposite scheme. According to which, normalization of relations with the leading Arab states in such a way as it happened with Egypt and Jordan (the official cessation of the conflict and the establishment of full diplomatic relations) may mean in the long term a solution to the Palestinian problem. In reality, the traditional set of Arab slogans and demands for Israel, in matters of political self-determination of the Palestinian Arabs, borders, Jerusalem's status, “refugees”, etc., is formally preserved. The latest declaration of this kind was heard on August 19 this year in the statement by the Foreign Ministers of Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Autonomy, on the agreed position of the Arab world in negotiations with the US delegation arriving in the Middle East.

Summit of the Foreign Ministers of Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, August 19, 2017 in Cairo
Summit of the Foreign Ministers of Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, August 19, 2017 in Cairo

De facto, they cease to be an ultimatum factor for the normalization of relations between the Jewish state and the Arab world, forcing, if it wants such normalization, to pay any price appointed by the Palestinian leaders. That is, from the bottom of the claims, without the prior consent of Israel to which the chairman of the Oslo-created Palestinian National Authority (PNA) and the head of the PLO, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) refused to return to the negotiating table, they become the top of the Arab League's claims to Jerusalem. At this, those claims are quite secondary in the context of more general regional interests of the parties and, due to this, are the subject to an inevitable compromise. Especially, with the new US administration's seeing the problem, where the idea of a Palestinian state transfers from the category of “must be” into “good to have”.

Abu Mazen's “deep disappointment” with such a drastic change in the rules of the regional game and the prospects for the leaders of the PNA/PLO losing their status as an independent subject of the regional process, together with all the accompanying diplomatic and financial dividends, is quite understandable. Especially, with the prospect of returning all this subject to the state of the “era before Madrid” (the Madrid Conference of 1991 on the temporary settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict), when relations between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs were one of the many unresolved intra-state inter-ethnic conflicts in the countries of post-colonial world. In this case, on the territory of the former British mandate in western Palestine, where Israel is the only real sovereign, and to which, if this logic is followed, the initiative should be transferred in resolving the problem of Palestinian Arabs.

Therefore, M. Abbas' efforts to return the Palestinian issue to the center of the general Arab agenda are quite understandable. It was extremely difficult to do this in the situation of much more urgent challenges and threats for the world. This is made even more difficult by the new round of the Syrian crisis associated with Russia's appearance on this field, which, according to some analysts, has turned the civil war in this country into the most serious, since the end of the Cold War, indirect confrontation between Russia and the West.

If we add to this that the sluggish Russian-Turkish crisis, the European-Russian “war of sanctions” and the situation in and around Ukraine, and the other links in this complex of contradictions, it becomes clear why the Arab-Palestinian project has turned from the world and regional policy factor into the theme, at the best, of the sixth-seventh series. Actually, the said summit of the Foreign Ministers of Egypt, Jordan and the PNA on August 19 is seen by experts as almost the last attempt of Ramallah to force the Arab world to uniquely subscribe to the solution of the conflict on the basis of the idea of ”two states”. And in such a way, observers believe, to prevent the Saudi block members' being drawn into a regional alliance with Israel, removing from the agenda the precondition for the establishment of the Palestinian state in the “1967's borders”.

 To be continued…