Inching forward in the Middle East
By James Lewis
Unlike a football game, progress in the Arab-Israeli conflict comes in inches, not yards. But in the midst of all the pessimism there is genuine movement on the Gordian Knot of the entire seven decades of struggle: The Arab refusal to recognize Israel’s right to exist. Because that knot is now slightly unraveling under the pressure of the Iranian threat to Sunni Arab nations (which is all Arab nations minus half of Iraq).
With a looming nuclear Iran fifty miles away, the Saudis cannot afford war with Israel. Tehran has already stirred up riots during the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, and Saudi legitimacy rests on protecting the holy places.
Specifically, the Arab League, led by the Saudis and Jordanians, has now publicly offered to recognize Israel. That offer comes with conditions that make it unworkable on the surface, although it may provide a basis for further negotiation. But the big breakthrough is implicit, as usual in the complex maneuvering characteristic of that part of the world. When the United States recognized Communist China after many years of passionate refusals, all the preliminary negotiations were conducted in secret between Henry Kissinger and Chinese Foreign Minister Chou En-lai. Nixon’s public trip to China just put the official stamp on well-established secret understandings. There are now many reports of secret conversations between Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel.
Remember that Anwar Sadat was assassinated by the Muslim Brotherhood after Egypt openly recognized Israel. No other Arab nation dared to follow Sadat’s example. Twenty years later, Yasser Arafat told Bill Clinton and Ehud Barak that he, Arafat, would be assassinated if he agreed with the generous Israeli peace proposal that would have established a Palestinian state. So the peace agreement never occurred. Offering recognition of Israel involves a great personal risk for all the Arab leaders involved. The terrorists are always out there, ready to kill any peace makers.
But the Arabs do not want a nuclear Iran trying to control the holy places of Mecca and Medina, with the ultimate possibility of radioactive fallout drifting across the Persian Gulf. For the Sunnis, Ahmadinejad represents a deviant strain of Islamic heresy, which cannot be allowed to control the two holiest cities of pilgrimage. Saudi preachers make worse denunciations about the Shi’a than they do about the infidels.
The implicit message in the Arab League proposal comes in the very use of the word “Israel” and in the public goal of diplomatic recognition. Tehran and its puppets, Hezb’allah and Hamas, won’t even use the name “Israel” — it’s still the “Zionist entity” for them. In international diplomacy, using a nation’s name is to recognize it implicitly. And the open goal of the Arab proposal is public recognition. You can’t do that unless you are implicitly granting Israel’s right to exist in peace, and you can’t do that unless you are willing to terminate the de facto state of war that has existed since 1948. So this proposal breaks the logjam in public, even while posing unworkable preconditions. Inch by inch.
Israel has publicly rejected the Arab League proposal. But that’s only the cover story. Prime Minister Olmert has also praised the “great wisdom” of Saudi King Abdallah, without giving any details. News leaks of phone conversations between the sides are common.
So — it’s agonizingly slow, but progress. Underneath, there is very likely to be selective intelligence sharing on Iran and the common terrorist threat from Hezb’allah and Al Qaeda. There may be talks about giving Israel overflight permission in any attack on Iranian nuclear facilities — on condition that it be successful. When Israel knocked out Saddam’s nuclear reactor in 1981, the French, who had built the reactor, secretly provided blueprints and work schedules to the Israeli Air Force. When the strike occurred, it had pinpoint accuracy and French technicians were sleeping at home and in no danger. (Surprise!).
Some of that is probably going on right now among the players who do not want an Iranian nuke — which is all of them. Nobody but nobody wants a psychotic regime armed with nukes next door.
So there are grounds for cautious hope. This is a dangerous time. But Arabs have lived with Israel’s nuclear program for decades, and they don’t feel threatened by it. Like America’s nuke program, it is carefully designed never to be used except in extremis. Don’t attack Israel, and Israel will never use its nukes.
That kind of rationality does not apply to Tehran, with its Armageddon martyr complex
If Iran were fifty miles from our shores, even the Denial Demagogues would have to get worried. Ironically, the new threat from Iran has made the Arab world more prepared for peace than ever before.
James Lewis blogs at http://www.dangeroustimes.wordpress.com/.