Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Zalman Shoval: Regional Opportunities and Risks

by Zalman Shoval

During Operation Protective Edge and since, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has recognized the importance of the budding relationship between Israel and part of the moderate Sunni Arab world, particularly Egypt, with which Israel shares interests on the Palestinian issue and in the Sinai Peninsula, among other things. These joint regional interests are based primarily on a united position against the Iranian nuclear program and Iran's hegemonic ambitions, as well as the struggle against political Islam, the product of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Islamic State group is a most extreme embodiment of this ideology, but other like-minded groups, including Hamas, also endanger the very foundations of the existence of most countries in the Middle East.

Other factors in this equation include concerns and disappointment among countries in the region about the passivity and disregard displayed by the Obama administration toward the previously mentioned dangers -- an approach reflected by Obama's declaration that he was seeking to pivot U.S. political and military activity from the Middle East to the Far East. Israel read the map correctly when it preferred the Egyptian cease-fire proposal during Operation Protective Edge over the one proposed by Qatar and Turkey, who are supporters of Hamas. 

Israel shares the same worries as many countries in the region, but it also does not want to turn its back on its traditional and most loyal ally -- the U.S. However, paving the path toward a strategic alliance with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Bahrain does not represent a betrayal of the special relationship with the U.S. Moreover, interests and alliances can change quickly, particularly in the Middle East, and as tight as the pragmatic links between Israel and the moderate Arab axis might become, they will not replace the alliance with the U.S. or Israel's need to preserve its ability to defend itself by itself. 

As the Palestinian Authority is supposed to be part of the moderate Arab axis (although the statements made by some of its leaders over the weekend raised doubts about how "moderate" it is), it is likely that Egypt and Saudi Arabia, as well as their allies, will seek a renewal of the diplomatic process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Such a move would remove this ongoing annoyance (the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) from the agenda and, more specifically, it would weaken Hamas, Qatar and Turkey and allow for focus to be centered on the fight against extreme Islam (both in its Sunni and Shiite forms) and treatment of the Syrian, Iraqi and Libyan abscesses. According to unofficial reports, Egypt even proposed creative ideas to help resolve the Palestinian problem, and Saudi Arabia has begun to clarify that "Israel is not an enemy."

Israel certainly has both a principled and concrete interest in promoting such steps, even if hopes for their success should not be exaggerated, especially since Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has not shown signs of willingness to enter into real negotiations with Israel. Even if pressure from moderate Arab states compels Abbas to decide to change his rejectionist stance, there is no guarantee that Hamas, which was dealt a tough blow in Gaza yet maintains strong support in the West Bank, would allow Abbas to do so. However, a new page may be opening in the regional diplomatic calculations, and this reality justifies confidence-building measures.

Meanwhile, an American-led coalition against the Islamic State has been established. Even though one U.S. media outlet ironically called this "Obama's coalition of the willing and unable," the president's decision should still be welcomed. However, U.S. allies in the Middle East are not yet convinced that Obama's move represents a true turning point in America's conduct in the region. As of now, the U.S. is limiting its involvement in the war against the Islamic State to airstrikes. Similar to Operation Protective Edge, there will be civilian casualties and Obama will have to explain that this is a war of no choice against terrorists who use civilians as human shields.

Despite its growing regional ties, Israel rightly decided to not join the coalition (even if it will help in other ways), because, as former Mossad chief Danny Yatom pointed out, many of the entities that have joined the coalition, based on their past and their nature, could in the future be part of a terrorist front against Israel.

Zalman Shoval


Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

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