Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Monday, November 19, 2012

Behind the Rhetoric: Why Everybody Loves Israel

Walter Russell Mead, as usual, wrote an interesting analysis, in light of Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Qandil's visit to Gaza, that is worth quoting here:

Egyptian support for Hamas has thus far remained strictly verbal. There have been no hints of military aid. The strong rhetoric and visit from the prime minister can be read as frantic efforts by Egyptian politicians to keep other Arabs from asking why Egypt’s Islamists are so passive when their neighbors are under attack. Rather than jumping into the fray, Morsi and Qandil are making lots of angry noises to retain their Islamist credentials while avoiding a confrontation with Israel that would inevitably end in a crushing defeat.
The last Egyptian who led his country into a war against Israel for the sake of looking tough was Nasser; the result was exactly the kind of horrible, stinging humiliation that the Muslim Brotherhood does not need — and would certainly get if Israel and Egypt were to clash. It’s important to remember at times like this that the ferocious rhetoric of Israel’s enemies is in part simply a reflection of their weakness and impotence before the Jewish state. They cannot actually bite, and so they bark and bark and bark.

WRM is right. Egypt is simply not ready for a war against Israel. Its economy is in shambles, and just a couple of days ago, the European Union finally agreed to send US$6.4 billion in aid. War would strain the economy at a time when Egypt doesn't need any more distractions. At the same time, even if President Morsi is willing to send troops, the Egyptian army is simply unprepared, having been purged and demoralized in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.  Yes, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood does not need a beating in a war against Israel that could harm their domestic political standing.

More importantly, at a strategic level, it is not in the interest of Morsi or other Arab leaders to support Hamas and attack Israel.

First, there's the question of Hamas itself. It is true that Hamas has a common ideological background with the Egyptian Ikhwanul Muslimin. Despite this, however, they have different goals and agenda.

Consider this: Hamas has a tenuous grip on the Gaza strip. Fatah looks at every means possible to undermine Hamas' power, and at the same time, Hamas tries to make sure that they are not upstaged by a more radical Palestinian factions, notably Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade. Thus, it is in Hamas' interest to maintain radical rhetoric on Israel and turn a blind eye on more radical groups' rocket attacks to Israel to let off steam. In spite of Hamas being Sunni, it enjoys good cooperation with Iran, which is seen as the biggest threat to Israel; and in spite of the rumored split with Iran over the crisis in Syria, apparently the military linkage still holds.

Second, Hamas' close link with Iran makes Saudi Arabia, another of Iran's arch-nemesis, nervous, because Saudi Arabia is more concerned about Iran, which Saudi Arabia sees as a hostile revisionist Shiite power, than about Israel. Despite Saudi Arabia's aggressive rhetoric toward Israel, Saudi Arabia sees Israel as a necessary, valuable evil: to balance Iran, and to serve as a nice bogeyman to its restless citizens.

Besides, Saudi Arabia realizes that it has little to fear from Israel. Israel, as the dominant power in the region, is a status quo power, more interested in preserving the current power arrangement than in changing it. And should Israel cause too many problems for the region, Saudi Arabia knows that the United States can be counted on to hold Israel back.

For the Egyptian Ikhwanul Muslimin, it is in their interest to stay in power and to show their very nervous neighbors, notably Saudi Arabia, that they are responsible enough to maintain the regional status-quo, and that means not spoiling for a fight with Israel and not making too many deals with Hamas, which is seen as a proxy of Iran.

Third, it is in the interest of Saudi Arabia and other Arab states to maintain the Israel-Palestinian problem, because it continues to bring to light the "right to return" question. As long as the "right to return" question remains salient in the region, all the Arab countries can place blame for the neglect of Palestinian refugees on Israel. Israel will never accept the "right to return" principle, because it will cause a demographic nightmare, straining the already scarce resources while shifting Jews to minority status in Israel.

Should both the Palestinians and Israelis make an agreement on the status of refugees, assuming that Israel's position prevails--that none of the refugees return to their old homes--the refugees in turn would move on, continue to settle where they currently reside, or disperse throughout the region, and that in turn, would cause demographic problems for Arab countries.

In Jordan, for instance, there are approximately 2.7 million Palestinians and another 2 million living in Jordan's refugees camps. Considering that the population of Jordan is only 6 million people, if these 4.7 million Palestinians were absorbed into Jordan, they will have an ethnic majority in the country. These Palestinians, in turn, will likely demand to have their voices heard, something that the current Arab regimes, including Joran, have loathed to give, and will likely want greater political power. In Jordan, for instance, these millions of Palestinians only have six representatives in the 120 seats parliament.

Fourth, actually Iran, perversely, also loves Israel. Years of economic mismanagement, except during Khatami's interlude in 1997-2005, coupled with international sanctions has badly damaged Iran's economy. The issue of Israel serves as a very nice distraction to its population, away from the theocracy's own failed economic policies. It justifies Iran's massive spending in its military and nuclear program, and more importantly, allows the Mullahs to paint any voice of dissent as the Zionists' fifth pillar.

Therefore, in a very strange but logical sense, we can say that everybody (at least those in the ME/NA) loves Israel. Far from being an unwanted presence in its neighborhood, Israel plays an invaluable role, one that's prized by both Arab and Persian countries.

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