Hosni Mubarak celebrated his 78th birthday last week. When his current term ends, and if his health does not fail him, he will be 84. Not the oldest leader in the region. This honor is reserved for Abdullah, King of Saudi Arabia, who is four years older than Mubarak and troubles his physicians more. These two leaders are the remaining glue of consensual Arab policy. They are the only ones capable of forging coalitions and, in particular, of moving processes forward.
Mubarak proved his ability in the way he handled the relations between Israel and the Palestinians, and recently when he imposed a ceasefire on Hamas. Abdullah formulated the Saudi peace initiative, which became the Arab initiative. Both of them (together with the leaders of the Gulf states) now speak in one voice against the nuclear armament of Iran.
In strategic terms, the time period in which both of these leaders can be expected to remain on the scene is not long. This means that over the next few years it will be necessary to fully exhaust every political process requiring Arab legitimacy. This does not mean that chaos will prevail in the region following their departure. Many countries, such as Jordan, Morocco, Qatar and Syria, have shattered the myth of wars of inheritance that were expected to devastate them, and the inheritance was passed on quietly. But all of these countries are now ruled by local leaders, who lack the power to build supranational coalitions or to grant pan-Arab legitimacy. This is the source of anxiety.
This is because both of the potential warmongers, the Palestinians and Iran, need agreed-upon guidelines to serve the next Egyptian and Saudi Arabian policymakers as the foundations of future legitimization. This type of guideline already exists with regard to the Palestinian issue in the form of the Arab League declaration approved in Beirut in 2002. Even Israel cannot claim that Hamas does not recognize Israel if it adopts the decision.
This type of decision is totally lacking with regard to Iran. Penetrating articles by Arab publicists and occasional declarations by Arab leaders cannot take the place of an accepted Arab declaration stating that they regard Iran as a real threat, and no less of a threat than a nuclear Israel. It is true that most Arab spokesmen have recently stopped conditioning their support for the nuclear demilitarization of Iran on having Israel de-nuclearize first, and Iran is perceived more and more as a physical threat, while Israel is seen as an ideological one - but there is still a big difference between this fine distinction and a direct and explicit Arab demand of Iran. As in the case of Iraq, it seems that most Arab leaders are again gathering in the cozy corner of vague words and fears of war without taking any real action. It is as if they are saying - since we cannot influence Israel's nuclearization, it would be better not to deal with Iran.
Mubarak and Abdullah can change this political isolationism - if there is someone who can convince them that their voice has sway and that the political measures vis-a-vis Iran are not exclusively determined in European and American capitals. When they speak about the Iranian threat in those Western corridors, they understand there that this is not just a threat against Israel. Lebanon and certainly Jordan are also threatened, and an Iranian bomb on Israel is automatically a bomb on the Palestinian Authority as well. This is the type of discourse that should be generated in the current period - not because it helps Israel mobilize forces against Iran, but because it is right.
But how is it possible to mobilize Arab support for an Israeli argument when Israel is not only an occupier but also refuses to engage in conversation with its adversary - even when this adversary closely adheres to a ceasefire? This is something absurd, which is difficult to resolve. And thus, while dialogue with Hamas is likely to promote Arab cooperation on the Iran issue, Israel has decided that Hamas is the bigger threat. It is such a big threat that Israel easily mobilized a global boycott against it. Iran is apparently only child's play.
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