Israel Should Move From Exceptionalism to Regional Partnership

We in the Middle East need to solve our problems ourselves - and the U.S. should help us, not through military strikes but by encouraging Israel out of its isolationist refusal to treat its neighbors as equals.

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As the imminent threat of a U.S. strike has been averted, and the West Asia–North Africa region breathes a collective sigh of relief, we must ask how such a crisis nearly came to pass. Unilateral actions that endanger human life inevitably lead to international instability, and the potential for the loss of innocent lives cannot excuse such action, no matter how “surgical” or “limited." Fortunately, the Russian-brokered diplomatic deal and the abrupt U.S. volte-face have diverted this disaster in the short term, and even seem to have rekindled an American focus on diplomacy.

In the past few weeks, the United States and Iran have engaged in a phase of “talks about talks." Although a presidential meeting has been rejected for the time being, Thursday’s discussion at the foreign minister level has led to much speculation about a potential defrosting of relations between the countries. Oddly enough, it seems that, having stepped back from the precipice of a military strike on Syria for its alleged use of chemical weapons, the United States has pivoted favorably toward a state it has repeatedly accused of trying to obtain nuclear ones.

The explanation for this sudden change of U.S. policy lies in the traditional drivers of American interests in the region. A recent article published by the Centre for Research on Globalization, entitled “No More War for Israel? The People Against the 800 Pound Gorilla,” accuses Israel and the Israeli lobby in Washington of pressuring the U.S. administration to strike Syria. If Israel and its advocates comprise the titular gorilla, then the elephant in that same room is, as I have long asserted, the military-industrial complex fixated on preserving American access to Arab oil and gas, whilst lining the pockets of the U.S. arms industry. The room, we must admit, is getting crowded.

Indeed, the regional strategic interests of the gorilla and the elephant are often aligned. Neoconservative think tanks in Washington and their counterparts in Israel are united in a desire to restructure our region to suit their own goals. This “New Middle East,” as it is called, is predicated on Israeli exceptionalism, using the phrase “existential threat” as a catch-all to excuse Israel’s isolationist refusal to treat its neighbors as equals.

This is not to diminish the very real threats that Israel does face. It is news to no one that the Arab street detests the alliance between the United States and Israel, and many marginalized people turn to violent action to express their hatred. Jordan has on multiple occasions denounced these senseless acts of violence, and continues to do so. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that the sense of separateness cultivated by Israel and its neocon ideological bedfellows in Washington prevents many in the Arab world from seeing Israel as a potential partner in regional development, a viewpoint that is only exacerbated by the intellectual intimidation of militant Islamist extremists.

Instead of nurturing intra-regional relations, Israel has strengthened its ties to the military-industrial complex abroad. With the discovery of off-shore natural gas reserves, Israel is on the path to become part of that same regional energy nexus of oil- and gas-producing countries as the Arab Gulf states. Moreover, Israel recently granted a U.S. company, Genie Energy, the first license to explore for oil in the disputed Golan Heights, an area of Syria occupied and illegally annexed by Israel during the 1967 War.

The Israel angle, however, does not explain the sudden warming of U.S. relations with Iran. Indeed, Israel was reportedly one of the main proponents of a strike on Syria as a way of weakening Iranian influence. It seems, however, that the American military-industrial complex that seeks to secure U.S. access to oil has discovered recently the existence of more “Shi'ite oil” – in countries like Iran – than “Sunni oil” – under U.S.-allied Saudi Arabia. Along with the potential of Russian gas resources, an opportunity to foster better relations with Putin and Rohani would be more attractive than carrying out military strikes vastly unpopular with the American public and which bear little relation to U.S. economic interests.

All of this speculation only highlights the need for a framework of regional cooperation – which includes both Israel and Iran – to reorient the current obsession with military security towards an emphasis on human security. While we listen to President Obama discuss American interests, we as a region must ask ourselves what our interests are. Surely they lie elsewhere than in depleting our national budgets in a fruitless build-up of our armies and security apparatuses whilst we ignore the valuable civil society institutions necessary to promote democracy.

The Arab Spring has taught us that citizens across the region crave reform. President Obama’s UN speech focused on revolutions in Egypt and Libya, but Tunisia is where the true battle for the Arab mind took place. The actions of Muhammad Bouazizi ignited a cross-regional desire for human dignity which can only be achieved through the creation of a supranational framework that promotes regional commons. The era of Nasser brought us Arab nationalism, but now we must insist instead on regional citizenship. West Asia–North Africa must engage in socially cohesive cooperation to address the numerous obstacles it faces. And if any meaningful change is to occur in the region, Israel must be an equal partner in it."

In his UN speech, President Obama asserted that the United States would continue to engage in our region; I would counter that the most useful U.S. engagement would be to help West Asia–North Africa to grow the institutions necessary to solve our problems ourselves. More importantly, the United States can encourage Israel to acknowledge its own role as a stakeholder in regional stability and development. It is time for the door to the proverbial room to be opened – for the elephant and the gorilla to be recognized as realities of our world. Only then can the region move forward cooperatively to address the myriad problems that we face together.

HRH Prince El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan is the Chairman of the West Asia – North Africa Forum

Netanyahu with Jordan’s King Abdullah, during a past meeting in Amman.Credit: GPO / Archive

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