Changing Israel’s 'Where’s the Fire?' Policy

The current conflagration in the Mideast offers Israel the opportunity to take the initiative and bring about change with other elements in the region.

Eli Podeh
Eli Podeh
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Netanyahu addressing the UN on September 29, 2014, and Abbas doing the same three days earlier. Photos by AFP
Netanyahu addressing the UN on September 29, 2014, and Abbas doing the same three days earlier. Photos by AFP
Eli Podeh
Eli Podeh

Experts on Middle Eastern affairs, politicians and casual observers all agree that the Middle East is on fire. The conflagration is the result of several processes that ripened in recent years: first, the ramifications of America’s occupation of Iraq in 2003. On the one hand, the historical error made by the British was corrected when they brought the Shi’ite majority to power. But this “correction” came at the price of exclusion and harm to the Sunni minority, which responded with violence. The chaos created a vacuum into which Islamist terror groups such as Al-Qaida and Islamic State were drawn.

Second is the intensification of the conflict between Islam and the West, in the style of the "clash of civilizations" that political scientist Samuel Huntington described – even if, contrary to the prevailing view, that fight is limited to groups and individuals who see the West as a land of infidels against whom it is obligatory and legitimate to wage war.

Third is the conflict within Islam over the “right” way. This is a dual struggle: between Shia and Sunni – outstanding examples of which are the struggle of the Sunni Arab countries (such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Morocco) against Iran, Hezbollah and, to some extent, Iraq; and the intra-Sunni struggle as well, in which some Sunni elements are fighting against the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Al-Qaida and Islamic State.

Finally, there are the ramifications of the Arab Spring, which created chaos in Syria, Libya and Yemen, and undermined stability in Egypt, Tunisia and other monarchies that had not undergone a revolution.

Any conflagration in the Middle East — and there were a number of them during the 20th century — tends to paralyze Israeli policy, which is typified by the saying: “If something’s on fire (in the Middle East), then where’s the fire?” In other words, in light of the events in the region, it is better to sit quietly and not initiate anything. Indeed, Israel’s history teaches that it initiated no peace moves, chose to stick to the status quo that allowed it to continue the policy of settlement, and sabotaged most of the initiatives that were proposed by a third party or by the other side in the conflict.

For example, in an interview on the eve of the holiday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that the Saudi initiative was no longer relevant in the changing Middle East. As he sees it, when the initiative was proposed in 2002, Hamas was not yet in control in the Gaza Strip, Islamic State was not in control of Syria and Iraq, and Iran had not sped up its nuclear program. But to Israel, and certainly to Netanyahu, the peace initiative (the Arab one, not the Saudi one) had never been relevant, and thus the current conflagration is nothing more than an excuse, a fig leaf to cover the nakedness of the country's policy.

Practically speaking, the current conflagration is creating an opportunity to bring about change and to move initiatives forward. Netanyahu himself admitted in that same interview that what has changed is that some of the region’s countries no longer see Israel as an enemy, but as a possible ally in the struggle against common threats. While this recognition is important, an appropriate policy must come with it.

World history, and the history of the Middle East in particular, shows that wars and revolutions have created opportunities for agreements, the promotion of political initiatives and the building of new regional coalitions. Since this insight, which is supported by many experts in Middle East affairs, runs counter to the political and ideological stance of Netanyahu and others – it receives no support.

Yet it is precisely because the Arab world is occupied with its own problems and split along religious, ethnic and tribal lines that Israel can take advantage of the opportunity, for example, to form a coalition with states and quasi-political elements (such as the Kurds) that would work against common threats. Such a coalition has been partially formed already thanks to President Barack Obama’s decision to fight the Islamic State group in cooperation with some of the countries of the region.

Israel can also move forward with a political solution with the Palestinians, whether with President Mahmoud Abbas — thus strengthening the Palestinian Authority over Hamas — or with the Arab states under the umbrella of the Arab peace initiative. It is reasonably likely that the difficulties in the Arab world could help Israel reach an arrangement it finds convenient. An agreement, let us emphasize, is an Israeli interest in any case in light of the demographic changes in store for the land between the (Mediterranean) sea and the (Jordan) river. Such a policy would also help improve Israel’s relationship with the United States, the European Union and other countries.

Following a policy of “Where’s the fire?” with everything that is burning in the Middle East is a tactic of ignorance. It must be changed as soon as possible.

The writer teaches in the Islam and Middle Eastern Studies Department of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and is an expert at Mitvim, the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies.

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