Ask most any non-lefty Jewish Israeli why there is still not peace between Israel and the Arabs and you’ll get the same formulaic response you’d have gotten in 1950, i.e., “The Arabs want to destroy us.” That was true up to 1967 and beyond, but at some point in the ’80s it stopped being the case, certainly by the time the Arab countries that joined George H.W. Bush’s “Coalition of the Willing” in 1991 begged him as a return favor to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He tried at Madrid and failed. So did Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. Why? “The Arabs want to destroy us.”
But in the last few years we have seen something bizarre that has occasioned far too little comment. The biggest and most important Arab countries, namely Egypt and Saudi Arabia, as well as Jordan (which has appreciated Israel for decades) along with most of the Gulf countries, are in a tacit strategic alliance with Israel against Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas, and ISIL, i.e., all of Israel’s enemies. Even maverick Qatar, one of Hamas’s only two friends (Turkey being the other) is on good terms with Israel as well. Bibi, however, tried to push it too far when he suggested at the UN that the Arab states try to help Israel along to peace by “updating” the twice-renewed 2002 Arab League Initiative. There is at least one line the Arab states can’t cross.
That is because what keeps this tacit alliance from being open and legitimate are those pesky Palestinians, who keep bringing up matters that Israel thought it settled 66 and 47 years ago. The Arab masses take a lot from their governments, but abandoning the Palestinians without some semblance of a state might be too much even for them.
Way back before 1967, Israel’s claim that the Arabs wanted to annihilate Israel made sense; the Arab states were saying it themselves. Some Israelis, like the country’s first Foreign Minister, Moshe Sharett, when he was briefly Prime Minster in 1954-55, suggested that a less bellicose policy might help. David Ben-Gurion made quick work of him and such ideas, taking back the Premiership and embarking on the Sinai adventure with France and Britain. No more peace suggestions for quite a while.
By 1991, though, things had changed enough so that, as mentioned above, the Arab countries wanted Bush Sr. to make peace happen. When he and Clinton failed, the Saudis, uncharacteristically, took center stage in announcing and pushing through the Arab League an unprecedented peace plan, going back to the 1967 borders in return for full recognition from all 22 Arab states. Israel, admittedly rather busy with the Second Intifada at the time, simply ignored it and continued to; polls showed most Israelis never heard of it. “Too little, too late, ” murmured those who had.
We could be forgiven back then for thinking that the API’s offer of full diplomatic relations in return for a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem was somewhat begrudging. That they just wanted the problem to go away. But further surprises were in store.
In the last few years it became clear even to people who don’t watch the Mideast obsessively that current Sunni hatred for the Shi’a, most particularly, but not only, “Persian” Shi’a, surpassed by a considerable margin their hatred for Israel. The first clear indication was in the summer of 2006, when Israel made a spur-of-the-moment decision to invade Lebanon to punish Hezbollah (a Lebanese Shi’a organization) for the border abduction and killing of some Israeli soldiers. The usual condemnation from Saudi Arabia and other Arab states never came; privately they made it clear that their sympathies were with Israel. They were somewhat perplexed when Israel gained rather less than a stunning victory, and Hezbollah leader Nasrallah became the most popular man in the Arab world. But they had made a choice and stuck with it – they did not desert Israel, then or later.
During the 2000s Israel became increasingly – and loudly – alarmed by Iran’s apparent progress toward constructing a nuclear bomb. Somewhat more subdued – but reportedly just as insistent in diplomatic corridors – was the Sunni insistence, led by Saudi Arabia, that that “someone” take care of Iran – and soon. One heard rumors that they would be perfectly happy (quietly of course) if Israel did the deed. Given Israel’s reported eagerness to bomb Iran – nixed first by Bush and then by Obama – that meant it was Israel and the Sunni Arabs against the US (and Iran of course), To the dismay of the Arab/Israel side, the fire-breathing Ahmadinajad was eventually replaced by the soft-spoken Rouhani whom, they insisted, was just as, if not more, dangerous. Israel and its Sunni allies are very unhappy that Iran may escape bombing.
But what really cemented the Sunni-Israel alliance was Hamas. Hamas had been riding high after Egyptian President Mubarak was unseated and even higher when fellow Muslim Botherhood member Mohamed Morsi was elected President. A year later he was overthrown in an army coup (with popular support) and Hamas has been begging for handouts ever since. The Saudis, Egyptians, Jordan, and the Gulf countries (except Qatar) have all made clear they had no use for Hamas, including during the recent Gaza War, though had to be circumspect in their public statements, for obvious reasons.
My point is to not to demonstrate either Arab or Israeli knavery. Talleyrand pointed out rightly that nations don’t have friends, they have interests (though the US-Israel relationship may belie that). And it is clear from this maneuvering that Israel is, whether it likes it or not, a recognized part of the status quo of Levantine politics. Governments fall and alliances double-cross each other; that’s the way of the region. And that’s as good as it gets.
It is absurd for Israel to claim that the Arabs are united against it; they once were but that has long since passed into history. It is even more absurd to claim that little Palestine by itself is a threat to Israel. Basically, it comes down to the fact that Israel wants the land that every other government in the world considers Palestinian. Israel is not now seriously threatened by anyone; if it were, it would likely be supported, in the unlikely event it needed support, by its fellow Middle East status quo powers. Can anyone seriously maintain that the Saudis, Egyptians, Jordanians, and Gulf States would prefer a new, unknown, unstable, probably Islamist Arab government to a powerful, stable Israel? Of course not. They couldn’t say it publicly, of course, but it is clearly the case.
This is even more the case in the wake of the late Arab Spring, now that the autocrats are seated more firmly than ever. But, though Israel’s Arab neighbors don’t themselves care, in order for peace to happen openly and the Arab states to acknowledge their illicit dalliance with Israel, then Israel must rid itself of its Palestinian albatross (the land, not only the people). And we know which choice this government is making.