The Middle East’s New Geopolitical Map
The Arab Spring is not the only revolution in town. The toppling of dictators in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya; the mounting death toll in Syria and Yemen, where the outcome is still undecided; the revival of long-suppressed Islamic movements demanding a share of power; the struggle by young revolutionaries to re-invent the Arab state — all these dramatic developments have distracted attention from another revolution of equal significance.
It is the challenge being mounted by the region’s heavyweights — Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran — against the hegemony which the United States and Israel have sought to exercise over them for more than half a century.
When David Ben-Gurion declared Israel’s independence on 14 May 1948, he held the view that the country’s security could be assured only if it were militarily stronger than any possible Arab combination. This became Israel’s security doctrine. The desired hegemony was achieved by the prowess of Israel’s armed forces, but also by Israel’s external alliances first with France, then with the United States.
Military superiority won Israel outstanding victories in the 1948 and 1967 wars, a less resounding victory in 1973, still more contentiously by its invasions of Lebanon in 1978, 1982 and 2006, and more reprehensively by its operation of unashamed brutality against Gaza in 2008-9 — to mention only the most significant among a host of other Israeli attacks, incursions and onslaughts against its neighbours over the past several decades.
In its early years, Israel’s hegemony was reinforced by its so-called ‘periphery’ doctrine — its attempt to neutralise the Arabs by concluding strategic alliances with neighbouring non-Arab states such as Turkey and the Shah’s Iran. Its 1979 peace treaty with Egypt also proved a vital asset over the past three decades, since it removed the most powerful country from the Arab line-up.
The collapse of Soviet power in 1989-91 contributed to the Arabs’ disarray, as did the huge success of pro-Israeli Americans in penetrating almost every institution of the American government, whether at state or federal level, most notably the U.S. Congress. The message these advocates conveyed was that the interests of America and Israel were identical and their alliance ‘unshakable.’
Over the past forty years, the United States has provided Israel with sustained political and diplomatic support, as well as massive financial and military assistance, including a guarantee, enshrined in American law, of Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge (QME) – that is to say a U.S. pledge to guarantee Israel’s ability to defeat any challenge from any of its neighbours.
Even 9/11 was turned to Israel’s advantage in convincing American opinion that Palestinian resistance to Israel was terrorism, no different from that which America itself had suffered. There followed George W. Bush’s catastrophic militarisation of American foreign policy, and the invasion, occupation and destruction of Iraq on fraudulent premises, largely engineered by neo-cons such as Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith and their colleagues at the Pentagon and in the Vice-President’s office, concerned above all to remove any possible threat to Israel from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
The United States has sought to protect Israel’s regional nuclear monopoly by harsh sanctions against Iran, because of its nuclear activities, as well as joint U.S.-Israeli sabotage operations, such as the infiltration into Iranian computers of the Stuxnet virus. Washington has turned a blind eye to Israel’s assassination of Iranian scientists, and has followed Israel in demonizing resistance movements such as Hizbullah and Hamas as terrorist organisations.
America’s most grievous mistake, however — the source of great harm to itself, to Israel, and to peace and stability in the Middle East — has been to tolerate Israel’s continued occupation and dispossession of the Palestinians. These policies have aroused intense hate of Israel in the Arab and Muslim world and great anger at its superpower protector.
We are now witnessing a rebellion against these policies by the region’s heavyweights — in effect a rebellion against American and Israeli hegemony as spectacular as the Arab Spring itself. The message these regional powers are conveying is that the Palestine question can no longer be neglected. Israel’s land grab on the West Bank and its siege of Gaza must be ended. The Palestinians must at last be given a chance to create their own state. Their plight weighs heavily on the conscience of the world.
Turkey, long a strategic ally of Israel, has now broken with it. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has denounced it as “the West’s spoilt child.” In a passionate speech in Cairo, he warned Israel that it must “pay for its aggression and crimes.” Supporting the Palestinians in their efforts to gain UN recognition as a state was, he declared, not an option but an obligation.
Prince Turki al Faisal, a leading member of the Saudi Royal family and former intelligence chief, has publicly warned the United States that if it casts its veto against the Palestinian bid for statehood, it risks losing an ally. In a widely-noted article in the International Herald Tribune on 12 September, he wrote that “Saudi Arabia would no longer be able to cooperate with America” in the way it has since the Second World War. The “Special Relationship” between the two countries “would increasingly be seen as toxic by the vast majority of Arabs and Muslims, who demand justice for the Palestinian people.”
Last week, the American-brokered 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty — a key underpinning of Israel’s regional hegemony — came under open criticism from Egypt itself. The treaty was “not a holy book,” said Egypt’s prime minister, Dr. Essam Sharaf. It would need to be revised. Amr Moussa, the leading candidate for the Egyptian presidency, has called for the treaty’s military annexes to be reviewed so as to allow Egyptian troops to be deployed in Sinai.
Israel stands accused. Will it heed the message or shoot the messenger? If true to its past form, it might well try to fight its way out of the box in which it now finds itself, further destabilising the region and attracting to itself further opprobrium.
Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East. His latest book is The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East (Cambridge University Press).