Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Shifting Alliances in the Middle East

Political alliances in the Middle East are shifting. As relations cool between Israel and America, relations between Israel and two of its most important Arab neighbors continue to improve.

While President Obama is trying to strike a nuclear arms deal with Iran on Iran’s terms, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have been moving toward something of a rapprochement with Israel.

We know that unofficial Saudi diplomats have appeared in public meetings with unofficial representatives of the Israeli government. Evidently, this was meant to signal that friendly diplomatic contacts are taking place. See my post of June 6, 2015.

More recently the Wall Street Journal reported:

Now, however, the Saudis are finding themselves in an unusual and somewhat uncomfortable position of, if not empathizing with Israel, at least relating to it. Years of sectarian carnage in Syria and Iraq have turned public opinion in Saudi Arabia and many other Arab countries solidly against Iran and against its most powerful Arab ally, the Shiite Hezbollah militia in Lebanon.

These days, official government spokesmen in the Saudi capital Riyadh frequently draw a parallel between the pro-Iranian Houthi militia that Saudi Arabia is fighting in Yemen and Hezbollah. They say one Saudi objective in the war is to prevent the Houthis in Yemen from establishing a state-within-a-state like the one Hezbollah has carved out in southern Lebanon.

Obviously, Iran’s incursions from Iraq to Syria to Yemen have pushed the Saudis to start talking with the Israelis. More significantly, the American government seems to be going out of its way not to offend the Iranians. That involves allowing the Iranians to develop a nuclear weapon and removing the economic sanctions that are currently hurting it:

Saudi Arabia—like Israel—is also concerned by Tehran’s pending nuclear deal with the U.S. and five other world powers. Fearing that the agreement, and the accompanying lifting of economic sanctions, would embolden Iran to expand its regional sway, some Saudis even hope—not so secretly—that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would use his country’s air force to destroy Iran’s nuclear installations.

“Israel is an enemy because of its origin, but isn’t an enemy because of its actions—while Iran is an enemy because of its actions, not because of its origin,” said Abdullah al Shammari, a Riyadh academic who served as a senior Saudi diplomat.

“This means that Iran is more of a threat. If I were a Saudi decision maker, I would not hesitate for a second to coordinate with Israel against Iran’s nuclear program.”

Officially, the nations are enemies. And yet, we read this:

“Saudi Arabia would like Israel to be part of the Middle East, as a state in the Middle East. We can’t take it out, and we can use their technology while they can use our money,” said retired Saudi Maj. Gen. Anwar Eshqi, chairman of the Middle East Center for Strategic and Legal Studies in the Saudi city of Jeddah.

The Saudis, however, openly criticize Israel for failing in 2006 to eliminate Hezbollah from Lebanon.

The relationship between President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s Egypt and Israel is becoming warmer. What with Egypt’s president having declared war on the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, the ties have been strengthening. Apparently, the two nations share intelligence about the terrorist threat in the Sinai and Gaza.

Keep in mind that Egypt and Saudi Arabia are close allies and that the Saudis were enraged at the way the Obama administration, through Secretary of State Clinton, discarded their friend Hosni Mubarak in favor of Mohamed Morsi, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Debkafile (an Israeli intelligence source) reports the recent appointment of a new Egyptian ambassador to Israel:

"President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi issued a republican decree appointing new diplomats abroad which included ... Ambassador Hazem Khairat ... as Egyptian ambassador to Tel Aviv," state news agency MENA reported on Sunday. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu made the announcement at a joint news conference with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius in Jerusalem, calling it “an important piece of news.” The last ambassador was recalled by ousted President Mohamed Morsi over Israel's 2012 operation against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Ambassador Khairat’s last two postings were as Egypt’s former permanent representative to the Arab League, and then as ambassador to Chile. Sources in Cairo say he will take up his post in September. His appointment is another mark of the cordial relations which President Sisi and PM Netanyahu have maintained for some time, often at the clandestine level.

Interestingly, Netanyahu made the announcement in the presence of the French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius. Even though Fabius works for the socialist president Francois Hollande, he is evidently a far more skilled diplomat than either of his two American counterparts.

Warming relations between the nations were further reflected in a program that has been running on Egyptian television during Ramadan.

The New York Times reports on it:

The scene is Cairo’s Jewish Quarter in 1948, and Laila Haroun has news for her parents. Her brother, Moussa, has left to settle in the new state of Israel in spite of the war with Egypt and its Arab allies.

“Your son is a traitor,” Laila shouts across their elegant living room. “You gave birth to him as an Egyptian Jew, not an Israeli Jew, which he never will be!”

Her revelation sets up the central conflict in this year’s most talked-about Egyptian television series, “The Jewish Quarter,” which has astonished Egyptians with its sympathetic treatment of Egypt’s Jews and its depiction of their fierce anti-Zionism.

The villains in the piece are the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood, not the Jews, and Laila’s love interest is a Muslim military officer celebrated as a hero in the Jewish community. The military’s real-life role in expelling Egypt’s Jews under President Gamal Abdel Nasser is omitted completely.

The Times continues:

It is a stark turn from the overt anti-Semitism that has dominated Egyptian television for decades. The Israeli Embassy in Cairo commended the first episodes, commenting on an embassy-run Facebook page that for the first time, “it shows Jews in their real human state, as a human being before anything, and we bless this.”

But after four years of tumult — including after the Arab Spring revolution that promised to end Egypt’s military-backed autocracy, and a new military takeover two years ago that removed an Islamist president — the series is stirring fierce debate here about both Jews and Egypt. In addition to raising questions about the status of Jews, discussion of the series has become a contest among cosmopolitan, nationalistic and religious visions of Egyptian identity.

How does the series depict the Muslim Brotherhood?

Hassan el-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, is portrayed as a laughable stooge. “The war is not only in Palestine, but jihad here is no less than jihad there,” he declares in the series, dipping into a notorious conspiracy theory about a popular Western beverage: “For this reason, I am demanding that Coca-Cola be considered a forbidden drink, and for a postage stamp with the picture of Al Aqsa Mosque to be sold for only 1 piaster, to be bought by Egyptians for the sake of Palestine.”

Unsurprisingly, the show is not as tolerant as one would like. Still, considering the fact that Egyptians (and many other Middle Eastern Arabs) have for decades been fed a steady diet of anti-Semitic propaganda, it is surely a step in the right direction:

Still, Joel Beinin, a historian at Stanford who has written about Egyptian Jews of the period, said the series “is more consistent with the facts than almost anything else that has appeared in Egyptian mass media in recent decades.”

And also:

Lucette Lagnado, an Egyptian-born Jew whose memoir, “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit,” describes her family’s forced flight from Cairo, argued that the popularity of the series reflected a desire to return to the more harmonious ethos of that earlier era.

One suspects that the Western media will continue to denounce President el-Sisi as a repressive tyrant and autocrat.


Sam L. said...

I suspect NYT reviewers, if they review this, will be horrified.

Kate Mark said...
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