Monday, December 23, 2019

Shifting Alliances in the Middle East

I have often had occasion to remark on the shifting alliances in the Middle East. Thanks in some part to the Trump administration, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states are forming a new alliance with Israel, against Iran and its proxies.

At times, the signs appear in public ceremonies. At other times, the action takes place behind the scenes. And yet, as Ed Husain presents the facts in the Spectator, the process is in motion. And is likely to continue in motion. Husain correctly sees it as a step toward a Muslim reformation.

We also note, in passing that conservative governments in Great Britain and the United States are now strong supporters of Israel. At the same time, leftist governments from Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party to the American Democratic Party’s Squad are now overtly anti-Semitic. 

Husain opens his essay with the picture of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu visiting Oman:

When Benjamin Netanyahu visited Oman in 2018 in a gesture of goodwill to Israel’s neighbours, the welcome was not universal. For an Israeli Prime Minister to be warmly greeted in a proud Arab state was, for some, far too much. The Omani foreign minister, Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, was asked on Al Jazeera why the visit had been allowed. The reply went viral: ‘Why not? Is it forbidden to us? Israel is a nation among the nations of the Middle East. We should embark on a new journey for the future.’

Leading the march against Israel and against the United States are Islamist political parties. And yet, support for these parties is declining, except in Iran and Gaza and Southern Lebanon. Iran and its proxies have taken over Islamism while other Arab states are opening to Israel, and presumably to free enterprise:

Polls show that the percentage of Arabs expressing trust in Islamist parties has fallen by well over a third since the uprisings of 2011. Three-quarters of Iraqis say they do not trust Islamist parties at all, and the number of young people who say they’re ‘not religious’ is also on the rise. This generation wants Arab leaders to increase economic prosperity and minimise political conflicts. And to build alliances, including with Israel.

The United Arab Emirates has just conducted a year of tolerance. You probably did not hear about it, because the press does not think it to be very important. Along with representative of Islam and Judaism, the emirates welcomed Pope Francis… and opened places of Jewish and Christian worship. Similar events have been taking place in Dubai and in Bahrain.

Considering that Saudi Arabia, a very close ally of the UAE, has never allowed non-Muslim institutions to function within its borders, surely these are momentous:

This has been the ‘Year of Tolerance’ in the United Arab Emirates. In February, an open-air mass for 170,000 Catholics was celebrated by Pope Francis, the first pontiff to visit the Arabian peninsula. To commemorate the Pope’s visit, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed, announced the construction in the UAE capital of the Abrahamic Family House: a synagogue, a church and a mosque within a single complex, a hub for highlighting history and a symbol of hope for a new future of co-existence.

In Dubai, Jews have been worshipping at a synagogue for several years now. Rabbis from Israel, America, Australia and Europe have been attending annual international Muslim peace conferences held in Abu Dhabi by Abdullah bin Bayyah, a renowned Muslim theologian, for two years. In full rabbi dress.

King Hamad of Bahrain has also led a path towards more open relations between Islam and Judaism. In 2016 he celebrated Hanukkah with orthodox Jews from New York, his courtiers singing and dancing. The scenes were striking: Jews with hats and beards, Muslims with keffiyeh and robes, joining together in songs of peace. This groundbreaking gesture elicited condemnation from Iran-backed Hamas, but favourable comments erupted on social media. In return, Bahraini peace delegations have visited Israel.

The news from Saudi Arabia suggests more of the same:

There have even been signs of a religious glasnost in Saudi Arabia. The Mecca-based Muslim World League, which for five decades promoted hard-line Wahhabism, has started meetings with various Jewish organisations. Several Saudi bloggers, YouTubers and Twitter personalities have been praising Israel in Arabic. Mohamed Saud, a social media activist, visited Israel in July and spoke in fluent Hebrew that he learned in Riyadh. This infuriated Palestinian radicals, who encouraged children to pelt him with stones — as if furious that their old world, with its politicised hatred, is fading.

Obviously, Palestinian radicals, with the support of the British Labour Party and the Squad… are launching a last ditch effort to sustain anti-Semitism.

Apparently, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt overplayed its hand… and threw public opinion behind more conciliatory relations with Israel. We recall that after the Obama administration tossed Hosni Mubarak aside, Egyptians elected Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi president. To show where it stood, the Obama administration sent Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Cairo in a show of support.

I regularly meet Egyptians and others who desperately want to normalise relations with Israel and they offer three reasons. First, the events of the Arab Spring exposed the fanaticism of the Muslim Brotherhood and other related Islamists, with the hardliners now being viewed as a threat to both Islam as a faith and Muslims as a people.

And, of course, Sunni Arab states are looking for allies in their struggle against Iran:

...the need to stand firm against Iran is becoming a cause that unites Israel with Sunni Arabs and anti-Tehran Shiite Muslims in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. It’s well-known that mullahs in Tehran support Hezbollah, which is dedicated to destroying Israel. But they also meddle in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. So against this menace of Shiite political Islamism, committed to destroying Muslim secular governments and exporting Shiite revolutionary ideology, Israel is coming to be regarded as a benign neighbour.

And then Sunni Arabs believe that the Obama administration betrayed them, and it raised the spectre of an unreliable ally in Washington:

Finally, and most intriguingly, Israel is being seen by moderate Arab governments as a trade and security partner as the West sends mixed signals. Barack Obama abandoned his Arab allies when they faced threats from the Muslim Brotherhood or Iran. He deserted Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak — to the horror of the Saudis and Emiratis — and cheered on the popular uprising in Syria. When America signed the nuclear agreement with Iran towards the end of the Obama presidency, Israel and its Arab neighbours were united in uproar. This lesson in unreliability has not been forgotten. As one Arab prince said recently at a private meeting: ‘Who else will fly in joint missions against Iranian targets with us?’

Husain concludes:

With an assertive Iran and an uninterested West, the Arabs and Jews have a shared interest in building a lasting alliance with each other. This may yet be the decade of peace.

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