The Enemy of My Enemy

Facing the threat of a nuclear Iran, the hostile Arab-Israeli relationship is giving way to a more complex picture

An Israeli F-16i jet fighter.

Being an Arab leader has its rewards: the suite at the Waldorf-Astoria during the United Nations General Assembly, travel in your own plane, plenty of cash, even job security—whether kings, sheiks or presidents, with or without elections, most serve for life.

But the advantages must seem dwarfed by the problems that face the Arab world this summer. The Shia in Iran seem to be building a bomb, Iran’s ally Syria is taking over Lebanon (again), Yemen is collapsing (again), Egypt’s President Mubarak is said to be dying and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is back on the front pages.

George Mitchell, U.S. Special Envoy to the Middle East, with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas

Mr. Abbas with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri

Mr. Hariri with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Mr. Mitchell with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Mr. Netanyahu with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia with Mr. Assad.

King Abdullah with Mr. Hariri.

King Abdullah with Mr. Mubarak.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with Mr. Assad.

What’s more, no one is sure who’s in charge these days. The American hegemony, in place at least since the British left Aden in 1967 and secured through repeated, massive military operations of its own and victories by its ally Israel, seems to be fraying. Who will stop the Iranian nuclear weapons program, the Arabs wonder; they place no faith in endless negotiations between earnest Western diplomats and the clever Persians.

Israel is the enemy of their enemy, Iran. Now, the usual description of Arab-Israeli relations as “hostile” or “belligerent” is giving way to a more complex picture. Following the joint Arab military efforts to prevent the formation of the Jewish State in 1948, and the wars that followed in 1956, 1967 and 1973, this is a bizarre turn of events. Israel is as unpopular in the Arab street as it has been in past decades (which is to say, widely hated), but for Arab rulers focused on the Iranian threat all those the Israeli Air Force jets must now appear alluring. The Israeli toughness the Arabs have complained about for over a half century is now their own most likely shield against Iran.

The Arab view that someone should bomb Iran and stop it from developing nuclear weapons is familiar to anyone who meets privately with Arab leaders, especially in the Gulf. Now, the curtain is being pulled back: Just last month, the United Arab Emirates’ ambassador to the United States, Yousef Al Otaiba, spoke publicly of a “cost-benefit analysis” and concluded that despite the upset to trade that would result and the inevitable “people protesting and rioting and very unhappy that there is an outside force attacking a Muslim country,” the balance was clear. The ambassador told an Aspen audience, “If you are asking me, ‘Am I willing to live with that versus living with a nuclear Iran?’ my answer is still the same: ‘We cannot live with a nuclear Iran.’ I am willing to absorb what takes place.” By speaking of “an outside force,” Ambassador Al Otaiba did not specifically demand U.S. action; he left the door open for volunteers.

And two weeks ago, the Israeli press carried reports of a visit to Saudi Arabia by Gen. Meir Dagan, chief of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency; Gen. Dagan is the point man on Iran for the Israeli government. This follows stories in the Times of London two months ago claiming that the Saudis would suspend their air defense operations to permit Israeli fighter planes to cross Saudi air space en route to an attack on Iran.

All this will be denied, of course, as it has always been, but Arab-Israeli (and for that matter, Arab-Palestinian) relations remain far more complicated than headlines suggest. Even in states where there are no politics as we know it—there are no elections or the outcomes are decided by fiat in the presidential palace—all politics is local, and concerns about the Palestinians take a back seat to national and personal interests. The minuet now being conducted by Arab foreign ministers with the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, is illuminating.

The issue is whether the Palestinians should move to direct negotiations with Israel, in place of the desultory “proximity talks” that have been led by U.S. envoy George Mitchell. Mr. Abbas has been very reluctant to make this decision, fearing venomous criticism from Hamas and wondering if direct talks would actually lead anywhere except to a further crisis down the road if and when they break down. Mr. Abbas has been laying down preconditions that make talks harder and harder to begin, asking in essence that the U.S. guarantee an outcome he likes on the central matters (refugees, borders, Jerusalem) before he will sit down at the table. Despite heavy American and European pressure, Mr. Abbas has been unwilling to decide anything. In fact, reversing years of effort by his predecessor Yasser Arafat to escape the tutelage of Arab states, he threw the ball to them. He would do whatever the Arab League told him to do.

But the Arab foreign ministers, meeting two weeks ago in Cairo, proved to be as wily as he. They decided to endorse direct talks, but with preconditions—and they left the timing to the Palestinians, thus leaving Mr. Abbas on his own. Their decision was to make Mr. Abbas bear any blame associated with the decision, while they ducked and returned to their hotel suites. They are for peace and talks with Israel, and they are helping the Americans, and they are backing their Palestinian brothers, unless of course things go sour, in which case it will be clear that Mr. Abbas made the wrong decision to enter (or not to enter) direct talks. All this under the guise of “Arab solidarity.”

There isn’t much solidarity this summer. For Syria, the only issue right now is regaining hegemony in Lebanon, and Syria is aligned with Iran and Hezbollah. Syrian President Bashar Assad visited Beirut a week ago for the first time since Syrian troops withdrew from Lebanon in 2005—a fitting symbol of the return of Syrian power.

But Syria’s border with Israel remains dead quiet, for the regime seeks no direct confrontation. The last time it moved to assert a leadership role in the region, by the secret construction of a nuclear reactor with designs supplied by North Korea, Israel bombed the site to smithereens in September 2007. So Syria arms Hezbollah, menaces the Lebanese and watches to see how the Americans will handle Iran. There will be no serious negotiations over the Golan Heights until the Iran issue is settled, for any Golan deal would require that Syria break with Iran—and such a move depends entirely on whether the regime there is rising or falling in influence.

For Lebanon, divided as ever among Sunni, Shia, Christian and Druze, the main concern is the forthcoming decision of the international tribunal investigating the murder of former prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. Will it name Syria or Hezbollah, the Shia terrorist group that controls much of the country? And how will Hariri’s son Saad, now prime minister, balance the need for stability against the desire for justice?

The fact that Mr. Assad of Syria arrived a week ago in a Saudi jet and accompanied by the Saudi King, Abdullah, shows Lebanese that Saudi support for their independence is a thing of the past. The Saudi message was clear: Make your own arrangements with Damascus and do not count on us. Until this week, the Lebanese border with Israel had been quiet since the 2006 war—Hezbollah and its Shia supporters were hurt badly enough to avoid a repetition. For months there have been rumors of war this summer along the Israeli-Lebanon border, but that was never in the cards. Hezbollah, whose well-trained terrorists and rockets aimed at Israel’s cities are supplied or financed by Iran, could attack Israel if Israel bombs Iran’s nuclear sites. Thus Hezbollah’s forces are both a deterrent to an Israeli attack, and a way for Iran to strike back at Israel if an attack occurs—an Iranian second-strike capability. The ayatollahs need Hezbollah intact and ferocious to scare the Israelis, so another Israel-Hezbollah war that might badly wound the Shia group is the last thing Tehran wants right now.

The incident last Tuesday, when Lebanese Army snipers shot into Israel, killing one Israeli officer and wounding another, is still not fully understood. It appears to be the work of the Lebanese commander in that area, a Shia considered close to Hezbollah. Perhaps the attack was his own nasty idea; perhaps Hezbollah ordered him to do it, using the Lebanese Army to change the subject away from the tribunal. Either way it is a reminder that Lebanon is not a normal country with an army under government control. It is a battlefield largely controlled by Syria and Hezbollah, and unable to determine its own fate.

For Egypt, there is one worry: Mr. Mubarak’s health. With a presidential election coming in the fall of 2011, will his 30 years in power (since Sadat’s assassination in 1981) end with a free election, or will the ill, 82-year-old Mr. Mubarak demand another term or the installation of his son Gamal as his successor? Meanwhile, Egypt’s dominance of Arab diplomacy and its overall influence in the region are declining steadily. The Arab League is still headquartered there, but it was symbolic of Egypt’s diminished status that the key figure in the foreign ministers’ meeting held there last week was Hamad bin Jassem of Qatar, the rich Gulf sheikdom with about 350,000 citizens, not Ahmed Aboul Gheit of Egypt, with a population of 80 million.

At stake in the succession crisis in Egypt is not simply who will rule the country, but whether a new president will maintain Egypt’s chilly but reliable peace with Israel. Here too there are shared enemies, in this case Hamas and other Palestinian radical and terrorist groups; Israel and Egypt have maintained together (though with Israel shouldering 99% of the blame) a blockade on Gaza since the Hamas coup there in 2007.

The Egyptian regime feels no love for the Israelis, but there is significant security cooperation between the two countries; Egypt’s rulers see the Shia in Iran, not the Jewish state, as the more dangerous threat to Arab power in the region. Egypt’s decisions in late July to bar an Iranian Red Crescent ship carrying aid to Gaza from entering the Suez Canal and to prevent four Iranian parliamentarians from crossing the border into Gaza are the most recent proof of this Egyptian attitude.

Whatever Egypt’s concerns about Iran, fears are far greater in the Gulf. Seen from those shores, the Palestinians are a constant drain on the pocketbook and, with Al Jazeera stirring things up through constant broadcasts depicting Israeli violence and Palestinian misery, a source of popular dissatisfaction. Israeli-Palestinian violence is poison for regimes that are concerned above all else with survival, and the “peace process” is a much-sought antidote. Everyone loves conferences that suggest “progress,” though as the decisions at the recent Arab League meeting show, everyone will seek to avoid the hard decisions that serious negotiations might necessitate.

The Palestinian issue has been with them for decades and may last decades more; the rise of Iran is new and pressing, given its proximity—and the existence of a Shia majority in Bahrain and a significant Shia population in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern province. It is not difficult to think of Iranian pressure, money and even guns leading to riots and violent uprisings.

The Gulf regimes have long relied on American protection, and the U.S. maintains large bases in the UAE, Bahrain (the Fifth fleet’s headquarters), Qatar and Kuwait. For these regimes and for the Saudis, Iran is a constant threat and the issue of the day is who will be, to use the old British phrase, “top country” in the region. Repeated American offers to negotiate with Iran, and statements from Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates respectively that an attack on Iran would be “incredibly destabilizing” or “disastrous” do not reassure them. They want Iran stopped. They are not sure the need to do that is understood as well in Washington as it is in Jerusalem—and at Israel Defense Forces headquarters in Tel Aviv.

Perhaps the enemy of my enemy is not my friend, if he is an Israeli pilot. In that case, all gestures of friendship will be forsaken or carefully hidden; there will be denunciations and UN resolutions, petitions and boycotts, Arab League summits and hurried trips to Washington. But none of that changes an essential fact of life well understood in many Arab capitals this summer: that there is a clear coincidence of interests between the Arab states and Israel today, in the face of the Iranian threat. Given the 60 years of war and cold peace between Israel and the Arabs, this is one of the signal achievements of the regime in Tehran—and could prove to be its undoing.

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.


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