Israel in an (Un)Changing Middle East

Prof. Elie Podeh August 2018
/ Israel and the Middle East

The Middle East is a confusing area. On the one hand, it is highly volatile, with frequent changes throughout the region and in the domestic affairs of its countries. On the other hand, many elements remain constant. Unchanging stability and stable changes are the two faces of the Middle East that were in force last year. On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, it is tempting to offer an analysis of this (un)changing Middle East during that time.

The Arab Spring that erupted in late 2010 brought revolution and regime change to Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen; civil war to Syria, Libya and Yemen; and widespread demonstrations to Bahrain, Jordan and Morocco. Yet, these events did not affect – at least until now – the territorial integrity of those states. The reality is that these boundaries are more stable than many people anticipated – a product of international norms, local state identities and the elite’s interests. Some changes may still be foreseen in Libya and Yemen, yet the overall picture is of continuing stability despite these upheavals.

No less stable were the authoritarian regimes, some demonstrating even harsher methods of control than before. Sisi’s Egypt is a case in point. The one exception was Tunisia, which succeeded in transforming its authoritarian regime into a democracy. Indeed, according to the ranks of Freedom House, Tunisia is the only Arab country that was rated as “free,” with a score that was not far from Israel’s (70 in comparison to 79). Only four Arab states were considered “partly free” – Lebanon, Morocco, Jordan and Kuwait (in that order), while all the rest were rated “not free.”

However, most Arab countries remained fragile, on the verge of collapse. Some are virtually failed states. According to the Fragile States Index of the Fund of Peace, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, South Sudan and Somalia are among the 10 most fragile of the world’s 178 states. Fragility stems not only from constant and embittered civil wars but from structural, economic and social problems; malfunctioning governments and bureaucracies; and spiraling population growth.

The only improvement in the last year occurred in Iraq, which rose from four in 2006 to 11 in 2018. Yet, the picture is not as bleak in the Arabian Gulf, where all Gulf Cooperation Council countries were said to be stable with little poverty, in contrast to the relative high percentage of poverty in Yemen, Syria, Egypt, Morocco and other Arab countries.

Superpower intervention in the Middle East has not dramatically changed either. Putin’s Russia is still the major foreign power in Syrian, trying to project power in other states through diplomacy and arm sales. Neither has the US withdrawn from the Middle East, yet its role is secondary. It is yet to be seen whether President Donald Trump’s bold decisions – pulling out of the nuclear deal, imposing sanctions on Iran and Turkey, and recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital – will have positive effects. The unpredictability of US policy is generally detrimental to the region’s stability.

Iran and Turkey continue to meddle in the region’s affairs. Iran continues to project power with the help of its proxies – Assad in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Houthis in Yemen and pro-Iranian forces in Iraq. Turkey is directly involved in the Syrian crisis, in an effort to prevent the emergence of an independent or autonomous Kurdish entity by creating a security zone on the Turkish-Syrian border. Yet, both Iran and Turkey are now entangled in domestic economic crises of their own, which may curtail their ability to project power beyond their borders anytime soon.

The emergence of non-Arab regional powers accentuates the fact that the traditional Arab powers – Egypt, Iraq and Syria – no longer play a key role in regional politics. This is a result of domestic challenges that continue to hamper their ability to project power. Iraq’s role has been marginalized since the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), while Egypt’s and Syria’s power has declined since the Arab Spring. Egypt’s absence from the Arab world and its involvement in the crises along its borders (particularly in Gaza and along the Nile) attest to the severity of its domestic constraints. Saudi Arabia attempted to fill this vacuum, although its military adventure in Yemen, the economic pressure on Qatar and the diplomatic struggle in Syria have not yet yielded impressive results.

The Israeli-Palestinian sphere provides the best illustration of the (un)changing nature of the Middle East. Gaza continues to attract headlines with its humanitarian crises, often attributed to the Israeli and Egyptian siege. Egyptian mediation between Israel and Hamas in an attempt to reach a prolonged ceasefire (hudna) has been underway for some time and may bring some cessation of the violence, but will not change the basic animosity and mistrust that will continue to exist between Israelis and Palestinians as long as no comprehensive agreement is reached.

Trump’s “deal of the century” has not yet been released but it seems that his Jerusalem decision put the brakes on a future agreement unless he finds a way to compensate the Palestinians. Yet, any compensation will meet a strong Israeli outcry, which may impede further progress.

Israeli decision makers see the complex situation in the Middle East as serving their interests. As long as Iran, Shi’ism and terrorism pose a threat to Israel and to the major Arab Sunni countries, covert cooperation from those quarters will likely continue. Seen from Jerusalem, the stalemate in the peace process is a blessing, allowing Israel to further entrench its already strong hold in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank). Israeli leaders should, however, be reminded that as much as Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah are a constant threat, it is the Palestinian problem that is the core of the conflict. Its resolution is the only way for normalizing Israel’s place in the Middle East.

Prof. Elie Podeh is a Board Member at the Mitvim Institute. He teaches at the Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

(originally published in the Jerusalem Post)

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