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Copyright © 2019 The American Israel Public Affairs Committee

The Sidelining of the Arab-Israeli Conflict: A Review of Two Books

“Of all the policy myths that have kept us from making real progress in the Middle East, one stands out for its impact and longevity: the idea that if only the Palestinian conflict were solved, all the other Middle East conflicts would melt away.”

--Dennis Ross and David Makovsky in Myths, Illusions, and Peace: Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East.

Until the onset of the "Arab Spring" in late 2010, most journalists, academics and think-tank experts on the Near East shared one major assumption: The Arab-Israeli conflict, and its Israeli-Palestinian subset, were central to the region’s woes. While few maintained that Israel alone was responsible for the sorry state of the neighborhood, the reigning orthodoxy dictated that securing an Arab-Israeli peace was the most important key to solving the region’s problems.

No more. The six years since an obscure Tunisian vegetable vendor self-immolated have revolutionized views about the Near East. The shift of the Arab-Israeli conflict from the center to the margins of thinking about the region is evident in two recent books that spend little time on the Arab-Israeli dispute. Instead, they tackle what today are understood to be the Middle East’s two biggest challenges: galloping Islamic sectarianism (the Sunni-Shia divide) and the rise of radical Islamic jihadism, most notably the Islamic State (ISIS).

Geneive Abdo argues in The New Sectarianism: the Arab Uprisings and the Rebirth of the Shi’a–Sunni Divide (Oxford University Press: 2017) that “the recent uprisings [in the Middle East] have brought religious identity to a place of new importance in Arab societies” (page 6). Abdo sees hatred between the followers of Sunni and of Shia Islam growing, and the influence of moderate voices within both of these sects dissipating.

Among Sunnis, the strengthening of the extremes means that Islamists who compete in elections (Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, for example) are now overshadowed by Salafists, who reject all compromise with political modernity and aspire to establish an Islamic Caliphate—by force if necessary. ISIS and al-Qaida, and their many far-flung franchises, are the most violent and unbending examples of the Salafist phenomenon, which is infecting even mainstream Sunni attitudes.

In the Shia community, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who supports theocratic dictatorship and exporting the Iranian revolution, has more influence than the more moderate, and in comparison, relatively apolitical followers of Iraqi Shia Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Radical Iranians now call the shots in Iraq, and are actively planning to elect one of their own to replace the octogenarian Sistani as the top Shia cleric.

Furthermore, the Iranian-backed Lebanese terrorist organization Hezbollah previously styled itself as the vanguard of pan-Islamic and Arab “resistance” to Israel; without abandoning that claim, it now devotes far more attention to intra-Muslim conflict. Hezbollah today is essentially acting as an Iranian-controlled militia that defends Tehran’s interests throughout the Arab world, most conspicuously in Syria and Iraq. Hezbollah’s 2006 war with Israel temporarily made the group the darling of the Muslim world, Sunni and Shia alike. No longer. An editor of a pro-Hezbollah newspaper recently admitted, “for the Lebanese Sunnis, the Shia have replaced Israel as the number one enemy” (page 106).

When Abdo asked a member of Syrian President Assad’s Allawite sect (which self-identifies as Shia) what the real cause of the region’s unrest was, he replied without hesitation that the Salafists—not the Jews or the Israelis—were at fault, as they “are instruments of the West and serve to eliminate the Shia” (page 97). Thus, just as Sunnis now identify the Shia with Hezbollah and Supreme Leader Khamenei, so too do the Shia tend to lump together the Sunnis as violent jihadist Salafists in the mold of ISIS.

Abdo—a Lebanese American journalist with no particular brief for Israel—concludes her book noting that the Arab-Israeli conflict has been sidelined; instead the divisions between Islam’s two main sects are driving regional conflict:  “One, albeit highly striking, marker of just how deep this realignment has been within Arab societies can be seen in the fact that the one-time rallying cry across the Muslim world—that of ’resistance’ to Israeli occupation of Palestine—has far less currency in Arab political life today than in the past. Instead it is the sectarian fault line between the Sunni and the Shia and the identity politics that grows out of that divide that are now the key mobilizing forces” (page 150).

Unlike Abdo, Graeme Wood’s The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State (Random House: 2017) does not unveil a new template for understanding the Near East. He limits himself to ISIS, seeking to answer two basic questions about the Sunni jihadist group: Does ISIS believe what it says? Is it Islamic?  (His answer to both: "Yes”). The group’s special animadversion to the Shia is already on display in Wood’s “Note on Terminology” where he explains that for ISIS, “every Shia is an apostate and must be killed” (page xiii). Wood describes his discussions with a wide array of ISIS militants, none of whom have much to say about Israel or the Jews. This is not because they are philo-Semitic (one cheerfully told Wood “I hate all Jews and Christians, anyone who is not a Muslim”), but rather because their goal of reviving the Caliphate and defeating both the Shias and all non-Salafist Sunnis leads them in other directions (page 17). Thus, “Yahya the American” spews venom primarily against “clerics of disbelief” (page 171) and an ISIS sheikh rants about overthrowing apostate Muslim rulers in Turkey and Jordan—not Israel (page 184). 

Israel and the Jews play a minor role in ISIS’s bloodthirsty apocalyptic theology. The group envisions the main end-time battles as against “Rum” (Rome), which ISIS identifies as “the West”—and the armies of a shadowy Antichrist figure. Wood speculates that ISIS’s eschatology “may be one reason that the Islamic State spends less time complaining about Israel and the Jews than any other Jihadist organization” (page 263).  He also recognizes that ISIS’s intense hatred for everyone and everything living in the here and now (not in its own extremist mold) contributes to the neglect of the Jewish state. Why concentrate on puny Israel when there are millions upon millions of apostate Sunni and Shia Muslims closer at hand to slaughter first?

What does it mean for Israel?

Both Abdo and Wood illustrate just how unrelated the clash of Israeli and Palestinian nationalisms is to the major problems of today’s Middle East. If by some miracle Israel and its neighbors all made peace tomorrow, internecine violence in Libya, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen would proceed apace, as would Iran’s campaign of regional subversion and ISIS’s quest to murder as many Shia and Sunni "apostates," and American and European "infidels," as possible. For regional peace, resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict would be the proverbial key to an empty room.

Unfortunately, “de-linkage” does not operate reciprocally: Although the Arab-Israeli conflict has little impact on the Middle East’s many problems, the region’s maladies directly affect Israel’s prospects for a secure peace with its neighbors. Israel has already unilaterally evacuated two strategic swathes of territory: southern Lebanon in 2000 and the Gaza Strip in 2005. In both cases radical Islamist groups—Shia Hezbollah in Lebanon and Sunni Hamas in Gaza—filled the vacuum. And this was before the region began to disintegrate following the "Arab Spring."

Because sectarian, Islamist, and Iranian violence and aggression will continue to buffet the Near East for many years to come, Israel must prepare for worst case scenarios. These could include attempts by Iran or Salafist-assisted Islamist terrorists to seize control of any land Jerusalem evacuates in the West Bank; alternatively, Hezbollah could pummel Israel with tens of thousands of rockets and missiles. Although fighting the Jewish state may no longer be the extremists’ chief concern, they are not reconciled to its existence. These groups will likely exploit any Israeli weaknesses that emerge. Accordingly, Israel must seek iron-clad security guarantees if it decides to withdraw from territory abutting its heartland. The regional chaos that Abdo and Wood so effectively describe is clearly not Israel’s fault, but Israel must factor the impact of this maelstrom into its diplomatic and security calculations.  

Tags: Near East Report Near-East-Report