Between dream and reality
Realism must always be equated with moderation, at least as far as the Arab-Israeli conflict is concerned, argues Rahim El-Kishky*
Last week it seemed obvious that the Arabs had split into two camps. On one side are the radicals meeting in Doha, surprisingly headed by Qatar and joined by countries like Iran, Syria, and by Hamas, all famous for publicly wanting to wipe Israel off the face of the earth or, at least for now, suspending diplomatic ties if any ever existed with Israel and the US. On the other side, and meeting simultaneously, is the moderate camp, headed by Egypt and joined by countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Jordan, which are keen on negotiating a peaceful solution between Israel and the Palestinians. The general atmosphere was not encouraging. Never in our recent history have Arabs' differences been so obvious. Although disagreements and fights have always existed -- both publicly and behind the scenes -- they at least occurred under one roof.
The day before the moderates were to meet in Kuwait a local newspaper quoted Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa as saying he was depressed. Other newspapers offered similar headlines that reflected the general Arab mood. The opening note of the host, Sheikh Nasser Al-Sabbah, the prime minister of Kuwait, highlighted the horrible events and the destruction in Gaza, urging the Arabs to come together and end the Palestinians' suffering.
The following day the mood was no different. During a Q&A session with Lebanon's prime minister a Kuwaiti journalist, rather than asking a question, started describing the sad state of the Arab world, how weak the Arabs have become, how their leaders' hands are tied while Palestinians are being massacred by the hundreds, and compared the present to the golden age of Islam when Arabs fought with their swords. The journalists' last words were "let's bring back pride to Islam and to ourselves, let's take our rotten arms that we never dared to use and fight, let's wipe out Israel."
The journalist's words were so passionate and eloquent that suddenly the hall turned euphoric. The half-empty hall was suddenly full and you could see tears in the eyes of some. My heart started to pound. I wasn't sure why. May be it was in rage and sorrow, may be because of disappointment. But I knew that at that very moment I and the rest of the people in the hall would have marched towards Israel and fought. With what and how did not matter. I knew that if I were in Fouad Al-Siniora's shoes -- he was still on the podium listening -- I would have called my chief of staff then and there and declared war.
A few minutes later I paused and was shocked at my own reaction. I realised how emotions can make people irrational, how they make you vulnerable and easily manipulated. I have never been pro-war and never will be. Interestingly, all the people in the hall -- or at least most of them -- shared my view. After all, we were all in Kuwait supporting the moderates, not in Qatar with the radicals. Yet why were we so moved by these words? Quite simply because we are all Arabs. We all like to think of ourselves as strong and able to fight back aggressors and defend our brothers and sisters. But then again we have to be realistic. That's the difference between leaders -- or at least some of them -- and the rest of us.
Being realistic means we have to accept the fact that Israel exists and will continue to exist. The problem with Iran and its proxies, Hamas and Hizbullah, is that they do not want to accept this geopolitical fact. They must know that Israel will never disappear but they have to keep claiming it will to score points with their own people, and with people in other countries in order to get them to turn against their own leaders who might not share the same vision as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's president who more than three years ago vowed to wipe Israel off the map. No one can deny that he gained the admiration of many in the Arab world, but again we should pause and think twice. If he's really sincere, why hasn't he tried? What better opportunity than the current one in Gaza? Israel is at war with Hamas. Hizbullah can start another war in the north. Even better, the US is involved in two different wars -- both resented by Americans -- and facing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
So what is Ahmadinejad waiting for? Another 70 years for such an opportunity to come again? Or maybe to get elected in June and try in his next term? The fact is he never intended to go to war or wipe Israel off the map. The West should have never taken him seriously. More importantly, the Arab people should never allow such empty words to manipulate them.
Now, after four years in power, what has Ahmadinejad accomplished? The poor who elected him in hope of a better life are poorer. The rich, who can provide a better life for the poor, are also poorer. His country is isolated from the world due to UN sanctions and according to many analysts Iran's economy is on the verge of collapse if oil, now at $33 a barrel, remains below $75. Recent reports have emerged that the popularity of Khatemi -- Iran's moderate ex-president -- is rising even without his announcing he will run in the upcoming elections. So all this threat of destruction is for what? Just to score cheap points.
On the international front Ahmadinejad has supported Hamas and Hizbullah with funds and arms. Both groups have engaged in battles with Israel but what did they accomplish? How many Israelis did they kill? In many instances they did not hesitate to kill their fellow Muslims when their authority was challenged. Think of November 2007, when the Lebanese government tried to seize control of its national telecom network from Hizbullah, and Gaza, in July 2008, when Hamas decided to seize control of the city, executing Fatah's soldiers and throwing them off Gaza's rooftops.
Whether the struggles are with other Arab factions or directly with Israel the outcome has always been to Israel's advantage while Arab losses reach thousands of lives and billions of dollars. Those who believe that the Arabs can relive their golden age and conquer the world with their swords have to think again. Back then we only needed faith and bravery to win a war; now wars are operated digitally thousands of miles away from battlefields where neither faith nor bravery is needed. You can lack both and still win a war with the press of a button. The unfortunate reality is that Arabs are trailing in these military technologies by decades. Those who believe that if Arabs unite and strike Israel as one they can wipe Israel off the map have to think again. Israel itself is not the problem. People seem to forget that Israel's patron, the United States, will never allow Israel to vanish. Neither will Europe nor the UN.
In the 1973 War, Egypt and the Arabs did everything right. Perfectly synchronised attacks from Egypt and Syria were orchestrated. An oil embargo was secretly planned two months before the attack and announced a few days after the war started. When it finally seemed that the Arabs were winning the war, the US intervened with major re-supplies and within a few days the balance was back in Israel's favour. What the Arabs need to understand is that they cannot prevail over Israel by force, at least not under the current circumstances. History has shown us that the Arabs have lost land in every war against Israel, and only gained land with peace. There is no shame in that. Victories can also be achieved through peace.
Given Israel's military might and its constant violations of UN resolutions, one might ask another question. What prevents Israel from wiping Palestine off the map? Is it fear of Hamas? Or is it Israel's humane nature that prevents it from killing women and children? For a bunch of tin cans thrown into Israel's backyard, the casualty ratio of the last assault on Gaza and Hamas, which involved ground troops, was 1:100. That answers my first question. Over 500 of the 1,400 dead Palestinians were women and children, which answers my second question. Israel undoubtedly wishes to wipe out Palestinians, exactly as we Arabs wish Israel did not exist. But as strange as it may sound what is truly deterring Israel is the good relationship between the United States and Arab countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. It's gas and trade agreements with some Arab countries and, more importantly, it's Arab-Israeli and Arab-US diplomatic ties that allow Arab countries to sit at negotiating tables and relentlessly press for a fair settlement with Israel so that Palestinians can finally live in peace. American support of Israel is not an enigma; Israel is simply the only truly democratic pro-US country in the midst of a region that is of a great strategic importance to the US. The only way for Arab countries to undermine Israel's importance to the US is to be of greater value to the US. The Arab saying "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" should in fact be "the friend of my enemy must be my friend, especially when it's the world's most powerful country."
It seems to be working. On 9 January 2009 the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution condemning Israel. It was the first anti-Israeli resolution to pass without a US veto in 35 years. Since 1972 the US has vetoed over 40 anti-Israeli resolutions. The vote was a great diplomatic victory for Arab countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which have enough weight to pressure the US not to veto such a resolution. According to Israeli officials the US abstention was "alarming", "depressing" and might be "a turning point in the US-Israeli relationship".
Ironically, the reasons why leaders like President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and King Abdullah of Jordan are being accused by their own people of being traitors are the same reasons why Israel has been defeated in the UN, and a week later decided on a unilateral ceasefire. It was not because of Hamas's so-called rockets. Neither was it Iran's hollow words. Those who are accused of being traitors to the Palestinian and the Arab cause are the ones who chose to save Palestinian lives at the expense of boosting their own images at home. Those who are accused of being traitors are the ones truly mourning the deaths of their Palestinian brothers and sisters, while deluded Hamas celebrates its so-called victory amid Gaza's ruins.
* The writer is a political researcher.