The Geo-Politics of the Middle East

The Geo-Politics of the Middle East


Howard Adelman

Last night we went to see two plays by Hannah Moscovitch – Little One and Other People’s Children – at the Tarragon Theatre. One was about pathological family geo-politics and the other about neurotic family geo-politics. They are magnificently written and were wonderfully acted and directed. Showing them back to back suggested that madness and neurosis are not that far apart after all. In some sense, that can be said about the Middle East.

Dr. Jonathan Spyer is an Arabist and senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Centre (GLORIA) at IDC Herzliya in Israel. He is also a columnist for the Jerusalem Post. British-born, Spyer has a PhD in Middle East politics from the London School of Economics. He also served as a press officer in the Prime Minister’s Office in Israel. His expertise covers Iran, radical Islam and the Arab Spring. However, his greatest in-depth knowledge is on Syria and Lebanon and he recently snuck into Syria in order to interview the Syrian rebel fighters. He is the author of The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict published in 2010. Barry Rubin called it "probably the best book in Israel to be published in thirty years" because, in part, it focuses on the rise of revolutionary Islamism and the struggle against it as the most important issue in the Middle East.

We had lunch yesterday afternoon with about a dozen others. After a brief introductory remark, he was pummelled with questions. This account represents my distillation and organization of his comments that, because of the nature of the dialogue, veered quite widely. I have added some of my own illustrations taken from my files because I did not take notes. I will cover the one area where I disagreed with him – the role of America in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process – tomorrow.

Spyer began with the theme that was central to his book – the shift in the politics of the Middle East from an Arab-Israeli conflict to an Islamist-Israeli conflict. It has resulted in the demise of all the secular military regimes beginning with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq to the mis-named Arab Spring revolts and replacements of military dictators – President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen, Col. Muammar Qadhafi in Libya. The last remaining holdout from his father’s military regime is Bashar Assad in Syria; he has been facing a civil war for two years and now only controls 40% of the country.

Thus far, of the completed revolutions, all of the secular nationalist regimes have been replaced by Sunni Muslim revolutionary governments. As Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, the chairman of the Transitional National Council in Libya, announced when the Council assumed the reins of power, “We are an Islamic country. We take the Islamic religion as the core of our new government. The constitution will be based on our Islamic religion.”

Thus, Israel faces a new Sunni Islamic Arab axis to its west that dislikes Israel far more than the military secular nationalist regimes that were replaced and with which Israel had learned to live. However, each of them is too weak economically and militarily and too caught up with trying to stabilize their own internal affairs to cause any direct threat in the immediate future to Israel.

There is a second grouping that survived the Arab Spring made up of the surviving Arab monarchies. They include the members of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (CCASG) that is made up of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as well as Jordan and Morocco which have been invited to become members. Only Bahrain seemed to teeter on the edge of a successful revolt for at least two possible reasons. King Hamad is a Sunni and the majority of Bahrain’s population is Shi’ite. Secondly, Bahain had run out of oil and most of its citizens lived in poverty. The revolt started on 14 February 2011. It was effectively quashed thirteen months later when, on 14 March 2012, in response to a formal request from King Hamad, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) deployed the Peninsula Shield Force to Bahrain. Saudi Arabia contributed 1,000 troops, including an armoured battalion. The United Arab Emirates supplied 500 police officers.

Of these, only Oman stands out for its independent foreign policy, its pragmatism and domestic efforts at real reform, most notable in rejecting the subservience of women who are invited to play a serious role in Oman’s social and political evolution and informed by an enlightened Ibadhi interpretation of Islam. (Ibadhis differ from both the Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam in both key attitudes and some core Islamic theological beliefs.) Oman, with a population of three million located on the southeastern corner of the Arabian Peninsula, is known for having the world’s largest sand desert – the 250,000-square-mile region that is known as the Empty Quarter.

Spyer referred to Oman’s foreign policy in passing but did not go into detail because it is generally well known among those who follow the Middle East and its historical development was well documented in Joseph A. Kechichian (1995) Oman and the World: The Emergence of an Independent Foreign Policy. Oman is the only state in the region that does not have a foreign policy driven by ideology and that tries to protect its security and prosperity through peaceful negotiations. Though an absolute monarchy like the others, His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Sa`id Al Bu Sa`id (Qaboos) has largely overcome both internal civil strife and alien forces like Iran since he overthrew his father in a palace coup in 1970. On the one hand, Oman supports regional security and stability in the Gulf based on dialogue, mutual interests and what it calls self-reliant defence. At the same time, Oman cooperates with allies through mutual trust and a balance of power and interests between the Gulf states and regional powers.

Oman supported President Sadat’s peace initiative with Israel in 1977 and Sadat’s role in the U.S.-sponsored Camp David peace talks in 1978. Oman did not break diplomatic relations with Cairo for recognizing Israel and did not attend the 1978 Baghdad Rejectionist summit condemning Egypt. In 1994, Qaboos invited official Israeli government representatives to a conference on water desalinization and subsequently welcomed Prime Minister Rabin to Oman, an unprecedented public visit by an Israeli leader to an Arab Gulf state. From 1996-2000, Oman and Israel exchanged trade offices. Though now closed, there is an Omani Embassy in Israel and formal diplomatic representation for Israel in Muscat and the resumption of relations always seem pending but get set back by events. For example, when Israel bombed the truck supply carrying arms from Syria to Hezbollah in February, Omani Parliament Speaker Sheikh Khalid bin Hilal condemned the Israeli attack on 6 February 2013 and called it shameful and in line with the Tel Aviv regime’s aggressive policies against Muslim and Arab countries, but did not, as Iran’s Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani did, describe Israel as the Zionist enemy of the Islamic world responsible, along with the U.S., for destabilizing Syria.

The third and most intractable and venemous axis is the Shi’ite religious axis that now includes Iran, Iraq, Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and a quasi-loyal Sunni Hamas outpost in Gaza. Ironically, Iran’s most solid ally has become Shi’ite dominated Iraq, especially because of the powerful influence of Muqtada al-Sadr, Iran’s cat’s paw, on the Shia coalition in Baghdad. Instead of a strong ally and a model for Arab democracy, at great cost to America, the US helped establish an enemy regime. However, the downfall of Saddam Hussein did set the precedent for the tumbling down of Arab secular military nationalist regimes. It also re-established Iraq as a major oil producer. After a cost of almost a trillion dollars ($800 billion for the war and $50 billion for reconstruction) and 4,486 American soldiers killed between 2003 and 2012, the result has been Iran’s strongest ally diplomatically opposing American efforts to rein in Iran’s nuclear program and permitting extensive smuggling to undermine the economic sanctions regime. When American troops were withdrawn in 2011, America had to turn over to Iraq the one dozen multi-billion dollar air bases originally intended for a long term presence.

Both Iraq and Iran are supporters of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria and Iraq permits Iran to use its air space to ship arms to Assad. Though the Shiite Iran-Iraq-Syria axis challenges the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (CCASG) for dominance in the region, Spyer pointed out that Iran has been the biggest loser from the Syrian war and the demise of the Syrian regime, especially if the Assad regime fails to keep control of Damascus and the western ports. After all, Iran funded the new multi-million dollar base on the Syrian coast in Latakia to allow it to ship weapons to Syria directly. The Syrian port city of Tartus hosts the Russian naval supply and maintenance base for its Baltic fleet which Russia has been renovating and dredging to accommodate its largest naval vessels. In 2011, Syria’s arms contracts with Russia were worth $4billion. Russia has steadfastly prevented UN Security Council condemnations of Syria or imposing any sanctions or intervention of any kind. Nevertheless, Assad has lost control of half his country and the Islamist Sunni militias now sit in control on the other side of the Golan Heights.

In Spyer’s book, he described the second 2006 Lebanon War in which he participated directly (and was blown out of his tank in the process) as the first major engagement of the Shiite Islamist war against Israel in which Hezbollah established itself as a credible military force in confronting the much more powerful Israeli forces. (I was mot able to ask him, but I heard that Spyer is preparing a new book on the efficacy and morale of the Shi’ite Islamist forces.) If it were not enough that Israel now faces a more belligerent Sunni Islamist axis to its west, a virulent but noticeably weakening Iran-Iraq-Syrian Shiite axis to its east and a not exactly friendly Arab monarchical alliance in the Gulf, Israel now faces a fourth hostile outpost in the Middle East with the militant Islamic regime in Turkey where it once had an ally but which under its Islamic government has used its demonization of Israel to pursue a rival centre of leadership for the Islamic-Arab world, a futile effort in Spyer’s eyes, but nevertheless one that poses a continuing challenge to Israel. That shift has been accompanied by the creation of what Spyer in his book called the “mythical Israel” that has become a dominant image in both Sunni and Shiite Islamist circles where Israel is portrayed as “a place of uninterrupted darkness and horror, in which every human interaction is ugly, crude, racist, brutal." Each of the various axes uses Israel in different ways as a demonic wedge to advance its own hegemonic interests in the region. One positive outcome of this shift has been reconciliation with Greece, traditionally a source for the strongest support for the Palestinians.

None of this is helped by the US withdrawal from its former predominance in the Middle East and Europe’s growing political critique of Israel as Europe concentrates on its economic interests in the Middle East and allows the caricature of the demonic Israel to grow domestically, especially in Britain. That Israel is thriving economically and technologically, that the IDF is once again a disciplined and commendable military force that in addition to its commendable virtues of the flexibility, willingness to improvise and independence of thought of its soldiers and officers has also recovered its ability to plan carefully and in detail, has helped restore Spyer’s confidence in Israel’s future in spite of these challenges. The fact that Israel is on the verge of energy self-sufficiency with the development of its two huge gas deposits discovered on its Mediterranean coast, makes Israel stronger than ever in dealing with these radically changed external circumstances. Further, whatever the differences over increased economic income spreads domestically and over Jerusalem and the issue of Palestinian borders, the reality is that in terms of domestic politics, Israel had fewer political differences than in the last sixty years. Just as the whole region has evolved to make religious ideology more central, this has also happened in Israel and even with the reconciliation of secularists with the religious stream. Though Spyer did not mention this, the new coalition without the religious parties is, ironically, likely to consolidate this reconciliation as the ultra-orthodox are forced to join in, accept and share the major political, economic and military responsibilities of the rest of the Israelis.

In addition to Shiite and Sunni religious ideologies replacing earlier regional pan-Arabic and secular nationalist military ideologies as the leading ideologies in the region, at the end of Spyer’s talk he articulated another long term trend, the religious cleansing of Christians from the Middle East. The former two million Christians in Iraq have almost all gone. Those who became refugees in Syria are now in flight again and he mentioned meeting many in Turkey seeking a haven in the west. These have been supplemented by Syria’s own Christian population in fear of what awaits them if the Assad regime falls. For whatever the Assad regime did negatively, Christians were largely protected by the Alawites. Further, the five million Coptic Christians in Egypt are now under threat. The elite have already developed tracks for safe havens elsewhere and many more are making plans to leave. This transformation possibly represents the greatest demographic change in the Middle East in two millennia.

Tomorrow: Revisiting the Two State Solution

[Tags  Spyer, Middle East, Sunni. Shi'ite, Gulf States, Israel, Iran,
Syria, Christ

The Geo-Politics.ME.13.03.13.doc

Israeli Elections Prediction – Actual

Likud Beiteinu (Netanyahu) 32 31
Yesh Atid (Yair Lapid) 14 18-19
Labour (Shelley Yachimovitch) 17 17
Shas (The Trio) 11 13
Habayit Heyehudi (Naftali Bennet) 14 12
Hatenu’ah (Tzipi Livni) 8 6-7
Meretz (Zahava Gal-On) 6 6-7
United Torah Judaism (The Duo) ? 6
I had not expected that Kadima would be totally wiped out and expected them to get 2 seats.

Right: Likud Beiteinu + Habayit Heyehudi (excluding Shas) 46
Left & Centre: Yesh Atid + Labour + Hatenu’ah (excluding Meretz) 39

Not bad for a total amateur and record as a lousy prophet. I, but along with virtually everyone else, had not predicted as many seats for Yesh Hatid. I was reasonably close on all the rest because I had not predicted the Haredi vote. If I had, I would have been too low. These preliminary results based on exit polls will shift somewhat as votes cast for parties that did not make it into the Knesset are redistributed.

And for now I will stick by my prediction of a Centre-Right + Centre-Left broad coalition without the Haredi parties led by Bibi since he has already hinted that this is his preference and he has already reached out to Lapid.

Likud Beiteinu (Netanyahu) 31
Yesh Atid (Yair Lapid) 19
Labour (Shelley Yachimovitch) 17
Hatenu’ah (Tzipi Livni) 7

Total 74

This contrasts with Channel 2’s predictions of a narrow right coalition with 61 seats that includes Shas and UTJ. I think it is incorrect because Bibi hates being in a straight jacket.

Israeli Election Prediction

Last night I undertook a poll of my own. The sample consisted of four Israelis. Nevertheless, however small the sample, I believe there are insights to be gained and I am going out on a limb to make some predictions if only to once again prove how lousy a prophet I am.

1. Israeli (A), who is normally right of centre, is voting Meretz led by Zahava Galon because A was unhappy with the marriage of Bibi and Lieberman’s party to form Likud Beiteinu, because Bibi had turfed out his moderate right wingers like Benny Begin and Dan Meridor and had given the wild men such as Moshe Feiglin more prominence (he was runner up to Bibi in the Likud party and received 23% of the vote for leadership perhaps because of the low vote turnout among party members an unnoticed prophetic sign about the weakening loyalty of Likud supporters) and because A was most concerned about the growing and very significant financial disparities. Asked why not vote Labour; was A not voting for Labour because Labour was ignoring the peace with the Palestine issue. After all, Labour has made a big thing of the economic divide and could theoretically possibly form a government which Meretz could not. No, was the answer. A thought the peace issue was a non-issue A did not like Shelley Yachimovitch personally but wanted to vote for a party that represented the economic issues and who would NOT form a coalition with Haredi in it. A had passed the tolerance level with the Tal Law allowing Haredi to defer indefinitely national service, especially since the Supreme Court of Israel had declared it illegal, but Bibi still had not resolved the issue. The return of the ex-criminal Aryeh Deri to prominence in Shas as a joint leader with Yishai and Atias was also a turn off (at least for her as an anti-Shas voter). A thought Avigdor Lieberman was a racist and Bennett was too far to the right.

2. B was normally moderately left of centre and the most important issue was an anti-Haredi vote – this person, like A, is Orthodox but is fed up with the corruption on the religious side as well as with a form of blackmail politics. The Palestinian Peace issue was a matter of indifference since there was no prospect of peace with the Palestinians no matter who formed a government. B was voting Meretz as the strongest way to make that preference known.

3. C is a liberal and more left of centre than B and voting for Meretz which sometimes attracted C’s vote in the past, but not the very recent past. [The three did not at all influence one another’s vote.] This was a way of expressing support for the greater justice economic platform but also the pro-peace platform, which Labour had ignored, even though this person also believed there was no prospect of peace with the Palestinians unless Obama put enormous pressures on both sides, which was unlikely given both Obama’s character, his huge agenda and the make-up of Congress. C wanted to vote for a party that would get into the Knesset but NOT be part of a government at this time, thus sending a message, remaining relevant but not compromising C’s integrity.

4. D was part of a growing number of Israelis who stay away from the ballot box on election day and deliberately do not vote because D believed that voting for any party would not make a difference and casting one’s ballot for a party that would not win would not be a strong enough expression of disgust and indifference with the whole political process of repugnant ads, repeated robo-calls and superficial reasons associates gave for voting for one party or another. This was a version of Dow Marmur’s disillusioned voter who says “A Plague on all your houses” but was so cynical and disgruntled with the democratic process altogether that even casting a protest vote was not enough of an expression of cynicism and disillusion. Nevertheless, in spite of this attitude, D acknowledged and A had stressed, that there was far more interest in this election than the last one. (B, in fact, thought that this election was pivotal.)

My general predictions.
1. Meretz will do better than it has for a long time if only because it will have garnered three voters from very different camps, two who have not voted for Meretz before and two of those voters in spite of Meretz opposing Operation Pillar of Defence in Gaza. Zahava Gal-On has established her mettle as a leader by breaking the Israeli pattern of driving competitors out who went on to form new parties; Gal-On co-opted Ilan Gilon, her main competitor for leadership who got 37% of the votes, to stay on board.
2. Though not because of my survey, except insofar as Naftali Bennet of Habayit Heyehudi brought about very strong negative feelings in those I surveyed, Bennet will I believe do even better than the polls predict because people feel very strongly about him both negatively and positively and because he is both religious but anti-Haredi because of Haredi non-military service. Bennet’s strong pro-IDF is very important to his garnering votes, particularly in the currently perceived Israel insecurity while, paradoxically feeling a strong sense that Israelis are strong enough to be self-reliant. In spite of Yisrael Beitenu’s pushing the Equal National Services for All bill, the anti-Haredi vote is largely going to Bennet because Yisrael Beitenu had not retained its virginity but had merged its fortunes with Likud which had not got its act together to pass an anti-Haredi bill.
3. Bibi was not being bothered this time by the anti-vanity and anti-egotistic voter, but he was also not garnering their repellence. Likud was still losing votes and would fall below the previous strength of the two parties he now led, but would, as widely predicted, have the largest bloc in the new Knesset and would lead the new government. The union of Likud and Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu lost Likud votes, but those votes did not only go to Bennet. Further, the most important damage to Bibi was not his speech supporting a two state solution based on land transfers but retention of a Greater Jerusalem – a non-starter in the peace process, though he clearly lost supporters to Bennet over the issue. The most important damage he suffered was when he lost the aura of the master-coalition builder when he could not forge a government to pass the anti-Haredi bill and pass a budget so the government could serve its full four year mandate.
4. Bibi’s popularity surge when he had Gilad Shalit released from captivity in Gaza after over five years was undercut when Noam Shalit, Gilad’s father, joined Labour. Another reason for the loss of votes was that Bibi was not successful in making security, particularly with respect to Iran, a more prominent issue, but not prominent enough to give Bibi a mandate to launch a pre-emptive attack on Ian’s nuclear facilities or even make that a decisive election issue. In fact, given Morsi’s leadership in Egypt and his anti-semitic views, given Erdogan’s leadership of Turkey, given the politics of the opposition in Syria, the sense that Israel was surrounded only by enemies and could not depend on anyone else to defend Israel, had grown. The surprise to me, given these perceptions, was why Israeli security was not more prominent and why domestic security was more prominent. Israel, with one-quarter of Canada’s population, has a murder and crime rate that is one half of Canada’s. Domestic politics on the security front as well as the economic front loomed larger than had been the pattern in the past. After all, Labour had been given a real boost when Moshe Mizrachi, the very popular head of the International Crime Investigation Commission, joined the party.
5. The electoral process itself turns voters off, particularly the media blitz and the belief that the party leaders are vain glorious, an epithet usually previously attached mostly to Bibi, but NOT this time, but to Bennet, but also Tzipi Livni of Hatenu’ah, Shaul Mofaz of Kadima and Yair Lapid of Yesh Hatid, if only because leaders on the left of centre and the peace process side were not able to put aside their huge egos to form a united left that could possibly lead a government. In fact, Livni formed Hatenu’ah because she lost the leadership of Kadima to Mofaz and took away seven of its Knesset members. Yet Labour and Yesh Hatid did manage to sign an agreement to merge their total votes so that the party with the most votes would, if entitled by extra unused surplus votes entitling an additional seat, be awarded that seat.
6. Shelley Yachimovitch has not had enough time or enough elections under her belt to re-establish Labour as the prominent brand, though she did save the brand from extinction, but will have to develop Bibi’s skills in co-opting other leaders and parties in the centre and on the left to once again re-establish Labour as the party of government, for the most important skill in Israeli politics is how you deal with, use and co-opt other people’s big egos.
7. The Palestinians gaining member non-voting status in the UN was a non-issue except insofar as it made Israelis more cynical about the UN. The peace process is dead for the next four years and will be even deader if Palestinians resort to violence in protest against creeping annexation and the futility of the peace process, but without taking responsibility for their own part in the doldrums in which the peace process finds itself, a main reason the peace process is in the doldrums. In fact efforts at the usual confidence building turn Jewish Israeli voters off more than inspiring them to do something. Further, even many Israeli voters on the moderate left do not believe the building more settlements in Metropolitan Jerusalem has had any negative effect on the peace process even if it has not helped that process. I suspect that the Economics Party formed by the American-born Goldstein brothers on a platform of economic partnerships with the Palestinians as a key step towards peace will make little traction.
8. Not only was the Palestinian peace issue not even on a back burner, so was the situation of the Israeli Arabs.
9. Feminism has not been an issue, not, I believe, because of the reason Dow Marmur suggested that Israel is in the macho Middle East, but because none of those I surveyed (half women) thought it was relevant to this election except insofar as A reacted so negatively to the ultra-Orthodox parties.
10. In my survey, the voters were less concerned with the outcome of the election itself than the effect it would have on the political jockeying afterwards to form a government and, primarily, whether the government formed would be an anti-Haredi coalition or a right wing coalition which included Shas and UTJ. I am very curious, but have no idea, how Rabbi Haim Amsalm, who supported a liberal conversion law and supported greater Haredi integration and was consequently forced out of Shas, will do with his new Am Shalem party and whether or not he will even get a seat or, for that matter, the other splinter Haredi groups Under Shmuel Auerbach (Netzah) or the followers of the Breslov rabbi in Kalanu Chaverim, but I suspect the latter two parties will get nowhere but will give impetus to splitting the Haredi vote.

Helped by Stephen Miller’s polls but without the help of Nathan Silver, and thus necessarily flawed, I suspect the results will be, indeed, a Likud Beiteinu victory but with only 32 seats and not the 35-37 predicted or the combined total of 47 (Likud 27 and Yisrael Biteinu 15) previously held. In reality, this should be considered a defeat. Labour will at least double its representatives and get 17 or 18 seats and be the second largest party and saved from what only two years ago predicted to be its death. The third party will be Habayit Heyehudi with 14 seats though polls predicted Bennet had faltered on the last lap and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Hatid may give Bennet’s party a run for its money for third place. In effect the combined right will have no more seats in this Knesset than in the last, but the shift to the right will be stronger. Meretz will double its seats to 6. Kadima will be virtually wiped out retaining only a couple of seats. The Haredi parties (Shas and United Torah Judaism or UTJ), in spite of splits on their side, will still hold 15-17 seats. Just think, if Hatenu’ah gets 8 seats or so, the centre-left, if effectively combined and led, could have been the largest party with about 40 seats.

So the prospects are:
1. An anti-Haredi coalition of the right-centre-moderate left with the following parties:
Likud Beiteinu (somewhat humbled – not necessarily a good thing) 32
Labour 17
Yesh Hatid 14
Hatenu’ah 8

Total 71

2. A right wing coalition as follows:
Likud Beiteinu 32
Habayit Heyehudi 14
Yesh Hatid 14
Hatenu’ah 8

Total 68

If the remnants of Kadima are added, the anti-Haredi coalition would be even stronger.
Alternatively, Bibi could try to form a coalition with Shas and UTJ and leave out one of the above to retain leverage over his real political rivals. But if he reads the tea leaves and the times correctly, he may form an anti-Haredi coalition and finally pass the needed reforms on conversion, rabbinical monopolies, corruption in the housing ministry. I suspect a turnout rate will run against the downward trend and generally help the anti-Haredi parties and counter somewhat the propensity for the Haredi voting in high numbers.