Originally published at Rubin Reports.
For decades in the Middle East the most reliable political tool often seemed to be the Israel card, the idea that by condemning Israel, blaming it for the Arab world’s problems, and claiming that those who were insufficiently militant on the issue were traitors.
But the Israel card doesn’t work anymore, at least not in the way it used to do so. True, the rise of revolutionary Islamism has focused more hatred against Israel. Yet at the same time—and this analogy is imperfect—it is less of a single-issue movement. As revolutionary Islamists seek to destroy their rivals (nationalist, moderates, and each other) and fundamentally transform their own societies, they are kept pretty busy.
Jibril Rajoub, a senior Fatah official and supposed moderate, may insist that Israel is the main enemy of the Arabs and Muslims, but the Arabs and Muslims aren’t paying much attention. The Palestinian Authority which his group runs–and which rules only on the West Bank [Judea and Samaria -.ed]–has no Middle Eastern patron at all.
The Sunni-Shia conflict is deepening, with clashes already taking place in Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and above all Syria. Indeed, the Syrian civil war is a full-scale contest between the two blocks. Even Muslim Brotherhood think-tanks have said that the Shia, and especially Iran, are more dangerous threats than is Israel.
The chance that these two blocs would cooperate against Israel is close to zero. It was different a few years ago.
Before the “Arab Spring,” Iran seemed set to become the region’s Muslim superpower. If Tehran obtained nuclear weapons (sometimes referred to as the “Islamic bomb”) it was expected to wield growing influence throughout the Arab world.
Today, however, that situation has reversed itself. Sunni Arabs, whether they are Islamists or anti-Islamists, openly hate and fear Iran. A nuclear weapon in Tehran’s hands would not increase its strategic or political influence. Iran faces a Sunni wall against its ambitions and it is almost without Arab allies.
As for Hizballah, Iran’s sole reliable ally, it is not able to attack Israel from southern Lebanon. Thousands of its soldiers are tied up in Syria to keep an arms’ supply open, help the Bashar al-Assad regime win, and protect Shia villagers. It also faces growing opposition from Sunni Muslims, financed by the Saudis and stirred up by hatred over Hizballah’s actions in Syria, within Lebanon itself. Plus the fact that the Lebanese don’t want to be victimized by Hizballah going to war with Israel given the damage suffered in the late round in 2006.
And what of the Syrian regime itself? For decades it held Syria together in large part by portraying itself as the most courageous, militant force rejecting peace with Israel and striving to wipe that country off the map. As late as three or four years ago, President Bashar al-Assad’s strong support for Hizballah, opposition to the “peace process,” and championing of Sunni terrorists in Iraq was enough to hold the country together. Yet the seeds of Sunni Islamism he planted in Syria because it supported him at the time have now blown up in his face. His anti-Israel credentials don’t matter anymore in mobilizing support for his continued rule.
This disintegration and the multiplication of issues and enemies is not, of course, due only to the Sunni-Shia issue. There has also been a sharp revival of Arab identity against the Turks and Persians. The region’s history of such ethnic clashes has been revived. If the Syrian civil war ends in a rebel victory, the winners will soon turn against their Turkish patrons. Indeed, while the trade between the two countries is still growing, the Syria issue has driven a deep rift between Turkey and Iran, who are supporting opposite sides.
Even Muslim Brotherhood Egypt and Muslim Brotherhood Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, have fallen out, albeit perhaps temporarily. The Egyptian government is unhappy that Hamas has not cracked down enough on the Salafists in Gaza and the Sinai who want to attack it.
In addition, Egypt—busy with internal transformation, domestic conflicts, and economic problems, wants Hamas to keep things quiet on its border with Egypt. Israeli officials describe current security cooperation with the Egyptian government, or at least the intelligence services and military, as being quite good. Disputes between Muslim Brotherhood groups and even more radical Salafists are creating problems in Egypt and Syria.Barry Rubin
About the Author: Professor Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. See the GLORIA/MERIA site at www.gloria-center.org.
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