Commentary Magazine


The New Backbone of the Sunni Resistance

When Israel retaliated against Hezbollah in July of 2006, something strange and new and unexpected took place. Arab governments blamed Hezbollah for sparking the conflict and didn’t complain about Israeli behavior until later. During the more recent war in Gaza we saw something similar; only this time the de-facto alignment of Israeli and Sunni Arab state-interests was even more obvious. Most Arab governments blamed Hamas for starting the latest round, and Egypt worked openly with the Israelis to achieve a new ceasefire arrangement that left their mutual enemy in the Gaza Strip weakened. “Saudi Arabia is no longer the backbone of the Arab alliance against Iran,” Asher Susser from Tel Aviv University said to me as the ceasefire went into effect. “Israel is.”

It’s bizarre, to be sure, to think of Israel as the backbone of a Sunni Arab alliance against Iran and its proxies, but Israelis aren’t the only ones who see things that way. Disgruntled Arabs from Cairo to Beirut and Damascus have noticed the same thing, and they aren’t happy about it.

“Egyptians Seethe Over Gaza, and Their Leaders Feel Heat,” read a headline in the New York Times a few weeks ago. “It is understood that Egypt gave the green light for the attack,” Rannie Amiri wrote in the Palestine Chronicle. “There is true and full collaboration between certain Arab regimes,” said Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, “especially those who have already signed peace deals with Israel, to crush any form of resistance.”

I heard similar complaints myself after the Second Lebanon War. “Gulf Arabs give bombs to Israel to kill my people!” one Lebanese Shia man said to me in a hysterical tone of voice at a Hezbollah rally in Beirut December of 2006.

Some of these accusations are madness on stilts. Gulf Arabs will never give Israel weapons, for instance. But even the more hysterical residents of Arabic countries see clearly that the geopolitical tectonic plates in the region are shifting. The governments of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, and Yemen came out strongly against Hamas and in favor of their Fatah rivals at a meeting in Abu Dhabi this week.

“Egypt is cooperating to a great extent with Israel,” Susser continued, “as are Abu Mazen and the Jordanians. There were more anti-Israel demonstrations in Dublin than there were in Ramallah.”

Most Arab governments, aside from Syria’s and possibly Qatar’s, are far more worried about Iranian regional dominance than they are about anything coming out of Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. They know perfectly well that the State of Israel is not going to undermine or overthrow them, while radical Iranian-sponsored Islamists just might.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia are threatening Iran with a nuclear arms race. Surely they weren’t happy when Israel developed nuclear weapons, but they never retaliated with programs of their own. Bombastic anti-Zionist rhetoric to the contrary, they know Israel isn’t really a threat. Nor are they a serious threat to Israel anymore.

It wasn’t always this way.

In the early days of the Arab-Israeli conflict, when Israel’s long-term survivability was more in doubt than it is now, some of these countries had to get in on the action whether they wanted to or not. Jordan was dragged kicking and screaming into the 1967 war against its will. Lebanon was transformed into a base for Palestinian attacks on Israel against the wishes of its hapless Christian and Shia residents. But this time not even Yasser Arafat’s old Fatah movement in the West Bank could be bothered. Hezbollah sat it out, as did the Syrians. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is so far removed from Iraq’s problems that the war in Gaza barely even registered there. Not only did Egypt refuse to help out Hamas, but Egypt clearly sided with the Israelis.

This strange new Israeli-Sunni “alliance,” if we dare call it that, is cynical and expedient. It’s an open secret, but the Arab states wish it were entirely secret. There is little or no affection for Israel in Arab capitals, and there probably won’t be for a long time. Most just don’t see the point in getting in Israel’s way of striking the likes of Hamas and Hezbollah — aside from the fact that refusing to do so angers the citizens who live in their countries.

“Tehran supports Hamas, as does Arab public opinion, while Arab governments, except Syria’s, tacitly support Israel,” an Israeli intelligence officer told me. “Iran doesn’t have to work very hard to gain influence with the Arab street.”

There’s a chance it might backfire on these Arab governments whose citizens, in the main, sympathize with Hamas and Hezbollah. They nurtured hysterical anti-Zionism among their populations because it served their own naked self-interest. “This is how our Arab dictators survive,” Palestinian journalist Khaled Abu Toameh said to me recently. “They constantly blame the miseries of our people on the Jews and the West and the Crusaders and the infidels and the Zionist lobby and the imperialists. They use all these slogans. Arab leaders always need to make sure that their people are busy hating somebody else, preferably the Jews and the Americans. Otherwise their people might rebel, and God forbid they might demand reforms and democracy.”

As usual, their people do want to rebel; only right now, on behalf of Hamas, at a time when anti-Zionism has outlived its usefulness. Cynical Arab regimes will have only themselves to blame if they’re toppled by their own political version of Frankenstein’s monster. Israelis should enjoy their tacit and hypocritical support while it lasts.

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