international analysis and commentary

The Middle East peace train that has left the station


As the mesmerizing insurrection in Egypt has been raging, I have cast my mind back to Yitzhak Rabin, the greatest and most tragic of Israeli statesman. I always admired his compelling realist, soldier’s rationale for making peace with the hated enemy, Yasser Arafat; to safeguard Israel forever, it was best to negotiate and cut a deal from a position of strength, rather than wait for that position to corrode over time. In other words, in time honored Middle Eastern terms, bargain when you are strong, not when you are weak.

While his tragic assassination in 1995 decisively undermined the peace push of the time, Rabin’s rationale remained compelling, so much so that late in his life, the scourge of the Arab world Ariel Sharon—another general and war hero and Rabin’s great rival—seemingly became a dove, turning his back on the rejectionist Likud Party and founding the more centrist Kadima Party. Sharon was not going soft on the Arabs (or anyone else for that matter); rather he came to accept Rabin’s rationale, that Israel would never have it so good as then, so a peace deal to enshrine maximum advantage was vital for the country’s long-term health.

It isn’t difficult to see why these seasoned warriors thought Israel was at its apex. All the future demographic trends of the region heavily favored the Arab world; despite its unquestioned military superiority Israel simply couldn’t kill off the whole of the region it found itself in. With the demise of the USSR, the US stood alone as the only important outside political force, and was staunchly in Israel’s camp. And in Mubarak’s Egypt, as ever the center of the Arab world, Israel had an anti-Islamist semi-ally who easily and often shared intelligence with Israel regarding the two countries’ common enemies. No wonder Rabin, and in his turn Sharon, thought that things couldn’t get strategically much better than that.

But as anyone who has ever played poker knows, there is a danger in having a good initial deal; it makes one grow complacent as the reshuffle begins. And we are now in the midst of a dramatic reshuffle. Those who have come after Sharon, first Prime Minister Olmert (who came to the same Rabin rationale but tragically too late to do anything), and primarily Prime Minister Netanyahu (who hasn’t accepted the Rabin rationale at all), have fiddled while Rome burned. And events have, just as Rabin feared, whittled away Israel’s immense strategic advantages, which are evaporating before our very eyes.

The demography of the region has continued to increasingly favor the Arab world, as was expected. More surprisingly, America’s unquestioned status as the only outside power is increasingly in question as we move to a more multipolar world. Non-Arab regional powers, such as Iran and Turkey, are increasingly assertive and playing a much larger role in the region. Iran is proving particularly vexing, underwriting Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, dominating Iraq, and forging strong ties with Israel’s long-term enemy in Syria. No longer can America dictate pro-Israeli outcomes that stick. But most shockingly, and perhaps most importantly, the single strongest country in the region, Egypt, The Spear of Islam, will no longer tacitly be on Israel’s side, whatever the outcome of the current revolutionary fervor. Times have moved on; Israel has lost nothing less than its greatest chance to make peace on its own terms.

The power balance within Egypt seems to leave the West and Israel with two real choices: further pro-Western but distasteful army rule or chaotic democratic rule quite likely morphing into outright anti-American, anti-Israeli control of the most important state in the region by the Muslim Brotherhood, the unabashed enemies of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty and cousins of the intransigent Hamas next door. For this is the dirty little secret that neocons and idealistic Wilsonians have never managed to understand about the region: the more democratic the state in the Middle East, the more anti-Israeli and anti-American. Democracy in Lebanon has just given us a pro-Hezbollah government there, democracy in Iraq has lead to chaos, democracy within the Palestinian movement has led to schism and Hamas controlling Gaza; for that matter a more democratic Turkey has frozen out its former close ties with Tel Aviv. The corrupt, human rights violating, repressive Arab rulers of the era have always been closer to the West than their people. And that’s the circle that has yet to be squared.

Amid all this murkiness, one thing is sure. Whoever emerges in Egypt will have to pay a lot more attention to the will of its people. While this is in many ways a good thing, the new government will certainly be less pro-American and much less pro-Israeli. Among the many things it signals the end of, the Egyptian Revolution is certainly the historical moment when it became clear to all that Israel has missed its last best chance to get aboard the peace train.