For more than half a century since its founding in 1948, Israel has existed with constant threat, which is not likely to recede any time soon. However, the hate triangle that has surfaced in the region over the last five years among the Israelis, Sunni extremists and those opposed to both, makes the situation now very much different. A development that will likely force major revision to geopolitical thinking for all sides.
It has been a rare year that Israel has not been involved in some global geopolitical controversy. Israel contends that its actions and reactions have been motivated by security and defense, doubting a reality of peaceful coexistence. Israel’s opponents claim Jewish expansionism and persecution, and ultimately question Israel’s right to exist – yet, another argument contrary to a peaceful coexistence. And the one thing that has infuriated Israel’s opponents the most is its heavy handed dealings with the West Bank, Golan Heights and Gaza.
During the Six Day War in 1967, Israel launched a series of daring and preemptive strikes on three of its four Arab neighbors while they were mobilizing for attack. Almost immediately, Israel was at war on three fronts with Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, facing larger and stronger foes in the Sinai, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights. Surprisingly, Israel stunned and pushed back her enemies, gaining territorial spoils of war as she went.
After a short but intense war, the world’s regulators – the U.S. and U.S.S.R. – called for a standstill peace. That war ended, but Israel has seemingly been in constant conflict with the Islamic world since, both Shia and Sunni. And the fights, and opposing sides, have been nationalistic and religious – the Yom Kippur War, the Black September Organization, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the PLO, the Lebanese wars of 1982 and 2006, Fatah, Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran.
For the next few decades after the war, the non-Arab world, led by the U.S., generally respected Israel’s position, albeit reluctantly. Perhaps admiring her military chutzpah, perhaps sympathizing with the reality of her situation, perhaps understanding the importance of defensive buffers, perhaps feeling collective guilt from the Holocaust – the world let things stand. Nonetheless Israel’s position would start to weaken.
The movement for territorial return back to unrestricted Palestinian control started to gain momentum with the end of the Cold War. Worldwide, it was the feel-good, idealistic times of the 1990s. Also, furthering the West’s complacency was the aftermath of the world’s First Gulf War victory against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 1991. Separate Israeli and Palestinian states began to look like a real possibility.
But as the century ended, so too did the region’s geopolitical stability. The USS Cole bombing, 9/11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Arab Spring, Syria’s civil war, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, U.S. impotence in the region – the chaos now makes an Israeli-Palestinian two state solution seem like a bridge too far.
Today there is the different threat from ISIS, the extremist Sunni fundamental movement. The support of and the opposition to ISIS are driving clear and opposing forces in the region. Iran and the Shia are opposed to ISIS because of religious ideology. The Palestinians, whether or not they openly acknowledge it, are opposed to ISIS, not only for their more moderate Sunni beliefs, but primarily for their nationalistic cause. If a radical Sunni group gained control of the region, you can bet the Palestinians would go from being dominated by Israel, to losing all hopes of a national identity.
Unspoken, yet undeniable, a hope in the region is that the world will no longer be able to tolerate ISIS, forcing Russia or the U.S. to solve the problem without the more moderate Sunni world having to choose sides. Does a similar hope exist within Israel and the Palestinian Authority but for different reasons? If the ISIS threat is not resolved by the U.S. or Russia, it might compel the long standing belligerents to unite in their opposition to the larger threat of ISIS – a very distasteful thought, no doubt, for both sides.
At some point, the realization will occur of the U.S. or Russia’s inability to independently solve the region’s radical Sunni problem. And that reckoning will force every power in the Middle East to line up on sides which may, based on past conflicts, seem unimaginable. The current situation whereby “the enemy of my enemy is also my enemy” will not last. Sooner or later even war adopts some kind of order as participants attempt to gain advantage over their opponents.
Many believe “co-belligerence” of the Israelis and the Palestinians is impossible. But the precedent has been set time and time again in the history of warfare. The rationale is formed by a matrix evaluation of the lesser and greater of two evils and the shorter versus longer timeframe of the threats faced. Based upon this evaluation, both the Israeli and Palestinian sides might conclude that the greater, longer-term threat to each is the extremist Sunni movement. And thus, it might make more sense to temporarily settle their disagreements and come together against the common greater evil.
History provides us with many successful applications of this principle. For instance, look at the ceasefire between the combatants of the Chinese Civil War when they banded together to fight the Japanese in World War II. Or look at the strange alliance of FDR, Churchill, and Stalin in their defeat of Hitler. Also of historic interest, the “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” proverb is well known to both the Jewish and Arab legacies.
Therefore, does the world’s expectation of Israel’s relationships with its neighbors need revision? Instead of pushing for a currently unrealistic and divisive two state solution, should the emphasis now be to convince Israel, Iran, and the Palestine Authority of their shared interest in opposition to extreme Sunni fundamentalism? Further, instead of the U.S. using the paradox in Syria as the entry point in its war against ISIS, the Israel-Iran-PA Alliance might serve as a better platform to launch such endeavor.
Finally, when the dust settles from the war of Sunni fundamentalist aggression, maybe, just maybe, a new found appreciation will exist among the Alliance members. If not, then, and only then, their conflictual relationships of the past could return to business as usual. What would the Alliance members stand to lose? What would be the worst case? More Israeli- Palestinian division and conflict? Or if the Alliance fails to stop the Sunni extremists, it might not matter anyway. By lining up together to stop ISIS, the Alliance members might just find they have nothing to lose.
Christopher Petitt is the author of the soon-to-be-released book, The Crucible of Global War: And the Sequence that is Leading Back to It. It will be available for sale at Amazon.com, Barnesandnoble.com and for order at bookstores everywhere November 18.