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    Middle East
     Apr 8, 2006

A systems solution to the Middle East
Israel and the Persian Gulf: Retrospect and Prospect by Gawdat Bahgat

Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia

Although the Middle East has commanded the attention of analysts for decades, few have studied its volatility in terms of its two subsystems - the Levant (Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria) and the Persian Gulf (Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf monarchies). Gawdat Bahgat, a political-science professor, argues in this new book that developments in one subsystem echo in the other and that a comprehensive region wide peace has to address sources of instability in both.

The author first provides an empirical summary for his diagnosis by surveying recent events indicating the strong links between the two subsystems. Continuing Israeli military operations against Palestinian civilians drew outrage from Arabs and Iranians in the Gulf region, even as the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, pressured Gulf states to dissociate themselves from radical Palestinian and Lebanese groups.

Saudi Arabia's 2002 peace plan for Palestinians and Israelis was meant to absorb some of this pressure from Washington. The 2003 war on Iraq led to the introduction of the "roadmap" peace plan, underscoring the connection between changes in the Gulf and peace in the Levant. Bahgat reminds readers that a similar segue occurred after the 1991 Gulf War in the form of the Madrid peace conference.

With Iraq under US occupation, Baghdad's future interaction with Israel holds interesting possibilities. The Gulf states' attitude to Israel was not always negative, the shah of Iran (Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi) being the case in point. While ideological orientations (pan-Arabism and political Islam) demand an anti-Israel stance, economic and strategic interests moot a more accommodative policy in the Gulf states. The author sees a "relative predominance of national interests" emerging, which suggests less hostile relations with Israel in the future. Slow "de-ideologization" of the region renders a detente "desired and possible". (p 12)

Bahgat describes four caveats to this optimistic scenario. First, leaders use foreign policy as a tool to achieve domestic goals. Anti-Israel approaches serve as legitimizing mechanisms for Arab regimes. Second, since the Gulf states do not share borders with Israel, it is less costly to adopt a more belligerent stand against Israel than it is for the "frontline" states that are its immediate neighbors. Third, the issue of ethnic and religious minorities and their treatment hardens positions on both sides. Fourth, given the relative lack of political institutionalization in the Gulf states, the world views of individual personalities - an unpredictable factor - determines foreign-policy lines.

Iran's relations with Israel before its 1979 revolution were cooperative because of perceived threats of Soviet penetration and the rising tide of Arab nationalism led by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Iran's territorial disputes with Arab states over Bahrain, Abu Musa, Greater and Lesser Tunbs and Khuzestan propelled the shah's determination to seek non-Arab regional allies. Iranian dependence on US economic and military aid and the US Jewish lobby buttressed the close alliance between Iran and Israel. The shah's advisers believed that "ties to the Jewish state could gain Iran considerable mileage in Washington". (p 21)

Israel prized the value of Iran as a transit point for Iraqi Jews on their way to the Promised Land and was also influenced by the freedoms Iranian Jews have historically enjoyed. Both ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei tolerated Iranian Jews in ways Arab regimes did not.

Bahgat judges Khomeini-era Iranian policy toward Israel as "not completely separated from pragmatic national interests". (p 18) The Iran-Contra affair (Israeli arms were supplied to Iran with US complicity in the early 1980s) is an illustration. Under Khamenei, ideology is not irrelevant but moderated by the decline in Iranian living standards, economic stagnation and direct and indirect US sanctions. Iran also has internal forces pushing for a more pragmatic position regarding Israel on the grounds that Tehran need not be "more Palestinian than the Palestinians themselves".

Unlike the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iranian support for Hezbollah in Lebanon represents a direct national-security interest for Tehran. Strong traditional links between Shi'ites in Iran and Lebanon (both follow the Ithna Ashariyah sect) gird this strategic alliance. Yet, Bahgat points out, the rise of moderate elements in Iran facilitated Hezbollah's softening as a political party in Lebanon, a process intensifying after the Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon in 2000.

Among Iran's main motivations to acquire nuclear capability is the Israeli nuclear asymmetry in the Middle East and Jerusalem's refusal to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Tehran considers nuclear capability necessary to deter potential attacks by the "the world's sixth-ranking nuclear power". To occlude Osirak-style operations by Israel, Iran has taken precautions by scattering its nuclear installations and protecting them with sophisticated defense equipment. Tehran also warns of retaliation on Israel's nuclear reactor at Dimona if Jerusalem takes direct action.

Bahgat sums up the Iran-Israel scorecard by remarking that "despite some current setbacks, pragmatism is gaining ground at the expense of extremism". (p 59)

Iraq has been one of the strongest opponents of the Jewish state since its creation, without a hint of compromise or rapprochement. The country's location and ambitious leadership formulated a national perception that Baghdad has a leading role in shielding the Arab world from Israel and Iran. Imbued with Arab nationalism and a long-running alliance with Moscow, every government in pre-2003 Iraq has been anti-Israeli and anti-West. Persecution and discrimination of Iraqi Jews and Israeli encouragement of Iraqi Kurdish separatism (through weapons deliveries and intelligence sharing) added fuel to the fire for years.

Saddam Hussein's militant position toward Israel was aimed at asserting Iraq's regional leadership and status. Aware that geographical distance made an aggressive policy toward Israel cost-effective, he cultivated strong ties with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and rival radical Palestinian outfits. During the Iran-Iraq war, Israel favored Iran, but once Saddam thawed his anti-Israeli rhetoric for practical reasons, it also explored avenues of rapprochement with Baghdad. This was in coordination with the US tilt toward Iraq in the 1980s. However, Saddam's relentless quest for weapons of mass destruction brought relations back to the boiling point.

During the Gulf War, Iraq launched Scud missiles against Israel, but Jerusalem responded with uncharacteristic self-restraint because of heavy US arm-twisting. These Iraqi strikes altered the security environment of the entire Middle East by ensuring that "Israel would not have to handle Saddam alone and that the US would maintain a hegemonic presence". (p 93) Also, non-conventional capabilities and the methods to deliver them became an option of warfare in the region. Israel's unprecedented military operation that destroyed Saddam's Osirak reactor in 1981 had already opened the ledger of proliferation of chemical and biological weapons as the Arab response to a sense of growing demoralization, weakness and victimization.

Bahgat assesses that the 2003 war on Iraq has considerably diminished Arab states' ability to form an eastern front against Israel and enhanced Jerusalem's strategic advantages in the Middle East. US military and political presence in Iraq benefits the Israeli standing in the region and might even herald a gradual revival of the Haifa-Mosul pipeline to pump Iraqi oil to Israel's major port city.

Saudi Arabia's attitude to Israel can be explained by US pressures to adopt a moderate stand and pulls in the opposite direction from the kingdom's domestic constituency. The powerful load of Islam on Saudi policy and the alliance between the royal family and the Wahhabi movement ensure that the Saudi perception of the world is drawn from the Koran. Riyadh considers Zionism an anti-Arab and anti-Islam phenomenon whose goal is to occupy Muslim land. However, Bahgat reminds that "the Saudi state's national interests are not mutually exclusive with those of Israel". (p113) In the past, they shared common enemies in Nasser's Egypt, Khomeini's Iran and Saddam's Iraq.

Although Saudi Arabia and Israel also have special relationships with the US in common, the Saudis always resented Washington's support to Israel and offered financial backing to the "frontline" Arab states and the PLO. Saudi money has been used to strengthen pro-Western Arab regimes and weaken radical Palestinian groups and Arab states. Compared with Iran or Saddam's Iraq, Saudi Arabia has a less strident take on Israel and it is willing to make conditional peace with it in the context of a pan-Arab consensus.

Bahgat observes that the fall in real terms of Saudi oil revenues has reduced Riyadh's clout over the other five members of the Gulf Cooperation Council to speak with one voice against Israel. This contrasts the hitherto leading role played by the Saudis in drawing Arab strategy toward the Jewish state. After the 1973 oil shock made Riyadh an economic power, most Arab decisions related to Israel were made in consultation with the Saudis. Now, the kingdom is on a weaker platform to dictate Arab policy toward Israel.

Overall, Bahgat summarizes the Saudi disposition to Israel as one of "cautious acceptance". Despite animosity, Saudi Arabia is not Israel's No 1 foe. Both prince (now King) Fahd bin Abdul Aziz's peace plan (1981) and Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud's peace plan (2002) explicitly included a conditional recognition of Israel. The latter offered Israel full peace with political, economic and cultural normalization, a bold initiative that has not won many backers because of the continuing violence in West Bank and Gaza.

Last, Bahgat takes up the relations of the smaller Gulf monarchies (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates) with Israel. These energy-rich mini-states gave generous monetary aid to the "frontline states" and Palestinian fighters from the 1970s, but grew less critical of Israel after the Gulf War. Some have low-level diplomatic and commercial contacts with Israel, maintaining that "the road to Washington goes through Tel Aviv". (p 140)

Traditions of relative tolerance and acceptance of foreign cultures facilitated these demarches toward Israel. Oman's lead in accepting and dealing with Israel reflects deep-seated pragmatism and is in part a reaction to the Palestinian involvement in the Dhufar rebellion, which threatened the sultanate. Qatar's opening is based on assessment of Israel as an attractive market for natural-gas exports and as a transit route to Europe.

However, the large Palestinian lobbies in these small Gulf monarchies and the spiteful attitude of the regional great powers toward Israel complicate rapprochement. Bahgat predicts that the mini-states are "not likely to pursue full diplomatic relations with the Jewish state without a solution with Syria and a recognition of basic Palestinian rights". (p 143)

For two generations, the Persian Gulf states viewed Israel through ideological lenses. The deaths of Nasser in 1970 and of Khomeini in 1989 weakened ideological appeals and strengthened national-interest calculations. Israel "is seen by a growing number of Arabs and Iranians as a Middle Eastern state that they have to live with". (p 146) This coincides with a global trend, with Russia turning into a major trade, scientific and military partner of Israel. The removal of Saddam's regime eliminated a principal adversary of Israel in the Gulf. Iran finds itself surrounded by US troops from all directions and it may have little choice but to embark on a detente with Israel.

Ultimately, Bahgat emphasizes, much depends on the domestic configurations of the Gulf states. "So long as there is little domestic peace, there is unlikely to be regional peace". (p 152) Saudi Arabia's political and economic reforms have a long way to go. Iran's home environment is freer than that of its Arab neighbors, but there is no guarantee that the reform path will succeed. In essence, the way domestic politics evolve in these two linchpin states will determine the overall systemic condition for peace in the Middle East.

Bahgat's original contribution takes the onus away from the theater of Palestinian-Israeli conflict to the larger picture involving the powerhouses of the Persian Gulf. It successfully posits that there can be no lasting peace in the Middle East without addressing grievances in both the Levant and the Gulf.

Israel and the Persian Gulf: Retrospect and Prospect by Gawdat Bahgat. Gainesville, University Press of Florida, 2006. ISBN: 0-8130-2908-2. Price US$59.95, 188 pages.

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