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Tuesday, February 09, 2010

About the handshake

At Foreign Policy, Marc Lynch analyzes the handshake between Israel's Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon and Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal. Lynch says that the handshake crystallizes the Arab Street's displeasure with its leaders meeting with Israelis, while exaggerating the extent of the alliance between Israel and the moderate Arab states against Iran.
The handshake affair is worth a post because it both reinforces and undermines the emerging conventional wisdom in Washington that the Arab regimes and Israelis are increasingly allies against Iran. Such expectations of an Arab-Israeli alliance against Iran are hardly new. The Saudis and Egyptians were more or less openly aligned with Israel in its war against Hezbollah in 2006 (remember Condi Rice's "birth pangs of the new Middle East"?), and to a lesser extent in the war on Gaza in 2008. Even in public, the "new Arab cold war" of the last few years has fairly openly and directly aligned the conservative Arab regimes with Israel against Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah and the "Resistance" bloc. Much of the official and Saudi-owned Arab media has for years been waging a heavy-handed campaign against the Resistance bloc, implicitly adopting many Israeli frames (Hamas and Hezbollah irrationality and irresponsibility, Arab moderation, Iranian threat).

But the Saudi pushback on the photo also shows the ongoing sensitivity of such relations, and the limits of the official media campaign in support of this supposed Arab-Israeli alignment. The images from Gaza and the ongoing impact of Netanyahu and Lieberman's foreign policy has more than overwhelmed all the efforts to justify and legitimate such an approach to the broader Arab public. That anger is real, and quite potent in many Arab countries and in the wider Arab public sphere. The Saudis prefer to keep such relations private because of this very real outrage, and the real political costs of being on the wrong side in public.

It's a common mistake to assume that only the private views of leaders or only public discourse matters. Both levels matter, the private Realpolitik of Arab leaders and the real passions of the Arab public. The depth of the gap between the private views of Arab leaders and the predominant views of the Arab public explains much of the vitriol of the current "Arab cold war". Many Arabs are worried about Iran, no doubt about it, and many in the official camp are deeply hostile to Hamas, Hezbollah, and most other forms of populist opposition. But most also continue to be genuinely outraged by Israeli policies and reject any public relationship. It's a cliche to say so but also true: don't expect the much-predicted Arab-Israeli alliance against Iran to ever live up to its hype (at least publicly) without real movement towards Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Well, maybe. Here is my take on this:

1. It is extremely unlikely that Israel and the 'Palestinians' will find common ground to reach a 'settlement' in any of our lifetimes.

2. Even if the two parties did reach a 'settlement,' hatred of Jews (not of Israelis but of Jews) is so ingrained in the Arab world that it is unlikely that a 'settlement' itself would significantly reduce the Arab world's Jew hatred.

3. If the Arab leaders wanted to, they could gradually curb the Jew hatred by barring it from their government-controlled media and by ordinary gestures like the handshake. Of course, the Arab leaders don't want to do that, because it would take away the Arab Street's biggest distraction from the policies of the autocratic regimes under which they live.

4. What goes on between Israeli and Arab leaders is probably much more reflective of reality than the streets' attitude. Countries don't have friends - they have interests - and it is definitely in the Arabs' interests to have normal relations with Israel, but it's not in the regimes' interests and that is unlikely to change. If the Arab leadership decides to absorb the 'refugees' who already live among them, and to encourage the 'Palestinians' to be realistic in their negotiations with the Israelis, the prospects of reaching a 'settlement' would improve. But that won't happen in your lifetime or mine. The Arab leaders won't say the magic words.


At 5:06 PM, Blogger NormanF said...

A handshake is overstated. Israelis and Palestinians have been talking for years and it hasn't brought the two sides closer. Countries have interests not friends and while the Arabs may temporarily set aside their hostility to Israel to protect themselves from Iran, that's not the same as them becoming friends with Israel. Its not going to happen with Arab regimes that employ anti-Semitism and stoke up popular hatred of Israel to keep themselves in power. Unless those regimes change and begin addressing the Arab World's very real problems, don't expect peace to arrive in the Middle East in our lifetime.

At 5:30 PM, Blogger nomatter said...

Not about handshakes but timely:
An Israeli Preventive Attack on Iran's Nuclear Sites: Implications for the U.S.


Of course most articles I read concerning Iran's nukes are written from the perspective if the world would co-operate/aid Israel in their strike.

At this point we must acknowledge all we hear are toothless threats from some world leaders concerning sanctions against Iran. Reality is, at this moment there are none on the table! Worse,still warn out talk of bringing Iran to the table (repeated past years times a billion)

A strike by Israel can not happen without help nor can sanctions work when there are none.

I pray my vision to see reality and and pessimism is wrong.


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