Three Middle Eastern countries , Iran, Turkey and Egypt, play a decisive role in the current Israel-Hamas round of hostilities. These three countries do not usually hold much in common insofar as their foreign policy is concerned – or at least not until recently. So, what is it that binds them together over the issue of fighting between Israelis and Palestinians?
The answer is Islam, which links two non-Arab states which do not share a border with Israel and have no historic tradition of hostility towards Israel – and Egypt, a state with a long history of conflict with Israel which formally came to an end in 1979. By that time, Egypt considered itself the leader of the Arab world, though the Arab world rejected the peace between Egypt and Israel, and for a while, boycotted the strongest, most populous Arab country.
Today, we encounter an Egypt of the Muslim Brotherhood, a political movement that identifies itself with pan-Islam rather than Arab nationalism. In line with this ideology, the Egyptian Brotherhood sent a force of volunteers to fight in the war of 1948, whose stated goal was to take the Holy City of Jerusalem and liberate the land deemed to be an Islamic Waqf.
Of all the Arab countries of the Middle East, it is Egypt which is most involved in the current bout – both by using inflammatory rhetoric against Israel and trying to facilitate a cease-fire agreement.
Both Iran under the Pahlavis and Kemalist Turkey were quick to recognize Israel after its independence, thus breaking the solid Islamic and Arab front against the Jewish State. Relations between Iran and Israel changed dramatically after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, when Iran transformed itself into an Islamic Republic and designated Israel as its Number Two enemy, the ‘’little Satan,’’ alongside its arch-enemy, the United States – the ‘’Great Satan.”
“Religion and political solutions rarely coincide – and most assuredly do not in the Israeli-Palestinian arena.” – Josef Olmert
Since then, the Iranians have made no bones about the fact that the conflict with Israel is not about borders, refugees or security concerns; rather, it is a classic conflict between Believers and Infidels, a conflict over a sacred Islamic land, never to be the subject of compromise. Iran, more than any other country in the Middle East, is responsible for the bloodshed in the region by virtue of the fact that it is the chief, if not sole, supplier of arms, missiles and other weaponry to Hamas, and thus, it enables the latter to fight a superior military power, resulting in tremendous suffering to the Palestinian civilian population.
Between 1948 and the 1990s, Turkey was somewhat lukewarm towards Israel, owing to an undeclared strategic alliance between the two, particularly their military intelligence establishments. A plethora of common regional interests united the two countries, but it began to unravel with the rise of the Islamic AKP to power in Turkey in 2003. Israel’s mistakes, particularly the tragic Mavi Marmara incident and Israel’s refusal to apologize to Turkey for it further soured already tense relations; but the writing was already on the wall by that time, and Turkey has today evolved into an important international Hamas supporter, maintaining much cooler relations with Israel.
So, the Islamic connection is so much at play here, exactly at a time when the Arab world, by and large, is turning away from Hamas and its pleas for diplomatic and financial support. Over a week of fighting has passed without the Arab League either issuing threats to Israel or putting pressure on the U.S. to stop Israeli “aggression” – something which the League would have done historically under similar circumstances. This represents a major development, the implications of which are yet to fully manifest themselves, but the direction is clear: The Arab world is tired of the Palestinian problem as it is preoccupied with more pressing problems – i.e., the implications of the “Arab Spring,” particularly the Syrian civil war; the Iranian threat; and the overall grim economic situation.
Thus, the Hamas-Israeli conflict is no longer the focal point of Arab solidarity or the rallying cry of Arab nationalism. The Palestinian national movement adopted pan-Arabism as its own national creed, and the Palestinian National Covenant of the PLO specifically linked pan-Arab unity with the ‘’liberation’’ of Palestine. Palestinian leaders such as George Habash contributed much to Arab national thinking through organizations such as the Pan–Arab Nationalists [Qaumiyun Al-Arab], believing that their immediate goal to wrestle Palestine from the Jews and liberate the Arab world from the yoke of Western colonialism were inseparable.
But, pan-Arabism began to lose steam and credibility throughout the 1960s and 1970s, leading Fouad Ajami to declare it a political body in late 1970s. Ajami was right, though not well-received by many other Arab intellectuals. The demise of political pan-Arabism made a separate Egyptian-Israeli peace possible in 1979 and later made possible the Oslo Accords. Though much maligned, Oslo represented a turning point in the Palestinian-Israeli struggle, as it turned the one-dimensional violent conflict into one which has its violent expressions alongside political moves, though problematic and, at times, constituting no more than a dialogue of the deaf.
In a conflict of such magnitude, political progress was possible as long as the Palestinian leadership did not pursue a Jihadist course of action and was backed by most of the Arab world in its search, hesitant though it was, for political accommodation with Israel.
It is totally another matter, however, when the fighting wing of the Palestinian people still adheres to Jihadist principles and is enjoying the external support of countries on religious, not political grounds. Religion and political solutions rarely coincide – and most assuredly do not in the Israeli-Palestinian arena.
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Josef Olmert is a Middle East scholar, former peace negotiator and published author. He holds a PhD from the London School of Economics in Middle East history and is currently an adjunct professor at the University of South Carolina.