Israel Pulse

Israel's realpolitik embraces regional extremes

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Article Summary
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin warmly eulogized the late Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, perpetuating Israel's approach to its neighbors that is based on common interest and alliances, not moral standards.

Back when he was notified about the death of Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Jan. 23, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin thought it appropriate to offer a eulogy.

Rivlin praised the late king as if he were a fellow traveler on a certain diplomatic path. He called the monarch “an example of grounded, considered and responsible leadership” and declared that he “acted as a moderator, respecting the sensitivity and sanctity of Jerusalem, and sought to promote a vision of prosperity for the region.”

It's debatable whether the millions of Saudi Arabia’s Shiites would have shared Rivlin’s sentiments. After all, they are considered second-class citizens and subject to persecution by the regime. It is interesting to consider what the millions of refugees in Iraq would have thought, or the hundreds of thousands of people who lost loved ones in Syria to attacks by armed militias supported by the Sunni states.

Jerusalem does not recoil from choosing questionable partners, and eventually falls into their trap. In a cruel, cynical world such as this, it's easy to understand Israel’s course of action. As a democratic state it simply wants to survive in the volatile Middle East. Its leaders used to believe that if it was impossible to instill more liberal values in the neighboring regimes, then it's best to forge alliances with them based on common interests — some overtly and others less so. Such a policy stems from a realpolitik approach. But this approach has brought about the laundering of Hebrew terms, intended to adulate and whitewash the autocratic regimes surrounding Israel, regimes that gave birth to the horrors and atrocities we are now witnessing in our little corner of the world. After all, dictatorships have never been the solution when the frustrated masses turn to radicalism — dictatorships have always been the problem.

Today, the Israeli president considers Saudi Arabia a “moderating influence.” Once upon a time, Israeli governments and many others considered the shah of Iran a modern, Westernized leader. Few showed even the slightest interest in the squalid state of his people, which ultimately led to the revolution that toppled him from power.

Then there were the Lebanese Phalangists. We formed an alliance with them because they were the closest thing to the West and Western values that we could find in Lebanon. They were under our aegis when they conducted the 1982 massacre in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila.

Further afield was King Hassan II of Morocco. Israelis competed among themselves to see who could be more obsequious toward him, given the kindness and support he showed for his Jewish subjects and his role in mediating contacts that eventually led to a peace accord between Israel and Egypt. No one even considered the dire poverty of his own people or the brutality with which his regime treated the opposition.

Israel considered these regimes so “moderate” that it was disappointed to see the people they ruled rise up against them. The masses that took to the streets in Egypt, Tunisia and Bahrain were originally described in local Israeli discourse as the bad guys trying to destroy the glorious states created by these “moderate” regimes. The Arab Spring may have been seen at first as protests against autocratic rule, but in Israel it was often referred to cynically as the Islamic Winter, evidence of the contempt expressed by many of the Israelis toward their neighbors who aspired for a better life.

Over the last few years, Israeli political leaders — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu among them — have praised the Saudis on more than one occasion (be it openly or covertly) and included the country in an axis of moderate Arab states, which includes Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. But a monarchy like Saudi Arabia, where the people’s representatives are appointed, not elected, where a single family takes a high-handed approach in controlling all affairs of state, and where women are not even allowed to drive, can hardly be called “moderate.” Only Israel could call it that, since it is a fellow traveler sharing the same path.

And what might that path be? The struggle against a nuclear Iran, of course. Everything else is irrelevant.

Both Jerusalem and Riyadh regard the possibility of an Iranian nuclear bomb as an existential threat, and are actively trying to prevent that. But as they proceed to prevent Tehran from obtaining nonconventional weapons, some seem to have forgotten that, at least in the meantime, the Middle East follows a more “conventional” agenda. And within this reality, radical forces that pose a threat to stability of societies and even to their long-term survival, are gathering strength. Radical Sunnism is a product of the 20th century, emerging from those Arab regimes that oppress their people. Therein lies the paradox: While Israel praises and cajoles the Saudis, an enormous threat is emerging along the country’s northern border. This threat is the armed force called Jabhat al-Nusra, considered to be the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda. Saudi Arabia’s enemies, chief among them Hezbollah, claim that it was Saudi intelligence that provided the momentum to create that group and continues to fund it.

Even if these claims are exaggerated, the Arab Gulf states can hardly claim to be flawless and immaculate. It was in their territories and under their auspices that the rigid Wahhabi ideological philosophy emerged that gave birth to al-Qaeda. For its part, Israel has a hard time recognizing when a friend is also an enemy. It tends to focus on the moderating, responsible role played by these states. That's why, unlike the aforementioned states, Qatar is perceived as an extremist regime. That is not because it supports the rebels in Syria, who are responsible for hundreds of thousands of casualties. It earned its questionable designation of “radical” because it supports Hamas.

Former Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer once praised former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, saying that he sleeps well at night knowing that there is a leader like Mubarak in Cairo. The statement showed utter disregard for the Egyptian people straining under Mubarak’s corrupt regime. But that was simply par for the course. Ignoring the suffering of neighbors has always been a key component of any international policy based on realpolitik. The real problem was that for years, Ben-Eliezer and others like him also ignored the Mubarak regime’s insistence on promoting Israel’s image as an enemy. They may have slept well in Jerusalem at night, but they never once expressed concern over Egypt’s long-standing policies that discriminated against the people of the Sinai Peninsula, nor did they ever consider that it might one day erupt in a chaotic rebellion that would actually pose a threat to Israel as well.

Israel must rewrite its lexicon of regional terms. Even if Saudi Arabia is truly its path-voyage partner, it can hardly be described with the same superlatives drawn for Israel's relationship with Switzerland. If the region really is undergoing such dramatic changes, there is no reason that the values and political concepts formulated by Jerusalem should remain stagnant. Those who consider a parent beating his child a staunch and upright individual espouse a flawed moral worldview. Belgium is a moderate state. Canada is a moderate state. Saudi Arabia is a tyrannical autocracy. One neighbor, Egypt, suppresses the basic rights of its regime’s opponents, while another neighbor, Jordan, restricts the civil rights of its people. So if these are the best friends Israeli governments have managed to make, then we, Israeli citizens, are entitled to some sort of an apology from our leaders. And if not an apology, at least they should avoid trying to dupe us.

Found in: saudi arabia foreign policy, reuven rivlin, king abdullah bin abdulaziz al saud, jihadists, israeli foreign policy, arab spring

Jacky Hugi is the Arab affairs analyst of Israeli army radio Galie-Zahal, a columnist for the business newspaper Globes and the former Arab Affairs correspondent for Maariv. He is the author of Arabian Nights.Com (2011), a nonfiction introduction for Israeli readers to contemporary social, cultural and political discourse in the Arab world, and winner of the 2007 media award of the London Next Century Foundation and the 2008 B'nai B'rith award for journalism of Jewish communities in the Arab world. He is based in Tel Aviv and holds a master's degree in Middle Eastern and African history from Tel Aviv University. On Twitter: @JackyHugi

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