The Ayatollahs Have It

This column was written by Duncan Currie.
Israel, says Tel Aviv University historian Paul Liptz, now has more "friends among [its] enemies than ever before," including some "who don't necessarily want to talk to us." It is an arresting argument, given the outcome of the Lebanon war last summer and the subsequent elevation of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah to an iconic status. (As the war wound down, even Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak said Hezbollah was "part of the Lebanese national fabric.") But Liptz points to recent reported diplomatic contacts between Israel and Saudi Arabia — "kind of like Earth and Mars getting married." The region's most salient fissure, he believes, divides the "status quo" forces (such as Egypt and Jordan) from those of radicalism and revolution (such as Iran and Hezbollah).

This seems a common view among Israelis, which explains why they may look askance at George W. Bush's freedom agenda. Speaking to a visiting delegation of journalists sponsored by the pro-Israel American Israel Education Foundation (which supports the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee), Liptz scorns the notion that democracy can transform illiberal Middle Eastern societies. Former Labour party minister Matan Vilnai, an ex-army general, calls America's democratization program "nonsense." On the Israeli right, Silvan Shalom, a Likud party member of the Knesset, blames the U.S.-led democracy push for enabling Hamas to win the Palestinian elections in January 2006.

"In my personal judgment, it is a mistake," says Ephraim Kam, a former military intelligence official, who notes that "moderate" Arab leaders — the ones Israel is trying to cultivate — have resisted democratization. Another Israeli security source carves the Middle East into two groups: a "radical" camp (Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas) and a "moderate" camp (including Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia). Notice that the "moderates" are all Sunni Arab autocracies, who fear not only a nuclear-armed Persian Iran but also an Iranian-led "Shiite crescent" that might dominate the region.

Amidst the Iranian nuclear drive and the burgeoning Sunni-Shiite rift, Israelis see a diplomatic opportunity. So does the Bush administration. In an interview last week with Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke of a nascent "realignment" in the region. "After the war in Lebanon," she said, "the Middle East really did begin to clarify into an extremist element allied with Iran, including Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas. On the other side were the targets of this extremism — the Lebanese, the Iraqis, the Palestinians — and those who want to resist, such as the Saudis, Egypt, and Jordan."

Already frightened at the prospect of a U.S. pullout from Iraq, which would leave Iraqi Sunnis prey for murderous Shiite militias and possibly pave the way for Iranian intervention, status quo states such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia now have more reason than ever to work with Jerusalem and Washington. (Though how much they will remains unclear.)

Rice has been soft-pedaling her democracy talk of late and seems less willing to prod the Mubarak regime over its violent repression. Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl blasted the "somersault in her policy" on Egypt, comparing Rice's June 2005 speech at the American University in Cairo, where she directly challenged the Egyptian government to liberalize and hold free elections, to her recent press conference in the Egyptian city of Luxor, where she lauded the "important strategic relationship" with Mubarak and praised Egypt as one of "our natural allies in stabilizing Iraq."

Today, the Bush administration distinguishes less between "democrats" and "dictators" and more between "moderates" and "extremists" — as do the Israelis. Both see Iran as the overriding menace to world peace, whether through its patronage of Hezbollah and Hamas, its meddling in Iraq or its pursuit of nukes, the last of which presents an existential threat to the Jewish state. (Israelis of all stripes now draw analogies to the 1930s.) Preventing a nuclear Iran, while weakening the Iranian axis however possible, seems to be the order of the day.

Syria remains the wild card. Rumors persist that Israel is secretly mulling (or perhaps even negotiating) a truce with the Assad regime that would normalize relations and settle disputes over territory and terror aid. "The potentially disparate positions of Israel and the United States on the question of peace with Syria could trigger a significant crisis between the two countries — the first of Mr. Bush's expressly pro-Israel presidency," argues historian Michael Oren. "The last thing Washington wants is a Syrian-Israeli treaty that would transform Mr. Assad from pariah to peacemaker and lend him greater latitude in promoting terrorism and quashing Lebanon's freedom."

This is all just speculation, as Oren admits. But it adds yet another strange wrinkle to the new Middle Eastern political climate.

By Duncan Currie