Israel’s Place in the Middle East

Martin Kramer delivered this address on “Israel’s Place in the Middle East: The Regional Context” at a conference at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) in London on September 23, 1997.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines tradition as “a custom handed down to posterity especially orally or by practice.” By this standard, I suppose these visits to Chatham House by the Dayan Center could well qualify as a tradition by now. This is, by my accounting, the third time we have come en masse; the cycle has been once every four or five years, with occasional solo appearances in between. So I offer the traditional benediction to you faithful who have come to witness the miracle of the neat analysis of messy situations.

This is a special occasion on another account. A few years ago, a film company released what it called the director’s cut of the film Lawrence of Arabia by David Lean. Well, this event is the director’s cut of the Dayan Center in Arabia, in that all the speakers have been or are now directors of the Moshe Dayan Center or its predecessor, the Shiloah Institute. They are, in descending order of seniority, Prof. Shimon Shamir, who established the Shiloah Institute in Tel Aviv University over thirty years ago; Prof. Itamar Rabinovich, who transformed it into the Dayan Center fifteen years ago; Prof. Asher Susser, who among other achievements cemented our relationship with Chatham House; and myself, whose contribution, it would seem, still lies ahead of me.

This is our most experienced team, and it gives me great pleasure to be able to put them together on one program, after many years when one or another was serving here or there as ambassador. Of course, the fact that I can do so is a barometer of the changes in Israel, especially the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the election of a Likud government—events which ultimately brought Ambassadors Rabinovich and Shamir back to our hallway. But Israel’s loss has been the Dayan Center’s gain, and today it is your gain as well.

One of the advantages of appearing in this line-up is that I don’t have to deal in any depth with the politics and diplomacy of the peace process—this I leave to Shamir and Rabinovich, and I wish them luck. Susser will have more to say on Israel’s own dilemma of integration versus separation in its Middle Eastern surroundings. What I propose to do is to look at the Middle East itself, to try to assess what is a very ambiguous moment in the region’s history.

All of us remember a much less ambiguous moment: the era of Arabism comes most readily to mind, when peoples took ideology at face value, when war followed war. In some parts of the Middle East, and among some old hands elsewhere, there is a lingering nostalgia for the simplicity of those times. But those days are gone, and our era is more difficult to define in one word. Is this the era of Islamism, of Islamic movements establishing cultural hegemony and moving inexorably toward power? Or is it the era of the all-powerful state, which diminishes every other political actor? Is this the era of Middle Easternism, where the idea of a Middle East bound by shared interests, above all in peace, replaces the old concepts of the Arab and Islamic worlds? Or is it the era of Euro-Mediterraneanism, of the Barcelona “process,” where the idea of a shared Mediterranean destiny has taken root? Or are we entering an era of Arabo-Islamic solidarity, in a region sliding back into “authenticity,” out of frustration with stalled economies and a stagnant peace process?

Evidence could be adduced for each of these possibilities, which is another way of saying that all of them remain viable options. The peoples of the region are undecided. They are torn by conflicting interests, even by conflicting identities. Avoiding choices has become a way of life for governments, elites, and society at large. The Middle East is on hold.

It is a region of two stalled processes. One is the peace process, the long-term process of historical reconciliation between Israel and the Arab states, between Israel and the Palestinians, between Israelis and Arabs. My colleagues will consider its dynamic—and at this moment, its stasis. But there is another stalled process, the one by which the states and societies surrounding Israel come to terms with a changing world: democratization, global markets, unrestricted information flows, the promotion of diversity. This might best be called the pluralism process.

What I wish to suggest this morning is that the pluralism process is very much stuck. This is one of the reasons many Israelis, when they look out upon the region around them, have concluded that it is a jungle—and that Oslo is a breach in the wall of the fort. I will come back to this perception of the Arab “neighborhood” by many in Israel. But let me first offer my own take on the pluralism process, and where it now stands.

Each year for twenty years, the Moshe Dayan Center has published an annual volume, The Middle East Contemporary Survey. Looking through these volumes, one can only be struck by how many of the rulers who starred in the first volume still figure in the twentieth: King Hussein and Hafez Asad, Yasir Arafat and Mu’ammar Qaddhafi, King Hasan and Shaykh Jabir. The junior members of the club have held power for fifteen years: Husni Mubarak, King Fahd, Saddam Hussein. This makes the Middle East perhaps the last great preserve of men who rule alone, and who rule for life. In a part of the world where the majority of people are under twenty, this means that most people were born after these men came to power, and many more cannot remember the rule of others.

Over the last few years, we have been told again and again that this situation cannot persist. Authoritarian, personalized, ideological rule is destined to collapse, the political scientists tell us. It did so spectacularly in Eastern Europe and Russia, gradually in Latin America. At the time, journalists rushed off to cover the incredible stories, academics packed their bags and set out to advise the new regimes on the transition to democracy. It was just a matter of time, said many experts, and tired regimes would also implode in the Muslim lands of Asia and Africa. And didn’t a precedent for this already exist in the Middle East? Hadn’t the Shah collapsed spectacularly? Iran’s revolution became the prism through which an entire generation of observers looked at regime and opposition. The rise of Islamist opposition elsewhere was seen as the catalyst for this change.

Over the past few years, there has always been some regime said by observers to be under imminent threat of collapse, some society supposedly ripe for revolt, if not revolution. Terrorist violence, wherever it occurs, is presented as a clear symptom of a deep-seated groundswell. It is usually those regimes closest to the West that are singled out by the experts as the most endangered species. Algeria was said ripe for the fall. Then the days of Egypt’s regime were said to be numbered. More recently, the speculation has run against Saudi Arabia, and now against Bahrain.

Yet despite these forebodings, the regimes are still in place. In some places, even the violence—never an accurate measure of the popular mood anyway—has been quelled. One may argue about “the long-term,” where analysis fades into prophecy. But in the operational term, in which governments formulate policy, the existing regimes have held firm, and look likely to hold firm.

And this is true not only of regimes that are clients of the West. It is also true of those that are not. When an American president called upon the “Iraqi people” to rise up and cast off the regime of Saddam Hussein, it was a plea of stunning naiveté. There was a Shiite rebellion; even at Saddam’s weakest, he was able to suppress it. Saddam still rules today. From various quarters, expert voices are occasionally raised claiming that sanctions against Iraq, Libya, and Iran, were they applied with sufficient rigor, would push their rulers over the brink. And yet they remain firmly entrenched in power, and no end to their rule—or their various crimes and misdemeanors—is in sight.

Where did so many experts go wrong? They understated the power of the state in the Middle East. Looking at the Middle Eastern state, it is easy to see why. In most respects, these states are not models of legitimacy or efficiency. They are ruled by a handful of people—some are presidents, some are kings and sultans, none of them are accountable. The representative institutions that do exist are mechanisms of control rather than governance. Their economies are stagnant, weighed down by cumbersome bureaucracies and drained by corruption.

But it turns out that these regimes have hidden resources and strengths. They are linked to elites, groups, sects, families and tribes that have a strong vested interest in their continued rule, and that are willing to do whatever is necessary to preserve it. Beneath the massive inefficiencies of the state, there are very efficient security services that know how to ferret out opponents of the existing order. Many of the rulers, especially monarches whose claims rest upon a combination of descent and Islam, enjoy a legitimacy invisible to outsiders but omnipresent for their subjects.

And above all, there is the absence of legitimate and efficient opposition. In Eastern Europe and Latin America, populist movements demanded the replacement of authoritarianism with democratic governance. They enjoyed moral credibility, wide public support and foreign sympathy. In the Middle East, opposition has taken the form of Islamist movements. These seek to substitute one kind of authoritarianism for another. Their programs contain repressive elements that limit their public appeal, and their willingness to use violence strikes fear in many hearts. Despite the apologies made for them by some Western academics, they enjoy scarcely any sympathy in the wider world. In short, they are neither legitimate nor efficient, and their weaknesses are a source of abiding strength for the existing regimes.

And where is “civil society”—that body of concerned citizenry, organized on the basis of interests, whose peaceful interaction is the basis of democracy? There are chambers of commerce, some political parties, a few human rights groups. But “civil society” is not dense on the ground. What is dense are primordial allegiances—to family, tribe, sect—which are exclusive rather than inclusive, and which offer consistent and dependable support to each individual. The Middle Eastern state has become quite effective at manipulating these allegiances for its purposes, and they are often its most reliable props. This interaction is the key to understanding the resilience of the existing order. While American social scientists, and the foundations which fund them, rush about in search of the familiar landmarks of “civil society,” real politics happen elsewhere.

Might the domination by the state be nearing its end? It used to be said that runaway population growth, combined with stagnant or negative economic growth rates, would undermine the Middle Eastern state, eventually making it ungovernable. The problem remains acute. In the Arab countries, for example, the fifteen years between 1980 and 1994 saw population increase by 50% and gross domestic product grow by only 15%. Islamist opposition thrived precisely in this gap. But in many Middle Eastern countries, birth rates are leveling off and even decreasing, and some Middle Eastern economies are beginning to register significant growth rates. The prospects for more balanced growth now look rather better than they did a few years ago—a trend that can only strengthen the state.

Some observers who long for change have now fixed their hopes on technology. “Gone are the days when government controlled the news,” gushes one American professor. “In Cairo, Damascus, Algiers, or Baghdad, international radio and television signals penetrate government censorship and bring images of the world that confound government-approved versions…. Access to modern communications technology such as computer e-mail—which inherently undermines vertical structures of control—is growing.”

But all technology has two faces, no technology is inherently democratizing, and the rulers have not been lax in mustering information technology for their own ends. People hungry for information put up satellite dishes—but governments pay to put up the satellites and jam them with programming. People buy computers to link up with global networks—but governments restrict access or maintain the phone lines in ways that restrict the flow of data to a trickle. The most efficient and sophisticated systems in the Middle East are the ones imported by regimes themselves, for purposes of domestic security and surveillance. Satellites and computers, like the printing press and radio, may yet prove to be one more addition to the toolbox of authoritarian rule. If an Orwellian scenario for the development of information technology is feasible anywhere in the world today, it is in the Middle East.

At this moment, then, there is no development on the horizon that credibly threatens to diminish the state. The biological clocks of many of the leaders are winding down, but it would be wrong to assume too much from the absence of formal rules of succession or heirs-apparent. Regimes have their ways of perpetuating themselves beyond their founders. In Algeria and Iran, in Turkey and Saudi Arabia, there are centers of power, and they have held. Such centers of power now also exist in Syria and Jordan, Libya and Egypt, Morocco and Iraq. There is every prospect that they, too, will hold.

Which brings me back to Israel and the relationship of the peace process to the pluralism process. The policy of the Zionist movement before the creation of the state, and subsequently of Israel, was to seek peace with Arab states. It was a policy without illusions, not all that different from the policy of most Western powers towards the Arab states. It assumed that the mode of governance in the Arab world was unlikely to change anytime soon, and that it wasn’t Israel’s business to push for change anyway. If an Arab regime or leader were prepared to reach an accommodation with Israel, that regime should be encouraged, even embraced. Yes, there were very dramatic differences between Israel and its neighbors—in form of governance, freedom of expression, economic system. But these did not constitute insurmountable obstacles to peacemaking. There was even a preference for the strong Arab ruler, capable of putting through agreements without having to take too much account of domestic opposition. On this basis, Israel made peace with Sadat, reached understandings with King Husayn, recognized Arafat, and came fairly close to an agreement with Asad.

Over the years, critics of this approach asked whether one could make peace with rulers and regimes that might disappear in a revolutionary surge, much as the Shah did. But political statis in the region did much to undermine this argument; Arab “stability” made peace agreements involving Israeli concessions more saleable to the Israeli public. When Israelis imagined a Middle East at peace—the idea of a “new Middle East,” articulated by Shimon Peres—they assumed that economic cooperation would be the cement, and that its appeal to Arab states would lie precisely in the implicit promise that it might prop up the political status quo. Peres is often regarded by his critics as a utopian visionary. In this respect, though, he was really quite hard-nosed: he entertained no illusions about inevitable democratization or the “liberalizing” essence of Islamist movements. Israel would work with the powers-that-be: the “new Middle East” would not be new in its vertical political structures, only in its horizontal economic linkages.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has a different vision of the Middle East surrounding Israel, which deserves a close reading, because it represents a radical departure. Netanyahu has been influenced by the American political scientists, especially by their idea that democracies do not wage war against one another. The correlate is that only democracies can establish an intimate peace. Israel still faces an Arab world that remains a bastion of authoritarian or dictatorial rule, very much like the former Soviet Union and the eastern bloc—a region still in thrall to ideology, armed to the teeth, and in the midst of a growing internal crisis. What is possible between Israel and the Arab world is therefore something like what was possible between the West and the Soviet Union from the end of the world war to the end of the cold war: a strategic peace whose principal component is security. Netanyahu gave the Egyptian-Israeli peace as an example of just such a durable strategic peace. To him, it matters not at all that the peace has remained “cold” in its other dimensions. In its security dimension, it is a complete success, and that’s all that counts.

This peace, then, is essentially envisioned as a set of security regimes designed to prevent the outbreak of war in the interim. A different kind of peace may eventually become possible—but only after the Arab world itself undergoes a fundamental internal transformation, such as that which followed the fall of the Soviet Union. Notice the important shift: authoritarianism on the Arab side is no longer seen as inconsequential or even advantageous to Israel’s pursuit of peace; it is a major obstacle that sharply limits the possibilities of peace, and defines it largely in terms of security. Israel’s interest no longer lies in the status quo; it has an interest in change. A “new Middle East” can’t be built on economic foundations; it can only be constructed following the dismantling of the present political order in the Arab world. Until then, Israel has to demonstrate a Reagan-like resolve to stand on its own security demands.

I won’t spend time explaining the virtues and shortcomings of this analogy between the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Cold War. Its main virtue is that it takes note of the fact that the conflict is not jut between nationalisms, but is also a conflict between two very different political cultures. Its main shortcoming is that it presents a contest between nations over territory largely as a contest of ideas about governance. One suspects that Netanyahu knows better, that part of his argument is more polemical than philosophical. But if the Cold War analogy is operative, then one can well understand why Netanyahu would not view the present situation as a deterioration, but as a stabilization. He is to the disastrous Rabin-Peres team what Reagan was to the disastrous Carter: the tough corrective to soft surrender.

There is a paradox here that I find noteworthy. I remember being here in London, at the Royal United Services Institute, while Peres was yet prime minister, when an Arab woman launched a severe critique of his peace policy for its pandering to the existing Arab governments. Israel was ignoring the peoples, and making peace only with the regimes. I remember being rather bemused at the time, and asking the woman whether she would prefer that Israel shelve the pursuit of peace until the Arab world’s “peoples,” whoever they might be, took over their governments. Now we have an Israeli government that is doing just that, demanding the democratization of the Arab world, sometimes to the chagrin of President Mubarak and King Hussein, and I wonder whether that woman, and other Arab “democrats,” are now gratified. Somehow I doubt it.

So the peace process and the pluralism process have now been linked. What this means practically, is difficult to say. Israel is still a state in a Middle East of states—and of very strong states relative to their societies. The region’s regimes hardly seem to stand on the brink of a Soviet-style collapse. And there is a certain momentum in Israeli policy, which has long been characterized by a certain preference for dealing with strongmen. But there is a new element in the Israeli vision of the Middle East, which may put Israel on the side of change. Whether Israel can promote this transformation, by transforming itself and its positions, remains to be seen.