A Call for Alliance Between Israel and Arab Nations

Everyone recognizes that the countries in what is called the Arab world are in turmoil. This reality presents the occasion to consider reshaping relations between Israel and that "Arab world," especially since now the two sides are confronted by the common key problem of Iran, and since because of their own troubles, the "Palestinian question" is no longer a major priority for Arab countries.

The starting problem for this consideration is that neither the Arab nation nor the Arab world are legal entities, though there are Arab states and an Arab League, and the countries may be bound together by a common language. The puzzling use of words about these entities is evident in the revised text of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) National Charter or Covenant issued by the Palestinian National Council in July 1968.

Article 1 of the text states, "Palestine is the homeland of the Arab Palestinian people; it is an indivisible part of the Arab homeland, and the Palestinian people are an integral part of the Arab nation." Two relevant questions are pertinent: what is the "Arab nation" and does it presently exist? The issue becomes even more problematic in the light of Article 14 of the Charter: "The destiny of the Arab nation, and indeed Arab existence itself, depend upon the destiny of the Palestinian cause."

That destiny of the Arab nation, or even its definition, has never been clear. "Arabism" was a term loosely applied as an identity for Arabs who had lived for centuries under foreign rulers and who were supposed to be linked not only by language but also by common culture, historical memories, and religion. The reality is that relations between the new Arab states, artificial entities with little or incomplete bond between the population in their borders and a genuine political community, have been ambiguous since they were created out of the Ottoman Empire largely by actions of the colonial powers, Britain and France, during the 20th century. The countries were and still remain divided by religious, sect, tribal, and genealogical factors.

Various attempts have been made over the last century to devise some closer relationship among the Arab states, starting with the overlapping concepts of pan-Arabism and Arab nationalism. Pan-Arabism, formulated during World War I, by Arabs seeking independence from the Ottoman Empire, and again in the 1930s by Syrian writers proposing unification of all Arab countries, and at a minimum calling for alliances and economic cooperation among them. However, the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement between Britain and France stated that the Ottoman Empire would be split into individual states, not become an independent Arab state after World War I. The Mandates of the League of Nations placed areas of Mesopotamia (the land between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, now mainly Iraq), Palestine, Syria, and Lebanon, under British and French administration. These areas became independent and were subsequently transformed into individual states.

In the late 1930s a Syrian-inspired pan-Arab ideology resulted in the establishment of the Ba'ath (Renaissance) party, based on an unusual combination of nationalism with elements of both Marxism and Nazism. This ideology became the foundation of the ruling parties in both Syria and Iraq, in which Saddam Hussein emerged as leader. However, Egypt, the main Arab state, was more concerned with Egyptian nationalism than with Arab nationalism, at least until the 1950s.

For many years Egypt was the exception even though it was the foremost Arab state. It was more concerned with Egyptian nationalism, at least until the 1950s. Under the rule of Gamal Abdel Nasser Arab nationalism became a defining concept, opposing Zionism, the expression of Jewish nationalism. Nasser organized in 1958 the United Arab Republic (UAR), the merger of Egypt and Syria as a unitary state. This merger ended in 1961 with the coup in Syria by military officers who withdrew from the union. When Sadat became president of Egypt, he changed the name of the state from UAR to the Arab Republic of Egypt.

Various attempts at linkage have failed: a union of Syria, Palestine, and Jordan proposed by Abdullah, Emir of Transjordan and later King of Jordan; the Arab Federation between Jordan and Iraq in 1958; the confederation of the United Arab States, between the United Arab Republic, Arab Federation, and Yemen; the linkage in 1963 of Egypt, Syria, and Iraq; the Federation of Arab Republics set up by Muammar Gaddafi, 1972-77; and the abortive Arab Islamic Republic between Libya and Tunisia in 1974. The only successful ones have been the creation of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates formed of seven emirates in 1972, and the unification of North and South Yemen in 1990.

At present there is an Arab League, created in 1945 purporting to represent the interests of the Arab nation. It consists of 22 countries, including "Palestine," with a population of about 370 million, ranging from 83 million in Egypt to 767,000 in Comoros. Its total area is 5.15 million square miles, ranging from Algeria the largest in size with 919,000 square miles to Bahrain the smallest comprising 293 square miles. Adding the countries together, they constitute the world's ninth largest economy with a GDP of more than $2 trillion.

Yet it is clear that the ideologies of pan-Arabism and Arab nationalism have failed and the idea of Arab unity is no longer relevant. The historic differences among the countries are unlikely to be transcended. Also, the difficulties within the individual states, in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and their weakness in governing, have been highlighted in recent years as the loyalties to family, sect, and tribe appear to be more significant than loyalty to the authorities of the state. Arab nationalism has been unable to create workable political institutions, let alone democratic ones.

As a result, Islamism has claimed to replace these failed panaceas. The nightmare for the Middle East and the world in general is that Islamism may attract the adherence and loyalty of Arabs disillusioned by failure of previous conceptions. Islamism sees nationalism as spiritual decadence, and claims to provide identity to followers regardless of ethnic, racial, or territorial affiliation. It purports to be the embodiment of a universal Muslim community. If an Islamist body gains power, its religious edicts will be applied and become law.

This then is the moment for readdressing political relationships in the Middle East. The Arab countries, ruled by autocratic or military figures, divided by religious and other factors, and on an unequal and uncertain path to modernity, are now concerned about the threat of radical Shiism, Islamic terrorism, and above all Iran, to their very existence. Their only assured and determined ally in the struggle to thwart the Islamist threat is the state of Israel. Disregarding the absence of official diplomatic ties between the two sides, an alliance of Israel with the Gulf states and other Arab nations, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE, is imperative to check Iran's determination to obtain nuclear weapons.

Already some commercial ties, with advantages to all, exist between Israel and some Arab states, particularly those that can be regarded as moderate, those that have never sent troops to fight against Israel, those that have no territorial differences with Israel, and those that are essentially pro-American. A number of the states have cancelled their participation in the Arab boycott of Israel. It was an encouraging gesture, if regarded by some as controversial and even questionable, on the part of Saudi Arabia to propose the Fahd peace initiative in 1982; Abdullah also proposed another initiative in 2002.

The non-Islamist Arab states now have the opportunity to reach out to Israel, diplomatically, politically, and economically, to foster more cordial relationships starting with the acceptance of Israel as a legitimate state. For its part, Israel should accept overtures from these nations, though they may be non-democratic in character, as leading to partnership in collaborative efforts in creating a peaceful Middle East.