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Welcome to the new Middle East

By Barry Rubin

JERUSALEM — In Iran, elements from within the regime are reportedly offering a $1-million reward for the assassination of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak because of his opposition to Hamas in the Gaza Strip. In Lebanon, the leader of Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran and Syria, merely calls for the Egyptian government’s overthrow.

In response to this, Tariq Alhomayed, a Saudi who is editor-in-chief of the newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat, describes Hamas as Iran’s tool, and argues that “Iran is a real threat to Arab security.” Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, agrees, and he is not alone. When Arab states met to discuss the Gaza crisis, Saudi Arabia vetoed any action. Even the Palestinian Authority blames Hamas for the fighting. Activists in Fatah, which runs the Palestinian Authority and is Hamas’s nationalist rival, make no secret of their hope that Hamas loses the war.

Welcome to the new Middle East, characterized no longer by the Arab-Israeli conflict but by an Arab nationalist-Islamist conflict. Recognizing this reality, virtually all Arab states – other than Iran’s ally, Syria – and the Palestinian Authority want to see Hamas defeated in Gaza. Given their strong self-interest in thwarting Islamist revolutionary groups, especially those aligned with Iran, they are not inclined to listen to the “Arab street” – which is far quieter than it was during previous conflicts, such as the 1991 war in Kuwait, the 2000-2004 Palestinian uprising or the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah war.

Today’s Middle East is very different from the old one. First, the internal politics of every Arab country revolves around a battle between Arab nationalist rulers and an Islamist opposition. In other words, Hamas’s allies are the regimes’ enemies. An Islamist state in Gaza would encourage those who seek to create similar entities in Egypt, Jordan and every other Arab country.

A tremendous price has already been paid for this conflict. The violence has included civil wars among Palestinians and Algerians, the bloodshed in Iraq and terrorist campaigns in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. In the Palestinian case, after winning an election and making a deal with Fatah for a coalition government, Hamas turned on its rival and drove it out of Gaza by force. In return, the Palestinian Authority has been repressing Hamas in the West Bank. In Lebanon, Hezbollah has been trying to bully its more moderate Sunni Muslim, Christian and Druze rivals into submission.

Second, because Arab states confront an Iranian-Syrian alliance that includes Hamas and Hezbollah, in addition to internal conflicts, there is a regional battle between these two blocs. An aspect of this is that the largely Sunni Muslim-led states face a largely Shia Muslim-led competitor for regional hegemony.

These two problems pose far greater dangers to the existing states than does any (largely fabricated) Israeli threat, and the region’s rulers know it.

On the other side of the divide, Iran and its allies have put forward the banners of jihad and “resistance.” Their platform includes Islamist revolution in every country; Iran as the region’s dominant state, backed up by nuclear weapons; no peace with Israel and no Palestinian state until there can be an Islamist one encompassing all of Israel (as well as the West Bank and Gaza); and the expulsion of Western influence from the region.

This is a very ambitious program, probably impossible to achieve. Nevertheless, it is a prescription for endless terrorism and war: Both pro- and anti-Iranian revolutionary Islamists believe they will win because God is on their side and their enemies are cowardly, and they are quite prepared to spend the next half-century trying to prove it.

While this seems to be a very pessimistic assessment of the regional situation, the radical Islamist side has many weaknesses. Launching losing wars may make Islamists feel good, but being defeated is a costly proposition, for their arrogance and belligerence antagonize many who might otherwise be won over to their cause.

The situation also provides a good opportunity for Western policy-makers. The emphasis should be on building coalitions among the relatively moderate states that are threatened by radical Islamist forces, and on working hard to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons – a goal that is in the interests of many in the region.

The worst mistake would be to follow the opposite policy – an inevitably futile effort to appease the extremists or seek to moderate them. Such a campaign actually disheartens the relative moderates who, feeling sold out, will try to cut their own deal with Tehran.
The crisis in Gaza is only one aspect of the much wider battle shaking the region. Helping Hamas would empower radical Islamism and Iranian ambitions, while undercutting the Palestinian Authority and everyone else, not just Israel. Arab states don’t want to help their worst enemy. Why should anyone else?

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center http://www.gloriacenter.org at IDC Herzliya and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition) and The Truth About Syria.

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