Israel and the politics of friendship

Palestinians in the West Bank city of Hebron gather around the body of a protester after he was killed by Israeli troops during a rally by Hamas supporters against Israel’s military operation in Gaza, 16 January 2009. (Mamoun Wazwaz/MaanImages)


The status of Israel as the enemy of the Arabs has largely depended in the last six decades on its enmity or alliance with Arab regimes and not with the Arab peoples. Insofar as Israel threatened Arab regimes, it was depicted by them as the enemy, insofar as it did not, it was welcomed as a friend.

This was certainly the case in Israel’s ambivalent position toward the Jordanian regime with which it has allied itself since the 1920s while at the same time working to undermine the regime when some of its strategies changed. This in turn explains why the Jordanian regime was historically ambivalent about whether Israel was an enemy or an ally. In 1967, some in Israel contemplated unseating King Hussein from the throne while in 1970 Israel sought to extend its military assistance to buttress his throne. While King Hussein became convinced that Israel’s ambivalence had been resolved by the early 1990s in favor of an alliance, many Jordanian nationalists as well as Jordanian chauvinists were not. It is in this context that many anti-Palestinian Jordanian nationalists opposed the peace agreement that Jordan signed with Israel in 1994 and pointed to the continuing Israeli ambivalence towards Jordan. They correctly observed that Israel would sacrifice the regime in favor of establishing a Palestinian state in Jordan after expelling all West Bank Palestinians to the country, a project that Ariel Sharon had been proposing since the 1970s and that retains support among key people in the Labor Party. Indeed, Sharon wanted Israel to support the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1970 against King Hussein.

The recent indecisiveness of the Jordanian government regarding the best response to Israel’s carnage in Gaza was on account of the regime’s uncertainty of where Israel’s strategy lies at present. At the outset of the carnage, Jordanian intelligence chief Muhammad al-Dhahabi, who reopened talks with Hamas a few months ago, was dismissed from his job, while at the same time the government allowed massive demonstrations across the country with limited but evident police repression. But US, Saudi, and Egyptian pressure on Jordan have clearly won the day, especially in their insistence that Jordan return its ambassador to Tel Aviv whom it had recalled for a few days in protest. These developments show that the Jordanian government has a different set of priorities and worries than its Egyptian and Saudi counterparts, but that it hopes and prefers that Israel remain a friend and not become an enemy.

The Egyptian regime, which considers Israel its most important ally in the region after the United States, believes correctly that Israel is not trying to undermine it, which is why Israel has not been an enemy of Egypt since the mid 1970s. The days when Israel tried to destroy the Arab nationalist regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser are over, and since his successor Anwar Sadat’s capitulationist overtures, Israel has been a sure supporter of the Egyptian regime, which supports Israel in turn, sometimes as many have recently speculated, to the regime’s own detriment.

Since the Reagan years, Israel has also become the friend of the Saudi regime and later the rest of the Gulf monarchies, not to mention its longstanding friendship with the Moroccan kings. The Tunisian regime of Habib Bourguiba also refused to consider Israel an enemy since the 1960s as had fascist Christian forces in Lebanon which considered it and still consider it a friend. Most important in this context is how the Palestinian Authority (PA) under Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas no longer considered Israel an enemy, except briefly under Arafat before he died and when he realized that Israel was out to unseat him. Otherwise, both Arafat and Abbas, whose term as PA president expired on 9 January, could not and cannot get enough hugs and kisses from Israel’s war criminal leaders.

This is a far cry from the 1950s when the Shah’s Iran, Turkey, and Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia were key allies of Israel and the US and the first two sought alliances then with the Hashemite regimes in Iraq and Jordan. The Arab regimes consensus then was that the alliance between Turkey, Iran, Ethiopia and Israel was a pro-imperialist anti-Arab alliance. The fact that today it is Iran and Turkey’s political leadership that are the only regional forces insisting on regional and local sovereignty against imperial invasions and occupations has reversed this trend.

It is now Arab regimes that push for imperial and colonial sovereignty in Palestine, Iraq and Iran, while Iran and Turkey are in the forefront of resisting it. That popular forces across Arab countries and in Iran and Turkey continue to oppose US imperialism passionately leaves most Arab regimes as the major pro-imperial forces in the region. It is in this context that Saudi-, Egyptian-, Jordanian-, and even the Palestinian Authority-sponsored anti-Iranian and anti-Shiite chauvinism (launched at the behest of Israel and the US) have failed to sway the Arab masses from their anti-imperial and anti-colonial position. The entry of Turkey into the camp that supports local and regional sovereignty has complicated the hate-mongering of the Arab regimes allied to the US, on account of Turkey’s Sunnism, or at least its non-Shiism. As a result, the only regime that Israel continues to threaten openly is the Syrian regime, despite its ongoing secret negotiations with it. This is why Israel remains an official enemy of Syria.

The most dangerous enemy for any Arab regime today is any local opposition that seeks regime change while offering the range of services to the US that the current regime offers. This is why the Muslim Brothers are considered the biggest threat to the Egyptian regime. The regime would have been unperturbed had the Muslim Brothers been anti-imperialist and were they to refuse to provide services to the US. The regime, in fact, would have loved for them to be more radical, as this would have proved to the US that the current regime is the only one that could offer obedient services to its imperial white, or in the case of Obama, half-white master.

That the Muslim Brothers are willing to serve the US is precisely where their danger to the regime lies, as the US could easily abandon the current regime if it becomes a liability and switch support to the Brothers. Herein lies the enmity that the regime has shown and continues to show toward Hamas, and why regime allies in Egypt, including liberals and leftists, support it in its hostility to Hamas, which they see as an extension of the Brothers. The problem here is that in conjunction with Hizballah in Lebanon, Hamas, unlike the Brothers, is the biggest opponent of Israeli colonialism and US imperialism. In the Palestinian context, it is the PA under Arafat and Abbas that established an alliance with Israel and the US and not Hamas. Indeed, the competition between Hamas and the PA is not over services to the US but rather over serving the interests of the Palestinian people. By contrast, the sometimes tense relationships between the PA and Egypt or the PA and Jordan have been based on precisely the former chipping away at some of the latter’s role in serving US interests and in wanting a piece of the pie.

West Bank-based Palestinian intellectuals, like their liberal counterparts across the Arab world, have been active in the last several years in demonizing Hamas as the force of darkness in the region. These intellectuals (among whom liberal secular Christians, sometimes referred to derisively in Ramallah circles as “the Christian Democratic Party,” are disproportionately represented) are mostly horrified that if Hamas came to power, it would ban alcohol. Assuming Hamas would enact such a regulation on the entire population were it to rule a liberated Palestine in some undetermined future, these intellectuals are the kind of intellectuals who prefer an assured collaborating dictatorship with a glass of scotch to a potentially resisting democracy without. This is not to say that Hamas will institute democratic governance necessarily; but if democratically elected, as it has been, it must be given the chance to demonstrate its commitments to democratic rule, which it now promises — something all these comprador intellectuals were willing to give to Fatah, and continue to extend to the movement after it established a dictatorship. Indeed, much of the repression that took place in the West Bank during the carnage in Gaza had been legitimized by the ongoing efforts of these intellectuals just as they previously legitimized the “peace process” launched by the Oslo Accords and during which Israel continued its massive colonization of Palestinian land while the PA suppressed any resistance. The scene in the West Bank, except for Hebron, was indeed a scandal. Arab capitals like Amman and Beirut, not to mention Palestinian cities and towns inside Israel, saw massive demonstrations that were at least a hundred times more numerous than the couple of thousands who tried to march in Ramallah but were beaten up by the goons of the Palestinian Collaborationist Authority (PCA).

Palestinians in the West Bank were watching Al-Jazeera instead of demonstrating in solidarity and refused to challenge Israel’s PCA agents who rule them. While the repression by the PCA and the Israeli occupation army is an important factor, the quiescence of the West Bank was also on account of the psychological warfare of demonizing Hamas to which the PCA and its cadre of comprador intellectuals have subjected the population for years. Moreover, the fact that a quarter of a million West Bankers work in the bureaucratic and security apparatus of the PCA and receive salaries which feed another three quarters of a million West Bankers, makes them fully dependent on the continuation of PCA rule to ensure their continued livelihood. This structural and material factor is indeed paramount in assessing the contemptible quiescence of West Bankers during the recent carnage in Gaza. Indeed, some of the staged Fatah participation in demonstrations in Ramallah (where the PCA women’s police beat up Hamas women demonstrators) included people who openly suggested that the demonstrators march by the Egyptian embassy in Ramallah to show support for Egyptian policies toward Gaza and Hamas.

The journey of West Bank liberal intellectuals, it seems has finally come to this: after being instrumental in selling out the rights of Palestinians in Israel to full equal citizenship by acquiescing to Israel’s demand to be recognized as a racist Jewish state, and the rights of the diaspora and refugees to return, they have now sold out the rights of Palestinians in Gaza to food and electricity, and all of this so that the West Bank can be ruled by a collaborationist authority that allows them open access to Johnny Walker Black Label (their drink of choice, although some have switched to Chivas more recently). In this context, how could Israel be anything but a friend and ally who is making sure Hamas will never get to ban whiskey?

In the meantime, the coming Israeli elections are being awaited with much trepidation. PCA strategies will be of course different depending on who wins. If Netanyahu wins, and he was the spoiler of PA rule and the Oslo understanding in 1996, Abbas can try to sound more nationalist in opposing Israeli practices in the hope that the Obama administration would support him against the Israeli right wing. The PCA hopes that Obama can put pressure on Netanyahu that he would not be able to in case Labor Party leader Ehud Barak wins. If Barak wins, then the PCA would be happy as they can go back to business as usual. As a close friend of the corrupt Clintons, Barak will also be a friend of his namesake in the Oval office, and Hillary Clinton will make sure that no pressure goes his way. Of course as far as the Palestinian people are concerned, it makes no difference who is at the helm of Israeli politics, a right-wing war criminal or a left-wing war criminal. As for those who still have hope in the Israeli public, the latter’s overwhelming support for the carnage in Gaza should put this to rest. If Germans spent the day on the beach when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, and Americans cheered in bars and at home the fireworks light show the US military put up over Baghdad while slaughtering hundreds of thousands of Iraqis in 1991 and in 2003, Israeli Jews insisted on having front row seats on hills overlooking Gaza for a live show, cracking open champagne bottles and cheering the murder and maiming of thousands of civilians, more than half of whom were women and children.

The Obama government as well as the Israelis and the Arab regimes have only one game they are willing to play, and it is hardly original. Ignoring and delegitimizing Hamas is a repetition of the delegitimization of the PLO when it represented Palestinian interests in the 1960s, 1970s, and part of the 1980s. At the time, the Jordanian regime was entrusted by the Israelis and the Americans with speaking on behalf of West Bank Palestinians until the PLO pledged to be a servant of Israel and US interests and began to view both as friends, and not as enemies. While this strategy has worked superbly in ending the enmity between most Arab regimes and Israel, it has failed miserably in convincing most Arabs that Israel is not their enemy. Israel’s recent military victory in slaughtering defenseless Palestinian civilians and its losing the war against Hamas by failing to realize any of its military objectives have hardly endeared it or its Arab supporters to the Arab peoples at large or to Muslim regional powers who are not fully subservient to the US. The Israeli settler-colony might have become the friend of oppressive regimes across the region, but in doing so it has ensured the enmity of the majority of the peoples in whose midst it has chosen to implant itself.

Joseph Massad is Associate Professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University in New York. He is the author of The Persistence of the Palestinian Question (Routledge, 2006).