In his May 7 Globe and Mail opinion piece, “Israel’s motive in hitting Syria was pure self-defence,” the well-known Middle East analyst Barry Rubin argued that in (allegedly) attacking depots near Damascus containing advanced missiles intended for Hezbollah, Israel was carrying out a long-held policy: to prevent dangerous Iranian weapons from finding their way into Hezbollah’s hands.
These air attacks were not Israel’s way of intervening in Syria’s civil war, or of doing the work for the United States that the Obama administration has been most reluctant to do itself.
While Israel has not officially acknowledged that it was responsible for the attacks, both the U.S. president and British Foreign Secretary William Hague said on the May 4 weekend following the air strikes that Israel had a right to defend itself.
Yet Rubin goes beyond the immediate issue of self-defence to mention a factor that has received very little attention in the media – the diminishing importance of Israel in the broader context of the upheavals wracking the Arab world, three-quarters of which, to one degree or another, have been affected by change, turmoil and instability over the past couple of years.
Rubin’s take on this is as follows: “The Middle East is in a completely new era from that which prevailed in the half-century or so after 1950. The Arab-Israeli conflict, shrunk down to an Israel-Palestinian conflict, is an increasingly less important factor in regional politics. The revolution in Egypt, the civil war in Syria, the battles within Iraq and other such developments have nothing to do with conflict with Israel.
“Fearing Iran and revolutionary Islamists, the remaining old regimes – notably Saudi Arabia and the other Persian Gulf states – don’t speak very much about Israel. Iraq has turned inward, dropping out of the conflict, too.
“The main battle in the Middle East is now overwhelmingly between Arab and Iranian revolutionary Islamists – who want to impose sharia-ruled states – and a variety of non-Islamists that include Arab and Kurdish nationalists, Christian communities, liberals and anti-Islamist conservatives.”
On a related theme, Geneive Abdo, an author (No God But God: Egypt and the Triumph of Islam) and former foreign correspondent – she was the first to report from Iran following the 1979 revolution – has recently written a must-read 60-page report for the Brookings Institution of the changing Middle East landscape titled “The New Sectarianism: The Arab Uprising And The Birth Of The Shia-Sunni Divide.”
Like Rubin, Abdo points to the reduction of attention that Israel receives in the Middle East itself which, according to her, is in the throes of an atavistic clash between Shia forces represented by Iran-Hezbollah-Alawite Syria on the one hand and Sunni forces represented by Egypt-Saudi Arabia-Qatar-Turkey on the other. The clash of these forces, the struggle for dominance if not supremacy is the main battle being waged now. And it is one in which the Israel-Palestinian dispute doesn’t really figure.
Abdo’s core messages deserve careful attention:
• The Shia-Sunni conflict “has raged off and on for centuries across the Middle East” and has been revived by the wave of uprisings in the region, especially by the Syrian conflict.
• While the Shia have attained power in Iraq (following the U.S. overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003), there is now a “growing Sunni bid for ascendency in both the religious and political realms.”
• The dominance of sectarian conflict together with the range of purely local, domestic crises across the Arab world is likely to supplant the Israel-Palestinian dispute “as the central mobilizing factor for Arab political life.”
• More broadly, “the Shia-Sunni divide is well on its way to displacing the broader conflict between Muslims and the West as the primary challenge facing the Islamic societies of the Middle East for the foreseeable future.”
With rapidly developing events roiling in the Middle East, it’s a challenge to gain perspective on what they mean. Both Barry Rubin and Geneive Abdo help point the way.
Paul Michaels is director of research and senior media relations with the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.