This is a summary of my talk at Temple Beth Emek in Pleasanton CA on Sept 13, 2016. Note the title was chosen by their committee.
At this juncture should we be optimists or pessimists regarding the future of Israel in a dramatically changing Middle East? Should we be worried about Islamic State (IS), about Iran and its nuclear capability, about the general break-down of State control throughout the Arab Muslim world? Or should we be optimists given Israel’s continuing growth in population and its political and economic stability and technological development?
The Middle East classically consists of 14 States: one Jewish, Israel, and 13 Islamic Arab States (Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Kuwait, Syria, Qatar, Bahrain, UAE, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Oman). If one looks at the Middle East over time, in 1948 when Israel achieved independence and was recognized internationally as a sovereign country, the whole of the 13 States were effectively at war with Israel, however only 6 of them actually invaded, namely Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Saudi Arabia. After the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Egypt made peace with Israel in 1979. Then Jordan followed suit in 1994.
Subsequently those States that were most rejectionist, Iraq and Syria, were removed from the equation by the US invasion in the Gulf War of 2003 and by the protracted civil war that has decimated Syria. Yemen is also convulsed by a civil war pitting the pro-Shia Houthis against the Sunnis, including Saudi Arabia. Seen from the pov of Saudi Arabia, with a war against IS in the north, with Shia Iran threatening from the East and war with Yemen in the south, the future looks dicey. This is especially true since Saudi Arabia, supposedly a US ally, feels abandoned by the US under the policies of withdrawal from the Middle East of Pres. Obama. The only other power in the region that the Saudis could rely on against Iran is Israel. Israel in the west does not threaten Saudi Arabia and there are currently secret discussions going on between the two former enemies.
Lebanon is in a class by itself, since it is split between several distinct ethnic groups. Hezbollah, which is a Shi’ite militia group, is the only armed militia in Lebanon. When all other militias were disarmed after the civil war in Lebanon, Hezbollah remained armed because it claimed to be the bulwark against Israel. But now it is fighting alongside the Syrian Army of Pres. Bashar Assad. This has angered the other Lebanese ethnic groups.
So if we look at the Middle \East as a whole today compared to the past there is only one state remaining that retains an army that constitutes a military threat to Israel, and that is Iran. The nuclear deal arrived at between Iran and the US and its allies will stop Iran’s drive towards a nuclear weapon for some years, if it adheres to the terms of the deal, a big if. So overall, the removal of the majority of the military threats to Israel except for Iran must make us optimistic for the future.
But, so far I have not mentioned the Palestinians. That is because frankly they don’t count militarily! They are unable to inflict anything but minor terrorist attacks on Israel. Hamas in Gaza can fire rockets, but pays accordingly. They have been unable to organize a state, they are not significantly aided by the Arab States, the level of corruption is incredible (billions stolen), they can only organize an effective PR campaign.
But, who owns the Land? The Balfour Declaration by the British Govt. of 1917 intended Palestine to be a Jewish Homeland. The Treaties of San Remo and of Sevres (1920) after WWI that divided the Turkish Empire included the Balfour Declaration and did not mention any Arab State in Palestine (they got Arabia, Syria and Iraq). The British Mandate given by the League of Nations in 1922 formalized this arrangement and was ratified by the UN. There has never been a sovereign State called Palestine. The Arabs come from Arabia, and conquered Jerusalem in 639 ce, while the Jews are the indigenous inhabitants of the Holy Land.
The Two-State solution was thought up by Western diplomats and intellectuals who believe in abstract concepts. The Palestinians do not want a two-state solution, but one state of Palestine controlled by them. The Jews do not want an economically unviable terrorist mini-state adjacent to their heartland. I predict, apart from all the nice sentiments, that there will never be a two-state solution.
I predict that the Islamic State (IS) will be defeated by a coalition of the US, Russia, Iran, the Kurds and anti-regime Syrians. IS is repressive and offers no future for its citizens. The Assad regime in Syria will eventually collapse because it holds only ca. 15% of Syria. Iran will probably attempt to obtain nuclear weapons leading to a crisis, the outcome of which cannot be predicted. Basically I am an optimist, Israel will survive!
PS. For an illustrated PDF version of this presentation go to: http://jackcohenart.com/Lectures/mideast.pdf