What does Jordan’s King Abdullah want from Israel? This week Abdullah gave a long and much cited interview to the Wall Street Journal. There he appeared to be begging US President Barack Obama to turn up the heat still further on Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. As he has on a number of occasions, Abdullah argued that the Palestinian conflict with Israel is the cause or the justification of all the violence and emerging threats in the region. By his telling, all of these threats, including Iran’s nuclear threat, will all but disappear if Israel accepts all of the Palestinian, (and Syrian), demands for land.
Abdullah’s criticism of Netanyahu dominated the news in Israel for much of the week. Commentators and reporters piled on, attacking Netanyahu for destroying whatever remains of Israel’s good name. In their rush to attack the premier, none of them stopped to consider that perhaps they were missing something fundamental about Abdullah’s interview.
But they were missing something. For there is another way to interpret Abdullah’s complaints. To understand it however, it is necessary to consider the strategic constraints under which Abdullah operates. And the Israeli media, like the Western media as a whole, are incapable of recognizing that Abdullah has constraints that make it impossible for him to say what he means directly.
Abdullah is a Hashemite who leads a predominantly Palestinian country. His country was carved out by the British as a consolation prize for his great-grandfather after the Hashemites lost Syria to the French. As a demographic minority and ethnic transplant, the Hashemites have never been in a position to defend themselves or their kingdom against either their domestic or foreign foes. Consequently they have always been dependent out outside powers – first Britain, and then Israel, and to a lesser degree the US – for their survival.
When Abdullah’s strategic predicament is borne in mind, his statements to the Journal begin to sound less like a diatribe against Israel and more like a plea to Israel to be strong. For instance, his statement, "In a way, I think North Korea has better international relations than Israel," can be interpreted as a lament.
Abdullah fears war and he recognizes that the Iranian axis – which includes Syria, Lebanon, and elements of the Palestinian Authority and elements of Iraq – is the biggest threat to his regime. Syria, which dispatched the al Qaida bombers that blew up the hotels in Amman in 2005, threatens Jordan today almost as menacingly as it did in 1970, when it supported the PLO in its bid to overthrow Abdullah’s father. Back then, Israel stepped in and saved the Hashemites.
Abdullah’s preoccupation with Iran was clear throughout the interview. Indeed, much of his criticism of Israel needs to be viewed through the prism of his obvious fear that Iran’s race to regional dominance will not be thwarted.
The reason that Israel’s media – like the American and European media – failed to consider what was motivating Abdullah to speak as he did is because both Israelis and Westerners suffer from an acute narcissism that prevents them from noticing anything but themselves. So rather than view events from Abdullah’s perspective and consider what might be motivating him to speak, they interpret his statements to serve their own ideological purposes. In the case of the leftist dominated media, Abdullah’s statements were pounced upon as further proof that Israel, and particularly Netanyahu, are to blame for all the pathologies of the Arabs and all the threats in the Middle East. If Israel could only be coerced into giving up land, everything would be fine.
Much of what the West misses about the Arab world is spelled out for us in a new and masterful book. The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations by Lee Smith, is a unique and vital addition to the current debate on the Middle East because rather than interpret the Arabs through the ideological lenses of the West, Smith describes them, their cultural and political motivations as the Arabs — in all their ethnic, religious, ideological, national and tribal variations — themselves perceive these things.
Smith, a native New Yorker, was the literary editor of The Village Voice when Arab hijackers brought down the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Propelled by the attacks, he headed to the Middle East to try to understand what had just hit his city. Smith moved to Cairo where he studied Arabic and drank in the cultural and political forces surrounding him. After a year, he moved to Beirut where he remained for another three years.
The Strong Horse speaks to two Western audiences, the Left, or the self-proclaimed "realists," who ascribe to the belief that the Arabs have no particular interests but are rather all motivated to act by external forces and specifically by the US and Israel; and the neo-conservatives who believe that at heart, the Arabs all yearn for Western-style liberal democracy.
Smith rejects both these notions out of hand. Instead, by recounting the stories of men and women he met during his sojourn in the region, and weaving them into the tales of Arab cultural, religious and political leaders that have risen and fallen since the dawn of Islam 1,400 years ago Smith presents a few basic understandings of the Arab world that place the actions of everyone from Osama bin Laden to Jordan’s King Abdullah in regional and local contexts. The localization of these understandings in turn opens up a whole new set of options for Westerners and particularly for Israelis in seeking ways to contend with the region’s pathologies that involve policies less sweeping than grand, yet futile designs of peace making, or fundamental restructuring of the social compacts of Arab societies.
Smith develops six central insights in his book.
Arab political history is a history of the powerful ruling the weak through violence.
Islamic terror and governmental tyranny are the two sides of the coin of Arab political pathology.
Liberal democratic principles are unattractive to the vast majority of Arabs who believe that politics is and by rights ought to remain a violent enterprise and prefer the narrative of resistance to the narrative of liberty.
Liberal Arab reformers are unwilling to fight for their principles.
The 1,400 year period of Sunni dominance over non-Sunni minorities is now threatened seriously for the first time by the Iranian-controlled Shiite alliance which includes Syria, Lebanon, and Hamas.
And finally, that it is intra-Arab rivalries and the desire to rule and be recognized as the strong horse that motivates jihadists to wage continuous wars against Israel and the West and against regimes in Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia alike.
As Smith explains, today, Arab leaders view Israel as a possible strong horse that could defeat the rising Shiite axis that threatens them. And now, as the US under Obama abdicates its leadership role in world affairs by turning on its allies and attempting to appease its foes while scaling back America’s own military strength, Israel is the Sunnis’ only hope for beating back the Shiite alliance. If Israel does not prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power, then the likes of Kings Abdullah of Jordan and Saudi Arabia and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak are going to be forced to accept Iran as the regional hegemon.
When seen against the backdrop of Smith’s analysis, it is clear that as his father did when he supported Saddam Hussein against Saudi Arabia in the lead-up to the 1991 Gulf War, Abdullah was hedging his bets in his interview with the Journal. If Israel fails to act, he wants to be on record expressing his animosity towards the Jewish state and blaming it for all the region’s problems. On the other hand, he used the interview as an opportunity to again send a message to anyone willing to listen that he wants Israel to assert itself and continue to protect his kingdom.
The recognition that a strong Israel is the most stabilizing force in the region is perhaps the main casualty of the Left’s land for peace narrative and the two-state solution paradigm which wrongly promote the weakness of Israel as the foremost potential contributor to stability in the region. Because Israel is everyone’s convenient bogeyman, it cannot form permanent alliances with any of its neighbors and as a consequence, it cannot gang up against another state. Because it will always be the first target of the most radical actors in the region, Israel has a permanent interest in defeating them or, at a minimum denying those actors the means to cause catastrophic harm. Finally, although no one will admit it, everyone knows that Israel has neither the ability nor desire to acquire and rule over Arab lands and therefore there is no reason for anyone to fear its strength. For the past 62 years, Israel has only used force to protect itself when it was convinced it had no other option and it holds only territories designated for the Jewish homeland by the League of Nations 90 years ago and lands vital for its self-defense.
Smith was living in Beirut when Hizbullah launched its war against Israel in July 2006. As he tells the story, "When the government of Ehud Olmert decided to make war against Hizbullah in the summer of 2006, all of Washington’s Arab allies…were overjoyed. With the Americans having taken down a Sunni security pillar – Saddam – and then getting tied down in Iraq, Riyadh, Cairo and the rest sensed the Iranians were gaining ground and that they were vulnerable. Even though they were incapable of doing anything about it themselves, the Sunni powers…wanted to see the [Iranian] bloc rolled back."
Unfortunately for them, Olmert and his government were incompetent to lead Israel in war and within weeks showed that they had no idea how to accomplish their stated aim of crushing Hizbullah. When this reality sunk in, and the Arab masses rallied behind Iran, Hizbullah and Syria against their own governments, "the Sunni regimes could abide no longer and demanded the United States move to a ceasefire immediately."
No doubt, in part as a consequence of their disappointment with Israel’s military performance in Lebanon and subsequently in Gaza, today leaders like Abdullah of Jordan are pessimistic about the future. But there is also no doubt who they are rooting for. And this has profound significance for Israel, not only as it prepares its plans to contend with Iran but also as it considers it national priorities.
For too long, Israel’s leaders have believed that to thrive regionally, it needs to convince the West to support it politically. But the fact is that Israel is in Asia, not in Europe or North America. To survive and thrive, Israel needs to rebuild the faith of the likes of Jordan’s Abdullah that it is the strong horse in the region. And once it does that, with or without formal peace treaties, and with or without democracies flourishing region-wide, Israel will facilitate regional peace and stability for the benefit of all.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.