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Artillery Row

Israel alone?

The Middle East is entering a dangerous new period

With a brutal, continent-juddering war more than a year old in Europe, it is tempting to see the latest bloodshed between Israelis and Palestinians as just another round in the endless conflict between two peoples, two struggles, two versions of history. Yes, in their own minds of course, only one of them is right — but this is no ordinary time. 

Beware as we watch the Israelis attack Gaza, killing leaders they identify as terrorists, alongside women and children — the innocent defined as “collateral damage”. Then see the Islamic militants in charge of Gaza fire back with hundreds of rockets aimed at Israeli cities — threatening women and children as well. This apparent replay of history is, sadly, a harbinger of something more serious.

Consider the zealotry in Tehran allied with Saudi muscle

There is a new political landscape in the Middle East, and it leaves Israel dangerously alone. It unites, however fragile their new covenant, two major players and longtime enemies in the region: Iran and Saudi Arabia. Likewise, it unites their two strands of Islam. Consider the zealotry of the Ayatollahs in Tehran now allied with the Saudi kingdom’s financial and diplomatic muscle. Ponder their deal made and signed in China, with the mediation of the world’s new supreme leader (at least in his own mind), Xi Jinping. That’s a game-changer.

So is the return of Israel’s oldest front-line enemy, Syria, to the Arab fold. The government of that ruthless dictator Bashar al-Assad had been pariah for more than a decade after he unleashed a savage civil war on his opponents in the aftermath of the so-called Arab Spring. No more. Assad’s Syria, long since an ally of Iran, has been welcomed back to the Arab league. 

It makes Israel look more alone than ever, in the years since I lived in Jerusalem as a correspondent and wrote a book about its future. The hope, in my time, was of the Jewish state finding a conversation — in time, a working arrangement — with the Arab and Islamic neighbourhood. The dream, as articulated by the likes of Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, cast Israel as a regional partner in pursuit of the common good.

This ambition, as I have argued in these pages before, was for Israelis building a day-to-day business relationship with the Palestinians, to find a way to live side by side and form an economic powerhouse, which might drive development across the region.

That hope has been dying for years — if it is not dead already — and the result makes Israel not just isolated, but vulnerable and potentially dangerous. Israel, given its history and today its leadership, can never be a lonesome dove.

Just three years ago, Israel seemed on the verge of building a solid ground floor of that home in the neighbourhood, well beyond the fragile peace agreements signed decades ago with Egypt and then Jordan. The so-called Abraham Accords, so titled in honour of the patriarch of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, and pushed heavily by the Trump administration, had the likes of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco make peace with Israel.

The belief, again driven by the Trump team, was that Saudi Arabia would follow suit and not just recognise Israel, but make peace publicly. Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, was said to be prepared to come on board too — such a symbolic heavyweight designed to undercut the Islamic leadership in Tehran. 

An Israel threatened has history when it comes to landing a first strike abroad

Instead, the Saudis are sitting at the table today with Israel’s most bitter enemies, led by Iran, Syria, even Hamas. Iran has long since backed Hamas, alongside Hezbollah, its surrogate army on Israel’s northern border in Lebanon. Now comes Saudi Arabia too. 

No wonder that Israel’s Prime Minister, Bibi Netanyahu, ever the pugilist, seizes the microphone to warn of the crisis at hand. “Those who partner with Iran partner with misery, and danger,” he declared the other day, refusing to rule out war with Tehran. “Ninety-five per cent of the problems in the Middle East emanate from Iran.”

It’s a sure sign of how beleaguered Netanyahu’s Israel now looks that questions abound even in the United States, which has been such a firm source of support and funding. Netanyahu’s leadership has already been under attack in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, due to his corruption trial and his divisive attempts to curb the power of Israel’s judiciary.

For the moment, across the divide in Jerusalem politics, Netanyahu has the kind of support he’s been lacking in recent times. “We’re united as one in confronting Islamic terrorism that attacks our women and children”, to quote former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who broke with Netanyahu to form a coalition government in 2021. “Why would you not take out those who want to kill you?”

Behind the rhetoric of conflict lies the danger. An Israel isolated, and threatened by such an unlikely coalition in the Muslim world, has history when it comes to landing a first strike abroad. Think Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and their capital cities. As occupied as we are by Putin and Xi, we should be watching the Netanyahu government’s standoff with Iran more closely than ever.

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