Just a day after Israel’s coalition government had been officially sworn into power, the Pinsker Centre welcomed Col. Richard Kemp and Ed Husain to discuss the future of Arab-Israeli relations. Col. Kemp has a history of commanding the British forces in Afghanistan as well as advising the British government on counterterrorism. Ed Husain is the co-founder of Quilliam, a UK-based think tank dedicated to combatting the spread of extremism. In a webinar, titled “New Alliances for a New Future”, both guests pointed out that the Middle East is experiencing an unprecedented transformation and concluded that the prospects of positive changes in relations between Israel and the Arab world are more palpable than ever before.
Substantiating this argument, Colonel Kemp cited an article, which he has recently published in the Jerusalem Post, which casts light on the extensive cooperation between members of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) and the non-Jewish residents of the West Bank on containing the spread of the coronavirus. Although extremely impressed by this development, he emphasised that it was not the first instance of such collaboration. In the 20th century, the local Arabs successfully partnered with the Israeli government to eradicate malaria-spreading mosquitos in the region, which suggests that the Arabs had previously enjoyed the benefits of working together, though further attempts at bridging the divide between Israel and the Arab community had been thwarted by the contemporary leadership. Ed Husain appeared to concur with Kemp’s remarks that much of the animosity between the two is not intrinsic, but spurred by anti-Semitic propaganda. Taking a long view of history, he continued, we observe plenty of harmonious cohesion between the Jews and the Muslims. For instance, it was none other than the Muslim caliph Umar, who let the Jews return to Jerusalem years after their expulsion by the Romans. Blotted by memories of frequent conflict in the 20th century, the Arab-Israeli relations in the modern era were, nonetheless, not as Manichean as they initially appear. Egypt’s Anwar Sadat signed agreements with Israel, Maghrebi tourists are travelling to the nation in large numbers, and Saudi Arabia’s recent overtures towards the Likud government all demonstrate the potential for greater cooperation in the Middle East.
With the Arab leadership identified as a substantial factor in provoking previous Arab-Israeli hostilities, the discussion segued into a review of reasons for a slow, yet positive, shift in the Arab-Israeli relations. Echoing Kemp’s opinion that the existence of a common enemy in the form of Iran is prompting Saudi Arabia to warm up to Israel, Husain referred to Iran as “a genuine threat” and revealed multiple instances of its interference in Middle Eastern politics. Listing seven in total, he mentioned the regime’s support for Hezbollah and Hamas, encroachments in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq, as well as the Iranian navy’s aggressive behaviour in the Persian Gulf. However, he also noted that even if the Islamic Republic had not been in such an unstable condition, the Sunni Arab states would have still been encouraged to cooperate with Israel. He noted that, the equally detestable ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, which gained prominence during the Arab Spring as a consequence of Western connivance and neglect of the local extremists, poses a comparable threat to the stability of the region and correspondingly of both Israel and the Arab countries.
Picking up from this point, Colonel Kemp stressed Iran’s current goal is preserving the rule of the radical Shiite establishment, from which every action it takes in the region is detrimental to the regime’s stability. The state remains severely undermined by the shooting of the Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 in January and by the authorities’ torpid response to the virus outbreak. To reduce internal volatility, Iranian propaganda has reverted to looking for external threats that could unite the people under the banner of the Islamic Revolution. Moreover, Kemp identified this tendency and Iran’s concomitant hatred of Israel as an integral part of the country’s self-preservationist foreign policy, much like its use of proxies in Iraq and Afghanistan and the development of nuclear capabilities. His final statement was as follows: the West’s inability to contain Iran originates in the reluctance of many European leaders to shore up Trump’s proposals, and this reluctance arguably has more to do with Trump’s personality than with the actual content of his ideas.
The same could be said about Trump’s blueprint for resolving the Palestinian issue, Kemp purported. His plan is revolutionary, as it gives minimal store by emotions: instead of condemning either side, it recognises the problem must be solved, and it may only be solved by mutual concessions. As for the regional opposition, Kemp said the proposal’s rejection by Palestinian leaders should not force us into perceiving it as unjust. In truth, the former have historically snubbed all such initiatives, even the more favourable ones. Likewise, the criticisms emanating from Jordan “are more sabre-rattling than reality”; Jordan relies on Israel and the US heavily in the sphere of national security and would naturally prefer increased Israeli presence to a “renegade state on its backdoor”. Lastly, Kemp asserted that much of the resentment to the deal is ill-founded. European states have failed to notice a volte-face in the Sunni Arab attitudes towards Israel and wrongly continue to believe that, without ostensibly professing support for the Palestinian cause, they will not be welcome there. In reality, this is not true. Damascus and Cairo once determined the course of Arab politics, but now that has given way to Riyadh, which has no comparable history of confronting the Israeli state directly. Kemp equally discarded the accusations that Israel is annexing Palestinian land, since annexation is a process whereby one sovereign state takes territory from another. Seeing that the West Bank is not a sovereign state, its territory cannot be annexed by definition.
Though much shorter due to time constraints, Ed Husain’s comments resonated with what the other guest had suggested earlier. Firstly, he expressed his optimism about Mohammad bin Salman whom he described as a young, tech-savvy, different kind of Arab leader. The speaker proposed that an Anwar Sadat-type moment of reconciliation between Israel and Saudi Arabia will only be a question of time, should the Crown Prince succeed his father to the throne. However, there is a major caveat to this: the energetic future leader of Saudi Arabia might be going too far too soon in pursuance of harmonising relations with Israel. After all, whilst a public agreement between the two countries will certainly signal progress, bin Salman ought to take care of domestic reforms as well as economic and security concerns. Failure to pay due heed to them, Husain warns, may prevent him from acquiring the sort of authority he needs to realise his vision. Kemp likewise highlighted this point in his answer: he found it important for regional stability not to see Saudi Arabia’s current leadership toppled and argued that it must minimise the risk of this by addressing many of the problems the kingdom is currently facing.
Secondly, Husain elaborated on the fundamental shift in the regional balance of power that placed the Gulf countries and Saudi Arabia at the vanguard of the Arab world. The new leaders have always held a different view of Israel, since they had not been preoccupied with military operations against the IDF during the Arab-Israeli wars. Rather, Saudi businessmen have been eager to invest in Israel. One Saudi TV channel even broadcasted a program this Ramadan, in which it lamented the fact that Arab Jews had fled to Israel out of fear of persecution in their home countries. Based on this, cooperation with Israel is entirely plausible.
The webinar ended on a viewer’s question, concerned with how Arab-Israeli relations would be affected by Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election in the United States. Kemp’s response was clear: expect policy reversals, particularly with respect to the Iran nuclear deal. Therefore, if Israel were not to implement Trump’s peace proposal now, it would have fewer chances to accomplish this goal with a Democratic administration in charge of America. Yet, the former commander of British forces in Afghanistan was not completely pessimistic. There is hope that Europe’s fear of Iran would trump its fear of Donald Trump, he said, as this exciting one-hour-long policy discussion came to its conclusion.
The Pinsker Centre would like to thank Colonel Richard Kemp and Ed Husain for donating their time and we shall be following the future developments in Middle Eastern politics with great interest. The Pinsker Centre is a think-tank based upon the values of debate, discussion, and dialogue; opening the conversation on Geopolitical issues facing the Middle East and the State of Israel.