A dam good way to handle a conflict

(Read it here on The Media Line)

Ethiopia has started generating electricity from its new dam across the Nile River. Egypt is furious. Or is it?

The day after the dam was activated, Egypt repeated its demand for a binding agreement to safeguard its supply of water from the Nile, with a definite or-else tone in the background.

The “Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam” is the largest hydroelectric dam in Africa, and the seventh largest in the world. It’s larger than Egypt’s own Aswan High Dam about 2,000 kilometers downstream.

Someone new to the subject might think that those are the only dams ever built across the Nile, one of the world’s greatest, noblest, and history-laden waterways. In fact, the first dam was built near the site of present-day Cairo around 2650 BCE, or more than 4,000 years ago.

In recent times, there’s the Aswan High Dam, completed in 1970. A recent count shows that 25 hydroelectric dams have been built on the Nile in the past 50 years, and eight more are in the planning or construction stages.

The Aswan High Dam created an enormous artificial lake that has lessened the annual threats of flooding and drought downstream in Egypt, along with providing electricity and irrigation.

Now Ethiopia has done the same, and Egypt is not taking this lying down. Or at least that’s what its leaders say.

A year ago, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi warned: “I am telling our brothers in Ethiopia, let’s not reach the point where you touch a drop of Egypt’s water, because all options are open.”

It certainly looked like a crisis when I wrote this in Cairo in 2012. It’s in my first book, “Broken Spring.”

“Any perceived threat to the waters of the Nile sets off near-panic in Egypt. Estimates of the proportion of Nile water originating in Ethiopia range up to 70 percent. Images of the Nile’s level dropping by 70 percent, to the point where you could walk across it without getting your ankles wet, dance across the minds of Egyptians in a daytime nightmare.

“It’s nonsense, of course.

“If all Ethiopia wants to do is generate electricity, then the water that spins the turbines goes back into the river and flows into Egypt. If Ethiopia wants to use some of the water to develop its agriculture by irrigation, it’s pretty clearly entitled to do that.”

A decade later, what has Egypt done to carry out its threat and defend its water supply? Egypt obviously always had the military capability of attacking the dam, destroying or severely damaging it. In 2020, then-US President Donald Trump declared that Egypt would have to “blow up that dam.”

Headlines and threats screamed across the front pages of Egypt’s main newspapers in February, when the new dam was activated. Just a week later, though, it was out of the main newspapers in Egypt, except for an objective analysis here and there.

So is this a new way of dealing with international disputes? Complain, denounce, threaten—and leave it at that?

There is some underpinning to that notion. Decades ago an expert pointed out a difference between Middle East society and Western practice. In the West, if politicians make promises, they’re expected to fulfill them, or cynically not to. In the Mideast, if leaders make pronouncements, it’s as if they already did something concrete. No action is needed. The people take note and go on about their lives.

Does this translate to other cultures, other wars? Only in a limited way. Clearly the war in Ukraine can’t be put back in the bottle by belligerent declarations. The Israel-Palestinian conflict is rife with threats and denunciations, but they often lead to actual violence—so even if the rule applies, it applies only partially.

Even so, we have seen this phenomenon often in the Middle East, though we usually don’t recognize it. Over the years, Arab leaders have denounced Israel in graphic terms, blaming Israel for everything that’s wrong in the world, making bloodcurdling threats—while cooperating with Israel under the table in economic and security fields.

Iran is the best example of how this verbal system works.

Hardly a week goes by without some threat or another against Israel from the Iranian regime. There is no doubt that Iran is gearing up for nuclear weapons. It could launch a conventional attack anytime it chooses. But so far, at least, it hasn’t done much concrete against Israel. The threats are the actions, at least up to now.

The reason is clear. Israel can retaliate against Iranian aggression so harshly that even the ayatollahs of Tehran realize it’s not in their interest to poke the Israeli bear.

That does not mean, of course, that Israel can let down its guard and turn its swords into plowshares. It does mean, however, that Israelis don’t need to either shake in their boots or lash out aggressively every time someone says something nasty.

Keeping things in perspective, while keeping the powder dry, is a good way to maintain mental health in this challenging era.

—   —   —

(Photo by Mark Lavie—the Nile flowing through Cairo)

Arab parties should be in Israel’s government

Suggesting that Israel-Arab political parties should be in the government is no longer grounds for ostracism and ridicule. At least not as much as it was just a short time ago. Israel’s drawn-out political stalemate, reinforced by the results of yet another election along with a split in the Arab parliamentary bloc, have made the idea legitimate in the eyes of many—even if it’s a hold-the-nose, “better the Arabs than (pick one) Netanyahu or the Left” kind of acceptance.

When I first wrote on this subject a year and a half ago, it was still considered heresy bordering on treachery to suggest that Arab parties should be invited into a ruling coalition. That’s because they are pro-Palestinian and non-Zionist. You can imagine the comments my article spawned. Not exactly reading material for the whole family.

Even then, there were good reasons to include the representatives of Israel’s Arabs, who are 20 percent of Israel’s citizens.

The problem is the Palestinians, the West Bank and Gaza and how we emphasize it, despite the changes on the ground. That issue has been so important for so long that it defines Israel’s electorate as either “Right” or “Left.”

Here is today’s reality: The Palestinians have turned down at least two Israeli offers of a state according to their own demands. There won’t be another such offer. Even the Trump “Deal of the Century” made no difference, because as expected, the Palestinians rejected it before they even saw it.

So why do we still insist on putting the Palestinians, the occupation, the future of the West Bank, and the settlements at the top of our list of priorities, when the issue clearly doesn’t belong there?

The split in the Arab bloc called the “Joint List” came about mostly because many of Israel’s Arabs have come to the same conclusion. They want to take part in and benefit from the decision-making structure of the country they live in, instead of blindly supporting politicians who are concerned mostly about their neighbors–the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

Here are the advantages for all Israelis of bringing an Arab party into the ruling coalition, above and beyond the coalition mathematics, giving Israel’s Arabs:

  • A positive stake in how the country is run.
  • An opportunity to address the backward conditions of many Israeli Arab communities.
  • Effective silencing or at least toning down of their constant criticism.

For seven decades now, Arab-Israeli political parties have been “muktseh,” the Hebrew term for untouchable. Many Israeli Jews consider Israeli Arabs a traitorous threat to security. Perhaps many were for the first decade or two of Israel’s existence, and no doubt there are some who still are—but there are Jews who worry me more than the Arabs do.

It’s well documented that when it comes to unemployment, Arab towns are at the top of the list; and when it comes to income and education, they’re at the bottom.

What have we done to change that in the last seven decades? Not nearly enough. So how about handing one of the social welfare posts to an Arab Cabinet minister, allocate a suitable budget, and turn them loose, with the usual oversight, to work on the problems faced by their own constituents?

Giving the Arab parties an active role in government would counter their automatic rejection of everything Israel does. Of course there would be those who keep up or even increase their outcry, but so what? Their pathetic performances have not endangered the existence of the State of Israel up to now, and they certainly wouldn’t afterward.

Oh, but what of the outrageous demands that the Arab parties would make as a price for allowing us the privilege of giving them seats at the Cabinet table? They might, heaven forfend, insist on repeal of the Jewish State Law. I’ve already written about why the law was/is unnecessary (here it is if you missed it), and nothing would change if it were repealed. Israel is and will remain a Jewish state with protected minorities that have full rights, and no law or lack of one will change that.

They might demand a commitment to negotiating a solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Well, no one actually has a problem with that, and anyway, as I already said, it’s off the table, so no harm, no foul.

And they might—no, they will—demand budgets to improve infrastructure, education, and welfare in Israeli Arab communities. I can’t imagine how or why anyone could object to that.

Now let’s get practical. There was a time when non-Zionist ultra-Orthodox Jewish political parties were “muktseh,” untouchable, in Israeli politics—from the points of view of both the government and the parties. We got over it. The result is that mainstream Zionist parties have been forming coalitions with non-Zionist ultra-Orthodox parties for decades, and while their behavior outrages many people, no one considers them illegitimate.

And of course there was the slogan of the first decades of Israeli government-forming: “No Communists and no Herut.” Herut was the forerunner of Likud. How did that turn out?

Perhaps one day we will look back on the old days when Arab parties were automatically excluded from government and wonder why.

The times are changing. These days Arab citizens vote for a wide range of parties. The 10 seats won by the Arab parties represent only about half of the Israeli-Arab voters. There are Israeli Arab doctors, nurses, university professors, business executives—not enough, but they’re out there, and no one really notices—nor should they.

That’s how it is in the Ramla shuk, the open-air market in an old, middle-class Jewish-Arab town in central Israel. I’ve been shopping there once a week for two decades. You can’t tell who’s a Jew and who’s an Arab. Most of the Arabs speak Hebrew, and many of the Jews speak Arabic. Ramla’s Jews are better off, as a rule, than the Arabs—but at the shuk, everybody just gets along. That’s the natural human condition. We need to make it the natural governing condition, too.

Mark’s lecture Wednesday 1.3 1930 Israel time

MARK LAVIE is lecturing Wednesday about how Israel’s new accords with UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco might help revolutionize Israeli politics. Sign up and join the fun at 1930 Israel time (1730 GB, 1830 EU, 1230 ET). Here are the details:

Join ESRA Rehovot in a Zoom lecture on “Will the Abraham Accords change Israel’s Frightened Mindset?” to be given by the award-winning foreign correspondent Mark Lavie. The presentation will address this vital question in a talk on Wednesday, March 3, at 19:30. Mark has been covering Israel and the Mideast as a foreign correspondent since 1972. His second book, “Why Are We Still Afraid?” looks back at his career, which includes work as a correspondent for leading North American news outlets, including NPR, CBC, NBC and The Associated Press. Mark will examine the possibility that the Abraham Accords – normalization with UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco – might revolutionize Israeli politics. He’ll bring in some serious (and some funny) material from his book, and harsh criticism of the way journalism operates in the age of social media.Cost: ESRA Members NIS 25. Non-members NIS 35.

Registration: contact the Booking Office at 09-9508371 (ext 2) or online at www.esra.org.il. A zoom invitation will be sent to your email address once your payment has been processed. All proceeds support ESRA Rehovot after school programs for children at risk.

Don’t waste time with the Palestinians

I wrote this analysis in 2013. It’s in my first book, “Broken Spring.” It still applies: The Mideast is not about Israel and the Palestinians.

Is That A Fact?

#38 Because he can

“Because he can” is the second line of a somewhat raunchy two-liner about a dog’s capabilities. First line supplied on request.

What does that have to do with the renewed efforts toward a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians?

At first glance, not much.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has traveled to the region six times in his first eight months in office. At this rate he might break the record of George W. Bush’s top diplomat, Condoleezza Rice. She was here so often that I joked about making her pay Israeli taxes.

The main difference is the circumstances. Rice was here to promote Mideast peace talks. Kerry was here to restart Israeli-Palestinian talks.

If it was not evident before, as it should have been for decades, now it’s clear that negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians are not “Mideast peace talks.”

The events of the past two and a half years have shown that. The Mideast is not just about Israel and the Palestinians. It’s not even primarily about Israel and the Palestinians.

For all those decades, Arab leaders, joined by many in the West, bought the line that if we can just solve that tiny little problem between Israel and the Palestinians, the Middle East will be on its way to peace and quiet.

It actually might have been true, to some extent, as late as 1979, when Egypt and Israel signed the two-part Camp David accord. The first part was the peace treaty. The second was a blueprint for solving the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Neither side was the least bit enthusiastic about the formula, and it died a quiet death. It left Egypt hanging alone in the Arab world, a peace treaty with Israel but no second chapter.

That reinforced the already strong notion that Israel was the problem. Its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza was a thorn in the side of the Arab world that must be removed, and then everything would work itself out.

So the world — Arab and Western — started paying completely disproportionate attention to a conflict that, empirically speaking, is among the smaller crises the world faces. While several thousand Israelis and Palestinians were killed in two rounds of violence over two decades, anywhere from 300,000 to 1 million people died in Darfur over a similar period, but activists struggled and failed to persuade the world to care about that cruel conflict in Sudan.

The results of the Arab Spring uprisings have made it obvious how this all fits together — or doesn’t.

In Syria, more than 100,000 people have been killed in a civil war that has been marred by massacres and abuses on both sides. Several million Syrians have been driven from their homes. More than a million are refugees in neighboring countries.

Libya has descended into chaos. Tunisia is headed that way.

Egypt’s military is back in charge after the Muslim Brotherhood government of President Mohammed Morsi made all the possible mistakes and didn’t even come close to improving a critical economic situation that even a good government might not be able to fix.

What does all that have to do with Israel and the Palestinians? Nothing. What does it have to do with American diplomacy? Everything.

From the beginning, the U.S. administration could seemingly do nothing right. It backed the discredited regime of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak until it was overthrown, and then forged tentative ties with Morsi’s regime, sparking outcry from all sides. It followed the lead of Europe in the Libyan civil war, drawing criticism of its lack of leadership. It dithered and stalled over Syria, fending off strident calls from the interventionists to arm the rebels or even blast President Bashar Assad’s strongholds with cruise missiles.

There’s a reason for all that. Many Americans don’t like to consider it, because they still believe that not only can American military power correct the ills of the world; but also, it is a kind of sacred American duty.

The reality is that the U.S. no longer has the political clout in this part of the world that it once had. The last of it was lost in Iraq, when Bush sent in his army to depose a dictator, claiming falsely that he had stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.

The U.S. fought its way through Iraq, alienating practically everyone in Iraq and infuriating the Arab world. By the time President Barack Obama pulled the last of the combat troops out, America was what my university logic professor called a “reliable anti-authority.” In this case, it means whatever the Americans try to do in this region will backfire.

So the only way the U.S. can realistically involve itself in the post-Arab Spring Middle East is by what its critics disparage as “leading from the rear.” That means maintaining contacts with regimes, opening lines of communication with rebels, and trying to influence policy, but gently and quietly. Anything beyond that is counter-productive.

Except when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians.

Kerry is welcomed by both sides. Both have reasons to accommodate U.S. desires. It took him six trips, but he got the talks restarted. A rare victory.

Of course, unless the U.S. plans to impose a solution, the talks themselves will go nowhere.

Even the consistently superficial Israeli-Arab columnist Sayed Kashua pointed out that Kerry has only managed to bring back the same negotiators who have failed again and again. The last time was in 2008, when Israel offered a Palestinian state in the equivalent of all of the West Bank, plus Gaza and the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem, yet that did not produce a peace accord. Other issues scuttled the talks, as they have before — Jerusalem, refugees and the like.

It’s unlikely that a similar offer will emerge from the current talks.

Never mind. It’s clear that the U.S. has no hope of significantly shaping the immediate future anywhere else in this region.

So why, when there are real issues and real problems in the Mideast, does John Kerry spend so much time restarting Israeli-Palestinian talks that are practically guaranteed to fail?

Because he can.

How to stop the pandemic in Israel

We’ve tried regulations, but many Israelis ignore them. We’ve tried posting police on street corners to fine people not wearing masks, but many people wear masks improperly or not at all. We’ve tried sending in police to break up weddings and parties, but all that gets us is riots and clashes.

Now we’ve raised the fines for illegally opening schools, though the school principals say openly they don’t care how high the fines are. So that won’t work, either.

What’s left? Only the most radical solution–mass compliance with the regulations because it’s the right thing to do.

Read more here at The Media Line.

Vaccinating against corona the right way

I’ll spare you the photo of me getting my second corona vaccination, but I have to “brag” about how Israel is getting this done quickly and efficiently. As of now, almost a quarter of the people here have been vaccinated, far and away the best proportion in the world.

Here in Rehovot, a small city south and inland from Tel Aviv, second shots are administered in a large community center.

I showed up a few minutes early. I swiped my card to get a number. Before me was an L-shaped row of stations, 12 in all, where nurses administer the vaccine. I got in ten minutes before my appointed time. The nurse swiped my card again, asked me a few questions, especially whether I had any reaction to the first one, and then gave me the shot.

I walked back to the entrance of the hall, and there, waiting for me, was a certificate that I’d completed the two-course vaccination. It’s recommended that you sit down for 15 minutes to make sure there’s no allergic reaction, so I did, and pulled out my phone–and there, waiting for me, was an email pdf from the HMO, explaining the process and listing the possible side effects.

The key to this amazing process is the HMO system. Every Israeli belongs to one of four HMO’s and has a magnetic card. All of them have clinics around the country. Mine has at least four in my city, but they decided to move the second round to this community center to avoid mix-ups and overcrowding.

It’s not magic, folks–any country can do this if it wants to.

What about what-aboutism?

That’s the headline for my latest article, which appears here in today’s Jerusalem Post.

It erupts every time someone posts something that criticizes the riots and rioters who wrecked parts of the US Capitol last week.

The response is immediate: Comments with links to reports about unrest in the ‘60s or rioting during the racially-inspired protests last summer. And the question, “Why don’t you people (especially Joe Biden) condemn those riots?”

It doesn’t matter whether the charge is true or false. Well, yes, it does, since truth always matters. It’s false.

But much more important are these basic questions: What difference does it make whether someone condemned some other incident of violence? And why don’t the apologists condemn the storming of the Capitol?

Do they really think that there is a moral equivalence between actions and responses (riots and condemnation), or between destroying random property and attacking the seat and symbol of the federal government?

They insist that anyone who doesn’t condemn one kind of violence has no right to condemn another kind. And all the while, they’re doing exactly that—condemning what they perceive as leftist violence last summer (a wild oversimplification of the angry response to two centuries of racism) and the premeditated, planned, and carefully executed plan to storm the Capitol and disrupt or stop the process of affirming the results of an election for President.

There are two terms for this dialogue-destructive behavior: “What-aboutism” and “deflection.”

What-aboutism is straightforward. You post something critical of the actions of one side, and that side responds with, “But what about the misdeeds on your side?”

The obvious logical fallacy is that even if both sides have done things that are wrong, criticizing one does not justify the other. Even if Black Lives Matter led riots in the summer, that doesn’t justify the assault on the Capitol last month. And vice versa, or course.

Deflection is more sophisticated and more cynical. By posting outlandish and false charges against the critics, deflection is aimed at skewing the argument away from the original subject and onto another one. Like, “Joe Biden didn’t condemn the Black Lives Matter violence.” “Yes, he did.” ”No, he didn’t.” And on and on until the original subject is buried in an avalanche of irrelevance.

I posted the following (rather mild) observation as the Washington assault was still going on:

“Just a few thoughts…

“How is it possible that the Capitol wasn’t ringed three deep with riot police?

“Can you imagine the death toll if blacks stormed the Capitol?

 “And finally… This isn’t the end. With any luck it’s the middle.”

That unleashed a torrent of heated comments, complete with links to graphic photos and conspiracy theories from dubious sources, all aimed at showing how the “left” is the real bad guy here.

Exasperated, at one point I responded: “Your level of what-aboutism and deflection has reached unprecedented heights. I bow my head before you in reverence.”

Missing from all those comments was even a hint of disagreement or discomfort with the storming of the Capitol by hundreds of rioters who did, indeed, succeed in forcing their way into the building and disrupting the workings of the American legislature.

This is something that did not happen during the Vietnam War, during World War II, not even during the Civil War. The only parallel in American history is the British burning the Capitol in the War of 1812.

(When I posted that as a comment, I got a well-reasoned, thoughtful response from the original author: “That’s absurd.” That’s typical of anti-social media.)

Here is the most troubling aspect: What-aboutism and deflection have the aim of countering or covering up the crimes of “your” side by attributing the same level of misbehavior to “my” side—with no hint of regret or remorse, no recognition of the danger of this extent of polarization that amounts to de-legitimization, even hate, of the other side.

So let’s make our stand clear. Violence is wrong, whatever the motive, whatever the background, whatever the history. But more than the need to condemn it, we must look for ways to prevent it. That doesn’t mean only reinforcing the guard around public buildings. It means addressing grievances and finding solutions, finding ways to restore the trust the people once had in their institutions—and in each other.

—   —   —

Correspondent MARK LAVIE has covered the Middle East for major news outlets since 1972. His second book, “Why Are We Still Afraid?” looks back at his career and comes to a surprising conclusion.

Corona crisis: What would Joseph do?

Imagine that biblical hero Joseph is ruling Israel today, facing the corona pandemic crisis. What would he do?

We’re reading about Joseph and his exploits these days in our weekly Torah portions. He went from offensive teenager to captive slave in a dungeon to de facto ruler of Egypt. His brothers betrayed him, but in the end, he forgave them.

As a ruler, Joseph’s methods were cruel. He knew, through his divinely inspired interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams, that Egypt would face a seven-year famine after seven years of bumper crops.

He had two choices. He could have put out a statement to the people, urging them to gather and store their extra crops to prepare for the drought. Instead, he taxed the people in the form of a portion of their crops (some say a fifth, but that appears to be a mistranslation), and he set the grain aside in the kingdom’s own warehouses.

When the famine hit, the people had to turn to Joseph for food. Again, he had two choices. He could have opened the warehouses and handed out the grain to the needy. Instead, he forced the people to buy the grain. When they ran out of money, he took their land. After the land was gone, he took them as slaves.

According to today’s standards, and that’s the easily criticized premise of this article, Joseph was not exactly a populist or a man of the people. Faced with the corona crisis, he would have forced people to close their businesses, lose their income, eat through their savings, and with the exception of small amounts of compensation handed out to the wealthy as well as the poor, let them suffer—leading to hardships, hunger, and even domestic and public violence.

Oh, wait. That’s kind of what we’re doing. Though to be fair, if Joseph were true to his allegiances—the kingdom before the people—he would probably have sold the vaccinations instead of providing them through HMOs for no extra charge. At least we’re not going that far.

Also to be fair, our people are not doing their part, either. By failing to wear masks consistently, stay away from crowds, and wash hands often, we have brought much of this problem on ourselves. Governments have been setting the wrong examples, with officials flouting their own rules and arrogantly putting out ads about color-coded ratings that determine corona limitations that read, “Our rating depends only on you.” You, not us. Again to be fair, my city changed its ads to “us” after I complained, but the billboards on the main roads still say “you.”

Clearly, there was/is a better way to deal with this crisis. For an example of a more enlightened leader, we can look back at the current Torah portions.

Joseph may have saved the kingdom, but it was Judah who saved the future Jewish people.

First, he talked his brothers out of killing the obnoxious, bossy teenaged Joseph, selling him into slavery instead. Then he persuaded his elderly father to part with his beloved son Benjamin as the only chance to see the Egyptian strongman again and buy more food.

The strongman, Joseph, Benjamin’s only full brother, plotted to keep Benjamin with him. We don’t know what he would have done to the other brothers, but chances are it wouldn’t have been pretty.

Into the breach jumps Judah. In the longest speech in the Bible, he entreats Joseph to let Benjamin go, offering himself as a slave instead. He mentions their father 14 times, plucking his brother’s heartstrings, and leading Joseph to realize that these are his brothers, after all, and he owes it to them, and certainly to their father, to come clean. He reveals his true identity and invites them to join him in Egypt.

How did Judah know what to do?

There’s a clue a little farther back, when Judah is tricked by his daughter-in-law into fulfilling the requirement of providing her a husband after two of his sons died, and he admits he was wrong.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice…

You won’t hear this anywhere else—but it’s clear to me that Judah knew he was talking to Joseph when he started his speech. He had brought Benjamin to Joseph’s table, watching him get special treatment though he was the youngest. He looked at Joseph, looked at Benjamin, looked back at Joseph, and he recognized who they were—brothers. Then he devised a speech designed to appeal to Joseph’s innate sense of goodness, justice, and family loyalty. It worked.

So now, with the corona crisis, we can ask—what would Judah do?

It is, after all, Judah who becomes the forerunner of the Jewish people—not Joseph. Judah is the one with the people’s touch. Judah is the one who leads by example, not by decree.

Forgive me for the wild extrapolation. I actually dislike it intensely when people judge past eras on the basis of modern standards, or ascribe modern words and actions to biblical figures, and that’s what I’m doing here.

Even so…a leader like Judah, who puts the interests of his people before his own…would find a better, more humane way to deal with the corona challenge.

Perhaps Judah would lead his people (us, not you) into voluntary compliance with regulations, not police enforcement, because it’s the right thing to do. Perhaps he would mobilize the government and charities to help those in need.

Perhaps—and this is what’s missing here today—he would create a reality in which we are all in this together, we all have responsibility for each other, and we will do the right thing for the sake of us all. Masks, distancing, and hygiene. It’s not that hard.

Then, Judah would say, we wouldn’t need lockdowns at all.

—   —   —

Correspondent Mark Lavie has been covering the Mideast since 1972. His second book, “Why Are We Still Afraid?” relives his experiences and comes to a surprising conclusion.

A new Middle East you didn’t see coming

Here’s my fantasy about how the Middle East will develop in the wake of the normalization between Israel and a number of Arab nations. Could it happen? We’ll see…

A ‘New Middle East’ You Didn’t See Coming

By Mark Lavie

“Bahrain and UAE have signed the Abraham Accords with Israel, ending decades of hostility and ushering in a new era of Mideast cooperation.” – news reports, October 2020

“Sudan and Morocco join in agreement frenzy.”—news reports

Could this actually happen?

Frustrated by decades of Palestinian obstinacy, eager to cement new Middle East alliances, moderate Arab nations were finally moving to put the Israeli-Palestinian issue behind them and remove that thorn from beneath their saddle.

They launched a two-pronged invasion, a sort of pincer operation, but not the classic kind. One Arab army entered Gaza from Egypt, while the other rolled into the West Bank from Jordan.

Israel played no active role in the invasion. It had already agreed to the terms of an arrangement, maintaining control of its main settlement blocs while evacuating some of the smaller outposts in the heart of the West Bank—and finally receiving an internationally recognized border on its eastern front.

No one was calling this “peace.” The new Middle East was not one of peaceful relations among all its nations. Instead, it was a battleground mostly of Shiite Muslims on one side and Sunni Muslims on the other.

Because of Iran’s nuclear weapons program and its repeated threats to destroy the Jewish state, Israel fit easily into the Sunni camp led by Saudi Arabia. One by one, the Sunni nations went public with their relations with Israel, formalizing them—some with agreements they called “peace,” others sufficing with security and economic relations they preferred not to label, at least for now.

On the opposing side were Iran, Qatar and Syria, along with swaths of what used to be Iraq—and the Palestinians, who had thrown in with Iran and Qatar.

After decades of demanding that Israel offer the Palestinians a state of their own, then watching the Palestinians turn down repeated offers of just such a state, the latest in 2000 and 2008, the Sunni Arab nations decided that it was in their interest to bring Israel into their alliance instead of continually beating the Palestinian drum. In most cases, it didn’t mean hugs and kisses between Israelis and Arabs—not even with Egypt and Jordan, the first two Arab nations to sign full peace treaties with Israel.

Such a lovey-dovey relationship wasn’t the goal anymore, if it ever was. The realigned Middle East was a place of interests and alliances based on practical politics. By rejecting Israeli peace offers and then cursing Arab nations that warmed up to Israel, the Palestinians had put themselves on the wrong side, as far as the Sunni Arab nations were concerned. The Palestinians were no longer needed as a faux issue to distract Arab people from their real problems—the Palestinians had become part of the problem.

The two invading armies quickly deposed the rulers in the West Bank and Gaza and set up military governments. Instead of the peaceful end of decades of Israeli occupation, instead of the independent state the Palestinians rejected repeatedly, the Palestinians now faced the ruthless military rule of their Arab “brothers”—bans on demonstrations, bans on strikes, bans on “resistance” against Israel—and enforcement with a shoot-first, ask-questions-later mentality.

For Israel, though, the day-to-day change was minimal, besides the loss of Palestinian workers, who would not cross the new border at least in the beginning, and the painful resettling of a few thousand Israelis from the West Bank into Israel proper. Beyond the outcry of the now ignored professional Israel haters, no one paid attention. The Iran-Saudi conflict was much more important.

The main practical change for Israel was deployment of its military.
Alongside the two-pronged invasion, and in coordination with its Arab allies, the Israeli army pulled out of the West Bank after decades of costly and bloody occupation. Instead, the Israeli military would concentrate on its tasks in the new alliance—monitoring Iran and its allies, maintaining its deterrence in the form of advanced weaponry and providing intelligence to the allied forces.

  • OK, that was “fun.” Could it happen?

Probably not exactly as outlined here. But yes, there are signs of a sea change in the Arab world when it comes to both Israel and the Palestinians.

Within days of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain signing peace agreements with Israel, Saudi Arabia started aiming harsh criticism at the Palestinian leadership.

That’s the same Saudi Arabia that sponsored the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, which basically said Israel must hand over all the disputed territories to Syria and the Palestinians, and then the Arab world would make peace with Israel. The current trend is the opposite—Arab nations allying with Israel despite the intractable Palestinian issue.

Here’s what’s new in the new Middle East: After the Arab Spring started the process of political change in the region, mostly by its failure—a new generation of leaders is recognizing that ideology by itself isn’t enough. In a tough world, interests are more important.

Israel has understood that, on an official and military level, for decades. Its relations with Egypt and Jordan are called “cold peace.” They are anything but cold. The three nations cooperate on many levels, but find it convenient to keep them out of the headlines for domestic reasons.

Just as the Arab nations have stirred up anti-Semitism and hatred of Israel for domestic politics, so Israel’s leaders have harvested electoral benefits from stoking fear of enemies near and far. If that era of unrealistic fears comes to an end with the new regional alliances, then Israel will be the real winner here.

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Correspondent Mark Lavie has been covering the Middle East since 1972. His second book, “Why Are We Still Afraid?” is available on Amazon.

Egyptian soldiers on duty in Cairo (Mark Lavie)

Excerpt from “Throw away the axioms”

Further, what matters is what Iran does, not what it says. In the Mideast, public statements play a different role than they do in the West. In the US, reporters dutifully tote up campaign promises and trot them out to show how candidates don’t keep them. In the West, if you promise something, you’re supposed to do it.

In the Mideast, not so much. Making a strong statement is often the equivalent of doing something. You’ve said it, now let’s move on.

Egypt’s media frequently run anti-Israel content. Conspiracy theories abound, blaming the Zionists and their all-powerful Mossad for everything that’s wrong. So when I started working in Egypt as a journalist in 2009, and especially after I moved there in 2011 for a two-year residence, I expected some tensions when people discovered I’m a Jew and an Israeli.

Quite the opposite. I was warmly welcomed by the dozens of Egyptians in my office, all of whom knew I’m an Israeli. Outside, people who discovered I’m Jewish didn’t tone down their positive behavior. Hating Israel is part of the culture, all right—but it’s nothing personal, and it’s not a big deal. Recently a well-versed and well-traveled expert in Arab affairs laughed with delighted approval when I observed, “Egyptians hate Israel the way I hate broccoli.”

And the fact is, Egypt and Israel have close relations in the fields of economics, military and intelligence. Most of them are out of the public eye. Even key economic agreements, like the QIZ pact that benefits millions of Egyptian workers, are not talked about.

Of course it would be nicer if these beneficial arrangements were public, and if Egyptian media stopped charging that Israel sells poisoned seeds to farmers and sends sharks to frighten tourists away. One day that might happen. But it’s not that important in the larger scheme of things.