The confrontation with Israel is not the principal reason behind the slow development and well-being in the Arab world. Rather, the Arab—Israeli conflict is a manifestation of a much larger issue, and it is this regional dynamic, more dangerous even to the Arabs than it is to Israel, that is primarily responsible for the lack of development, material and human, in the Arabic-speaking Middle East.
In the United States, columnists, regional experts and former policymakers have remarked of late that for the first time in their memory—perhaps, indeed, for the first time since the founding of the state of Israel—the Arab–Israeli conflict does not dominate American thinking about the region. Of course, the United States has always had multiple interests in the Middle East, primarily the free flow of Persian Gulf energy resources. But even in maintaining those interests, the Arab–Israeli conflict was still a central part of the American conversation.
For instance, even after the US-led coalition pushed Saddam out of Kuwait in 1991, the George H. W. Bush administration still had an eye on the peace process. Then-secretary of state James Baker saw Arab–Israeli peace as a natural consequence of Operation Desert Storm and convened the Madrid conference in an effort to broker a deal between Israel and the Arabs. Similarly, when more than a decade later George W. Bush invaded Iraq, American officials contended that the road to Jerusalem went through Baghdad. By this, they meant that a democratic government in the heart of the Middle East would open up the rest of the region to democracy, too. These US policymakers believed that once all the Arab states had a say in their own governance, surely Arab voters would prefer trade to war and choose wealth and opportunity over moribund economies.
The Americans were wrong because they did not understand, as Hazem Saghieh explained a decade ago now, that the problem with Iraq was not Saddam Hussein. No, the problem with Iraq was its own broken society, of which Saddam and his vicious regime were merely a reflection. Ten years after US troops invaded Iraq, Americans and Arabs alike have a different picture of what the problems in the region truly are: the Arab–Israeli conflict is no longer the key topic of the American conversation about the Middle East because it has today been overshadowed by sectarianism.
It would be hard to overstate how much the growing sectarian conflict throughout the region has shifted the American focus. The increasingly deadly war between Sunnis and Shi’ites, stretching now from the shores of Beirut to the heart of Baghdad, has compelled American Middle East experts to re-adjust their paradigm for understanding the region. Where once Washington policymakers understood all the Middle East in terms of how other parts of the region affected, or were affected by, the Arab–Israeli conflict, now all the talk is of sectarianism.
Given the amount of bloodshed now in Lebanon, Iraq, and especially Syria, and given the nature of the strategic balance of power (revolutionary Iran and its Shi’a allies vs. the US-backed status quo order of the Sunni Arab regimes) embedded in the sectarian battle, it is not surprising that Americans or Arabs, or Israelis for that matter, should see it like this. But I have to disagree. Sectarianism, or what many believe is an age-old struggle between Sunnis and Shi’ites, is no more an essential or necessary feature of Middle Eastern reality than the Arabs’ confrontation with Israel. They are two different aspects of the same issue.
It was Bashar Al-Assad who gave away the game when he called the Syrian opposition “foreign terrorists.” These were Syrians who protested peacefully for months before they picked up arms in self-defense. The war of extermination Assad has waged against the Sunni-majority opposition is the same sort of battle plan he and other Arab leaders, from Nasser to Nasrallah, have had in store for Israel, for the Jews, for more than 60 years. ‘We will drive them into the sea,’ Arab officials have shouted for six decades, ‘and destroy them.’ We hear these same echoes now in the battle cries of Assad’s regime in its war against the Sunnis. If they’re “foreign terrorists,” let us recall how many times Israel has been labeled a colonialist export, “foreign” to the region.
Like the long confrontation with Israel, sectarianism is just an aspect of the regional dynamic that has retarded every kind of possible development in the region—economic, industrial, political, social, and above all human. Development is not possible if you are incapable of accepting and living with the other, whether they are Sunnis, Shi’ites, Alawites, Druze, Christians, or the Jews of Israel.
The counterpoint to this article can be read here.