A Turning Point for the Middle East

The conflict between Iran and its affiliates and the moderate Gulf and Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia is just the tip of the iceberg of the tectonic shift that is reshaping the Middle East. Brig. Gen. (res.) Hannan Gefen discusses the dramatic geopolitical changes in the region. Opinion

 A Turning Point for the Middle East

From the Arab League summit in Jordan, 2017 (Photo: AP)

Anyone who has ever been involved in intelligence analysis knows how difficult it is to spot a change or a turning point, especially in the context of a prolonged, on-going process.

For us, as Israelis who experienced threats of total destruction and severe terrorist attacks, and continue to experience pinpoint terrorism, it is difficult to lift our heads up and scan the horizon around us. This difficulty is further intensified by the language restrictions we imposed upon ourselves.

After a number of years of signs of change, it may be determined that tectonic strata are currently in motion throughout the Middle East. As a veteran orientalist, I often find myself rubbing my eyes in disbelief – so dramatic is the change we are undergoing.

The visible tip of the iceberg today is the conflict between the Arab countries and Iran (one element of which is the economic boycott imposed by the Gulf States on Qatar). The essence of this conflict is a clash between an Islamist revolutionary doctrine that aspires to expand and the policy of the Gulf States and Arab countries regarded as moderate.

Apparently, the immediate explanations are obvious – the Shi'ite-Sunni rift; the ISIS-style threat of radical Islam; the reawakening of tribal, factional movements in the context of the "Arab Spring" turmoil; changes in the policies of the superpowers – but all of the above cannot explain everything that is taking place these days.

Through a process that lasted many years, in which substantial resources were involved (most of which had been the contribution of the oil-based economy) along with the modernization of the education systems and significant exposure to the global discourse – several generations have grown up developing a broader worldview and different personal and national ambitions. Shaped according to the spirit of the times and progress in general, these ambitions pertained to quality of life, economic and commercial development and the development of high-tech industries and entrepreneurship.

The advanced communication media developed over the last two decades assisted in diversifying the sources of information available and in interpersonal communication. As a result of these processes, societies are undergoing a rapid educational process that includes elements of strengthening such tendencies as secularism and opposition to extreme, radical marginal elements.

Egypt is an example of the complexity of this process and of the counter-reactions, but also of the power of the process of change. The movement that had brought about the overthrowing of President Mubarak consisted of educated youngsters, but the Muslim Brotherhood movement was the one that seized power eventually, and the secular counter-reaction of the Egyptian military was not late in coming. The movement of educated youngsters continues to operate in Egypt even more forcefully, demanding its rightful place in the national and economic life of that country.

In Iran, too, everyone remembers the bloody riots of 2009 that broke out after the reformist candidate had lost the elections to President Ahmadinejad. The riots had been led by educated youngsters, graduates of major universities in various Iranian cities. For the time being, the Iranian authorities have succeeded in suppressing them, but the process of change has not stopped.

Moreover, it may be estimated that the Iranian internal oppression since the riots of 2009 and the heavy-handed policy enforced by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the other security agencies will eventually lead to an inevitable explosion. It is impossible to stop the dialog between the population in Iran and the free world. This may have been possible forty or fifty years ago. The Internet is, without a doubt, one of the major headaches of the Iranian authorities.

But the greatest surprise for anyone monitoring these developments are the moderate voices coming out, consistently, of such second-circle countries as Saudi Arabia, Sudan, the Gulf States and others with regard to Israel. People in these countries are asking questions that in the past no one had dared put to paper or voice on the media, like whether the relations with Israel should be normalized, when and how to recognize Israel, the advantages of relations with Israel, Israeli success stories in the fields of economy and technology vis-à-vis Arab failures, and questions regarding the true position and importance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict compared to the bloody wars and disasters currently taking place in the Arab world.

Israel is conceived as a stabilizing factor and as an ally worthy of being incorporated in the strategic realm currently being consolidated opposite Iran.

These trends have also been reflected through some practical processes over the last few years – in connection with all of the armed confrontations in which Israel has been involved during the last decade.

During the Second Lebanon War and all of the military operations staged opposite the Gaza Strip, the Arab World stood by. Parts of it even voiced their support for the Israeli activity and there were even those who expressed their hope for Israel's success (like the Sunnis in Lebanon during the Second Lebanon War of 2006).

The Palestinians have lost much of the attention and support of the Arab countries. Through a long-term process, the Palestinians were expelled from a substantial part of the Gulf States owing to a variety of reasons, all related to the connections the Palestinians established with elements they had thought would assist them in their war against Israel or would facilitate the destruction of the Jewish state (for example, the Palestinians' support for Saddam Hussein after he had invaded Kuwait and promised to launch Scud missiles into Israel, as well as their relations with Iran and with other Islamist elements). These countries are interested in promoting an arrangement/agreement that would resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, thereby removing the issue from the regional agenda, or at least reducing its profile.

We should listen carefully to the voices of change. They hold a great promise for our relations with the other dwellers of the region.


Brig. Gen. (res.) Hannan Gefen served as the commander of the elite 8200 Unit of the IDF Intelligence Corps

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