Space in the Middle East

Last time, I noted with great sympathy that most people have become totally confused about the events taking place in the Middle East. Since then, that confusion has risen to unprecedented levels…not least because US jets bombed the Iraqi city of Tikrit in order to aid the Iranian-supported Shiite militias doing battle there while, at the same time, the Americans were also providing technical aid to the Saudis who had launched aerial attacks on the Iranian-supported Houtis in Yemen.


Similarly, and no less confusingly, Iran’s attempts to produce nuclear weapons, its support of the Assad regime in Syria and the military and financial aid it is providing to terrorists in the region are all directed towards achieving a strategic goal—hegemony in the Middle East. However, the US is trying to treat each of these otherwise-complimentary goals as discrete issues that require different approaches. It is trying to reach a strategic compromise agreement with Iran on nuclear issues, at the same time that it is opposing Iran’s strategic support for the Assad regime in Syria, and it has made no effort to limit Iran’s support for terrorism.


In my previous piece, I made the point that the current, high level of confusion about events in the Middle East was the product of two major factors that have been largely ignored by the media and professional political analysts alike. They are the very different perceptions that the protagonists in the Middle East have of such basic concepts as “time” and “space.” My basic point is that, because Western perceptions of these concepts are so unlike those of Middle Easterners, everyone who is not familiar with the reasons that led to the gaps separating these mental frameworks is left not just confused, but also often frustrated and angry.


Last time, I analyzed the impact that the different concepts of time were having on foreigners and locals alike. This time I want to delve into the issue of space—and how concepts of space, especially as they relate to landholding, also lead to frustration, unfair and inaccurate judgments and even anger.


The origins of the differences over the role that space plays in Middle Eastern perceptions can be traced back to the early 7th century. At that time, Anatolia, Mesopotamia and the Levant were governed by the Byzantine and Persian Empires. In the areas immediately adjacent to these empires—in the European part of the defunct Roman Empire and in the Arabian Desert—warring tribes held sway.


In the Arabian desert, though, a new religion and social order was in the making. In an attempt to reduce the bloodletting that had been endemic to tribal governance, Mohammed created a novel concept of human relationships. He preached that all the people of the world should be united under the umbrella of a new, universal religion, (Islam)… and that this innovative political order would be ruled by a single individual, called a caliph. Although the caliph was expected to consult with a council of religious scholars, he would always have the final say on all secular and religious matters.


Within a hundred years, the adherents of the new faith had conquered all the lands on the southern side of the Mediterranean, as well Mesopotamia, Persia and parts of the Indus Valley.


In Europe, a multitude of Germanic tribes had conquered all of the European part of the former Roman Empire and now ruled an entire continent. By the time that Mohammed had begun preaching, most of the German tribes had also been converted from paganism to a new, universal religion. In their case, it was Catholic Christianity. However, based on the principle “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and render unto God that which is God’s,” the new order in Europe separated religion from secular rule and created a governing duopoly whose to leading religious and secular figures often openly competed for power.


One major difference between the two conquerors that has a direct impact on events today is that the original settlers of many of the lands conquered by Rome believed in the joint holding of land by whole communities. However, the German tribes adopted a very different policy on landholding, believing that any land that was conquered in battle (or taken by fiat) belonged to the acknowledged secular sovereign, who could then apportion it to anyone he wanted to.


Before Mohammed, the tribes in Arabia also had a very fluid concept of territorial boundaries and believed that political geographic boundaries were determined by either contractual agreements or by the ability of a hegemon to defend a particular piece of territory by force of arms.


However, in the wake of Mohammed’s preaching, the armies of Islam marched under the belief that any land, once conquered, belonged to the Waqf, the Moslem religious trust…in perpetuity. Men could make use of the land, but conquered lands could never be the sole property of any man. That, by the way, is one reason why, today, ISIS has tried to abolish the frontier separating Syria from Iraq…and is threatening to invade Spain after it has completed the conquest of what it views as that part of the Islamic world that is being ruled by heretics. ISIS claims that it has the right and religious duty to retake Spain from its Christian conquerors and return it to its rightful owner, the Waqf.


Parenthetically, it is worth noting that those who insist that Israel is solely responsible for the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations should take into consideration that one of the central reasons for the failure of all of the foreign-mediated peace efforts is that Hamas believes that not only are Moslems not permitted by God to accede to the Jewish conquest of Palestine, they have a religious duty to the Waqf to retake all of the land occupied by the Jewish interlopers…by whichever means are necessary.


One important thing that united both sets of conquerors was the manner by which the human sovereigns assured the loyalty of their armed forces. These forces were encouraged to constantly engage in battle to enlarge the area titularly controlled by the human sovereign. Like the Roman legions that also engaged in constant border wars, if the armed forces of the Germnic and Arabian tribes won battles, they were paid off by being allowed to plunder the newly-acquired territories. If they failed in battle, they were still rewarded (and kept from trying to undermine the sovereign) by being awarded land grants as payment for their efforts.


During the preparations for the 1973 war, the same promise was made to the soldiers in the Syrian army. It has also always been implicit (and sometimes explicit) in the Palestinians’ propaganda directed at their militants.


In other words, the control and acquisition of space was and still is a fundamental feature of the rule by authoritarian groups.


Within a few centuries, that approach to space began to change in Europe…with major repercussions that would eventually lead to the political cleavage between the West and the Arab world that we are witnessing today.


The first major event in this process actually took place in the Arab heartland


In the 11the century, while Europe was in the depths of what has come to be called “the Dark Ages,” the Moslem World was still in the midst of what has come to be termed its “golden age” of inquiry and scientific experimentation. That golden age had been based on an eagerness by some caliphs and commoners to rediscover and then to adhere to the practices necessary to engage in a replication of ancient Greek learning—especially the use of philosophy to seek the truth. However, in the 11th century, a mystic preacher named Abū Ḥāmid Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Ghazālī, attracted a huge number of followers after he began railing against the use of philosophy as a tool to seek the truth. To al-Ghazālī, the truth was already available to anyone who studied Allah’s revelations to Mohammed.


Very quickly, al Ghazali’s position was adopted by almost all Moslems. As a result, the massive Moslem experiment in seeking knowledge and in inventive religious interpretation came to an end.


Two centuries later, however, a painter and architect living in Florence named Giotto di Bondone, began a polar opposite movement of intellectual renewal that came to be known as “The Renaissance,” which eventually led to one of history’s greatest exercises in intellectual experimentation—a centuries-long event we have come to call “The European Enlightenment.”


One of the first products of that that openness, however, was a split in Christianity that then led to hundreds of years of religious warfare.


Many attempts were made over the centuries to find an exit from this cycle of violence. However, it was only after hundreds of years of intense and deliberate thought—as well as innumerable bloody failures—that the “enlightened” Europeans could come up with a reasoned solution that was based on a firm foundation. That foundation was the belief that individuals, and by extension whole nations, had certain inalienable rights. One of the most important of these had to do with what is otherwise considered to be a totally amorphous entity—space. In particular, the Scottish contributors to the Enlightenment proposed—and America’s founding fathers accepted—the belief that, contrary to the beliefs of the Germanic, tribal-originated European aristocracy, anyone had the inviolable right to hold property without the fear that it would be taken away by force.


That belief began to be formalized finally during the Congress of Vienna in 1814. In 1848, the civil revolts that spread through Europe gave further impetus to the growing belief in the West that the nation-state is the ideal framework for the practice of politics.


Today, the entire formal world order is based upon that concept—that the fundamental political unit in the world should no longer be considered to be the tribe or the religious or ethnic grouping as before, but rather the secular nation-state. Every major political or economic forum today, whether it be the UN, the Red Cross, or the Arctic Council, is always referred to as an “inter-national” body. In other words, each of these assemblies is made up of separate nation states, which come together to discuss common problems and issues of common concern.


As the idea of nation-statism began to strengthen in the West, so too did the belief that the best system for domestic rule within such states should be liberal democracy. These twin intellectual movements, however, passed the tribal, religiously-intolerant, aristocratically-governed Moslem world by entirely.


It is significant that the Zionist movement came into existence at the very moment when the belief that the advent of democratically-ruled nation-states could lead to the containment of human violence in the world, was gaining momentum in Europe and North America. In fact, Theodore Herzl’s basic premise in founding the Zionist movement was that only by establishing a liberal, democratic, republican nation-state of their own could the Jews begin to cope with the problems created by Europe’s endemic and often violent anti-Semitism.


Unfortunately, by trying to establish that state right in the middle of the geographical fault line that separated Western beliefs in secularism, democracy and the rights of nation states, and the Moslems’ beliefs in religious authoritarianism and religious imperialism, Herzl doomed that state-in-becoming to a violent future.


As the belief in the secular nation state began to gain more and more adherents in the West, those intellectuals, diplomats and politicians who had been studying and experimenting with that system of governance eventually found that nation-states could only function well if two basic conditions were met. First, the country had to have internationally-recognized boundaries. Preferred boundaries were those that followed natural geographic features such as a river…rather than irrational, standstill cease-fire lines that were open to dispute as had usually been the case in the past. Second, the country had to have either a population that was largely homogeneous when it came to language, religion or ethnic origin; or its citizens had to have an almost universal common belief in the inherent value of multiculturalism and the need for formal legal protections of the rights of minorities.


This reasoning, however, could only come to real fruition in Europe after World War II. Following that war, and based on the practical political lessons that had been learned over centuries, central Europe was formally separated from Eastern Europe by the riparian Oder-Neisse line; and massive population transfers took place in central Europe. In particular, millions ethnic Germans who had lived for centuries in what became Poland and Czechoslovakia were forcibly sent to reside in Germany.


Even then, though, it took several decades more before the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the dictatorships in Spain, Portugal, Albania and Romania were finally turned into free nation-states that used democracy as their means of choosing national leaders. No less significantly, it took a similar length of time before the so-called “Christian Democratic,” religiously-based parties began to lose their political power in those western European states where there were Catholic religious majorities.


A side-effect of that political reorientation, caused to a very large extent by the growing belief that there was such a thing as inalienable national property rights, was the divestiture by Europe’s nation-states of their colonies. That divestiture was also accompanied by two huge population transfers–between India and Pakistan, and, of Jews from Moslem-governed states.


Ironically, almost immediately after the population transfer within Europe was completed, the same nations that had engaged in it supported the revised Geneva agreement that has since forbidden any other country from carrying out a similar enterprise.


Another Western legacy of this period was the formation of the United Nations, which, by its very nature, imposed the idea of nation-statism on the whole world. From the moment the United Nations was founded on October 24 1945, no ethnic or other political body could find legitimacy without being accepted as a nation-state member of the United Nations.


As well, and as an outgrowth of the decision to found the UN, decolonization by the European colonial powers began to gather strength. The form of decolonization that was adopted, though, created new problems.


As a parting gift so that their former colonies would achieve instant legitimization by the U.N., the European imperialists chose to declare that the lands that had been under their control were now nation-states. Significantly, though, the primary preconditions for real nation-statehood—ethnic homogeneity or popularly-accepted legal protections for minorities—were rarely, if ever present in these new countries. Worse still, in many cases, the boundaries of these states were the same lines that had been used during colonial times. The important thing to remember is that those frontiers had often been the product of colonial bureaucratic needs, not the result of an effort to determine the space that particular ethnic groups could legitimately claim as their “homeland” or a desire to use easily-perceived features of the landscape to define the space that a multi-cultural political body could legally occupy.


Nowhere were these particular features of liberal, democratic, nation-state self-governance more lacking than in the Arab Middle East, which was still under the anti-intellectual spell that had been cast by al-Ghazali almost a millennium before.


The first step in the relatively short process that led to the UN accepting all the Arab states of the Middle East as members of that body began during the First World War. It was then that Britain and France signed what has come to be known as the Sykes-Picot agreement. That agreement was designed to enable those two militarily-victorious countries to carve up the Ottoman Empire into League-of-Nations-mandated, geographically-bounded spheres of influence. However, the physical boundaries of those spheres of influence were not drawn in such a way as to take into account the landscape or the ethnic origins of the native populations. Their purpose was to resolve bureaucratic problems that had arisen when British and French officials, sitting thousands of kilometres away had sat down to draw up the map of their respective spheres of influence.


This exercise ended up creating such disasters-in-the-making as the new countries of Iraq and Syria. Neither of these newly-declared countries had ever before existed as separate political entities; and both were geographical agglomerations that had been the home of dozens of competing religious and ethnic groups for centuries.


Incidentally, another of the many other preposterous ideas that grew out of the European bureaucrats’ blindness and ignorance was the boundary that eventually separated British-controlled Palestine from the French-controlled entity to its north. What later became Israel’s northern border was not determined by some prominent feature on the landscape such as the Zaharani or Litani rivers. Instead a wholly artificial line was drawn so as to include as many Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christian villages as possible within the new, wholly artificial nation-state of Lebanon that was in the process of being created by French fiat.


At that time, the French perceived themselves to be the protectors of the Catholics and the Orthodox churches in the Middle East. For that reason, they wanted to include as many Catholic and Orthodox Christians within their sphere of influence as possible. The only reason why more Christian villages in the northern Galilee such as Ikrit, Gush Halav and Birim were not included in the area of French control was that the Bible-believing British Protestant politicians of the day demanded that their colonial rule include all the area described in the Bible as running “from Dan to Beersheba.”


Therefore, the line that was drawn on the map was a wholly irrational compromise between two groups of bureaucrats who were totally oblivious to the implications of what they were doing.


In December 1948, the UN consolidated many of the principles that had come to be considered as basic requirements for the formation of liberal nation-states in the form of a written statement of belief that was titled “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” However, because of opposition from a majority of the UN members, (which at that time were led by governments that were either monarchical, communist, authoritarian or colonialist), that document was never made into an actual international law that would be binding on all UN members.


Interestingly, though, there were two parties that were seeking UN recognition and legitimacy who were bound to accept most of those principles in return for being declared nation-states by the UN plenum. A short precis of what eventually appeared in the Universal Declaration of Human rights had already been inserted into the November 1947 Partition Resolution that called for the British Mandate in Palestine to be divided into three separate political spaces…one Jewish, one Arab and one (Jerusalem) under international jurisdiction.


I had always wondered why Israel’s Declaration of Independence lacks the majesty of similar documents such as the American Declaration of Independence. It was not as though the country, upon its inception, lacked poets capable of soaring language…or other outstanding wordsmiths. For example, many Hebrew language giants such as Natan Alterman and Avraham Shlonsky, were both in their prime and close to the ruling Labour Party leadership when the document was written.


I finally found an answer to my wonderment in a recently-published book on the history of the crafting of that document, written by Dov Elboim (Hebrew only). It showed in detail that David Ben Gurion’s primary concern when writing the Declaration of Independence was to word the document in such a way that it would affirm most of the principles that had been set out in the Partition Resolution as being the sine qua non for the Jews and the Arabs to acquire and keep possession of particular spaces in the world. In practice, that meant that, in order to satisfy the UN’s criteria for legitimacy, the language of the Declaration had to be legal and down to earth, rather than visionary and poetical.


Parenthetically, I find it both interesting and instructive that while Israel made the Partition Resolution’s preconditions the subject of the first document that the Jewish state produced, the Palestinians never produced an equivalent document.


Be that as it may, and of significantly greater importance to Israel’s citizens, Israel’s leaders have had to spend a great deal of time pondering how best to use the space available beyond Israel’s boundaries in order to protect the Zionist state. For example, David Ben Gurion formulated what was then called the “Trident” or “three circle strategy.” He sought to neutralize, in part, the diplomatic and political power that those Arab states that were immediately adjacent to Israel’s frontiers (the first circle) and those states that bordered on the states that were adjacent to Israel (the second circle) by fostering relations with countries such as Iran, Turkey and Ethiopia (the third circle).


In also find it fascinating that while Israel acknowledged the importance of the value system inherent in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for purely domestic political reasons, the Israeli Declaration of Independence has never been included in the list of laws that are slated to be part of the country’s constitution if and when a constitution is finally passed by the Knesset. That is because the religious parties have always found the UN declaration to be too liberal for their liking.


This has now created spatial problems that the country’s founding fathers never appeared to have considered. First, the absence of an Israeli Bill of Rights is being used by the so-called BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) movement in Europe and the rest of the world to try to delegitimize Israel’s very existence. More importantly, though, because of the fierce opposition from Israel’s religious parties to any bill that smacks of formalizing human-proposed rights in place of heavenly-ordained injunctions (mitzvoth), when human rights issues have been brought before the Supreme Court, it has had no choice but to rely often on international treaties, signed by Israel but drafted in other jurisdictions—or the Declaration of Independence which is not a law at all—as guides when handing down precedent-making judgments.


This anomaly has since led nationalist extremists in Israel to become increasingly critical of the Court’s rulings. These extremists are now pressing the new Likud-led government to pass a law that would enable the Knesset to more easily circumvent the Supreme Court’s rulings.


However, their vehemence has now raised the following question: If the Court at some future time chooses to base a ruling on the elements included in the Declaration of Independence or a foreign-formulated treaty, and if the Knesset then passes a law abrogating the Supreme Court’s judgment, would that not also, ipso facto, invalidate and abrogate the Declaration of Independence or the treaty on which the judicial ruling was based? And would that then make Israel, and the Jews’ possession of land in the Levant, illegitimate?


I have needed this long introduction and digression in order to provide the background necessary to understand the political problems that the issue of space creates in the Middle East and to show just how complex spatial issues can be even when they relate to a democratic nation-state such as Israel.


Here are two, real-time examples of ways in which this complexity affects other states in the Middle East.


First, it has become fashionable to speak of most of the Arab states in the Middle East as “failed states”—unless they have economies that can rely on oil extraction. I argue, though, that they cannot be considered to be “failed states” because they have never even tried to adhere to the criteria that the UN set out in the Partition Resolution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Therefore, if one uses the UN definitions of a nation state, as laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, most Arab countries cannot be thought of as ever having been legitimate, modern nation-states.


Not only that, that there are only a very few “naturally-bounded” states in the Middle East that have the potential for being treated as true nation-states. In fact, there is only one Arab state that has true natural borders. The Nile Valley is bounded by a swamp to the south, the Mediterranean to the north, an almost impenetrable desert to its west and, depending on how one marks things, either a long waterway or an almost formidable desert to its east.


With the possible exception of the Persian Gulf Emirates, which existed even before the time of Mohammed, the formal, internationally-accepted boundary of every other Middle Eastern state, whether it be Iraq or Syria, or Libya or Algeria is an artifice that was created by long-gone colonial masters. The best evidence for this is the fact that the lines drawn on UN maps have now led a long-standing war in the Western Sahara and to the conflicts we now see raging in Libya, Syria and Iraq.


But before continuing with my macro-geographical survey, I need to review how Israel’s borders were created to give you some idea of how irrational and ad hoc border demarcating can get in the Middle East.


Israel’s peculiar history has produced a boundary (and thus spatial) problem that is so complex that it almost defies explanation:


To the country’s south, the totally unnatural boundary with Egypt was drawn up by British colonial mapmakers on what can only be viewed as a whim. Although it is not defined by any prominent geographical features, that line has, nonetheless, since been legitimized by the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement.


However, an extension of that line, around the Gaza Strip, has remained a totally artificial construct. That bouhndary is the product of the 1949 cease-fire agreement. Following the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, the space we call the “Gaza Strip” became the residence of a homogeneous ethnic population. What complicates matters there is that the de facto ruler of Gaza today, Hamas, does not accept the legitimacy of the line that encloses Gaza. It believes that not just Gaza, but all of Jewish-occupied Palestine should be recognized as Waqf-held territory.


I think that it is also interesting in this regard that while almost the entire world is seeking what has been called a “two state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Hamas’s continued, independent hold on the Gaza area, would de facto, require the equivalent of a three state solution—a special issue that I have never heard mentioned publicly.


But to continue with a description of Israel’s borders…


Two widely-separated parts of Israel’s eastern boundary, along the Arava and Beit Shean valleys, were also, initially, the product of a standstill cease-fire line agreed to in 1949. They have the advantage of being demarcated by river beds, and so it is no wonder that they were eventually legitimized when Jordan and Israel signed their peace pact.


The line delineating the middle part of Israel’s eastern frontier was initially also the product of the 1949 cease-fire agreement. It was the product of an agreement signed under the authorization of the UN, but it contained no easily-pictured geographical features. Although the line contained almost all the negative features that a standstill cease-fire line can produce, it was accepted as binding pending the resolution of the condition of war that had created it.


That 1948 cease-fire line was replaced, de facto, by another one that was the product of another standstill cease-fire line—the one that created in the wake of the 1967 war. Unlike the 1949 standstill cease-fire line, the current post-war frontier does have an outstanding geographical boundary—the Jordan River. However, because that line is not the product of a diplomatic negotiations and has not been sanctioned by the UN, it is not considered a legitimate frontier by most of the rest of the world…even though the nation-state that had occupied land between the 1949 and 1967 lines, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, gave up all its rights to the area—except for a tiny enclave that the Arabs call the “Haram el Sharif” and the Jews call “The Temple Mount.”


And just to complicate things even more, you must remember that the Jordanians are not the only nation-states that demand extra-territorial rights in the area that Israel captured in 1967. The Greeks, the Russians, the Vatican, the Armenians and the Ethiopians do so as well.


Now, just to add a dab more spice to this spatial stew,


  • In 1967, Israel unilaterally altered the municipal boundary of Jerusalem and then proceeded to annex the city to its territory. No one in the world has accepted that spatial change.


  • Part of the rest of the central section of Israel’s eastern boundary was altered by the 1994 Oslo Accords. However, the Accords had declared that these changes were merely “temporary.”


  • No legitimate additional change can be made unless it is agreed to by the Palestinian Authority, which has yet to acquire the status of a legitimate nation-state.


  • The PA cannot acquire such a status without Israeli agreement. It has been trying to circumvent the need for an Israeli agreement by appealing directly to the UN. It has so far had some measure of success.


  • However, the decisions made by the UN General Assembly have produced one of the greatest spatial and political anomalies of all time. Those decisions have accorded the Palestinian Authority many of the privileges normally accorded a nation-state even though that virtual state is not bounded by boundaries recognized by anyone.


Israel’s Northern border has been demarcated by the UN, based on the Sykes-Picot agreement. However, that boundary is not considered to be the final, definitive line either. That is because Israel took possession of an area called the Shaba farms in 1967. Israel considers the farms to be Syrian territory. However, that area is considered by the UN to be disputed territory because Lebanon and Syria’s boundary in that area still has to be determined in talks between those two countries.


But that is just the beginning…


The rest of Israel’s current boundary with Syria is the product of negotiations conducted following the 1973 Yom Kippur War. That deal replaced the 1967 cease-fire line, which had replaced the 1949 cease-fire line, which had officially replaced the Sykes Picot line.


As part of the post-1973 disengagement agreement, Israel not only withdrew from the salient it had captured during the Yom Kippur War, it also withdrew from several points of land it had captured in 1967 and had held as part of the stand-still cease-fire declared at that time. Of particular interest today is a spatial anomaly in the map that was drawn up under the guidance of the mediator, Henry Kissinger. The map that was drawn up to accompany the disengagement agreement contained a buffer zone of insignificant size. Nonetheless, even though it is just a tiny area amounting to only a few hectares, it could end up drawing Israel, unwillingly, into participating directly in the Syrian civil war…with all the myriad consequences that that would entail.


Please pay attention to what follows because it is a model and case study of just how complex and dangerous even seemingly-insignificant mini-micro, almost atom-sized spatial issues can get in the Middle East. The number of relevant facts I am about to relate have to be multiplied geometrically when macro spatial issues such as the ISIS takeover of swaths of Iraq and Syria are discussed sensibly and in detail.


The buffer zone I have just mentioned is officially Syrian territory. However, under the disengagement agreement, neither the Israeli nor the Syrian army is allowed to enter it. The only village in that zone, called Hadr, is inhabited by the Druze. The Druze religion, which is a 17th century breakaway from Shiite Islam, holds that its members must be loyal citizens of the country they inhabit. Thus, the Druze serve as loyal and honoured soldiers in the Israeli, Lebanese and Syrian armies; and, as a result have, on occasion, had to go to war against each other.


When not fighting for the country they inhabit, though, the Druze are passionately loyal and maintain blood ties to each other.


The Druze on the Israeli-held part of Golan Heights are in a particularly strange position. They have lived under Israeli suzerainty since 1967, but have remained wholly loyal to the Syrian government, in part because the UN has not recognized the legitimacy of the Israeli occupation of the Golan.


Both Israel (the country) and the Druze (as a religious sect living in Syria and in the Israeli-ruled Golan Heights) have tried to avoid becoming participants in the Syrian Civil War. But that is now becoming more difficult than ever. During the recent fighting on the Golan, the extremist Sunni el Qaeda offshoot, Jabhat el Nusra captured the buffer zone, and within days, killed 37 of the Druze living in the village of Hadr.


Even though Hadr is officially inside Syrian territory, Israel has refused to allow the Syrian army to retake that zone by force because that would have been a breach of the disengagement agreement…and would thus have set an unwelcome precedent.


The Israelis may have disliked the idea of creating such a precedent, but by refusing to allow the Syrian soldiers into the buffer zone, they were laying the groundwork for what may potentially be an even more unacceptable event. The Jabhat el Nusra jihadist fighters present an immediate and permanent danger to the Hadr Druze villagers because this el Qaeda affiliate views the Druze as heretics, subject to the death penalty for their beliefs.


So, in order to protect the Druze villagers, who as I have mentioned, have remained loyal supporters of the Assad regime, Syria allowed Hizbollah, which is not a party to the Israeli-Syrian disengagement agreement, to enter into the zone in order to take on Jabhat el Nustra.


Initially the Israelis turned a blind eye to that move. However, in return for taking on the task of protecting the Druze, and with the support of Iran, upon which President Assad is dependent, Hizbollah tried to set up an operations base in the buffer zone…and, in fact, tried to attack an Israel patrol moving along the fence separating the buffer zone from the Israeli-controlled Golan.


In response, Israeli aircraft bombed the Hizbollah contingent in the buffer zone. However, this then made the Druze in the zone once again subject to the predations of Jabhat el Nusra because there is now no armed group in the immediate area capable of protecting them. Both Israeli Druze reserve soldiers who loyally carry out the orders of the Israeli government and the Golan Druze who oppose the Israeli government’s rule on the Golan have now entered into secret negotiations with the Israeli government to be allowed to cross the Israeli-Syrian boundary on the Golan in order to do battle with Jabhat el Nusra should the Druze in the buffer zone appear to be in immediate danger in the future.


This request has put Israel in an almost impossible position. The Israeli Druze have been loyal citizens and brave fighters on behalf of the Jews. It is not unreasonable of them to demand that they be permitted to defend their own co-religionists…especially if Jabhat el Nusra is attempting a micro-Holocaust-like mass slaughter. The Golan Druze are loyal Syrian citizens and would want anything they did, including fighting Jabhat el Nusra, to be widely publicized in order to show that their allegiance is still to the Assad government.


But now things get really sticky.


If Israel were to give either the Israeli Druze or the Syrian Druze who live on the Israeli-occupied Golan permission to cross the frontier, the Syrian government, and its Hizbollah agents, would then be able to claim that Israel had broken the disengagement agreement. This might then lead them both to claim justification or breaking the disengagement agreement sometime in the future.




With all that in mind, I will now try to address, in the most simplified way I can, the implications of and the consequences of some of the spatial issues that have arisen in the region in recent weeks.


Up to now, every internationally-recognized treaty and political agreement that has affected residents in the region has been between nation-states. One of the singular advantages that this model provided to all the parties that accepted it is that it created stakes and penalties for adherence to the agreement that were easily explained, monitored and acted upon. Simply put, international legitimacy for any one state was made dependent upon each state respecting the space of other states and not crossing other states’ boundaries. This then fostered the idea that deterrence, the threat that punishments could be inflicted by on individual states by the world community, could become a formidable political, economic and military tool to create political stability in the region.

However, in the past 60 years or so, new political, social and economic movements have arisen that threatened to undermine that hope. The first was nationalist terrorism.


When various forms of terrorism began to gain momentum in the mid-20th century, the nation-states most affected could still deal with the problem within the international nation-state framework. The states under assault could do so because, with the exception of small anarchist groups such as Bader-Meinhoff in Germany or the Weathermen in the US, most of the terrorist groups, whether they were the Sandinistas or the PLO, invariably ended up working within the confines of the existing national-state model. That was because, in their attempt to earn international legitimacy their central claim was that they were using violence only in order to gain their national rights.

Because the claims from by the attackers and those who were attacked still fit into the nation-state model, Israel, for example, felt perfectly justified in attacking those nation-states from which the terrorists set out. It thus launched its Sinai offensive against Egypt in 1956 as a response to the Fedayoun attacks coming from Egyptian-controlled Gaza, and bombed Jordan in 1969 after the PLO began its cross-border raids in the Jordan Valley.


Recently, especially as globalization has gained momentum, world-wide economic sanctions, a non-violent form of punishment that can be applied in unbounded space, have been applied to Iran and, most recently to Russia for having undermined the framework of deterrence and the nation-state order.


Most recently, though, a new type of non-state actor has emerged. Unlike previous terrorist groups, it is less susceptible to the spatial penalties that have been applied in the past. These new Moslem universalist jihadists do not just challenge the government of an existing country and maybe that country’s neighbours or nation-state allies, they first and foremost are challenging the entire existing word political order because they reject the very idea of the nation-state as the foundation stone of the world political order.


The Israelis’ reaction to all the events that have been swirling around them has been unclear and even confused. Because of the changes that have taken place in Turkey and in Iran in recent years, it has had to give up Ben Gurion’s “third circle” or “Trident” strategy. But it does not appear to have found anything to replace it with.


Dan Meridor spent several years crafting a new strategic posture for Israel and, after consulting with virtually every strategic expert in the country, even produced what is said to have been a 240 page detailed proposal for what Israel’s strategic approach to the world (and especially the Middle East) should be. However, for reasons that are still unclear, Prime Minister Netanyahu has refused to openly discuss the conclusions that Meridor came to or adopt them formally.


As a result, Israel is now at sea with a maelstrom raging around it.


The same appears to be true of the United States, the primary hegemon in the Middle East.


Virtually all of America’s foreign policy since that country’s founding—and certainly since Woodrow Wilson’s term in office—has been based on promoting the liberal democratic value system that was included in its Bill of Rights.


George W. Bush’s disastrous attempt to promote democracy in Iraq was one such effort. That same belief structure also lay behind President Obama’s hesitancy to recognize the government of President el-Sisi in Egypt.


Historically, though, these attempts to transform the politics of whole regions of the world have been sporadic at best. When push came to shove, (in other words when America’s economic interests were at stake), the so-called “realist” streak in American foreign policy-making invariably took precedence.


President Obama appears to have been very uncomfortable with having had to reconcile America’s ideals with its self-felt need to take a realist approach to relations with foreigners. His attempt to pivot to Asia, which is based on real and important American strategic and economic concerns, also appears to be an attempt to escape what are obviously the distasteful diplomatic clutches that this conflicting idealism versus realism duality, as it is being played out in the Middle East, has created.


His discomfort has been most in evidence this past month in America’s relation with the Saudis. Not only are the Americans now challenging the Saudi position on Iran’s nuclear arms posture, for the first time, the Americans are less willing than ever before to take almost sole responsibility for protecting one of the world’s most persistent violators of the rights set out in the US constitution.


Ironically, and in obedience to the greatest and most profound regulator of political behavior—The Law of Unintended Consequences—all the events that I have just enumerated, have now brought the Americans and the Israelis closer together than ever before.


The media’s coverage of Barack Obama’s and Binyamin Netanyahu’s backbiting would appear at first and even at its twentieth glance appear to have created the very opposite situation. However, if one looks closely at the latest moves emerging from Washington, it is clear, at least to me, that the White House has now adopted the Israelis’ approach to Middle East diplomacy…which, in turn, is a modified form of one type of diplomacy that has been used in the region since time immemorial.


This form of diplomacy eschews American-style idealism and visionary thinking. In other words, it now appears that for at least the immediate future, the Americans have given up their long-standing practice of trying to transform the entire region to accord with America’s self-image as a liberal democratic nation-state.


Instead, the Americans have been copying parts of the primary Israeli diplomatic model as it has evolved in practice.


Although many Israelis have welcomed the idea of a comprehensive regional peace agreement, such as the one proposed by the Saudis, Israel’s immediate need has been to deal separately with the discrete tactical and strategic military threats it has had to face. Particularly since Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and the violence by Hamas that followed the pullback, every diplomatic incident that Israel has been involved in has become an event that Israel perceives requires intense negotiations.


This Israeli “transactional diplomacy” has been at odds with and has created untold tension with the Americans, especially when the Americans tried to press ahead with their “transformational” diplomatic efforts.


Stripped to it bare bones, transactional diplomacy is based on the proposition that each geographical space presents unique problems that must be dealt with individually and separately. Unlike transformational diplomacy, no over-arching theme can be used to guide and bind any these individual sets of negotiations into a whole.


For that reason, any appearance of coherence can only be detected after many of these events have past.


This approach to politics produces the following kind of real-life scenario:


For almost two decades the Saudis have been holding secret talks with Israel in order to coordinate their opposition to the American approach to the talks being held with Iran on nuclear issues. However, at the same time, the Saudis have also been funding extremist Salafist bodies that support terrorism against Israel. In other words, each diplomatic initiative is not necessarily expected to support another initiative. As a result, the differentiation between friend and foe that is such an integral part of traditional diplomacy and traditional alliance-building is fudged and sometimes disappears completely.


The Israelis, in keeping with this new set of rules have responded to the Saudis in kind. They have willingly held talks with the Saudis about the Iranian issue, but they then have also felt free to bomb Saudi-sponsored charities in Gaza.


Now, the US has begun to adopt a similar approach. As we have seen recently, and as I mentioned at the very beginning of my remarks, the US bombed one space (Tikrit) that was held by Sunni Moslem extremists in order to support the attack being launched there by Shiite militias. However, at almost the same moment, Washington was also willing to help the Saudis, who are Sunnis, target the Shiite-supported Houtis in Yemen.


In other words, Israeli relationships, and now, increasingly, American relationships in Middle East today are being adapted to longstanding diplomatic practices in the region. In the same way that the two have begun to recognize and apply the perceptions of time that are found in the Shuk, they are now also recognizing and adapting themselves to the perceptions of space that are found in the open-air markets.


Put in the simplest terms possible: In the Middle East, one doesn’t negotiate a global agreement for a set of benefits, such as a 15 percent discount from all of the merchants in a bazaar. One negotiates a separate deal with each separate stall-keeper at each vending space each time one needs a set of goods or services.


It is a terribly time-wasting and inefficient way of doing business, but it does work. In fact, it is the only tactic that works in this space called “The Middle East” because everyone else in the neighbourhood is doing things and acting in this same way.

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