Should Israelis befriend moderate Sunnis such as the Saudis, or the region’s outcasts?
by Gabriel Scheinmann
At the United Nations in early fall, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that “a broader rapprochement between Israel and the Arab world” could not only help defeat the twin threats of a nuclear Iran and Sunni jihadism but could also help “facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian peace.” Given the perceived regional dominance of Sunni Arabs, such an approach appears tempting. After all, in the Middle East, the Arabs are king—in some cases literally, as with the royal families of Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. All but five modern Middle Eastern states have Sunni Arab majorities. Historic opportunities for collaboration do certainly exist.
However, to the extent these states cooperate with Israel, it’s not out of admiration but out of desperation. Unable to defeat it on the battlefield, these regimes value Israel’s help in keeping Iran and ISIS at bay. Nevertheless, radical Islamism and its inherent anti-Semitism remain deeply rooted in Arab societies, which are typically even more anti-Israel than their regimes. Just as peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan did not change popular attitudes toward Israel, neither will “a broader rapprochement” with Riyadh or Abu Dhabi. Over the long term, how does Israel navigate a region whose hostility to its existence is so ingrained?
A closer look at the region’s demographics reveals one possible answer. There may be more countries with Sunni Arab majorities, but Sunnis are not an overall majority. From Turkish Alevis to Egyptian Copts to Iraqi Kurds, Middle Eastern minorities are, in total, the Middle East’s majority, accounting for slightly more than half its population. Iran, Turkey and Iraq, none of which are Sunni Arab-led, are three of the four largest Middle Eastern states. Thirty or forty million Kurds are spread across four states.
By looking beyond the region’s Sunni Arab core, Israel could pave a more indirect path to peace, establishing greater political and military leverage in order to reach an accommodation on favorable terms. By forging alliances with other minority groups—a worthwhile end in itself—Israel could contain and reduce outsize Arab political power. This might pressure Arab regimes into a more agreeable posture.
Indeed, Israel has flirted with this approach in the past, for instance with the group most prominent among these non-Arab minorities, the Kurds. Freed from Saddam Hussein’s tyranny, the Kurds have built a state in all but name in northern Iraq. In neighboring Syria, the civil war has similarly loosened the regime’s control of the Kurdish areas in the northeast, leading to the creation of an autonomous Kurdish canton. Even Turkey, which fears a Kurdish state, has allied itself with Iraqi Kurds and is cutting a deal that allows for far greater expression of Kurdish identity within Turkey (though the military imbroglio over aid to the border town of Kobani scrambled much of this careful groundwork, at least for now.) While the road to true independence will be difficult, a Kurdish statelet could be in the offing.
For Israel, renewed Kurdish autonomy has reinvigorated ties that go back to the Ben-Gurion era but were cut off in the 1970s. Kurdish leader and Iraqi president Jalal Talabani publicly shook hands with then-Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak in 2008. When American delegations visit Erbil, Kurdish leaders talk openly about how Israel is the model for their own political future: a flourishing minority in a hostile region with close ties to the resident superpower. On the heels of the first Kurdish oil exports to Israel in June, Prime Minister Netanyahu became the first regional leader to support publicly Kurdish statehood.
Even within Israel, minorities are reaching out to the Jewish state as never before. Israel, as one headline put it, has experienced a “Christian Awakening,” as Christian Arabs seek to distinguish themselves from their Muslim brethren through closer ties to the Jewish majority. A minority within a minority, Christian Arabs were recognized this year as a distinct Israeli minority group for the first time, and the Israel Defense Forces has begun sending them voluntary conscription papers, reversing a decades-old policy. Although they number only 150,000, Israeli Christian Arabs, much like Israeli Druze, are beginning to recognize the immense benefits of cooperating with Israel.
The defeat of the current Iranian regime, though a long shot, could unlock even more opportunities for minority cooperation between non-Sunni-Arabs and Israel, hints of which are already apparent. In late May, Lebanese Cardinal Bechara Rai—head of Lebanon’s largest Christian denomination, the Maronite Catholic church—joined the Pope’s pilgrimage to Israel, the first Lebanese religious leader to do so since 1948. Similarly, Israel is anti-Bashar al-Assad but not necessarily anti-Alawite, the ethnic group to which Assad belongs; were the Assad regime to fall, cooperation between Alawites and Jews could occur at some point in the future. In preparation for such a scenario, the IDF Chief of Staff has even publicly offered sanctuary to Syrian Alawites. Without Iran, minority groups may well look to Israel for support against radical Sunni groups.
Today’s Middle East is a paradox. On the one hand, radical Islamism seems to be homogenizing a once-eclectic region through ethnic cleansing. On the other hand, the shock waves of the Arab revolts have aroused more vocal expressions of minority identities and spawned budding relationships among marginalized groups. From North African Berbers to Christian Arabs to Kurds, new and revived opportunities for Israeli outreach have emerged. While Israel may indeed need the cooperation of conservative Arab states to deal with Iran and ISIS, it should think beyond them.