This one, I didn’t want to be right about. It was clear as far back as early 2009, but I’ve never advanced any analysis I hoped so much would be wrong. And if there’s one thing I was wrong about, it was how quickly events would accelerate once the starting gun had been fired. I thought it would take longer – that there would be a longer interim in which the activity of various participants was ambiguous.
The starting gun has been fired in what I call the “race to Jerusalem.” Arguably, it was fired last fall when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited southern Lebanon as the honored guest of Hezbollah. The race started a new phase when Hezbollah unseated the Hariri unity government of Lebanon on 12 January – and then succeeded in facing down Saudi and Turkish negotiators to select its own approved candidate to head the new government.
But a week later the race transitioned again, as Tunisians toppled the Ben Ali government and unrest spread across the Middle East. The region went from one government crisis – in Lebanon – to more than half a dozen in the space of three weeks.
Now Iran has pressed the issue of an unprecedented naval deployment to the Mediterranean Sea, with the latest report today being that Egypt will permit the Iranian warships to transit the Suez Canal. At the UN, meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority has resisted all US efforts at compromise and forced America to veto a resolution declaring the settlements in Judea and Samaria illegal.
Developments of this kind were predicted nearly two years ago, by – full disclosure – me. There are three major influences at work in the current unrest in the Middle East. One is the genuine desire of many citizens for liberalization and reform. We must not forget that influence; it requires protection and support – it cannot survive on its own – but it is a positive and welcome factor.
The second influence is the generic drive of various Islamist groups for the imposition of sharia. The possibility of these groups gaining state power – the Muslim Brotherhood, its offshoots, or similar groups – makes for very high stakes in the national crises of the Arab nations. Even assuming the Islamists gain power on the Hezbollah model, as part of coalition governments, they are still on the threshold of transforming Islamism from being principally about guerrilla jihad to being principally about national power.
The prospect before us is a new phase of what we may call, for lack of a better term, “caliphate Islamism,” as opposed to the more familiar Islamism of guerrilla jihad. The auguries of this have been seen already in Tunisia, where the twin flags of the “Islamic caliphate” – the white al-liwaa of the putative head of state and the black ar-raya of jihad – have been observed in abundance in street demonstrations. Indeed, a crowd chanting anti-Jewish slogans outside the great synagogue in Tunis (see here and here) was waving dozens of these flags, referred to by Islamists as the flags of khilafah, or the caliph/caliphate.
This brings us to the third influence: the race to Jerusalem. The aspirants to Islamist leadership have maneuvered for years, in a desultory manner, to back (and ultimately lead) the factions that would succeed in occupying Jerusalem. The principal state aspirants since 1979 have been revolutionary Iran and Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan; the turmoil in the Arab world in 2011 suggests there will be a scramble to reestablish Arab leadership in the coming days.
My argument in 2009 was that withdrawing US support to Israel’s requirement for territorial defensibility would unleash the accelerating maneuvers we are seeing today. Barack Obama has, in effect, done precisely that with his dismissal of the national security interest Israel has in the settlements issue. It was foreseeable that Obama’s policies would do what they have done: give the Middle East a green light for a competitive race to Jerusalem.
Here are links to the 4-part series from June 2009.