President Bush was not the first to introduce the term “new Middle East.” Shimon Peres preceded the American president by a decade. But Bush’s vision for a new Middle East — that aspiration to Arab reform and democracy that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was presumably referring to when, visiting Beirut at the height of the recent war, she incredibly described the scene as the “birth pangs of the new Middle East” — remains the presumed frame of reference for discussing possible changes in the region.
Such a view of the region, however, is far less likely to reach fruition than an “alternative new Middle East” — one that features no Arab democracies at all and a growing radical Muslim presence.
Indeed, of the diverse scenarios that purport to project developments in the region in the coming years, the alternative new Middle East is the most likely. It is frightening, and requires that Israel and the United States urgently adopt new military and political strategies.
The alternative new Middle East features a Palestinian territory or territories under Hamas dominance, and a Lebanon whose anachronistic confessional system will soon be unable to contain the growing demographic challenge posed by Shiites. The only remaining question will be the degree that Iran, through Hezbollah, comes to dominate Lebanon, or at least southern Lebanon.
Tehran, though not yet a nuclear power, is already behaving like a regional hegemon. The area where it will hold sway in the alternative new Middle East begins with the southern two-thirds of Iraq, ruled by radical Shiite movements close to Iran. The relatively secular and Sunni Kurdish north of Iraq, like a growing number of the Gulf emirates, will increasingly take care to adopt policies that do not antagonize Iran despite, or because of, their apprehensions, and Syria will behave more and more like a client state of Iran. Those Gulf states with large Shiite populations — a majority in Bahrain, sizable minorities in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia — can expect trouble.
Meanwhile, Sunni radical Islam will continue to shape its own sphere of the alternative new Middle East. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, of which Hamas is an offshoot, and in Jordan will be increasingly assertive in demanding a role in running those countries. So will the Islamists in Morocco and Yemen. And we still haven’t mentioned Al Qaeda.
Admittedly, this is a worst-case scenario. Yet it is so close to the current reality that it must be taken seriously.
We got a taste of the sort of regional and global dynamics that might be generated by the alternative new Middle East in Israel’s recent war with Hamas and Hezbollah. It took just five months from Hamas’s January electoral triumph in the Palestinian Authority for it to provoke a war with Israel, and another two weeks for Hezbollah to join in. To a large extent Israel, fighting on two fronts, was perceived by its moderate Sunni neighbors to be countering the spread of Islamist radicals, especially the Shiite pro-Iranian variety, rather than merely fighting another Israeli-Arab territorial war. All of a sudden Egypt, Jordan and even Saudi Arabia were candidates for closer ties with Jerusalem.
On the other hand, Israel has not been able to end its war with Hezbollah and Hamas decisively. Its Islamist opponents’ war-fighting strategy is different from that of Israel’s foes in earlier Israeli-Arab wars: the Islamists use guerilla tactics, don’t seek to capture Israeli territory, are prepared to cede control over their own territory, and will inflict terrible suffering on their own people as long as they hurt Israel and are still standing when the smoke clears. Already Israel’s enemies in Syria and elsewhere in the region are talking of adopting similar strategies.
The recent war also highlighted the pathetic contradictions in American Middle East policy. Washington did everything it could to enable Israel to inflict prolonged punishment on Hezbollah and Hamas, yet both are Islamist movements whose election the Bush administration had earlier facilitated. It is only a matter of time until the United States denounces the pro-Iranian Shiite militants who dominate the democratic government of Iraq that Washington also sponsored.
Not only is the alternative new Middle East not identical to the old Middle East of secular authoritarian regimes — that of Saddam Hussein and the Assad family, as well as the more benign Hosni Mubarak and the two Abdullahs, in Saudi Arabia and Jordan, with their token reforms — it is far worse. It is not prepared to coexist with Israel, and its ideology is openly expansionist. Israel, which will almost certainly have to confront it again militarily in the coming years, must quickly develop better war-fighting strategies than it displayed in Lebanon this summer.
Equally urgently, Israel must look for ways to interact with the old Middle East in order to combat the Islamists. It should consider the concessions needed in order to team up with Egypt, Jordan and the Saudis in combating the Islamists: engage the moderate wing of Hamas, together with secular Palestinians, and isolate Hamas’s extremists; and accept accommodations that fall short of peace if they at least offer stability. Together they should target the contradictions in the Islamist front: Pit the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood against Iran and the Shiites; focus on non-Shiite Syria as the weak link in the so-called Shiite crescent and neutralize it, either militarily or diplomatically.
Above and beyond all else, Israel has to initiate a reckoning, a soul-searching exercise, with the Bush administration. It has to suggest to Washington that the United States abandon its naive and problematic quest for a new Middle East, recognize that Arab electoral democracy is ushering in chaos and extremism rather than peace and stability, and deal in a far more nuanced manner with the old Middle East, where Israel has peaceful relations and growing strategic cooperation with autocratic Jordan and Egypt, not democratic Iraq, Palestine or Lebanon.
The United States should talk to Iran without preconditions and encourage Tehran to talk to Jerusalem and seek modes of coexistence before it is engulfed in war. It must reconfigure its strategic aim in Iraq in terms of countering Islamist extremists there and in Iran, rather than mindlessly “democratizing” and enfranchising more extremists. If Israel is able to develop a negotiating track with Bashar Assad in Syria — another non-democrat with whom peace may be possible — Washington should give the green light and stop insisting on punishing Damascus. The payoff will not be a warm peace or true democracy, but it could be a weakening of Hezbollah and of Iran’s access to the Levant.
Confronting the alternative new Middle East is a matter of the highest urgency for Israel, the United States, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The alternative is liable to be disaster for the entire region.
Yossi Alpher, a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, is co-editor of the bitterlemons family of online publications.