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Arab Rulers Stay out of Fray As Shi’ites and Zionists Battle It out

July 28, 2006
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For Arab rulers watching from the sidelines as Hezbollah and Israel battle in Lebanon, this war is proving something of a problem. The last thing the autocrats in Egypt, Jordan and the Persian Gulf states want to see is a victory by an Iranian-sponsored Shi’ite militia. That would strengthen the hand of the mullahs running Iran and further empower radical Islamists and Shi’ite minorities in their own countries who are eager for supremacy.

Yet public opinion at home doesn’t allow for much support of the Israeli position, especially as images of Lebanese victims and Israeli bombings flood Arab airwaves.

That’s why Arab leaders, from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, are treading a cautious line, shifting from blaming Hezbollah to criticizing Israel.

As the conflict has dragged on and Hezbollah has proven a formidable adversary, initial censure of Hezbollah for provoking the conflict has given way to warning that Israel’s “aggressiveness” risks destabilizing the region and igniting an all-out war.

For all their talk, however, most Arab states are being careful to stay out of the fray — and likely will stay out.

“Those who urge Egypt to go to war to defend Lebanon or Hezbollah are not aware that the time of exterior adventures is over,” Mubarak was quoted as saying Wednesday after meeting with King Abdullah. “The Egyptian army is for defending Egypt only, and this is not going to change.”

The Arab leaders’ armies are likely to stay out of the war in Lebanon both because war could destabilize their regimes and wreak havoc on their economies and because most Arab states probably prefer that Israel win this war.

“We’re past the period of knee-jerk support for anything that’s anti-Israel,” observed Joshua Teitelbaum, a senior fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University.

When Hezbollah launched its July 12 cross-border raid against Israeli soldiers and Israel responded by bombing Beirut’s airport and targets in southern Lebanon, many Arab states blamed Hezbollah for stirring things up.

Criticism came not only from U.S.-backed regimes that have peace treaties with Israel, such as Egypt, but also from as far away as Saudi Arabia, where Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal called Hezbollah’s actions “unexpected, inappropriate and irresponsible.”

“These acts will pull the whole region back to years ago, and we simply cannot accept them,” Faisal said, according to The Associated Press.

“This thing came along and just hit them in the face, threatening to light up the entire region,” Teitelbaum said.

Essentially, Saudi Arabia was saying, “Who is Hezbollah that will declare war on Israel and drag the rest of the Arab world along with it?” explained Jonathan Sighel, senior researcher at the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya. “The reactions in the first days were the authentic feelings — that Hezbollah could bring the destruction of the interests of the so-called moderate states in the Arab world.”

At the top of those interests is stability, meaning the preservation of non-democratic regimes in Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf states.

But as the fighting intensified and Hezbollah demonstrated that it would not be easily vanquished — and as rising casualty tolls and pictures of bombed-out Lebanese neighborhoods prompted demonstrations around the Arab world — it became more difficult for Arab rulers to withhold criticism of Israel.

“When it looked like it was going to take a long time, then other concerns kick in. The Arabs are concerned that they look helpless,” Teitelbaum said. “There’s a huge sense of frustration that the ones calling the shots in the Middle East are either non-Arab states like Israel, Iran or, to a lesser extent, Turkey, or non-state actors like Hezbollah,” Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the late leader of the Iraqi insurgency.

Criticizing Israel enables Arab rulers to grandstand, show a semblance of Arab solidarity and demonstrate to their populations that they stand with them against Israel’s actions.

For many Arab regimes, however, the prospect of a strengthened Hezbollah is far more worrisome than an Israeli victory.

If Hezbollah comes out of this battle stronger than before, or if the Shi’ite militia emerges as the dominant force in Lebanon, it would bolster Iran’s influence in the region and extend the web of Shi’ite control from Iran to Iraq to Lebanon by way of Syria.

Iraq has a Shi’ite majority government. Syria is controlled by the Assad family, which hails from the country’s Alawite minority, but the country is aligned closely with the Shi’ite regime in Iran.

Many Arab rulers are against increased Shi’ite control not only because they are Sunni Muslims — Sunnis and Shi’ites have fought for centuries — but also because Shi’ite militancy is a major force for destabilization in the Middle East.

“Iran has problems with virtually every Arab state in the region,” said Arie Gus, a longtime Middle East analyst for Israel Radio and a research fellow at the Interdisciplinary Center.

There is a territorial dispute between Iran and the United Arab Emirates over three strategic islands in the Persian Gulf. Iranian Shi’ites are active opponents of the Sunni regime in Saudi Arabia, which has a large Shi’ite minority.

And the alignment of Egypt and Jordan with the United States and their peace treaties with Israel make them enemies of Iran, whose main adversaries are the United States and Israel — Big Satan and Little Satan, in Iranian parlance.

This war, Teitelbaum noted, “gives Iran an opportunity to gain influence just when all the Gulf countries are worried about Iran getting nuclear weapons.”

At the end of the day, experts say, Arab states will be little more than bit players in the current conflict between Hezbollah and Israel, with the possible exception of Syria.

That’s because there is no real unity or consensus in the Arab world today.

“When we talk about the Arab world, it’s a slogan. It doesn’t really exist,” Gus said. “Today the Arabs only pay lip service.”

He noted that the Arab foreign ministers who met earlier this week in Rome could not reach consensus about the war in Lebanon.

Between the Sunnis fighting the Shi’ites, and U.S. allies versus Iranian allies, the Arab world is as fractured today as Lebanon itself, which still suffers from the divisions that kept it mired in civil war from 1975 to 1990.

Who will gain the upper hand in Lebanon once the fighting ends, and how Lebanon itself will look after what has become an increasingly destructive war, remains to be seen.

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