Why we might be closer to war than we think.

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A version of this article was published by the Jewish News Service and the Foundation for American Freedom and Security

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Over the last week, there have been increasing signs that Hamas may be preparing to re-initiate hostilities, starting along the border at a trickle, and then more as they go along.

These threats should be taken seriously since the underlying tectonic forces that in part led to the last war are still in place.

And yet, in this particular situation, there is a new dimension that can further fuel the choice toward escalation by Hamas, as well as for the panoply of other actors that previously played a contributing role in detonating the region last month. It is likely that Hamas, the PA, the Joint Arab List party ( HaReshima Meshutefet) in Israel and Iran and Turkey outside Israel all have a strong common interest in sabotaging the new government taking shape, which is most easily done via escalation, particularly because of threats made by Mansour Abbas and his United Arab List party (Raam).  It is possible that even Jordan might harbor hostility, and not because the incoming PM, Naftali Bennett is seen as a symbol of the settler movement, but because they cannot comfortably accept the success of Mansour Abbas.

Let me explain.

So, what does Mansour Abbas represent?  First of all, what he is not.  He is not a dreamy peace processor, nor is he a man given to grand theories of regional cooperation or some contractual permanent change that would demand an alteration of his basic system of Islamic beliefs.  Nor would such leaders in any Arab society survive. The cultural root of Arab society is nomadic, and tribal traditions which preexist Islam are as important as religious dogma.

Any civilization anchored to a nomadic soul views its survival through the personal capability and following of leadership of the tribe, which is really a quite different matter than our image of tribes shaped by Hollywood in Westerns. Families and clans are parts of Middle Eastern “tribes,” a detailed discussion of which is beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice it to say, though, that institutions in such societies are not envisioned as “trusts,” as they are in urban societies of the West, but are embodiments of the tribal leader. In turn, the tribal leader is not a custodian of a permanent institution or “office,” but is its very essence.  When Muhammad died, Abu Baqr was named the Khaliph, but the tribes revolted.  This was not because they opposed Abu Baqr, but because they had no institutional loyalty to the Khaliphate. Abu Baqr had to personally renegotiate the terms of loyalty with each tribe, each of which would continue in revolt until he did. It is a very personal affair between the leader and his “tribe” of followers.

Contrast this with the concept of leader and institution in the West. While any leader in the West owes those in society who helped him rise to the top, the office he assumes and the institution which he heads have their own existence as a possession of all the people of community.  A U.S. president, while obviously trying to realize policies that deliver for his supporters, is bound to talk about being the president of all Americans.  He loses his personal validity the moment he tries to limit the office or institution to the narrow purview of his clan or tribe — his followers alone or family. And there are strict laws against such favoritism in US politics. Not so in the Middle East.  The inverse is true. A leader that does not pursue the interests of his tribe has betrayed their personal trust in him, and he has lost his claim to loyalty and following, and thus his personal validity.

In short, the mission or purpose of the tribal leader, and the clans which comprise the tribe, is primarily to deliver the survival and welfare of that tribe. In an urban setting, traditional tribes, or the identity of having come from a tribe, still exist and are important but are weaker. Still, one’s tribal origins are part of one’s soul.  Moreover, the patterns of politics and the nature of leadership remains baked into the culture despite having been urbanized and is understood in those terms as well.  The Prime Minister of Israel is seen as much in the Middle East in personal terms as the leader of the Jewish tribe, rather than as he is understood in the West as the custodian of the institution of the Israeli state.  Indeed, the U.S. president is seen in such terms as well, and is expected to act as required along those lines.  When Israelis or Americans talk in larger theoretical terms of global order or regional peace, it is simply confusing to those in the region.  A tribal leader in the Middle East would be mystified by how an American president or Israeli prime minister could be so misguided as to talk about regional structures of conflict resolution and “interests of the international community” which stand above the interests of the Jewish or American tribes they represent? What tribal leader in his right mind would give in to expectations to cede his tribal authority voluntarily?

Since survival as a community is the basic aim in a harsh environment, the legitimacy of one’s being the tribal leader is based on how well a leader protects and provides for his tribe. In turn, each tribe member understands that his survival and welfare is derivative of the tribe, so his purpose is to help his tribe survive, and in turn, he exists under the tribe’s protection.  If some member wants to be individualistic, he can do so as a dead person.  Things like nepotism and favoritism are ethical failures in the West, but ethical imperatives in the region.

The tribal leader thus, charged with the task to provide and protect his tribe, must always be on the lookout for the strong horse to which he attaches his tribe and to whom he links their fate.  The wrong choice, or some “principled” choice in Western sense represents a fundamental failure and abdication of authority. So, the basis of all leadership and politics is seeking and signing with the rising power.

Mansour Abbas has made his choice. It is to some extent similar to the choice made by the tribal leaders of Abu Ghosh in 1948 — a village on the road to Jerusalem whose leader chose to side with the Zionists because he, as the provider and protector of his “tribe,” measured the Zionists and decided that Israel is the strongest horse. It is the same choice the UAE has made in 2020 as well.  Mansour Abbas has attached his fate to Israel, based on the expectation of Israel’s being and remaining a rising power.

The other Arab leaders in this picture all hedge or think Israel will not prevail. They follow in the footsteps of so many Arab leaders before, who have climbed up and over the precipice into the abyss in viewing Nazism, Communism, China, Saddam’s Iraq, Iran, Turkey or ISIS and bin Ladin as the rising and prevailing.  So, they, as these previous Arab leaders have done, attach themselves to any movement against Israel and the United States.

As long as the U.S. and Israel understand that they are viewed in the region as the tribal leaders for their “tribes,” they can navigate the region successfully, and gather power and following along the way.  But when we or Israel try to be above it all, and think like a detached academics or political utopians who believe in conflict resolution or pacifism, or worse engage in self-denigrating, self-denying or conciliatory actions, like the U.S. and Israel have often done before, and which the United States is now asking again of its ally, then we and Israel will lose all value as the strong horse. We and the Israelis become toxic and are to be fled from as fast as possible, and we and the Israelis will find ourselves alone and under attack even by those who just a moment ago were our “best friends.”  In fact, particularly by those who were just recently our best friends because they have to dissociate themselves the most from the catastrophic choice of having misread us as a strong horse.

Mansour Abbas is essentially now a “tribal” leader of a substantial group of Arabs, especially the Negev Arabs of whom most are Bedouin. As this “tribe’s” leader, he relates to Israel as the strong horse with whom it is in his tribe’s best interest to align, assuming Israel understands and accepts its role as the strong horse.  In this way, it is quite possible that Mansour Abbas sees PM Bennett’s pedigree as a hard liner and a graduate of the General Staff commando unit as advantages, and not as an offense.

The participation of Mansour Abbas thus means several things for the other Arabs:

  1. Mansour Abbas bartered his support for the Israeli strong horse in exchange for the genuine empowerment of his Arab party — something the competing Joint Arab List leadership has forfeited for decades by its choice to champion the Palestinian flag over the Israeli, and serve consistently as apologists for the violence and rejection of the state of Israel that this represents. In some ways, Mansour Abbas’ fate is tied and dependent on his gamble, namely on his bet on Israel’s success and its remaining strong.

Mansour Abbas, thus, is the domestic Arab opposite of the local Arabs who are the followers of the external rejection front led by Syria, Iran, the PLO, Turkey and others (in practice even Qatar) — namely Hamas, the PIJ and the PLO’s many factions, including Fatah and Abu Mazen — some members of whom have even wound up in exile in the capitals of their preferred external “strong horses.”  All these rejectionist forces, inside and outside, have staked the credibility of their leadership over their “tribes” and clans on Israel’s weakness, temptation to conciliation and peace processes, which it is assumed will lead to its retreat and ultimately to Israel’s demise. In contrast, Mansour Abbas can roughly be considered the internal Israeli Arab equivalent of the UAE and Abraham Accords — namely while his informing dogma may still not, and likely never will, accept the genuine legitimacy of the Jewish state, the “tribal” leader he represents — and his irreducible need to deliver protection and provide for his followers — drives him to reconcile and seek the fulfillment of his community’s interests through some sort of reconciliation and accommodation with Israel.  As such, the success of Mansour Abbas essentially embodies the Abraham Accords.

In the process, Abbas has rendered himself the mortal enemy of these rival “tribes” and their leadership, namely those whose primary allegiance is to the various shades of the rejectionist font.  This is a fight to the death, so they will do anything to tear Abbas down.  As Iran and Turkey view the Abraham Accords as a mortal strategic threat, so too will they view Mansour Abbas.

  1. The outside forces of the rejectionist front — which ultimately includes the PLO as well despite the fiction clung to by western elites of its moderation — have been forced to surrender their monopoly and with agony watch their rival, Mansour Abbas, leverage his access to Israeli power to deliver to his followers what they cannot. Mansour Abbas, like the UAE externally, annulled their veto over any movement toward reconciliation. Jews and Arabs, this time internally as opposed to regionally, could find formulas to work together when their interests converge even without having to first solve the “Palestinian issue” over which the rejectionist front held a veto. The other Abbas, Muhammad Abbas of the PA and head of the PLO had, once again had his rudimentary persona and purpose rejected.  So apart from Muhammad Abbas’ having a new rival (Mansour Abbas) for the street from which he largely already is humiliatingly rejected, he also suddenly finds himself, his movement, and the balloon of the PA’s importance as “the indispensable factor” punctured.  Mansour Abbas threatens Muhammad Abbas as much as the Abraham Accords did.
  2. Hamas, Iran and Turkey invested immensely in creating the sort of fundamental breakdown of law and order that was expressed through the Arab uprising instigated during the recent war between Israel and Hamas.  For the first time since 1948, the internal fabric of Israeli society was ripped, and the very real danger of an Arab-Jewish communal civil war threatened within just last month. This was a stunning achievement for Tayyip Erdogan and Hamas’s Yahya Sinwar and Ismail Haniyeh.  Now, only a few weeks later,  the leader of a party whose platform stands to the right of the outgoing Israeli government, Yemina, embraced Mansour Abbas and invited him into the inner circle of Israeli power structures, in effect weaving and sticking the ripped fabric of Israel’s society together again.  Symbolically, the greatest achievement of the war for Hamas has thus been challenged, eroded, and potentially burst as suddenly as it exploded last month.  They have been humiliated by Mansour Abbas.
  3.  Palestinians in Gaza, Judea and Samaria have increasingly looked with envy at the ability of Israelis to be free and express themselves.  While still uneasy about accepting the image of political chaos as potentially an expression and form of strength rather than weakness, there is a growing attractiveness of Israeli society among Palestinians when juxtaposed against the suppression, corruption and brutality of the governments they live under in Judea, Samaria and Gaza.  This unnerves, and properly so, those governments and poses a threat to the legitimacy of their rule. This may also threaten other regional leaders since Mansour Abbas and Israel have managed to deliver the only genuinely democratic path to enfranchisement of Arabs in the Middle East, not the Arab Spring nor any other fashionable Arab ideological movement of the last century.
  4. Iran and Turkey invested heavily in effort and coin in creating a new Palestinian Arab leadership that echoes and furthers their regional power ambitions.  And then along comes Mansour Abbas out of nowhere and grabs the standard of leadership of Israeli Arabs, especially but not only the Bedouin.  Another balloon bursts, and the vast resources spent by Iran, Turkey and Qatar go up in flames.
  5.  Mansour Abbas also places King Abdallah of Jordan potentially in a difficult position, largely because King Abdallah has spent the last decade making a series of grave mistakes.  First among these, King Abdallah of Jordan has allowed himself to be defined so consistently as the cheerleader for the Palestinian camp led by Abu Mazen that he has become its shadow.  But King Abdallah is not a Palestinian. He may be the decedent of the Prophet Muhammad, and thus a pan-Arab and pan-Islamic leader, but he also is essentially the current head of the Hejazi tribes from when he hails. As such, he gained little real following among the people of whom he is not — the Palestinians — but forfeited the following of the people of whom he is, the Hejazi Bedouin tribes. In the process, he offended the Hejazi Bedouin tribes which traditionally form the core of the Hashemite kingdom and without whose support the state of Jordan loses its raison d’etre. The symbol of this misplaced attention was in 2017, when King Abdallah intervened, mostly unhelpfully, in the Temple Mount unrest following a terror attack which was launched from within the Temple Mount complex that killed two Israeli police, while at the same time the Hawaitat tribe — which had been loyal to the Hashemite family since the Arab Revolt in World War I a century ago — threatened to withdraw its loyalty from the King for his prosecution of two of its members for a terror attack on American soldiers. King Abdallah chose to focus on the Palestinian crisis rather than his own regime-threatening one.   In short, King Abdallah has been so busy entangling himself with the PLO-based Palestinian movement, and becoming Abu Mazen’s champion among Western establishments, that he forgot he was the tribal head of the Hejazi Bedouin tribal core of the state. He is acting like man without a tribe.  This ultimately is what underlies the dangerous rift between himself and Prince Hamza, who clearly had powerful supporters among the Hejazi tribes.

Across the African rift valley in the Negev in southern Israel, Mansour Abbas established his leadership most by championing the cause of the Bedouin Negev tribes. Their concerns and issues formed the unsurrenderable core of the demands to which Mansour Abbas held in negotiating his entry into the Israeli government. He delivered. So, in some ways, he is the tribal leader now de facto of the Negev Arab Bedouin tribes.

Despite the harshness and difficulty of traverse of the African Rift Valley, there is effectively no border dividing the Hejazi tribes from the Bedouin of the Negev.  Historically, indeed going all the way back to the ancient Nabateans, the tribal allegiances of today’s southern Jordan and Israel ran up and down from the north in Ma’an to south in the Hejaz, but equally from the east in Ma’an to the West in Beer Sheva.  It is unclear how solid the tribal connections are still now after 1948, but the rise of a de facto champion of the Negev Bedouin must register on the Hejazi tribal radar — which has been left dangerously abandoned and orphaned by the Palestinian-focused, British-groomed Jordanian King who still fits more comfortably in the meeting halls of Davos than a tent near Aqaba.

To note, when a tribal member or group is abandoned in Arab society his life or existence is forfeit. When the Prophet Muhammad fled Mecca to Medina, since his uncle had to surrender his protection, it was understood by both Muhammad and the Meccan establishment as tantamount to as a death sentence. One can only imagine what the Hejazi tribes today feel as they sense their abandonment by King Abdallah for his Palestinian allies.  They are looking for a champion, and the Saudis — who reside over those same Hejazi tribes on their side of the border — anxiously look at King Abdallah’s failure and probably hope the tribes find a new patron, perhaps one attached to a strong horse like Israel.

So, it is possible that as the most prominent champion right now of Bedouin interests, Mansour Abbas threatens even King Abdallah. The UAE and the Saudis fears over the unhinged status of the Hejazi tribes by Jordan’s straying — who drifting abandoned could easily wander to a new patron hostile to Riyadh or Abu Dhabi, like Turkey — could be somewhat allayed by the success of Mansour Abbas among the Bedouin Arabs. The drift of the Negev Arabs was dangerously pinning does to Hamas and to regional malefactors, particularly Turkey whose nemeses are Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.  It is dubious that Abdallah is shrewd enough at this point to realize of this, but eventually he could see this as a threat.

In other words, the success of Mansour Abbas represents a catastrophe for powerful interests everywhere.

It is to be expected that interested parties, all of whom have the power to act, will in fact act to sabotage Abbas at all costs, the quickest and resist route being escalation to violence or war.

David Wurmser

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