After the Taliban victory: An alliance of moderation for the Middle East
By Amb. Dore Gold
Ambassador Dore Gold wrote “Israel Enters the Arab World“ in the summer 2021 edition of the journal Sapir: A Journal of Jewish Conversations. This article is based on a Zoom interview with Amb. Gold by journal editor-in-chief Bret Stephens on August 16, 2021.
For all of the countries that have been under the wings of the American eagle, this is a very tough time. Events in Afghanistan will affect events on the Jordan River which is 3,000 kms. away. The enemies of America watched this moment with great joy. The friends of America are very concerned and wonder what are the assumptions in the American foreign policy community today as it goes forward in trying to protect American interests. Power is a big factor in the Middle East. But when America unilaterally pulls out, and everyone understands the position the U.S. was in, it leaves us with a lot of concern for the future.
A New Security Consensus for the Middle East
We have to team up with our Sunni Arab allies – and I use the word “ally” with great confidence – to bring the data we have about the region to Washington, New York, London, and Berlin so that we’re all on the same page because lately we haven’t been. And maybe then we have a shot at reforming a new security consensus for the Middle East with our Western allies.
We Israelis have to work with the elected government of the United States. Although we may differ strongly with that government depending on the policies they decide to pursue, we have to make it work. One is a superpower, one is a small state, and a small state has to live with its superpower ally.
After Prime Minister Netanyahu’s 2015 speech to Congress, what happened was not a revolutionary change in the policy of the Obama administration, but rather a whole new approach that became visible to us in the Sunni Arab world. Slowly but surely, communications between Israel and the Sunni Arab states increased and it became clear that they understood the dangers of the Middle East the same way we did. And the basis for a real alliance between former enemies became very real. So maybe that’s not what those who wrote the speech had exactly in mind, but that is certainly what evolved.
Changes in Saudi Arabia
When I wrote the book Hatred’s Kingdom: How Saudi Arabia Supports the New Global Terrorism in 2004, we had overwhelming evidence that Saudi charities were involved in moving serious money to jihadi organizations like Hamas. We were in the middle of the second intifada, which produced buses blowing up in the heart of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa. When we found the financial links, we spoke about it and I wrote about it.
But today, how much of the Hamas budget comes from Saudi Arabia? Zero, nothing. Their policies have changed. They just sentenced a whole group of Hamas operatives in Saudi Arabia. This was unthinkable when I wrote the book. So the world has changed. Ideologically, the body that was busy exporting an extreme form of Islam around the world from Indonesia to Kosovo was the Muslim World League. In 2020, the Secretary General of the Muslim World League, Dr. Mohammed al-Issa, took a delegation to Auschwitz.
So you can’t look at Saudi Arabia through a 9/11 prism. Saudi Arabia is a different country and we in Israel have to find ways to reach out to Saudi Arabia, as well as its other neighbors, to build an alliance of moderation for the Middle East against the forces that are threatening us today.
Saudi Prince Turki Al Faisal was director general of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence agency, as well as ambassador to the UK and the U.S. I had an interaction with him at a meeting of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Bahrain. I approached him and laid the facts on the table as you would to the head of an intelligence agency. I said, “You guys were helping out Hamas, now you’re not, and therefore I’ll do everything in my power to convey that fact around the world.” I wanted him to know that in many respects, the underlying assumptions of Hatred’s Kingdom no longer apply. In fact, they’re wrong – and I wanted him to hear that from me.
Cooperation between Jerusalem and Riyadh in terms of intelligence and security is vastly greater than what is generally acknowledged publicly. We have had an ability to communicate with most of our neighbors. And now it becomes clear that we have to find areas of cooperation. Some of them are in the military security sphere, some are in the economic sphere, and some are in other areas. But they really show that Israel and the Arab states are on the same side of the fence.
The Iranian Threat: What Ever Happened to “Trust but Verify”?
Some see Iran as the true ally of the West, that those who attacked on 9/11 were Sunnis, not Shiites. Those who take this position misread Iran completely and they don’t understand the full implications of Iran with nuclear weapons, which we may find out about very soon.
I have never been a big believer in diplomacy with the current Iranian regime. I have been acutely aware of Iranian violations of all the deals they ever made with the West and with the United States, certainly since 2003. And the violations were so transparent For example, when the Iranians would start digging up an alleged nuclear site and taking out the earth six feet down of an area that we in the West believe was a vital portion of the nuclear program and destroying that or dispersing that dirt, this was done to hide very clear work that they had done. This went on at a number of Iranian nuclear sites.
The first and most important thing in an arms control deal is being able to trust the other side and certainly verify everything that they’re doing. I didn’t see President Reagan’s adage “trust but verify” being possible in the Iranian context. So I became very concerned because I understood Iran’s intentions. Iran seemed determined to get a nuclear weapons capability to threaten the existence of the State of Israel and we had to behave as though that was the case.
The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, which I head, has a number of experts who can do research in Farsi (Persian). From their research it became clear that the Iranian defense doctrine is very much influenced by Shiite religious considerations. If, for example, the Jewish population in the world is destroyed, that will accelerate the arrival of the hidden imam known as the Mahdi, the 12th imam.
That is the world in which we are living. Unless the Iranians can convince us that that is a misinterpretation of what is ideologically motivating them, a nuclear Iran is completely unacceptable, and any of the models that might be put forward at the Kennedy School at Harvard which sound very reasonable and rational are simply too dangerous for us to live with. Their goal is not just simply to create a copy of the Soviet-American deterrence model. We’re talking about something far more dangerous.
In addition, as nuclear proliferation spreads in the Middle East, the chances that we are living with a hair trigger system across our region increases and the region becomes very unstable. That is yet another reason to do everything in the power of the Western alliance to prevent either a nuclear Iran or a threshold nuclear Iran.
The Disintegration of Lebanon
Lebanon today is really a branch of Hizbullah and Hizbullah is a branch of the Iranian security forces. That should be the guiding perspective as Israel looks at its northern neighbor. Lebanon used to be one of the great countries of the Middle East and Beirut was one of the great cities. It’s a terrible shame that Iranian expansionism has led to such a degradation of the Lebanese state. France doesn’t have the will or the power to assert its interests there and the United States is not in a position which it was in 1958 when President Eisenhower sent the marines into Beirut, so Lebanon suffers. Yet Lebanon remains a country with tremendous potential and creativity. It has the ability to make a great contribution to the Middle East. But as long as it is under the thumb of Iran, that is not going to happen.
A History of Sunni Acceptance of the Jews
The mutual suspicion between parts of the Sunni world and parts of the Shia world is much more intense than the Arab-Israel conflict. We should expose the public in the Arab world to how the Jewish people and the Sunni world have worked together in the past and can work together again. When I get into debates over Jerusalem, I remind Middle Eastern audiences of the fact that after the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans, for 500 years Jews were forbidden from living in our holy city, and when the second caliph of Islam, Umar ibn Al-Khattab, came into Jerusalem, he reopened the city to the Jewish people. That is not a permanent arrangement that we should aspire to, but we should remember that Sunni Arabs have been able to ideologically accept our presence. This repeated after the Crusades as well. So we should expose each side to those higher points in our history and use that as an inspiration for the future. The narrative is there, it’s in our history.
Seeking Bipartisan U.S. Support for Israel
Israel must base itself on bipartisan support in the United States. But what if that’s not available? Then Israel should just do what we believe is right. When I was director general of the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, one of the things I doggedly sought was to get a breakthrough with South Africa. I took delegations to South Africa and negotiated agreements with the South African government in Pretoria, which we signed. I asked our spokesman’s office to put out an announcement that while Israel was called an apartheid state on campuses in the United States, the current post-apartheid government of South Africa is signing agreements with Israel. I did this because I wanted to reach out to the liberal side of the American political spectrum so they should know. Israel can have a discussion with liberals and progressives even if our security assumptions might seem very conservative. We have to reach out to both sides. We have to make the effort.
Turkey Has Been Pursuing a Hostile Policy toward Israel
The president of Turkey says things about Israel which are not true and he seems to want to pursue a policy which is neo-Ottoman, resurrecting the Ottoman empire. But at the same time, he has reached out to Israel when he needs Israel’s support. I was a negotiator with the Turks. I met with very professional, well-trained members of the Turkish foreign ministry including its director general. But we shouldn’t kid ourselves. We have to understand that Turkey has been pursuing a hostile policy toward Israel, though not in the same way as Iran, and we have to bring it around to a different approach to us. We have to talk to them about their concerns. I believe that we can have a policy towards Turkey which might bring about a change, but right now it’s it’s a good thing we have allies in Cyprus and in Greece.
The Role of Diplomacy Is to Break Down Barriers
The whole apartheid accusation is a danger. When I visited South Africa with a foreign ministry team, I visited the place where Nelson Mandela spent a great deal of his time. I learned that outside of Johannesburg in another location he would hide out from the apartheid police in a home owned by a Jewish family. And while he was there he read the books in the home. One of the books was The Revolt by Menachem Begin. I was stunned.
Months later, at the UN General Assembly, I requested a meeting with the foreign minister of South Africa. I had been told she was a radical extremist, but I told her the story of Nelson Mandela reading Begin’s book. I said, “The head of your national movement read a book written by the head of my national movement.” It was clearly an effort to break down barriers and create some kind of new dialogue that didn’t exist before. That’s what we have to do with diplomacy. Power can be supported by diplomatic action and that’s what will help to protect our security in the future.
Ambassador Dore Gold has served as President of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs since 2000. From June 2015 until October 2016 he served as Director-General of the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Previously he served as Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Ambassador to the UN (1997-1999), and as an advisor to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.