Why Middle East realignments pose dangers for the anti-Israel resistance

Joseph Massad

Middle East Eye  /  June 29, 2023

The recent normalization of relations with Iran and Syria – the main backers of the resistance groups – are worrisome to those concerned that it may lead to a reduction in their support

Amajor realignment in the Middle East has unfolded in the past year.

Last August, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkish government, which had posed as a major defender of the Palestinian anti-colonial struggle over the previous decade, resumed Turkey’s longstanding friendship with Israel. It further sought to improve relations with the Syrian and Egyptian governments and began to crack down on the Syrian and Egyptian opposition groups that it had supported during and after the 2011 Arab uprisings and whose exiles it hosted in Turkey.

Hamas, which received much diplomatic support from Turkey during the last decade, understandably began to worry about Turkey’s rapprochement with Israel, especially as Turkish intelligence began to restrict the resistance group’s activities.

Meanwhile, the Saudi government’s secret-yet-open relations with Israel continue to make news about the possibility of establishing formal diplomatic ties, if certain Saudi demands are met (including US provision of nuclear technology to the Saudis and F-35 jet fighters).

Arab governments that had declared war on the Syrian government since 2011 have also resumed relations with Damascus, starting with the United Arab Emirates in 2018 and ending with Saudi Arabia and the entire Arab League in the last few weeks.

More recently, China brokered a resumption of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which was followed by a thawing of relations between Tehran and other Arab countries loyal to the Saudis, including Egypt and Jordan. These are some of the same countries that had launched an anti-Shia sectarian campaign since 2004 targeting Iran, Syria, Iraq, and Shia communities across the Arab World.

Even US intransigence on nuclear negotiations with Iran has ended with the resumption of talks between them and the easing of US sanctions. Israel’s lobbyists in Washington DC have expressed concern that some of this might indicate a waning of US power, although it is not clear that the rapprochement with Iran is contrary to US interests.

Immediately prior to attending the grand wedding festivities of Jordan’s crown prince as an official guest of the palace a few weeks ago, Robert Satloff, the director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the research arm of the Israel lobby, prepared a report to express his concerns, which were not necessarily about Saudi rapprochement with Iran, but about China’s role in brokering it.

Satloff, a longtime friend of Jordan’s royals, is often granted exclusive interviews with them. He has not criticized the recent warming of relations between Jordan and Iran and defended the lavish wedding festivities against those who described them as a diversionary tactic from the kingdom’s troubles.

Israeli aggression

Much of this realignment is unfolding in the context of an all-out war that the current Israeli government, which is even more committed to Jewish supremacy than its predecessors, has declared on the Palestinian people.

With daily Israeli military invasions of West Bank cities and towns, regular pogroms by Israel’s Jewish colonial-settlers against the civilian Palestinian population, ongoing Israeli raids on Gaza, not to mention the ongoing raids on Syria, violations of Lebanese airspace and threats against the pre-eminent Lebanese resistance group Hezbollah, the recent realignment is a worrisome development for those resisting Israeli settler-colonialism and expansionist aggression.

Indeed, recent weeks have witnessed some remarkable developments regarding Palestinian resistance groups. The Saudis hosted delegations from the Palestinian Authority (PA) as well as from Hamas (some of whose members the Saudis had arrested and detained for three years but released a few months ago) for talks, while the Egyptians summoned the two main Gaza-based Palestinian resistance groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, for talks in Cairo.

The Cairo talks aimed at de-escalation by the Palestinian resistance in the face of incessant Israeli aggression, and at brokering a “long-term ceasefire” with Israel. Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders also recently visited Iran. In addition, Israel and Egypt have been discussing allowing the PA to develop the gas fields off Gaza’s shores as a possible inducement to the Palestinian resistance.

In the meantime, Jordanian authorities arrested this week four Hamas members reportedly accused of transporting arms to the resisting Palestinians under occupation (would they have been arrested if they were smuggling weapons to Ukraine, one wonders?), while Egyptian authorities ordered Hamas delegations it had allowed to travel abroad two days earlier to return immediately through Egypt to Gaza or be prevented from returning altogether.

In Lebanon, the ongoing western and Arab attempts to strangle the country economically to force the hand of Hezbollah have been a major failure. Unlike Hezbollah, however, whose military and political strength far surpasses the besieged and weaker Palestinian resistance groups in Gaza and the West Bank, much pressure can and is applied regularly on the Palestinians by Arab regimes friendly with Israel (which of course includes most Arab regimes).

Still, strident efforts to pressure the Palestinian resistance economically in Gaza have also been a major failure. After more than 15 years of Israeli blockade, fully supported by the West and the Arab regimes, the resistance has only become stronger and more willing to use its strength.

A form of co-optation ?

What do all these developments mean for anti-Israel resistance in Lebanon and Palestine?

Could the recent normalization of relations with Iran and Syria – the main backers of the anti-Israel resistance groups – be a form of co-optation that is likely to lead to a reduction in their support in favour of being reintegrated politically and economically in the region, which, in turn, would ease pressure on Israeli settler-colonialism?

There are indications that this could be the case. As a quid pro quo for the resumption of relations, the Syrians have, for example, refrained from criticizing the UAE’s 2020 normalization and warm relations with Israel.

Would the Syrians and the Iranians do the same in the face of possible Saudi-Israeli normalization?

As all the countries that are normalizing with Syria and Iran are already on good terms with Israel, might one of the major purposes of reintegrating them in the region be to reduce support for anti-Israel resistance and maximize normalization with the Jewish settler-colony?

These questions are on the minds of many supporters of the resistance across the Arab world, as a recent forum in the Lebanese pro-resistance newspaper Al-Akhbar attests.

State interests vs anti-colonial struggle

Revolutionaries against feudal, capitalist, colonial and imperialist oppression have often found renewed hope for the success of their struggles when revolutions against similar oppression triumphed elsewhere. They see the commitment of new revolutionary governments to solidarity with the oppressed around the world as a harbinger of good tidings.

Indeed, such hopes were historically justified by the huge amount of help and support revolutionary states had given to those similarly oppressed elsewhere.

The Soviet Union extended such help to anti-colonial and anti-racist struggles soon after the Russian Revolution triumphed in 1917, especially through the Communist International (COMINTERN) and other solidarity organizations and educational institutions it established.

The Chinese revolutionaries also embarked on providing similar support after the triumph of their own 1949 revolution, as did the Cubans after their 1959 revolution and the Algerians after their liberation in 1962. Cuban and Algerian support for African and Palestinian anti-colonial revolutionaries, in addition to those in the Americas, was and remains a matter of principle.

What revolutionaries who banked on such support had not anticipated, however, was that the new revolutionary states had other commitments as well, not all of which necessarily aligned with their own.

The geopolitical interests of the new revolutionary states drove Vladimir Lenin, for example, to ally in the 1920s with Turkey’s Kemalists and China’s nationalists rather than with the communists of either country. The major support the Soviets gave to anti-colonial groups in Africa and Asia in the 1920s and early 1930s against British and French colonialism and to African Americans against US apartheid and racism would take an unsavoury turn for these anti-colonialists and anti-racists and their allies in the early 1930s.

As the Nazi threat intensified, the USSR-based COMINTERN advocated an alliance with the liberals and social democrats in imperialist European countries as part of a “popular front” against the Nazis. This led many revolutionaries to leave the COMINTERN and despair of Soviet support.

Many, like Caribbean-African activist George Padmore, argued that it was Britain and France that were colonizing and oppressing Africans and not Germany, yet the Soviets were demanding that anti-colonialists join forces with their colonial oppressors against Nazi Germany, which had no colonies anywhere (Germany lost its colonies after its defeat in World War I).

On the race issue, African-American writer Richard Wright opposed the pro-Soviet US Communist Party’s call on African Americans to fight in a white man’s war. Many, like Wright and Padmore, turned against the Soviets and left or were expelled from membership in communist parties.

The Soviets would resume support for anti-colonialists after World War II, but their support was always subject to Soviet state interests, especially Soviet relations with the US and the ongoing Cold War. Soviet support would flow when confrontation with the US increased due to US support of colonial and white supremacist regimes around the world, and it would ebb when the confrontation decreased, to the misfortune of anti-colonialists.

Revolutionary energies

None of this means that Iran, the main supporter of anti-Israel resistance, will be easily co-opted by the growing rapprochement and easing of US and regional sanctions due to its own state interests. But from a geostrategic angle, Iran’s support could indeed decrease if offered substantial rewards in the form of an end to sanctions, the release of frozen funds, and a lessening of US and Israeli subversive activities inside Iran.

Syria is even more vulnerable to pressure given the devastation wrought in the country by groups supported and financed by the very same countries that are now sponsoring its reintegration.

These worrisome developments must be on the minds of the strategists of the anti-Israel resistance groups, especially as Israeli aggression and settler-colonialism have increased measurably in recent months.

One thing that all these realignments are not taking into consideration, however, is the revolutionary situation in the West Bank, and more recently even in the Golan Heights, not to mention the ongoing revolutionary energies in Gaza resulting from the intensification of Israeli settler-colonialism.

Hezbollah and the Palestinian armed resistance groups have demonstrated their willingness to confront Israel in recent confrontations, whether inside the West Bank or over the Israeli-Lebanese border.

The much-celebrated young Egyptian soldier, Mohamed Salah, who became an Arab icon after he shot and killed three Israeli soldiers and injured two earlier this month, speaks volumes about Arab public attitudes towards Israel, despite their governments’ official normalization.

The trump card of the anti-Israel resistance groups against the ongoing realignments is precisely the colonized people’s readiness to confront the oppression that Israel’s aggression and colonization inflict on them daily.

Increased Israeli aggression and the readiness to resist it is precisely what remains beyond the reach of those who are engineering all these realignments in order to safeguard Israel and its colonists.

Joseph Massad is Professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University in New York. He is the author of Colonial Effects: The Making of National Identity in Jordan, Desiring Arabs, The Persistence of the Palestinian Question: Essays on Zionism and the Palestinians, and most recently Islam in Liberalism