The strategic divide in today’s Middle East between fanaticism and pragmatism outweighs the sectarian divisions of the past. While the latter still play a role, they no longer override vital national interests the way they used to in much of the region. This development bodes well for the future and suggests a way for moderate forces to thwart threats to the region’s stability and security.
As demonstrated by the upsurge of jihadi terrorism in Western capitals and the enormous refugee crises of recent years, these threats are ultimately global.
To properly understand the region’s dynamics and to effectively address the threats to its security, one needs to set aside outdated modes of thinking and realize that many of the traditional sectarian divisions have become blurred.
We see the blurring of old lines in both the fanatic and pragmatic quarters. Sunni Arab terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State group, al-Qaida and Hamas have far more in common with the Persian Shiite regime of Iran and its Shia Arab proxy, Hezbollah, than with the governments and societies of most Sunni Arab states.
While the former uphold a violent, medieval, anti-Western worldview, the latter have a pro-Western approach, prioritizing stability, economic growth and security. In this, these Arab states are closer to each other, to the Kurds and to the Christian communities in the Middle East than to the extremist elements that ostensibly share their cultural and historical background.
And, of course, they are closer to Israel.
Ironically, the spread of revolutionary fanaticism led by Iran’s fundamentalist regime has boosted pragmatism in other quarters. Iran’s brazen attempt to create two Shia corridors — one stretching from Iran, through Iraq and Syria, to Lebanon, and the second stretching around the Persian Gulf from Bahrain to the Houthis in Yemen — has sparked an understandable pushback from Arab governments throughout the region.
Aside from being necessary to thwart Iran, this consolidation of sober pragmatism could ultimately help the region break free of its chronic stagnation and underdevelopment. For too long, the genuine interests of the region’s states and populations — security, sustainable economic development, modernization, scientific and technological advance — have been subordinated to the excesses of extremist ideologies.
Israel has long hoped to see the spread of a pragmatic mentality in the region and the attendant emergence of interest-driven policies, such as those that led to peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan. Such a development has the potential to ultimately resolve Israel’s relations with all of our neighbors and to base regional security on common interests.
The harm of fanaticism is amply apparent in the Palestinian arena. Generations of Palestinian leaders have led their people astray by dogmatic adherence to unrealistic goals, territorial and otherwise. Were a genuinely pragmatic Palestinian leadership to emerge, we could advance realistic solutions to our disputed issues. The malaise of fanaticism hasn’t yet disappeared from Palestinian society, and until it does it is difficult to see a change for the better.
On the other hand, we see much evidence of sober thinking elsewhere in the region, notably among the Gulf states. Perhaps the clearest example is Saudi Arabia, whose leadership is leading a bold and visionary policy that doesn’t balk from identifying Iran as the overall regional threat and is forthrightly confronting its terrorist affiliates — the Houthis, Hezbollah and Hamas. By prioritizing modernization, liberalization and infrastructural investment, the Saudi government is focusing on its genuine, vital interests. All of these are, in fact, key regional interests.
As in the past, the region’s fanatic elements — prominently Hezbollah and Iran — have been signaling their alarm at the growing convergence of interests between the forces of pragmatism. But they are fighting against a growing tide. More and more leaders in the region understand that our common future lies in pragmatism, not fanaticism.
The more we, the region’s pragmatic forces, combine our energies to defeat our fanatic enemies, the better able we will be to provide for the region’s security and stability and to advance our respective national interests.
Avigdor Liberman is the Israeli minister of defense.