The current round of hostilities between Israel and its enemies differs from prior ones in that it’s not an Arab-Israeli war, but one that pits Iran and its Islamist proxies, Hamas and Hezbullah, against Israel.
This points, first, to the increasing power of radical Islam. When Israeli forces last confronted on this scale a terrorist group in Lebanon in 1982, it fought the Palestine Liberation Organization, a nationalist-leftist organization backed by the Soviet Union and the Arab states. Now, Hezbullah seeks to apply Islamic law and to eliminate Israel through jihad, with the Islamic Republic of Iran looming in the background, feverishly building nuclear weapons.
Non-Islamist Arabs and Muslims find themselves sidelined. Fear of Islamist advances – whether subversion in their own countries or aggression from Tehran – finds them facing roughly the same demons as does Israel. As a result, their reflexive anti-Zionist response has been held in check. However fleetingly, what the Jerusalem Post‘s Khaled Abu Toameh calls “an anti-Hezbollah coalition,” one implicitly favorable to Israel, has come into existence.
It began on July 13 with a startling Saudi statement condemning “rash adventures” that created “a gravely dangerous situation.” Revealingly, Riyadh complained about Arab countries being exposed to destruction “with those countries having no say.” The kingdom concluded that “these elements alone bear the full responsibility of these irresponsible acts and should alone shoulder the burden of ending the crisis they have created.” George W. Bush’s spokesman, Tony Snow, a day later described the president as “pleased” by the statement.
On July 15, the Saudis and several other Arab states at an emergency Arab League meeting condemned Hezbullah by name for its “unexpected, inappropriate and irresponsible acts.” On July 17, Jordan’s King Abdullah warned against “adventures that do not serve Arab interests.”
A number of commentators began to take up the same argument, most notably Ahmed Al-Jarallah, editor-in-chief of Kuwait’s Arab Times, author of one of the most remarkable sentences ever published in an Arab newspaper: “The operations of Israel in Gaza and Lebanon are in the interest of people of Arab countries and the international community.” Interviewed on Dream2 television, Khaled Salah, an Egyptian journalist, condemned Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbullah: “Arab blood and the blood of Lebanese children is much more precious than raising [Hezbullah’s] yellow flags and pictures of [Iran’s Supreme Leader] Khamene’i.”
A leading Wahhabi figure in Saudi Arabia even declared it unlawful for Sunni Muslims to support, supplicate for, or join Hizbullah. No major Arab oil-exporting state appears to have any intention to withhold its oil or gas exports out of solidarity with Hizbullah.
Many Lebanese expressed satisfaction that the arrogant and reckless Hizbullah organization was under assault. One Lebanese politician privately confided to Michael Young of Beirut’s Daily Star that “Israel must not stop now … for things to get better in Lebanon, Nasrallah must be weakened further.” The prime minister, Fuad Saniora, was quoted complaining about Hizbullah having become “a state within a state.” A BBC report quoted a resident of the Lebanese Christian town of Bikfaya estimating that 95 percent of the town’s population is furious at Hizbullah.
The Palestinian Legislative Council expressed its dismay at these muted Arab reactions, while a women’s group burned flags of Arab countries on Gaza’s streets. Hassan Nasrallah complained that “Some Arabs encouraged Israel to continue fighting” and blamed them for extending the war’s duration.
Surveying this opinion, Youssef Ibrahim wrote in his New York Sun column of an “intifada” against the “little turbaned, bearded men” and a resounding “no” to Hizbullah’s effort to start an all-out war with Israel. He concluded that “Israel is finding, to its surprise, that a vast, not-so-silent majority of Arabs agrees that enough is enough.”
One hopes that Ibrahim is right, but I am cautious. First, Hizbullah still enjoys wide support. Second, these criticisms could well be abandoned as popular anger at Israel mounts or the crisis passes. Finally, as Michael Rubin notes in the Wall Street Journal, coolness toward Hizbullah does not imply acceptance of Israel: “There is no change of heart in Riyadh, Cairo or Kuwait.” Specifically, Saudi princes still fund Islamist terrorism.
Arab disavowal of Hizbullah represents not a platform on which to build, only a welcome wisp of reality in an era of irrationality.