Containing the Islamist Revolution

The next American president would be naïve to think that the uprisings sweeping the Middle East will be good for America. It's time to retrench and protect U.S. interests from the Islamist tidal wave.


When politicians are in election mode, they can see nothing but victory. All decisions, all considerations, are subservient to one question: how they can convince voters to check their name at the ballot box. As someone who ran for office nine times, I know what I am talking about. But for the candidate who wins the election, and for the voters, there is always the day after.

The rise of anti-Western Islamist movements — exemplified this week by the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi in Egypt’s presidential election — represents a grave threat to U.S. interests and values in the Middle East. The next president of the United States, on the day after the election in November, will have to cope with this new reality. If he is to be successful, he must develop a strategy that takes into account the new state of affairs in this region and develop a long-term strategy to unite America’s friends and confront its enemies.

Unfortunately, the new reality in the greater Middle East is bad for the United States and its allies, including my country. Most importantly, the president should recognize that Islamist forces are on the move: They have seized control from Waziristan to the Atlantic Ocean in almost uninterrupted territorial contiguity. Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Libya are at the midst of a brutal and destructive battle for their identity. Their future territorial integrity is in doubt. In these five countries, and now in Egypt, the Islamist and extremist forces have the upper hand. The media has already replaced the term "Arab Spring" with "Arab Awakening." Sooner rather than later, it will be replaced again by "Islamist takeover."

In no country are these Islamist forces friends of the United States. The extremists among them despise its culture and way of life. They deplore its status as a global superpower. The pragmatists are ready to receive U.S. financial and military aid, but will not heed U.S. advice on foreign and domestic policy.

As Islamist movements gain strength, America’s traditional allies are wavering about how to confront this new threat. They doubt the loyalty of the United States, and wonder if they will enjoy American backing and support when they need it most. They are exploring other options to protect their interests.

Nor are there any glimmers of progress when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. The Israeli government continues to expand and foster settlements in the West Bank. The Palestinians — to whom everybody, including their Arab brothers, have given a cold shoulder — are swept into a dangerous despair and growing radicalization. The lack of a serious Israeli-Palestinian dialogue is leading to a binational state, which would signal the end of the Jewish national dream and the Palestinian one.

The complete international illegitimacy of the settlement project and of the occupation aimed to protect it — combined with the combustibility of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — is a liability for U.S. foreign policy. It will remain so even if other parts of the world become a higher priority to the United States than the Middle East.

Both U.S. presidential candidates and their advisors need to begin thinking about the day after the election, and how the next American president will deal with this complex reality. As one who lives in the midst of it, here is my advice.

First, the president has to ignore the naïve illusions about an "Arab Spring." Neither romantic expectations surrounding the emerging new forces nor a guilt complex about supporting authoritarian regimes should affect practical statecraft. Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi have not been replaced by enlightened democrats. Neither will Bashar-al-Assad.

The few friends the United States has left in the Middle East should be bolstered and linked together in a new alliance. The United States can build a new regional axis to confront Iran and the radical Islamists. This axis should stretch from the Mediterranean to the Gulf, from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi. It should be based on the Gulf Cooperation Council states (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates), and Jordan, Israel, and Palestine. Call it the GCC plus JIP. It’s an alliance that would boast huge economic growth potential and substantial military strength.

The common denominators of the members of this new alliance are the need to defend themselves against Iran and radical Islam, friendship with Western democracies, and the commitment to building a region based on peace and economic cooperation.

The new axis will change the regional balance of power. It will emerge as an alternative model to the bloody chaos and economic incompetence of radical Islam, and it will draw a clear line on the region’s map that Iran’s expansion cannot cross. This model is not yet fully realized and fundamental reforms will be required to bring it to fruition. But with U.S assistance, if requested, these can be implemented wisely and without bloodshed.

Israeli-Palestinian peace is indispensable for the formation of this new regional alliance. It is not only vital if Israel wishes to strengthen its ties with the Arab Gulf states, it is a necessary step to prevent the disappearance of the democratic Jewish state that we Israelis fought for.

There are two practical obstacles blocking the way to an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, however. First, there is the need to relocate the roughly 120,000 Israeli settlers who now live in the West Bank in areas that will become a future Palestinian state. Second, there is the need to provide new jobs, proper housing, and a better future to the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians refugees inside and outside the territories who live in poverty and despair.

These two problems are not only political, they are economic. And they can be removed through an international financial initiative led by the United States.

The G-8 states should raise $5 billion per year over five years to enable Israel to relocate the West Bank settlers, mainly through the development of the Negev and Galilee areas in southern and northern Israel. Although the small core of ideological, hardline settlers will reject this incentive, the mainstream of Israeli society, as well as the law-abiding majority of settlers, will not turn it down. 

During the same five years, the wealthy Arab states, including those in the Gulf, should allocate the same amount of money for the economic benefit of the Palestinian refugees. These economic gains would not be in the form of handouts and welfare vouchers — they would be meant to spur economic development, which will create jobs, vocational education opportunities, and offer Palestinians a hope for a better future.

The flow of these funds — to the Palestinian Authority (PA), to Jordan, to Israel, possibly to Lebanon — will inevitably bring political change. They will strengthen Jordan and the PA and offer the people of Gaza a horizon of hope that Hamas can never give them.

At the same time, the people of Israel will have to choose between two outcomes: a troubled, isolated, binational state or a Jewish state on 78 percent of the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean — a state where the north and the south are as economically strong as Tel Aviv. There is no contest between these possible futures: Given these terms, an overwhelming majority of Israelis will prefer a two-state solution over a binational state, with all its negative repercussions.

For the G-8 and Arab states footing the bill, the financial burden of the combined $50 billion might seem overwhelming — particularly at this point of world economic distress. These funds, however, are an investment in a more stable Middle East — the sums are much less than the direct and indirect damage that the unresolved conflict will inflict. Just think of how much money the United States spent trying to stabilize Iraq.

Building a strong axis of moderates in the Middle East is doable, if there is the will in Washington. And if a revolutionary, secular, and democratic change occurs in Iran, then the new Iran will be a natural member of this alliance. Shia-Sunni tensions in the Middle East will subside. On the other hand, as long as the ayatollahs prevail, their regime will face an economically and militarily powerful regional front.

Today, those who deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict inspire cynicism and despair. But cynics are not the ones who change history — people with faith, vision, and courage do. This is what is expected of the man who will lead the United States after November 2012.

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