The obsession that led to war with Hamas

Yoav Karny

The concept that Islamism is preferable to Arab nationalism has guided Israeli policy for decades, and brought upon us the disaster of October 7.

The ironies of history are almost wearying. While Yemeni Shi’ites are closing our southern gate, and carrying out ballistic tests in the skies of Eilat, I’m reminded of something that happened exactly 60 years ago, in December 1963.

In a secret meeting that took place in London, a senior representative of the Yemeni Shi’ites offered Israel a deal: Israel would help to restore deposed Shi’ite Imam Muhammad al-Badr to his throne, and, in exchange, Shi’ite Yemen would recognize Israel. Think about it, the Yemenite said, if we recognize you, Saudi Arabia and Jordan will follow in our footsteps.

One of the Israelis present at that meeting was diplomat Yaakov Herzog (uncle of Israel’s current president), who went on to become director general of the Prime Minister’s Office. The other was Mossad head Meir Amit. In his report of the meeting, Herzog wrote: "Let’s not miss the opportunity." The opportunity was not missed. Thirteen Israeli flights carrying weapons and medical supplies left bound for Yemen in the following two years, in the dead of night, and in secrecy.

Later, a Lebanese newspaper associated with Hezbollah would claim that Israel even planned to parachute "troops of Yemenite origin" into Yemen to aid the monarchists. The newspaper, Al Akhbar, also claimed that the first ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia were formed at that time, with the Saudis supposedly having asked the Israelis to come to their aid in the event of a Saudi-Egyptian war.

The secret came out when the Imam himself revealed his special relationship with Israel in an interview with an Italian newspaper. He disclosed that, in exchange for its help, he offered Israel freedom of action in "trade, finance, and mining". One of his advisers told the newspaper, "How would we have managed without Israeli credit? Who do you think paid for the arms, the ammunition, and the vehicles we have?" (These details are taken from an article by Israeli researcher Yogev Elbaz, in the periodical Israel Studies, Spring 2022).

Israel took an interest in the Yemeni Imam because of the identity of those who deposed him. They were carried on the bayonets of an Egyptian expeditionary force that, at its peak, numbered 60,000 men. At one point, in 1965, Israel seriously considered bombing the Egyptian bases at Sana’a and Hudaydah. The Air Force was in favor. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin were against.

The Imam never returned to his throne. The military balance was actually in his favor, but the Saudis betrayed him, and, in 1970, recognized the regime in Sana’a. The Imam went into exile in London, where he died in 1996. Yemen became stable for a while, until it discovered that it couldn’t get along without a permanent civil war, whether between north and south, or between Shi’ites and Sunnis. The next time, the Shi’ites did reach Sana’a, and stayed there.

The eight days of the Imam

The Egyptian role in Yemen was particularly nasty. When he was still crown prince, Al-Badr was one of the protégés of Abdel Nasser. The Egyptian dictator showered him with affection and invited him to join the United Arab Republic (UAR) that he formed between Egypt and Syria in 1958. Nasser even dragged the young Yemenite to Damascus for the signing of the UAR agreement. With Nasser’s encouragement, the crown prince traveled to Moscow and signed cooperation agreements with the Soviets.

When Al-Badr took power, he was oriented towards reform; "a march to modernity," as he put it. He was an early edition of Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. But it’s hard to know where that might have led, because Nasser didn’t let him try.

On the eighth day of his reign, the commander of his bodyguard, an Egyptian favorite, Colonel Abdullah al-Sallal, led a military coup and shelled the royal palace. The Imam was meant to have been buried under the ruins, but he managed to escape. Those close to him were slaughtered. Within two days, 43 prominent people were executed, and there began an eight-year civil war, in the course of which the Egyptians used poison gas.

Israel benefitted from Egypt’s entanglement in Yemen. Instead of training for armored combat in the desert, tens of thousands of Egyptian soldiers spent their time trying to put down guerilla fighters armed with antiquated rifles in the mountains.

The road to Tel Aviv lies via Riyadh

Israel’s flirtation with the Shi’ites of Yemen must of course be judged against the context of the times. Gamal Abdel Nasser was a sworn enemy, who had determined to wipe Israel off the map. He sat on the far side of the demilitarized Sinai peninsula, but the temporary nature of the demilitarization was clear to all onlookers. Pinning Egypt down on far-flung fronts was part of Israel’s national security doctrine.

What could Nasser have done from his stronghold in Yemen? First of all, he could have undermined regimes friendly to the West and ensured that the British colony of Aden, in the south of Yemen, which was about to become independent, would join the international camp of progress, that is, would side with the Soviet Union in the Cold War. He was said to have said, "The road to Tel Aviv lies through Riyadh and the Gulf."

Israel’s involvement in Yemen, however, is more than a historical curiosity. It has wider ramifications. It is consistent with "the concept", which will be examined under a magnifying glass in the commission of inquiry the day after the current war ends. First of all, of course, the concept will have to be defined. I propose as wide a definition as possible: not just the formula by which the probability of an attack by Hamas in Black October was calculated, but the mental and intellectual path that led Israel to the assumptions it made about Hamas’s motives and its ability to influence Hamas’s behavior.

Where are the moderate Muslims?

This is the concept, going back perhaps to the thirties of the previous century, that saw Arab nationalism as the main enemy, and looked for its antithesis: allies, or at least tolerable enemies, who would be untainted by the fanaticism of the nationalists.

Where was the antithesis to be found? In the tribes and the mosques. Of course, not in all the tribes and all the mosques. The concept began a long time before Yemen and continued for along time after it. It can be argued that, without it, the mental and political failure that allowed the collapse of Israelis’ collective and individual sense of security would never have happened.

Israel was not the first to assume the existence of an antithesis in relations with a hostile population in a colonial environment or under military occupation. "Moderate Muslims" were the heart’s desire of the Russians in the Caucasus 200 years ago, of the British in India from the seventeenth century onwards, of the Dutch in Indonesia, of the French in Algeria, and, in our own time, of the Indians in Kashmir.

The assumption of the existence of moderation proved illusory time after time, but the search for it never ceased. Russian anthropologists looked for it in the early nineteenth century, and at the end of the twentieth century, in almost the same terms, and with similar conclusions.

Arab nationalism is a fairly late ideological and political development. It started to define itself as such through confrontation with the Western powers, after their arrival in the Middle East in the final third of the nineteenth century.

Arab nationalism started to threaten the Zionist vision a hundred years ago and more. It happened in the last days of the Ottoman Empire, but especially after the abolition of the Caliphate in 1924, when civil politics, even if not devoutly secular, started to usurp the central place of religion. Arab political parties sprang up, some of then drawing inspiration from fascism and socialism.

Winning the war without winning

Nationalism and socialism set the tone of Arab politics after the coup by the Free Officers movement in Egypt in 1952. It gave fresh impetus and hope to the pan-Arab vision, in which, of course, there was no room for Israel.

In Israel’s eyes, and in the eyes of the French and British as well, Nasser was a Hitler clone. The need to stop him early brought the last imperialist grunt from Anglo-French throats. In 1956, they conspired with Israel with the aim of regaining control of the Suez Canal, which Nasser had nationalized. The "three-way conspiracy" as Arab nationalists and their supporters called it gave Israel ten years of quiet, but also brought Nasser to the pinnacle of his glory. It drove the final mail into the coffin of the European powers’ presence in the Middle East.

The strategic aim of the Suez Campaign was to overthrow Nasser. At first, it seemed a realistic goal. Militarily, it was probably attainable. But politically, it stood no chance. The dynamic of those days ought perhaps to be studied in Israel now, because it might remind someone of something. The Anglo-French forgot to ask the Americans’ permission, perhaps because they refused to acknowledge that they were no longer wartime allies. A fairly elderly US president, Dwight Eisenhower, stamped his foot, and the music stopped at once.

Nasser didn’t have to win the war in order to win the war. He only had to remain standing at the end of it. The mere fact that he did so was considered a phenomenal victory, and he became a living legend. Imagine the day on which Yahya Sinwar emerges from a tunnel, and reviews a guard of honor in ruined Palestine Square under green flags fluttering in the breeze. Is there any doubt who would be declared victor?

Black gowns replace keffiyehs

In 1957, it became clear to Israel that the Suez Campaign, successful though it was in itself from Israel’s point of view, was only the first round. The war against Nasserism became a central Israeli mission. Like any good national mission, it had an obsessional dimension. It affected every process of analysis and decision making.

The Yemeni episode illustrates the paradoxes and absurdities of the war on Arab nationalism. The broad (peripheral) alliance that Ben Gurion hoped to place at the center of his national survival strategy led Israel to develop close relationships with non-Arab and non-Muslim partners.

The closest ally was Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran. But even the Shah’s dramatic downfall didn’t persuade Israel to forego its expectations, assumptions, and reasoning. It believed that common interests with Iran, that is, halting Arab nationalism, would ultimately outweigh the influence of Shi’ite messianic religious doctrines.

In 1980, after the attack by Iraq on Iran, Israel offered its assistance to the Islamic Republic. Better Khomeini than Saddam, the Israeli experts told each other, and the Americans too. The latter, however, were not convinced, and actually helped Saddam. Israel organized a consignment of arms to Iran. The Iranians weren’t grateful for long, if at all. But Israel found it hard to part from their conceptual friendship.

In the second year of the Iran-Iraq war, Israel strangled West Beirut ("without food and water" Yitzhak Rabin advised Ariel Sharon at the time), and demanded, and obtained, the PLO’s withdrawal from Lebanon. It made delusional assumptions about the identity of those who would fill the vacuum, but shrugged its shoulders when black Shi’ite gowns replaced speckled keffiyehs. Hezbollah instead of the PLO was the title of the first act in the conceptual play. The title of the second act was Hamas instead of Fatah.

The language of the Middle East

Yossi Belin recounts a conversation with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2005, when the latter decided to disengage from the Gaza Strip. It’s a mistake, Beilin said, according to his testimony. He meant the systematic destruction of the security apparatus of the Palestinian Authority in the Gaza Strip, which preceded the disengagement, and ensured a vacuum that Hamas was delighted to fill. Sharon shrugged his shoulders. "All the Arabs are the same," he told Beilin, according to the latter’s account.

Sharon toyed with the search for alternatives to the Palestinian nationalists from his first day as minister of defense in Menachem Begin’s government. In 1981, he put Arabist Prof. Menahem Milson in charge of the Civil Administration to carry out the "village leagues" plan. The village leagues were meant to make the PLO redundant, on the basis of the anthropological-political assumption that traditional structures would serve the occupying power well; and what element is more clearly traditional and authentic than the village.

It has been tried in other places too, not always to cool radicalism; sometimes it was to inflame it. The white minority regime in South Africa tried it, when it created Bantustans for the blacks in rural areas. It didn’t work. Perhaps it might have worked if the whites hadn’t been miserly with the territory, drawing crazy maps.

Deep bitterness towards Palestinian nationalists continues to inform the decision making process in Israel, as witness Benjamin Netanyahu’s statement the other week about the need to be ready for military action against the Palestinian Authority’s security services, and as is clear from his determination not to allow the Palestinian Authority to set foot in Gaza.

Last week, he said that he had saved Israel from a Palestinian state, even though he was forced to acknowledge that he himself allowed a mini-Palestinian state to exist in the Gaza Strip. What, then, is the difference between the two Palestinian states, the one that didn’t arise, and the one that did? The one was would have been ruled by nationalists; the other was ruled by Islamists. And even though we now know for sure that there is nothing moderate about this Islamism, the concept is stronger than reality, and, in the concept, nationalism is always the main danger.

In 2002, when he embarked on Operation Defensive Shield, Prime Minister Sharon declared what he had always thought. He said it in English, for the benefit of the Americans: "Mister Arafat is an enemy." Netanyahu has not resorted to that formula, but the same notion underlies everything he says: "Mister Abbas is an enemy."

What’s the difference between the enmity of the Islamist and that of the nationalist? It’s hard to give a definite answer. It could be argued that the collapse of the secular nationalist trend facilitated the rise of a violent messianic movement, the most dangerous enemy ever, because it is devoid of any rational inhibition. Middle East experts on Israeli media talk a great deal about the need "to speak the language of the Middle East." Perhaps they mean that Israel too should stop being rational.

That is precisely the point: the recognition that only standing up to an irrational force can absolve Israel from the need to be rational. Arab nationalism was a bitter enemy that dragged Israel into three existential wars. But in the end it was prepared to become reconciled to Israel’s existence, or at least to accept it with gritted teeth. In that spirit, a defeated PLO agreed to be dragged to the White House lawn. There is no chance of meeting Sinwar or Ismail Haniyeh on any lawn. And that is the concept in a nutshell.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - - on December 24, 2023.

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd., 2023.

עוד דעות של Yoav Karny, Washington
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