The challenge in the post-Cold War era is to redefine Arab wants and needs instead of acquiescing to Iranian and Turkish interests. Image Credit: Illustration: Gulf News

It was easy to dominate the Arab World during the Cold War. So-called Eastern powers pretended to share revolutionary zeal that was alien, coupled with massive sales of mediocre weapons. Western countries fared no better. They relied on three non-Arab surrogates Iran, Turkey and Israel (who were allies and maintain close relations despite everything that one hears) to sustain a privileged hegemony over the one thing that really mattered then as now: oil. East and West alike benefited from Arab complacency.

With two of these non-Arab powers distancing themselves from the third, along with a significant leadership void within the Arab world, what are the post-Cold War prospects for meaningful pan-Arabism that may serve fundamental interests?

Inasmuch as the single most important development in the second half of the 20th century was the epochal 1979 Islamic Revolution, Washington and London reluctantly acquiesced to a small rearmament of key Arab allies. Needless to say that compromised western powers insisted on a proviso in their bilateral agreements, namely that none of the qualitatively deprived arms would ever be used against Israel, which eliminated a military solution to the festering conflict.

At the height of the Cold War, Iran and Turkey sided with Israel against the Arabs, with Tehran selling Tel Aviv precious oil and Ankara extending valuable diplomatic recognition (it was the first Muslim country to do so). Bilateral trade between Turkey and Israel topped $2.5 billion (Dh9.2 billion) in 2009, which included sophisticated arms deals as well as healthy tourist exchanges. After the revolution, Tehran altered its policies towards Tel Aviv, though established links were quietly nurtured. Successive Iranian leaders, starting with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, focused on the Arab-Israeli arena to expand their leadership credentials. The relatively effortless feat occurred at a time when Arab leaders engaged in interminable divisiveness, best illustrated by invasions, occupations, and laughable internal performances.

Filling the void

Turkey's growing prominence was likewise due to steady Egyptian and Saudi weaknesses, as Ankara enhanced its credibility by articulating selective democratisation. Consecutive Turkish governments, including military dictatorships, managed to balance serious contradictions between modernity and secularism without reneging on society's conservative Sunni values. With an ascendant Shiite Iran mired in a putative cataclysm with western powers, Turkey correctly identified a unique opportunity, and jumped in.

It was, therefore, not surprising that Turkey renewed its bid to lead the Muslim world. In fact, Ankara's recent fascination with Palestine, especially the fate of a million-plus human beings locked-up like cattle in Gaza, may be partly explained by this aim. Still, Turkey wrongly assumed that its mild criticisms of Israeli policies would receive a fair hearing, ostensibly as payback for its past docility. In the event, Ankara realised that its mediation efforts accomplished little, with no prospects for improvements as various setbacks dramatically shifted its outlook.

For their parts, western governments faced existential dilemmas vis-à-vis Iran and Turkey, because the former was determined to acquire a nuclear capability, whereas the latter, a member of Nato, expressed sympathy towards Hamas. For the first time ever, a Nato member's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was not shy to criticise Israel, embarking on what some considered pure demagoguery. Naturally, this was entirely the result of accumulated Israeli as well as western errors, most recently after a breach of international law. Only Robert Fisk, writing in The Independent, mustered his legendary courage to highlight the hypocrisy that sanctimonious officials engage in by condemning Somali pirates, while keeping quiet about their Israeli counterparts.

Beyond the dead and injured, the tragedy of this new Turkish-Israeli crisis was in changing the subject, away from the Gaza blockade and the need for an overall settlement of the festering Palestine issue. Who remembers the November 2004 George W. Bush goal to ensure "the creation of a peaceful, democratic Palestinian state alongside Israel" before January 20, 2009? Instead of a state, he and his successor left it to the Israelis to determine if and when such an outcome would ever occur, and it was the sum total of such complacency that propelled countries like Iran and Turkey to adopt causes that were not theirs and right wrongs that they cannot possibly achieve.

Iran and Turkey thus engaged in rhetoric that damaged both Palestine and the Arab world.

How helpful is an Erdogan comment that Israel ought to be punished for state terrorism? What value is President Abdullah Gul adding when he declares: "Turkey will never forgive this attack"? Has Ankara broken diplomatic relations or has it frozen its significant military purchases from Israel?

There is little doubt that Iran and Turkey are now in the eye of the storm, and if both hijacked core Arab causes, it was because Arab leaders let them.

The challenge in the post-Cold War era is to redefine Arab wants and needs instead of acquiescing to Iranian and Turkish interests. To be sure, Arab nationalism would permit neither an "Iranification" nor a "Turkification", especially since a vast majority of Arabs accepted modest reconstructions under the nation-state system. Sadly, Arabs have fallen back to narrow tribal and ethnic definitions, which serve the interests of those who divide to rule. Which Arab nation will now end the post-Cold War hostility to pan-Arabism?

Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is a commentator and author of several books on Gulf affairs.