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Dore Gold: Diplomacy after the Arab uprisings

Israel, West must see new regional Islamic leaderships as they really are, not as what they hope them to be.

By DORE GOLD, posted December 20, 2011

Writing for a CNBC website on December 8 about the Arab uprisings of 2011, former Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar of Spain made a stunning revelation about one of the key leaders who has risen in the Libyan power structure after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, Abdul Hakim Belhadj. According to Aznar, Belhadj was one of the suspects involved in the Madrid train bombing of 2004, that left 192 people dead and over 2,000 wounded.

Moreover, other noted Islamists were a part of the new Libyan leadership, like Sheikh Ali Salibi, whom the Washington Post this month labeled as "the likely architect of the new Libya." Salibi lived for many years in exile in Qatar, where he was a close associate of Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, the spiritual head of the global Muslim Brotherhood.

Did anyone know any of this earlier?

The story of Belhadj is only one item in a much broader trend in 2011 that publicists liked to call "the Arab spring." However, the fall of the old regimes in Tunisia, Libya, and in Egypt led to their replacement with Islamist parties associated in one way or another with the Muslim Brotherhood. According to his biographer, the Tunisian Islamist leader, Rached Ghannouchi acquired a world view, influenced by the writings of Muslim Brotherhood theorists like Sayyed Qutb. Looking at these developments, a Saudi commentator in al-Sharq al-Awsat renamed this region-wide revolution the "Muslim Brotherhood Spring."

One year of these historic changes began to occur, it is clear that they pose a number of
challenges for Western diplomacy and perhaps even illustrate some of its most glaring flaws in the past year. They will have direct implications for Israeli diplomacy in 2012.


Given that movements that were linked to the Muslim Brotherhood were on the ascendancy, the most fundamental question was whether leaders in the West understood what this organization represented. At the beginning of February 2011, the US Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, appeared before the Intelligence Committee of the US House of Representatives. Since the re-organization of America's intelligence structure over the last decade, Clapper is the one who briefs President Barack Obama about what the key intelligence agencies are thinking.

Asked about the threat that the Muslim Brotherhood posed, Clapper answered that in Egypt it was a "heterogeneous group" that was "largely secular," adding that it "eschewed violence." Yet less than three months earlier on December 23, 2010, its "Supreme Guide" in Egypt, Muhammad Badi, provided a clear sense of the organization's thinking when he issued one of his weekly messages, albeit in Arabic, on the Muslim Brotherhood website, Ikhwanonline. With respect to Israel, he wrote "the jihad for the return of the land is an obligatory commandment incumbent on the entire Arab and Islamic nation."

Clapper's spokesman later corrected his remarks on his website. But his answer nonetheless reflected a trend in the thinking on the part of part of the foreign policy establishments in the US and in Britain, which saw the Muslim Brotherhood as a moderating force and not as the militant movement, in which Khalid Shaikh Muhammad, the mastermind of 9/11 and Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current head of al- Qaeda, grew.

This tendency continues. For example, on December 7, Nicholas Kristof wrote an op-ed in the New York Times, entitled "Joining a Dinner in a Muslim Brotherhood Home." The article sought to reassure readers about the organization's intentions. Then, on December 10, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator John Kerry (DMass.) met with three leaders from the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party in Egypt. He was accompanied by the US ambassador to Egypt, Anne Paterson.

DID THE West understand the movement that was rising and that they were tip-toing to embrace? The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928 by an Egyptian schoolteacher, Hasan al-Banna, whose ideology still influences its adherents through his writings which appear on websites in multiple languages. Al-Banna wrote in the interwar period that the Islamic flag must again be raised in those lands that harbored Islam in the past: "Thus Andalusia (Spain), Sicily, the Balkans, the Italian coast, as well as the islands of the Mediterranean, are all Muslim colonies, and they must return to the embrace of Islam." He added that "It is our right to bring back the glories of the Islamic Empire."

It is noteworthy that Muhammad Badi' frequently cites al-Banna's ideas and asserted this year that his movement was dedicated to the views that he expressed. "without any doubt or obfuscation." Indeed, al-Banna's ideas were also echoed by Badie's predecessor, Muhammad Akef, who declared in 2004 "his complete faith that Islam will invade Europe and America" though he added the caveat that Westerners would join Islam by conviction. Prior to 9/11. The Muslim Brotherhood's Londonbased publication, Risalat al-Ikhwan, featured on its masthead the slogan: "Our mission: world domination."


What are the practical implications of the rise of regimes tied to the Muslim Brotherhood, which back these kinds of ideologies? The first time a Muslim Brotherhood regime ruled an Arab state was the early 1990's, when Sudan was led by Hasan Turabi. There were two features of Sudanese policy at the time. First, Sudan hosted some of the worst terrorist organizations, like Hamas, which was permitted to set up training camps on Sudanese soil. Prior to 1995, when he arrived in Afghanistan, Sudan was where Osama bin Laden set up his principle base of operations.

Second, Turabi created a strategic alliance with Iran, which dispatched its Revolutionary Guards to Port Sudan to establish a naval base along the Red Sea.

Today there are different views inside the Muslim Brotherhood about whether it should be tied to Iran. As a result of the 2006 Second Lebanon War, many members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt advocated improved ties with Iran. Today, with Iran supporting Bashar Assad's war on the Syrian opposition, which includes a large number of Muslim Brotherhood members, anti-Iranian sentiments have arisen, along with greater identification with Turkey. But should Iran militarily become the dominant power in the region during the years ahead then the Muslim Brotherhood will undoubtedly move in that direction.


Despite the ideological orientation of the Muslim Brotherhood, the new leaders taking power in the months ahead will seek cooperation with the West in the short term, given their first priority will be for their states to economically recover. Egypt, for example will need tourism and foreign investments.

This not only reduces the risks of armed conflict, but it also hands the US and Europe a great deal of leverage. Assuming the West will seek ties with many of these new regimes, it must not embrace them unconditionally.

Take the case of Hamas, which is the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Quartet has insisted that before it agrees to talk to Hamas, the latter must renounce terrorism, accept all past agreements, and accept Israel's right to exist. In other words, Western diplomacy introduced certain standards that must be met by Hamas, before it can be accepted as a legitimate diplomatic interlocutor. These standards should equally be introduced when considering relations with regimes that have a Muslim Brotherhood component.

With respect to Israel, it must exercise extreme caution in the period ahead. No one can guarantee that half the regimes surrounding it will even be there in a few years. Traditional Israeli security interests since the days of Yitzhak Rabin, like preserving control of the Jordan Valley defense line, acquire greater importance when regimes cannot be relied upon in the future as in the past to stem the freedom of movement of terrorist organizations armed with the most advanced weapons that are now flooding the market. This is all the more the case when Iran is exploiting these regional vulnerabilities, to help its proxy forces around Israel.


The Arab uprisings initially appeared as a youthful and idealistic movement to defeat tyranny and spread democracy. But those who began these movements, armed with the latest social media, soon gave way to those who used far more effectively the main force for political mobilization: the mosque. It came as no surprise that the momentum against the old regimes of the Middle East gained strength on Fridays, when the mosques were full. This phenomenon led to the emergence of an Islamist winter.

Israel, like its allies, must gain an accurate picture of the new world that is arising around it. The fragmentation of neighboring states is a possibility that Israel will need to consider. Regardless, the West also needs to know who it is dealing with and not rely on broad-brushed characterizations about its new Middle Eastern partners that have not been thought through, but fit well into pre-conceived ideological positions that are simply untrue.

The writer is the president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and served as Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, 1997-1999.

This article first appeared in the Jerusalem Post 


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