While Americans and Israelis are most unnerved by the weakness and ineffectiveness of the technical terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, our Arab allies in the region—particularly Saudi Arabia—are far more anxious about the geostrategic impact of the perceived willful abdication by the United States of its regional position that is implied by Washington’s desperation to reach a deal at almost any cost.
The Cultural Foundations of Regional Politics
To understand how unnerving America’s behavior is to our regional Arab allies, we have to understand how different the foundation of their politics is from ours. Americans believe in the universal nature of our concept of freedom. Thus, we tend to give short shrift to the influence of culture and civilization on the political mentality of states. In the Middle East, alongside the physical remains of ancient civilizations, the remains of their cultures underlie the region’s politics.
The political imagery of many Islamic cultures emanates from their nomadic, tribal and clan origins, which were hardly attenuated by 500 years of rule by the Ottoman Turks, since they too originate from a nomadic culture.
In some cases, Islam overlays an older urban culture that still shapes politics. Iran, for example, has to be understood in these terms, with the image of the poplar tree bending in the wind. The tree is the ancient core of Persian civilization and the wind is the overlay of Islam.
The core of Arabia—the Saudi Peninsula, the Hejaz (coastal Arabian Peninsula), the desert area of Iraq, Syria and Jordan and the southern littoral of the Persian Gulf—is deeply tribal in its essence. And its culture has a long history, established well before Islam.
In ancient times, the most important Arab tribes filled the power spaces between great urban civilizations rather than function as empires themselves. The period between 100 BCE and 700 CE was marked by regional competition among the global superpowers of the day—the Roman empire and its successor the Byzantine empire, Persia and Abyssinia. The Arabs were divided in their allegiance and aligned their interests accordingly. The Ghassanid Arabs, who were mostly in the western end of the Arabian regions, aligned with Rome and to some extent Abyssinia. Those in the east and the Persian Gulf littoral, the Lakhmids (the al-Manadhirha or Banu Lakhm), tended to assist the Persian empire. In the lower Hejaz there was a very substantial Jewish population, especially in the area of Medina. The Lakhmid attempt to align with Persia a century before Muhammad, in order to establish an independent realm by rebelling against Rome and Abyssinia, is essential to understanding not only the theological ferment, but also the geopolitical influences that shaped early Islamic politics.
The rise of the Arab Umayyad and the Abbasid empires did little to change the tribal essence of Arab culture. True, there were independent Arab empires anchored to the urban centers of Damascus and Baghdad, and they did absorb some traits from the very urban Byzantines and Persians. But these were rather short-lived, ahistorical anomalies. Baghdad, for example, fell in 965 CE to the Persian Buyids.
The tribal soul, rather than the ethos of urban empire, and the strategic behavior that soul engenders, are easily visible in current Arab politics. One need look no further than the most important myth cycle of the Byzantine world—Digenis Akritas (the Dual-Blooded Border Guard). It describes the border world of the Byzantine empire between the 5th to 12th centuries in the deserts of today’s Syria, Iraq and Jordan. One cannot but be impressed by the deeply rooted tribal and clan nature even of these “Byzantinized” Arab border guards.
The key lesson is that the great Arab tribes—indeed the larger Arab world—tended to operate in a distinctly tribal way within the lattices of power between geopolitical empires, which they saw as something like a “super-tribe.”
When Muhammad wrote his letters to the Persian Emperor Khosrow II, the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius, the Abyssinian King Negus Armah and a few others in 628 CE, the tone was of the tribal leader of one great theological clan calling on another to convert and align with him. Though they operated independently, the Arabs ultimately wanted to be protected and empowered by the “superpower” of the day—the ultimate strong horse. Although Islam spread across the region and much of the known world at the time, and though Arabs filled the ruling classes of many lands, the tribal soul and the absolute need to align behind the strong horse for protection and advantage persisted.
The Need for Protection
The issue of protection is, therefore, the foundation of the tribal core of Islam and its civilizations. To understand what the JPCOA means in regional terms, one must consider the dynamics of hostile relations among tribes. Specifically, a cycle of revenge and counter-revenge among tribes over a murder. Such a cycle only ends when a tribe signals that it has lifted its protective status from one of its members. That means he is fair game and can be murdered with impunity, and thus the cycle is broken. Any Arab disowned by his tribe, who believes he has transcended his tribe, or has blurred or mixed origins with no clear tribal pedigree, is equally imperiled.
This tribal essence is intertwined with early Islamic history and is tied directly to the prophet Muhammad and his personal circumstances. One cannot dissociate Islam from its historical origins nor its Arab roots. Moreover, tribal traditions and “laws” hold a special validity in Islam alongside doctrine. This makes it quite different than, for example, Catholicism, in which the validity of doctrine stands above any other consideration.
Muhammad’s message threatened the powerful tribal aristocracy of Mecca. His ideology/theology made him suspect and detached him from his fellow Meccans and their tribal elites, and they essentially decided he was to be eliminated.
And yet, Muhammad could live in Mecca safely. This was because his powerful uncle abu Talib ibn Abd al-Mutalib, the leader of the immensely powerful banu Hashem clan of the Quraysh tribe, extended his protection over Muhammad after the prophet’s parents died.
The other Qurayshi tribes became more and more irritated with Muhammad’s message, and tried to persuade abu Talib to abandon him. Then they tried to bribe him, confront him, and in the end boycott him and his family in trade and marriages. But as long as abu Talib protected Muhammad, these powerful elites could do nothing. However, the moment abu Talib died (619 CE), followed by Muhammad’s wife Khadijah bint Khuwaylid a few months later, Muhammad was alone and essentially served a death warrant. Even abu Talib’s brother abu Lahab refused to protect him. Muhammad knew he was fair game and marked for death, so he had to flee to Medina.
The U.S. and Israel as Tribes, Not Nations
In this context, the Arabs do not really understand the United States as a nation in modern, post-Westphalian European terms. They see it more as the most powerful clan on Earth, the clan of clans—the modern equivalent of the Byzantine, Persian and Abyssinian empires. Think of us as the “banu Amrika,” the “children” or tribe of Americans. We, the banu Amrika, are seen by other, weaker clans as the patron of an allied league. The region’s clans and tribes align with us and pledge their fealty in exchange for enjoying our power and the umbrella of protection that comes with it. Similarly, the Israelis are not seen in Western terms as a parliamentary democracy, but as the “banu Israil,” and its prime minister as the tribal leader of the Jews.
In tribal terms, U.S. concessions to Iran, whose declared goal is the annihilation of our local allied tribes—the banu Saud (Saudi Arabia), the banu Maktoum (UAE), banu al-Khalifa (Bahrain) and the “banu Israil” (Israel)—means that the very fact we are negotiating with Tehran and offering concessions implies that we are downgrading, or potentially even altogether lifting our umbrella of protection over them. Their lives are thus forfeit, and anyone, internal or external, who wants to kill them is permitted to do so without fear of revenge. The Saudis, Bahrainis, Emiratis and Israelis are now alone and marked with a death warrant issued by their own strong horse. Worse, the U.S. has essentially anointed Iran as the new regional power.
The Arabs in the region are reacting in uncharacteristically blunt, sharp and acerbic terms not out of pique, but out of survival. They must immediately find a new strong horse, a new patron, or they are dead. Knowing that they cannot really come to terms with Iran, their only hope is to somehow leapfrog Tehran and reach out directly to “strong horses” Russia and China, hoping to leverage oil power, financial gravity and strategic concessions to make themselves useful to Moscow and Beijing. But until they secure a protective status from those powers—which is unlikely, since they are so identified with American power in the region—they must first scramble, follow the American precedent and bend their knees to Iran, despite the knowledge that Tehran will likely not permit them to survive. They have no choice but to grovel or die, because to continue to pin their hopes on the U.S. is the path of certain death.
Israel is Different
Israel, of course, is a Western country, and the tribal construct is not inherent to its understanding of itself. Operating under a Western understanding of its own communities may work internally in regard to Israel’s Arab citizens, but it cannot work strategically in Israel’s regional position and relations. Indeed, it is dubious that it can even work internally. Mansour Abbas and his Ra’am Party did not join the outgoing coalition government out of a kumbaya-like sense of coming to terms with the legitimacy of Zionism, but because Abbas argued that the Jews are permanent and powerful. Thus, for the Arab community to secure its interests, it must accept Israeli protection and acknowledge Israel’s power, wealth and assets. It is essentially the choice the Druze leadership has made, as did the Arab tribal leaders of the town of Abu Ghosh in 1948, which has made it a developed and popular tourist village not only for foreigners, but for Israelis.
Israel may have an urban soul and a Western outlook, but it lives in the region and must understand that it too is now seen as a tribe marked for death by its patron.
The Perception of Israel as Wobbling Between Strength and Weakness
If Israel appears weak and concedes on an issue such as Jerusalem, Jewish history or Jewish rights, it compromises itself and devalues what it can deliver its Druze and Arab populations. This will lead those communities to distance themselves from Israel and even reach out to Israel’s enemies and engage in violence. This is what happened during the Oslo process and is beginning to happen again, as the Biden administration is seen as abandoning Israel. Moreover, Israel continues to see goodwill gestures as a form of strength while the Arabs see it as weakness. It is in this context that one must view the rising tide of Arab violence and disregard for Israeli or Jewish sensitivities not only in Jerusalem, but in the Israeli cities of Lod, Ramleh, Jaffa, Haifa, Beersheva and across the Negev desert. Israel is increasingly seen as orphaned by the U.S. and displaying weakness. Thus, it has become questionable as a strong horse of protection.
From a regional perspective, Israel is at a crossroads. It has three paths: It can delude itself into believing it still survives under U.S. protection, which in the context of regional perceptions means accepting its elimination. It can scramble like its Arab kin to grovel before Russia and China. Or it can leverage its raw power to emerge as the region’s strongest tribe and become a strong horse itself. The second path will fail, because Israel’s fate is inherently tied to the West. This leaves Israel the first choice of death via delusion or the third of establishing itself as a great regional power.
For the moment, Arab tribes have only the choice of the first or second paths. This means they face death, because, as with Israel, the second path will eventually fail—in regard to Iran, certainly, but also because Russia and China will never truly become their patrons. If Israel chooses the third path and emerges as the strong horse, however, then it gives the Arabs a path to survival with Israel as their new protector. But Israel must act to prove it is the strong horse.
The Abraham Accords
In many ways, it was precisely the expectation that Israel would choose the third path that led the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco—and possibly soon the Saudis—to make peace with Israel. Moreover, it is precisely the tribal foundations of that peace, rather than Islamic doctrine, that undergird the Abraham Accords. There was no theological revolution that led to Abu Dhabi becoming Zionist. It was the sober politics of survival and the geopolitics of protection.
But it is also a sign of the extreme dangers Israel faced in navigating its amicable relations with the United States and managing its own internal coalition demands over the last few months.
There were two Arab-Israeli summits in March this year. One was in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, and excluded the United States. The second in Sde Boker, Israel did include the U.S. The first revolved around Arab-Israeli dynamics that were unimaginable only a few years ago, not only in their warmth, but the seriousness of a common strategic purpose. This purpose is to establish an independent regional cooperative structure that deals with Iran and global crises in unison—such as impending grain and raw materials shortages. It was symbolized perfectly by the astonishing and moving speech by the UAE’s foreign minister, His Excellency Shaykh Abdallah bin Zayid, in which he expressed his regret for knowing so little about Israel and his determination to remedy that. The summit marked the American irrelevance resulting from its collapse as the strong horse.
The American Position
The second summit was a U.S.-Israeli-Arab regional meeting, at which America attempted to redefine the agenda and interject itself between Israelis and Arabs by reintroducing the Palestinian issue in the implied framework of Israeli concessions to the Palestinian Authority. In truth, the summit should have been an Israeli-Arab summit only, a continuation of the Sharm El-Sheikh summit, with no Americans. Its purpose should have been strategic planning among regional partners for a period of American absence or even hostility.
Bringing in the United States changed the summit’s dynamics and transformed that part of the summit into a catastrophe. The Biden team was empowered to reassert its primary goals of trying to maintain rapidly dissipating American control over regional allies; sabotaging the operational cooperation emerging among regional partners on an effective strategy of confrontation and even war against Iran; and reasserting America’s obsession with the Palestinian issue.
The statement by Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the summit not only captured those aims perfectly, but also humiliated the Israeli host and registered a partisan dig at the previous administration by putting forward the idea that the Abraham Accords were neither significant nor real peace. Blinken said the “agreements are not a substitute for progress between Palestinians and Israelis.”
This put Israel on the defensive by publicly blaming and shaming it in front of its regional partners. Blinken and former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s joint press conference preceding the summit made no mention of Palestinian terror (which had already claimed four elderly Israelis the day before), the P.A.’s refusal to negotiate with the Israelis directly for the past decade, the constant incitement that led to a dangerous war last year and threatens an internal uprising of Israeli Arabs and the persistence of the P.A.’s pay-to-slay policy. The focus, stated bluntly, was “curbing settlement expansion, settler violence and halting evictions of Palestinians from their homes.” U.S. behavior tarnished Israel’s image as a strong horse worthy of alliance and reduced it to groveling for American approval.
Even more disturbing was the news that Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz—who embodies the collective Israeli defense establishment and its strategic “concept”—even tried to bring in P.A. leader Mahmoud Abbas and King Abdullah of Jordan, who is increasingly positioning himself as a champion of Palestinian Arab nationalism. Gantz’s failed intervention reveals a depth of misunderstanding of regional political and geo-strategic dynamics that would be mind-numbing if it were not so horrifying.
The second summit could have been salvaged, however, had Israel rebuffed the American challenge and signaled to its Arab interlocutors that Israel was choosing to assert itself as a strong horse and regional power even in the absence of American acquiescence or approval. Had Prime Minister Bennett issued a rebuke of Secretary Blinken in public, it would have demonstrated to the Arabs in attendance that Israel was on the same page as they, and it is so strong an ally and so self-confident that it can stand on its own, even in tension with the American administration.
It is tempting to compare the faltering of the United States’ regional stature to the collapse of the British and French positions in the late 1950s and 1960s, which was indeed catastrophic. It exposed the region to Soviet penetration and triggered a new age of indigenously-inspired radical challenges to traditional leaderships, the long-term effects of which we continue to suffer.
And yet, even that cataclysm will pale in comparison to the current collapse of the United States’ position. The British and French retreat six decades ago seamlessly transitioned to the parallel rise of American power, which to a large extent compensated for the retreat’s negative effects. There is no global force that can replace the Americans other than our adversaries, China or Russia.
Regionally, Israel may be able to fill the void left by the United States and cushion the impending collapse of American power. Perhaps it can help our jilted allies survive, preserve some of our regional interests, check our regional adversaries and prevent our global opponents from seizing full control over the region.
But while Israel is powerful, it is not a global superpower. What is required is an American administration that regains its senses and returns to leadership and the protection of its regional allies.
David Wurmser, Ph.D. is a senior analyst and director of the Project on Global anti-Semitism and the U.S.-Israel Relationship at the Center for Security Policy, and a senior fellow at the Kohelet Policy Forum. He served as Middle East advisor to former Vice President Dick Cheney.
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