Can my enemy's enemy be my friend?

by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi and Phillip Smyth

A recurring question of the past year has been whether Israel can come out of the unrest of the "Arab Spring" with any new allies. The point is hardly immaterial: The future of Israel's peace treaty with Egypt hangs in the balance, as Egyptian political parties call for a referendum on the Camp David Accords. Observers also point to the possibility of a revolt against Hashemite rule in Amman instigated by Bedouin tribes and/or Palestinians in Jordan. This too could derail that country's peace treaty with Israel.
Conventional wisdom has generally said that Israel can attain regional support by way of an alliance or coalition of minorities. From the 1950s through the 1980s, Israel engaged in the so-called "strategy of the periphery," forging ties with minority groups in enemy states ‏(such as the Maronites in Lebanon and Kurds in Iraq‏). Additionally, Israel entered into a military alliance with Turkey, and a number of sub-Saharan African countries were engaged by Israel to counter the threat of pan-Arabism.
The concept of an alliance among regional minorities sounds like an attractive proposition. But is it realistic?
The evidence appears to suggest otherwise.
Start with the case of Syria. Recently, such commentators as Michael Young, of Lebanon's Daily Star, have suggested that the Alawites, who have under the Assad dynasty dominated the upper ranks of that country's security forces and government, could try to salvage some form of self-rule in the form of a mini-state in the northwest of Syria, should the regime lose control over Damascus.
As far back as 2002, Middle East scholar Mordechai Nisan wrote: "It is not impossible, aside from the rhetoric of animosity gushing from Damascus against Israel, that the compelling reality of a common condition can awaken the possibility of Jewish-Alawite cooperation in the future. Perhaps this will surface when the Alawites fall from power and return to their classic minority vulnerability."
In this context, on the basis of the principle that "my enemy's enemy is my friend," many Israelis are hoping for such an alliance. For example, in January, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz stated that Israel was prepared to take in Alawite refugees from Syria in the event of outright sectarian civil war.
Undoubtedly, he was aiming to lay the foundations for cordial relations between Israel and the Alawite community at large.
However, the reasoning for courting the Alawites can only be described as bordering on the realm of fantasy. As they share a land border with Hezbollah-controlled territory, there is no reason to think that the Alawites would not continue to rely on their long-standing allies − namely, Iran and Hezbollah, who perceive them to be fellow Shia − to prop up this rump state.
When many Israelis think of a loyal minority ally, the country's Druze often come to mind. Following the 1967 Six-Day War, some Israelis envisioned a Druze state that would encompass the Golan Heights and Syria's Jabal Druze. Policy makers imagined that state serving as a buffer against Syria.
However, there was significant factionalism and differing interests within the Israeli and Syrian Druze communities. When some Golan Druze leaders were approached, they leaked the plans to Syrian intelligence, effectively killing the prospective Druze entity.
Another group touted as potential allies of Israel in the region are the Christians. It is apparent that the Arab Spring has brought few signs of a bright future for them. Last year, around 200,000 Copts fled Egypt in the wake of rising mob attacks on churches and Coptic villages. In the wake of countless bombings and kidnappings, most of Iraq's Christians too have left the country. Many Syrian Christians fled the heavy fighting in Homs.
The chances of a Christian state, let alone a pro-Israel polity, in the Middle East are virtually zero. Perhaps the biggest obstacle to a state is the fact that Christians suffer from intra-sectarian conflicts. Frequently, regional Christian sects have adopted their own particular nationalist identities that clash with the ethnic beliefs of their coreligionists.
During Israel's 1982 intervention in Lebanon, a state of minorities, it engaged in creating political and military alliances with the Christians, Druze and even Shi'ite Muslims. Part of the reason Israel invaded Lebanon was to install a pro-Israel minority Christian leadership. After the assassination of pro-Israel Maronite leader Bashir Gemeyal, though, Israel's alliance with the Christians crumbled. Instead of ushering in a new era of minority cooperation, Israel was caught in an anarchic meat grinder, in which minority was pitted against minority.
Minority alliances per se shouldn't be shunned, but Israel should pursue regional alliances based more on realism than on the perception of shared oppression, with its need to create a united and mutually beneficial minority front against an almost monolithic Arab-Islamic foe ‏(essentially a utopian dream‏). With Iran's increased belligerence and nuclear ambitions, Israel's Sunni Arab enemies of old, for example, are seeing their interests dovetail with Israel's.
Predicating partnerships simply on the basis of minority status doesn't reflect the complex and often conflicting minority societal, ideological and political positions. When Bashir Gemeyal was questioned about his cooperation with Jerusalem he answered, "In politics there is nothing permanent, you don't have permanent allies and permanent enemies, we are taking the maximum advantage." Perhaps it's time for Jerusalem to adopt the same view.
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University, and an adjunct fellow at the Middle East Forum. Phillip Smyth is a journalist and researcher specializing in Middle Eastern affairs. He travels regularly to the region.