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Ukraine's Bumpy Road to Normalcy

The most striking thing about Lviv, Kyiv, and a number of small towns and villages I’ve recently visited is their normalcy. Walk down the streets or dirt roads and you’d never think Ukraine’s economy is depressed and that the country is at war. A village church I visit is full of people dressed in their Sunday best. Lviv’s cafes are packed. Kyiv’s main drag, the Khreshchatyk, is as fashionable as before Russia’s onslaught.

But that’s just the outward appearance. Talk to people and their current or impending economic travails—inflation, stagnant wages, corruption, and the growing cost of gas and electricity—quickly come to the fore. Talk a little longer and the war in the east soon becomes a topic of conversation.

The appearance of normalcy is both a façade and a coping mechanism. People know full well that times are hard and that soldiers are dying—usually one or two a day, sometimes up to four or five a day. They know that Vladimir Putin and his proxies are threatening to unleash a devastating war against Ukraine and kill thousands more.

The Background of a Lynching

Earlier this week, on the Golan Heights, an enraged mob assaulted an ambulance and attacked two wounded men inside with rocks, clubs, and chains, killing one and seriously wounding another.

The ambulance was Israeli. The wounded men were Arab fighters from Syria. The assailants were also Arabs, though they were Druze rather than Muslims.

Several readers have emailed and asked me to explain this, so I assume others are also scratching their heads. I don’t have all the answers. What kind of person attacks an ambulance? I can easily imagine it’s someone who is steeped in some real political craziness, is emotionally unstable, and has some kind of personality disorder. But a mob mentality sometimes sets in with people who are otherwise psychologically normal. I can’t psychoanalyze these people.

I can, however, explain some of the background that might shine some light on what happened and why.

The Druze are a small and secretive religious minority that lives in Lebanon, Syria, and Israel. They make up but a fraction of the population in each country and are too small to form their own state.

The Middle East is a rough part of the world, and the Druze are surrounded by potential hostiles, so they made a collective decision long ago to be loyal to and curry favor with whoever is in charge in the place where they live. It’s the only way they can guarantee their own safety.

The Druze in Israel, then, are committed Zionists. The Druze in Syria are wholly on side with Bashar al-Assad. The Lebanese Druze are constantly shifting with Lebanon’s kaleidoscopic political landscape.

The Druze on the Golan Heights—a chunk of Syria captured by the Israelis in the 1967 war and occupied ever since—divide their loyalty between Jerusalem and Damascus. If Israel were to formally annex the Golan Heights, and if Syria were to accept that annexation, they would, in all likelihood, become committed Zionists like the rest of the Druze in Israel proper. But the Golan Heights may one day be given back to Syria, so the Druze who live there retain some of their Syrian identity and don’t wish to be seen as enemies of the Assad regime. That would endanger them. The Israelis have offered these people citizenship, and some have gladly accepted it, but others think it’s neither safe nor desirable.

Druze in each country are keenly concerned with the well-being of Druze in the other countries, politics be damned.

That’s the background, the context.

So when an Israeli ambulance drove down the street carrying wounded fighters from the Free Syrian Army, some of the local Druze fingered those people as enemies. They are a potential threat to the continued existence of their Druze brethren on the other side of the border since a victory by the Free Syrian Army would lead to the downfall of Assad and the possible enthronement of Al Qaeda or ISIS, whom the Druze couldn’t curry favor with even if they wanted to without abandoning their religion and converted to Islam at gunpoint.

So some of them decided to attack the ambulance and take a perceived enemy or two off the board even as the Israelis were trying to save them.

It’s a shame in so many ways. Attacking an ambulance and killing the wounded—even if ISIS fighters were inside—can only be described as a lynching. If the act were carried out by a conventional army, it would be war crime.

That ambulance was carrying Syrians to a hospital in northern Israel where Arab and Jewish doctors and nurses work alongside each other to save wounded and sick Arabs and Jews. If the entire Middle East were like those northern Israeli hospitals, the entire Middle East would be a radically different place.

Those hospitals, unfortunately, are exceptional. Violence against “the other,” sadly, is not.

The Druze are generally good people. As minorities, they live somewhat precariously and trend toward moderation. Don’t hold this ugly incident against all of them.

Fiasco for China’s Allies in Hong Kong

On Tuesday, Hong Kong’s wealthiest businessman, Li Ka-shing, said he was “very disappointed” over the Hong Kong government’s failure to enact its reform package for the 2017 election of the chief executive, the city’s top political official. When asked who was responsible for what is now widely called a fiasco, Li ducked the question. “Everyone in Hong Kong is discussing this,” he said.

He’s right. Just about everybody in Hong Kong is talking about the events that unfolded last Thursday in Legco, as the city’s Legislative Council is known. The legislators, after a 20-month drama, finally voted on China’s proposal to “reform” the procedures for the election of the chief executive.

Turkey Chooses ISIS Over the Kurds

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is furious that the Kurds in Syria are advancing against ISIS.

Ponder the ramifications of that sentence.

Turkey is a member of NATO. On paper, at least, it’s one of America’s greatest allies. ISIS, meanwhile, is the world’s most deranged army of psychopaths. Even Al Qaeda disowns it. The Kurds, though, are America’s most reliable allies in the Middle East alongside the Israelis.

So our nominal ally thinks it’s a problem when one of our real allies makes gains against the most vicious terrorist army on the planet.

We’ve been arguing amongst ourselves here in America about which is worse, the Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah axis or ISIS. I can make a case either way. Iran is the world’s biggest state sponsor of terrorism, but ISIS is more barbaric than any of Iran’s proxies. ISIS is more likely to kill Americans in America, but it may not be possible to defeat them until after the Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah axis is defanged because a substantial percentage of the Middle East’s Sunni Arabs see it as the only thing standing between them and Iranian overlordship.

There’s no obvious answer. We can have a healthy, reasonable, civil debate about how to proceed.

In Turkey, however, the conversation is different. The question over there is whether ISIS or the Kurds are the lesser of evils.

Twenty five percent of Turkey’s population is Kurdish, and Erdogan—like most of his ethnic Turkish countrymen—are terrified that Turkey may lose a huge swath of its territory if Syrian Kurdistan liberates itself alongside Iraqi Kurdistan. Turkish Kurdistan could very well be the next domino.

They are not crazy to fear this.

But they’re reacting by treating as ISIS the lesser of evils. If ISIS can keep the Kurds down, Turkey’s territorial integrity is more secure.

“ISIS commanders told us to fear nothing at all,” a former ISIS communications technician told Newsweek, “because there was full cooperation with the Turks and they reassured us that nothing will happen…ISIS saw the Turkish army as its ally especially when it came to attacking the Kurds in Syria. The Kurds were the common enemy for both ISIS and Turkey.”

President Barack Obama recently complained that Turkey could be doing “more” to stop the influx of “militants” into Syria. Turkey certainly could! Turkey has a long border with Syria, but it’s sealed. I’ve driven alongside it. In some areas, there are minefields everywhere.

Turkey has a world-class army—the second-largest in NATO—and could obliterate ISIS from the face of the earth if it wanted. If Syria’s Kurds can make headway into ISIS-held territory with just a ragtag militia, Turkey could liberate the Syrian population from Bashar al-Assad, Hezbollah, and ISIS simultaneously.

We should not expect Turkey to do this, but Erdogan won’t even shore up that border.

“You should understand something,” a Turkish smuggler said to Jamie Dettmer at the Daily Beast. “It isn’t hard to cross into the caliphate [ISIS-held territory], but go further west or east into Kurdish territory, then it gets much harder to evade the Turkish military and cross the border. Even the birds can’t come from there; and our birds can’t go there.”

Turkey is not Iraq. It is 1,000 years ahead of Iraq. It is a serious and capable nation, the opposite of incompetent. It’s not an accident or a coincidence that ISIS can replenish its ranks over the Turkish border while the Kurds can’t. If Erdogan can stop Kurds from the crossing that border, he can stop ISIS from crossing that border. Refusing to do so is a choice.

He is not a state sponsor of terrorism. He is not championing ISIS, nor is he on side with them ideologically. He is not their patron or armorer. But he is letting one of our worst enemies grow stronger while stomping on one of our greatest allies.  

We seem to be reaching the end of a road.

NATO was formed as an anti-Russian bulwark during the Cold War, and ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union many have wondered if the alliance has outlived its usefulness. That question has been put to bed to an extent with Russian malfeasance in Georgia and Ukraine, but it’s becoming clearer by the year that Turkey’s membership in NATO is a vestige of an era that expired a long time ago.

Diplomats and heads of state are often to last to notice tectonic geopolitical shifts. They’ve spent years, even decades, forming relationships with their foreign counterparts. Institutions are cumbersome, bureaucratic, slow. They cruise on inertia. They have invested so much for so long. But we are where we are.

When the White House, Congress, the State Department, and our genuine allies in Europe are finally willing to face this—and they will be—Turkey should expect to be treated accordingly.

Linkage

I posted the following over on Instapundit today while filling in for Glenn Reynolds while he’s on vacation.

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BABY KILLERS: ISIS crucifies two children for eating during Ramadan when they were supposed to be fasting.

I lived in Beirut during Ramadan. Restaurants were a little less busy, but plenty of people were eating. And I lived on the Muslim side of the city.

 

WHAT THE FUSS IS ALL ABOUT. You may have heard that Michael Oren, former Israeli Ambassador to the United States, is stirring up megacontroversies with his new book, Ally, about the relationship between the Jewish state and America, and for his comments on President Barack Obama.

I know him personally and have read his first two books, Six Days of War, and Power, Faith and Fantasy. He appears in my own book, The Road to Fatima Gate. I can vouch for him as a brilliant historian and an eminently reasonable person. He’s precisely the kind of individual you’d want as a diplomat.

But don’t take my word for it. Read what he has to say for yourself, starting with his essay in Foreign Policy magazine.

Understanding Obama’s worldview was crucial to my job as Israel’s ambassador to the United States. Right after entering office in June 2009, I devoted months to studying the new president, poring over his speeches, interviews, press releases, and memoirs, and meeting with many of his friends and supporters. The purpose of this self-taught course — Obama 101, I called it — was to get to the point where the president could no longer surprise me. And over the next four years I rarely was, especially on Muslim and Middle Eastern issues.

One need not wallow in silly conspiracy theories like Obama being a secret Muslim (Oren certainly doesn’t) to write something that’s critical, reasonable, and accurate. We all have our flaws and our blind spots. That includes every president we’ve ever had, even the current one.

 

FASTER, PLEASE. Syrian Kurds are closing in on the ISIS capital in Raqqa. They were initially concerned with just reclaiming and holding onto their territory, but offense is often the best defense, and it looks like they’re up to the job. If we want to back proxies over there, forget whatever’s left of the Free Syrian Army. The Kurds are it.

 

A MAYORAL CAMPAIGN OF HATE. George Galloway, the loudmouth former member of Britain’s parliament who declared the town of Bradford an “Israel-free zone,” is running for mayor of London.

 

A NEW REFERENDUM IN MOSCOW. Muscovites may soon vote in their first referendum since the collapse of the Soviet Union. One of the issues they’ll be deciding is whether or not they should re-install a statue of the monstrous idealogue Iron Felix who founded the Cheka, the secret police that later became the KGB.

Here’s to hoping it goes down in a landslide, but if they think that sort of thing is a good idea, they deserve what they’re going to get. They'll be giving Vladimir Putin permission to crank up the whole operation all over again. (Not that he needs their permission.)

 

FRANCO STILL DEAD, IRAN STILL A STATE SPONSOR OF TERRORISM. The State Department released a report accurately describing Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism.

The White House has yet to fully address why an Iranian government, when it receives the estimated $150 billion windfall from unfrozen assets that’s to follow sanctions relief plus the benefits of reopened trade, will not significantly increase its terror-sponsorship in the short term.

That is a bit of a hitch. Any “deal” that Washington and Tehran might theoretically cobble together won’t even begin to address this. The Iranian regime wouldn’t even sign it, let alone honor it.

US-Ukraine Strategic Partnership Lacks Strategy, Partnership

When three influential American Russia experts call for a substantive US-Ukrainian strategic partnership, it’s time to listen.

Matthew Rojansky, director of Washington’s prestigious Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Thomas E. Graham, former senior director for Russia on the National Security Council staff and currently with Kissinger Associates, and Michael Kofman, a public policy scholar at Kennan, recently wrote an important op-ed in which they criticized the “U.S.-Ukraine strategic partnership” for “lack[ing] both strategy and partnership.”

Please take note: the three experts take for granted that such a partnership exists and strongly imply that it should exist. They’re calling, not for establishing such a relationship, but for filling it with appropriate substance.

Here are their recommendations:

Will Greece Tilt Toward Moscow?

Geoff Dyer in the Financial Times wonders if Greece will tilt toward Russia if it defaults on its debts and is bailed out by Vladimir Putin.

As Washington tries to maintain a united western front in support of sanctions on Russia over Ukraine, a Greek default could provide Moscow an opportunity to sow new divisions among America’s European allies.

“You can easily see how geopolitically this would be a gift to Russia,” says Sebastian Mallaby at the Council on Foreign Relations. “You do not want Europe to have to deal with a Greece that is a member of Nato but which all of a sudden hates the west and is cosying up to Russia.”

Greece has been on the verge of bankruptcy before it even joined the European Union. A nice place to visit, I guess, but it’s barely more functional than Egypt.

The current prime minister’s party, Syriza, is a radical leftist coalition that includes not only Euroskeptics but outright communists in its ranks. One may suppose it’s better by an iota than its far-right counterpart, Golden Dawn, which includes Nazis and Hitler enthusiasts in its ranks and doesn’t flinch from putting an updated swastika on its flag, but that isn’t saying much.

Political derangement is, alas, par for the course down there. A fascistic military dictatorship seized power in 1967. Georgios Papadopoulos’ Regime of the Colonels made Vladimir Putin look like an anarchist in comparison and didn’t let up until the Turks invaded Cyprus in 1974.

Most Greeks threw their support behind Slobodan Milosevic during the Yugoslavian genocide, and the current government recently threatened to seize German assets.

Will they fall in with Vladimir Putin? Probably not. But it wouldn’t be much out of character.

Guest-Blogging at Instapundit

Glenn Reynolds is off scuba diving and he’s asked a whole gaggle of us to fill in for him at Instapundit while he’s gone.

As usual, I’m covering the world affairs beat over there.

You can follow my posts at the source if you want. I’ll also cross-post them here for your convenience.

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YES, REALLY. Iranian-backed Shia militias are sharing a base with American soldiers in Iraq.

 

OUR ONLY REAL FRIENDS OVER THERE: Syria’s Kurds are advancing deeper into ISIS-held territory.

 

TOURISM IN CUBA. Graham Flanagan went to Cuba as a tourist and produced a short video for Business Insider about the four problems Americans will face when they go down there. There’s no Internet, the tap water isn’t safe to drink, few people speak English, and credit cards aren’t accepted anywhere, not even at banks.

He still had a great time, but I found the place soul-crushing. Unlike him, I went to Cuba as a journalist and was duty-bound to leave the tourist bubble and see what Castro’s socialist paradise is really like.

If you want to go down there and have fun like he did, knock yourself out. If you want an educational experience, however, you’ll need to wander out of that bubble. Just be prepared. It isn’t pretty.

 

TURKEY’S CREEPJOB PRIME MINISTER is furious about Kurdish gains against ISIS in Syria.

He’s not on board with ISIS ideologically, but he’s more freaked out by Kurdish indepenence right now than anything else since roughly 25 percent of Turkey’s population is Kurdish. From his point of view, ISIS is the lesser of evils. President Obama says he expects “deeper cooperation” from Turkey, but even he must know at this late date that we are not going to get it.

 

IS THIS SUPPOSED TO BE SOME KIND OF A JOKE? Beijing insists that its controversial expansion into the South China Sea is simply to acquire better weather forecasts.

 

CHINA’S DOG MEAT FESTIVAL is raising hackles inside and outside of China.

“There are all sorts of cultural norms about what you can eat, you eat turkey, so why are you trying to force us to not eat dog meat?” shouted one dog meat supporter.

“It’s healthy, just like raising pigs or chickens, it’s fine,” said Teng Jianyi, as he tucked into a dog dish with some friends.

These things really are relative. Some in India are appalled that the rest of us eat cows. So how about a compromise? We won’t tell you to stop eating dogs if you won’t tell us to stop being horrified that you eat dogs.

The "Snap Back" Delusion

“Snap back.” That's the term used by officials in Washington to describe an automatic re-imposition of multilateral sanctions on Iran if it violates a deal with the United States to scale backs its nuclear weapons program.

“We will retain the ability to snap back multilateral sanctions architecture back in place, without Russian or Chinese support,” Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power said earlier this week to the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

She says she can't explain how this would work, exactly, but Russia and China aren't the only potential obstacles we need to worry about.

The World National Oil Companies Congress conducted a full-day briefing in London this week about the massive amounts of money that can be made in Iran after sanctions are lifted.

“The fact that the whole sanctions structure is weakened is true,” Ellham Hassanzadeh said to Sohrab Ahmari at the Wall Street Journal. “Everybody’s just ready that once it really crumbles to go back to the country and put down the money.”

Chevron was there. Siemens was there. Big companies from Australia and Singapore were there, along with so many other.

And they're all ready to “put down the money.”

What's going to happen if, a year or so later, Iran says to hell with it and starts cheating? Sanctions can only “snap back” into place if the nations imposing the sanctions are willing to admit that Iran has been cheating and are willing to act accordingly. Is that really going to happen after gigantic companies from all over the world have invested hundreds of millions—perhaps even billions—of dollars?

Chevron won't be in charge of what happens, nor will any other multinational corporation, but we're kidding ourselves if we think government officials won't flinch at the thought of flushing that kind of cash down the toilet.

Forget the conspiracy theories about corporations running the world. Governments run the world. But nearly all governments outside communist and quasi-communist countries like North Korea, Cuba, and Venezuela take their nation's economic health into account. They have to, especially if they're democratically elected and are held accountable by their citizens and financial backers.

It's hardly a stretch to suggest that policymakers might get a little weak in the knees when it's crunch time. There's no need to be cynical about it. We're all capable of lying to ourselves, especially when our paychecks and livelihoods depend on it.

Would you acknowledge that Iran is cheating if it obligated you to set your house on fire? Your mind would innocently twist itself into all kinds of contortions before admitting that, yeah, it's time to pour a gallon gasoline onto the living room floor and drop a lit match.

The West's will is already sapped even without billions of dollars in cash on the table. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) says the State Department is three years behind its own Iranian sanctions implementation.

“Our analysis,” reads the report, “demonstrates that State is falling further and further behind in providing the reports and is now juggling a backlog of draft reports at different stages of that process. The imposition of sanctions no sooner than 3 or more years after the transfer occurred may diminish the credibility of the threatened sanction.”

We haven't even reached the point yet where money is on the table.

Last week a panel of United Nations monitors released a report complaining that both the US and Europe have been deliberately ignoring Iranian sanctions violations.

“The current situation with reporting,” the report says, “could reflect a general reduction of procurement activities by the Iranian side or a political decision by some member states to refrain from reporting to avoid a possible negative impact on ongoing negotiations.”

It's not just the United States that isn't reporting Iranian misbehavior to the United Nations. No country is reporting Iranian misbehavior to the United Nations, not even misbehavior that's unfolding, as Sangwon Yoon put it in Bloomberg, in plain sight.

“There's a direct correlation between this administration not wanting to sanction anyone or any violation and their lack of reporting on those violations,” said US Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. “And it's sending a signal to the international community that the United States is not serious about any of our sanctions, that if you talk to the right folks at certain agencies and get a pass.”

Is any of this going to change after the sanctions are lifted? No one can know for sure, but the real question is, why would it?

Should Kyiv Blockade the Donbas Enclave?

Ever since the Poroshenko Bloc’s leader, Yuri Lutsenko, stated that the “President of Ukraine believes the cancerous tumor should be subjected to a blockade,” Ukrainians have been heatedly debating whether Kyiv should sever all ties with the Russian-occupied Donbas enclave.

The argument for a blockade, which would entail a total cutoff of economic relations as well as deliveries of electricity, gas, and water, is straightforwardly strategic. Ukraine is at war with Russia and its puppets. The Kremlin started the war and seems to have no intention to end it. Putin’s puppets engage in continual aggressions, systematically violating cease-fires, and openly stating that they intend to conquer at least all of the Donbas. Kyiv knows it can’t win on the battlefield, but is hoping to be able to stop further Russian expansion. If Ukraine is to prevail, Kyiv needs to do everything possible to weaken the Kremlin’s proxy war machine. A blockade would hasten the Donbas enclave’s economic decline and make the region ungovernable. The blockade would do the trick.

Al Qaeda's Bogus Apology

The Nusra Front accused members of the Druze minority of blasphemy in Syria's Idlib Province and massacred twenty innocent people, prompting a ludicrous headline in the Christian Science Monitor.

Syrian Druze massacre: Can jihadists salvage their image?

What image? They're terrorists. They're the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda. And they're identified right there in the headline as jihadists.

Some of us seem to be forgetting what jihadists are. How about we let them define themselves in their own words? “Jihad,” Abu Bakr Naji wrote in Al Qaeda's handbook, The Management of Savagery, “is naught but violence, crudeness, terrorism, frightening [people], and massacring.”

This isnot a description of Al Qaeda's behavior in New York City and Washington, DC, on September 11, 2001. This is a description of Al Qaeda's behavior in the Middle East and its treatment of Middle Easterners.

Apparently, though, the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda thinks it does have an image to bolster. So the leaders apologized and sent a delegation to the village of Qalb Lawzah to smooth everything over.

It's bogus.

Even if we'd never heard of Al Qaeda and had no idea that they have a long and sordid history of mass murder and brutal totalitarian rule over every scrap of land they control, we'd still know this apology is bogus and that Al Qaeda is no better than ISIS. (Let's not forget that ISIS is simply the new name for Al Qaeda in Iraq.) We'd know this because Nusra Front “emir” Abu Mohamed al-Jolani said his army would protect minorities who “leave their religion and leave (Syrian President) Bashar al-Assad.”

The Druze have to leave their religion!

That kind of protection is worth less even than mafia-style “protection.” Nusra wants the Druze to erase their religion and culture or die. The likes of Tony Soprano just wanted money.

Xi's Purge: Anticorruption or Loyalty-Based? Is It Finished Yet?

Thursday, Beijing disclosed the trial, plea, and sentencing of Zhou Yongkang, once the country’s security czar and now the highest official to be prosecuted since Maoist times.

The reviled Zhou received a life term for taking bribes, disclosing state secrets, and abusing power. He was also deprived of political rights for life and forfeited assets.

Zhou, according to state media, admitted his crimes and will not appeal. “The basic facts are clear,” he said according to the official Xinhua News Agency. “I plead guilty and repent my wrongdoing.”

“Zhou’s trial was a symbol of the CPC’s commitment to the rule of law,” Xinhua reported.

Suu Kyi Meets China's Top Leaders, Withholds Criticism

Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s pro-democracy leader, concluded a visit to China on Sunday. While there, she met with Xi Jinping, China’s leader and general secretary of the Communist Party. Suu Kyi also visited Shanghai and Yunnan Province, which borders on Burma’s territory.

Just five years ago, her visit would have been unimaginable. China had close ties to Burma’s military junta, which held her under house arrest for the better part of two decades, only releasing her in 2010 as it undertook a tentative, and so far quite limited, political opening.

Despite calls for her to do so, while in China, Suu Kyi did not speak publicly about Liu Xiaobo, one of China’s most prominent political prisoners, and a fellow Nobel laureate. Liu, a writer, was sentenced in 2009 to 11 years on subversion charges. His arrest was triggered by his support for Charter 08, a declaration of democratic principles. He won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, while in jail, as Suu Kyi herself did, while under house arrest, in 1991. Suu Kyi only received her award on a visit to Norway in 2012. 

On Donbas Autonomy—Again

Foreign policymakers and analysts intone “autonomy” for the Russian-occupied Donbas enclave with tedious regularity, almost as if they were in possession of some magic formula. One of the latest to join the chorus was NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg.

In fact, invocation of autonomy is at best an evasion, at worst meaningless.

The Saudis Team Up With Israel

Saudi and Israeli diplomats jointly announced that they've held five meetings in secret since early last year in India, Italy, and the Czech Republic.

The reason? Iran. The Israelis and the Saudis have a common enemy in Tehran, and they're increasingly relying on each other now that the United States, contrary to the interests of both, might ease sanctions if a nuclear deal gets hammered out later this year.

Retired Saudi general Anwar Majed Eshki and Israeli diplomat Dore Gold shook hands in front of the cameras during their announcement at the Council on Foreign Relations—a bigger deal than it seems. Not because it suddenly means that Israel and Saudi Arabia are best friends forever—fat chance of that ever happening—but because shaking hands with or even saying hello to an Israeli is a crime in some Arab countries, even in Lebanon which is more open-minded and cosmopolitan than the lot of them.

But bigotries can fade in even the most reactionary countries over time and under the right circumstances, and it's actually happening in Saudi Arabia.

Eli Lake covered the event for Bloomberg and described the Saudi general's speech this way:

He laid out a brief history of Iran since the 1979 revolution, highlighting the regime's acts of terrorism, hostage-taking and aggression. He ended his remarks with a seven-point plan for the Middle East. Atop the list was achieving peace between Israel and the Arabs. Second came regime-change in Iran. Also on the list were greater Arab unity, the establishment of an Arab regional military force, and a call for an independent Kurdistan to be made up of territory now belonging to Iraq, Turkey and Iran.

Arab unity is a castle in the sky. Never mind hopeless cases like Syria and Iraq. Not even the tiniest Arab countries like Lebanon and Bahrain can manage to unify themselves locally. An Arab regional military force wouldn't require absolute unity (see NATO), but at the very least it requires participating states to be on good terms with each other. The Arab states right now, though, are as fractious as ever. The yearning for unity in that part of the world is so strong because the lack of it is as painful as it is destructive.

But take a look at the other points Eshki made.

He says Saudi Arabia's number one priority is peace between Israelis and Arabs. Read that sentence again and let it sink in. Saudi Arabia's number one priority is peace between Israelis and Arabs. Not between Israelis and Palestinians, but between Israel and the entire Arab world.

Try not to be overly skeptical. It's true that the history between Muslims and Jews is long and unpleasant, but the history between Muslims and Christians is equally long and unpleasant, yet Saudi Arabia has normal relations with every Christian nation on earth. The only Arab countries that don't have normal relations with the United States right now are Syria and Sudan. American relations with Morocco, Tunisia, and Jordan are outstanding. Jordan's relations with Israel are outstanding. Morocco also has cordial, albeit quiet and semi-secret, relations with Israel.

Officially, the Saudis don't recognize Israel's right to exist, but at least they acknowledge the reality of Israel's existence, and they're increasing recognizing that the two nations have common interests and common real enemies.

Israel is not a real enemy. It's not even a competitor. It's a country the Saudis find distasteful for real and imagined reasons.

The Israelis are not going to attack Saudi Arabia, ever. The Iranians probably won't either, but they very well may back proxies Shia militias inside the country. They've been doing it for years in Lebanon and Iraq, and now they're doing it in Syria and Yemen.

Iran is to Saudi Arabia what Russia was to the United States during the Cold War. But declaring Israel an enemy of Saudi Arabia makes no more sense than declaring Peru an enemy of the United States.

So what if the Saudis find Israel distasteful? They find the United States distasteful, too, but we can work together well enough without rancor when our interests overlap. It's strange, but true: Saudi Arabia is like a watered-down version of ISIS domestically and Britain internationally.

Riyadh did propose a peace deal with Jerusalem in 2002. They'll recognize the Jewish state if the Israelis withdraw to the 1967 borders, accept a Palestinian state, and allow the right of return to all the children of all the Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war. That's not going to happen, of course. Israel has no room for millions of Palestinians, the overwhelming majority of whom have never set foot inside the country. But the Saudi proposal could at least be a starting point for negotiations. Either way, the Saudis made it clear more than a decade ago that they'll be willing to recognize Israel's right to exist in the future under certain conditions. The current hostility—which is clearly not what it used to be anyway—need not be eternal.

It's not just the Saudi government that's coming around. Saudi citizens are viewing the region more realistically, too. A recent poll conducted by the IDC Institute for Policy and Strategy found that only 18 percent of Saudis view Israel as their principal enemy. 22 percent said that distinction belongs to ISIS while a whopping 53 percent fingered Iran.

Much of the Middle East seems stubbornly resistant to positive change, but history is a river, not a statue. All things eventually pass.

“What we think here in Israel about the Saudis is not exactly what they are,” said the IDC's Alex Mintz. The same goes double for the Saudi view of Israelis, of course, but as retired Israeli general Shimon Shapira told Lake, “we discovered we have the same problems and same challenges and some of the same answers.”

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