Three news items from the strange political morass known as the Middle East:
◦ Last week, the Gulf Cooperation Council—a six-country Arab alliance dominated by Saudi Arabia—officially designated Hezbollah as a terror organization, laying the ground for harsh legal steps against anyone connected with the Lebanese Shi'ite group.
◦ This week two political parties representing Palestinian citizens of Israel condemned the GCC decision. Hezbollah had come to the aid of Lebanon against Israel aggression and “stands in the breach against American-Israeli efforts to impose hegemony,” said a resolution of the National Democratic Assembly. A similar statement was published in the name of the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality. (The former party is often identified in reports from Israel by the Hebrew acronym Balad, which is an Arabic word for “land.” The latter party uses the Hebrew acronym Hadash, which means “new”; in Arabic it's often simply called the Front.)
◦ In the predictable next step of the chain reaction, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the move by the Gulf countries and said that, “many Arab states now understand that Israel isn't their enemy.” As predictably, he lashed out at the Arab parties, asking, “Have you gone nuts?”
Here's a condensed analysis of these three moves: The GCC decision was pure cynicism. Netanyahu's response was as cynical but—I'm sorry to say—quite adroit. The statements of the two Arab parties were maladroit at every political level. But they're also the most interesting, in what they say about the shattering impact of the civil war in Syria on the region, the conundrums of a national minority, and the pitfalls of anti-colonial rhetoric.
And for the slightly less condensed version: Saudi Arabia and its allies did not suddenly wake up to the fact that Hezbollah was a pioneer of suicide bombings or that it rained missiles on the civilians of northern Israel—Arab as well as Jewish—during the 2006 Israeli invasion. But in Syria, Saudi Arabia backs anti-regime rebels against Bashar Assad's regime and his Iranian backers. Hezbollah is fighting on the regime side. Declaring that Hezbollah is a terror group is a legal and public relations tactic in the Saudi-Iran proxy war. Among other things, it's meant to bolster Western support for the Saudi position.
Netanyahu, for his part, is exploiting the cliché that “my enemy's enemy is my friend,” which is flawed logic in general but all the more so in the 13-sided chess game of the Middle East. Hostility toward Hezbollah has not made the Saudi regime into a model of moderate Islam. It may, for the moment, create an overlap of interests with Israel, but it has not turned the House of Saud into a friend or ally.
For Netanyahu, it's useful domestically to claim that Israel can now be on good terms with more Arab states while ignoring the Palestinian issue and perpetuating the occupation. And the declarations by the Arab parties were a gift to him in the midst of his campaign to delegitimize the entire Palestinian minority in Israel. The latest step in that campaign is a bill that would allow a special majority of the Knesset to expel a member for, among other things, rejecting the existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. I note that passage of the law will be a gift to hardline Arab critics who say that Hadash and Balad are wrong to participate in Israeli electoral politics.
But the fascinating part of this story is the declarations by Hadash and Balad. Both ran in the last election as part of the Joint List, an alliance of four predominately Arab parties. The unity was imposed on them by the Israeli right, which raised the percentage of the national vote a party needed to enter parliament. The Hezbollah fuss, though, demonstrates very clearly that Israel's Palestinian minority is anything but a political monolith. Among the internal debates, two stand out: One is between those who want to take as stand in the wider politics of the Arab world and those who believe their politicians should focus on the problems and needs of the Arab community in Israel.
The second fault line is Syria. Syria hurts. Just across the border in the north, it bleeds. “The crisis in Syria affects Arab society in Israel more than all the conflicts in the Arab world. It's more divisive” than anything else, says Arik Rudnitzky, head of Tel Aviv University's Konrad Adenauer Program for Jewish-Arab Cooperation. In the most schematic terms, he says, there's a camp that sees the Syrian regime as repressive and wants to see Assad go.
And there's a camp that sees the Syrian regime, despite its flaws, as “the last bastion against imperialism and the attempt of the United States to control the region.” This position is particularly strong in Balad, a party of Arab nationalism, and in some parts of Hadash, whose core is the old Israel Communist Party. Hadash is a curious amalgam: Look at it one moment, and it's dedicated social democrats; listen at another, and it's yet to recover from Cold War anti-imperialist slogans manufactured in a vanished Moscow.
Actually, the political version of the Syrian Rift actually runs more jaggedly—between parties but also within them, sometimes within one person's words in a matter of minutes. “Defining Hezbollah ... by the Gulf states as terrorists—we disagree with this, because it's totally adopting the Israeli-American strategy of hegemony over the region,” Balad's Haneen Zoabi, known as the most radical Arab nationalist in the Israeli parliament, told me. Then she added that “we didn't mention the crimes—for us this was another matter—we are against the Assad regime, which is committing daily crimes against its people.”
In fact, the Balad statement did include a snippet of criticism of Hezbollah's “role in Syria.” The Hadash declaration, issued by a member of the party's political bureau, did not contain even that much disapproval. But it reportedly did stir angry debate within the party.
On the other hand, when I asked political scientist Massoud Eghbarieh—an Israeli Palestinian who teaches at An-Najah University—about the two statements, he answered flatly, “They're not realistic at all. They're fantasies.” Support of any kind for the Assad regime, he added, “has no logic at all.”
That said, there is a historical context to both parties' declarations. Both presented Hezbollah in the role it claims, the “resistance” to Israel, to imperialism, to colonialism. But this is a combination of nostalgia and ideological rigidity.
Colonialism was indeed an unfathomable curse. Yet the Syrian regime—not just now, but for decades has provided proof that you can use anti-colonial rhetoric while being oppressive and corrupt. Labeling Israel as a colonial enterprise neatly fit it into a category but provided very little understanding of Israel or of the Arab dilemma. Israeli policy in Lebanon has indeed been a series of disasters that included a long occupation of part of the country. Yet Hezbollah has shown that you can oppose an occupier while crippling the country you are supposedly defending. And even that belongs to history. Israel is no longer occupying Lebanese territory. Hezbollah is today part of a murderous coalition in Syria, supporting the—OK, I'll use the word—hegemonic aspirations of Russia and Iran.
As a political category, anti-colonialism was always a useful but blunt instrument. The conflict in Syria shows how useless it is for identifying good guys and bad guys in 2016. The war in Syria is a daily lesson that the oppressed of yesterday can be the war criminals of today.
Hezbollah should be a reminder that for the left, as for the right, your enemies' enemies are definitely not your friends. Trying to neatly line up all of the righteous oppressed on one side and oppressors on the other leads to political and intellectual absurdity. This is the lesson of the Hezbollah controversy in Israel, but it's one that needs to be remembered far beyond Israeli or Arab politics.
This article has been updated.