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A Christian Response to Shifting Alliances in the Middle East
Although “realignment” has been the word of the month, it seems, in the world of Middle Eastern socio-political analysis, a likelier descriptor might be that of “making explicit that which has up to now remained implicit.” While US-Israeli relations and US-Saudi relations are nothing particularly new, this is the first time Israel and Saudi Arabia have been so publicly affectionate – lending credence to recent speculations reminiscent of the “are they/aren’t they” antics of Hollywood’s latest power couple. Be it economic partnerships and arms deals, Israeli generals appearing on Saudi news networks promising to share intelligence, puff pieces exploring the Arabian Peninsula’s Jewish past, or other overtures toward “normalization,” it looks as if as if the third leg of this unlikely love triangle is on its way to being complete.
While at first it might be tempting to celebrate an apparent rapprochement between such religiously symbolic adversaries as Saudi Arabia and Israel as a positive step toward the ever-elusive prospect of Middle East peace, especially for an organization like IMES committed to kerygmatic peace building, it is crucial to recognize that legitimate reconciliation requires both justice as well as peace, equal parts of truth and mercy (Psalms 85:10). The common denominator, beyond oil and arms, between Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Trump administration is that of a shared hostility toward Iran and its regional clients. What this triple alliance represents is a buttressing of positions against the increasingly triumphant Shia axis, under the leadership of Tehran, as the conflicts in Syria and Iraq wind down, the Qatar crisis stalemates and the ongoing situation in Yemen continues to degrade into one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes in recent memory, especially now after the assassination of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The saber-rattling against Iran and its various clients in the region has certainly ratcheted up in recent weeks, with the Shia axis responding in kind, as each accuses the other of declaring war (without actually declaring war). Meanwhile, Israel has been escalating military action in Syria, in an apparent message to Tehran, while readying national and global opinion for another possible war in Lebanon – all the while increasing the likelihood of an even wider regional conflagration.
What this ostensible Saudi détente with Israel ultimately indicates is that the perceived threat of Iran and its clients, which for their part have been quite active in using violence to secure their interests in the region, has overshadowed the Palestinian cause as a regional rallying cry – at least prior to the decision this week to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Likewise, Hezbollah’s initial foray into the Syrian conflict on behalf of the Assad regime has forced a redefinition of its own raison d’être as a resistance movement in Lebanon. Given such a diplomatic context, the question then becomes what is to be made of the Palestinian struggle for human rights? Is, as reported in a recent article from the Independent, “Saudi Arabia willing to abandon the Palestinians to make deal with Israel against Iran?” On the one hand, Palestinians have long felt abandoned by Arab leadership – in many respects since day one. On the other hand, Palestinian leadership and its various factions have also long relied on support from neighboring regimes. It was no accident that PA President Mahmoud Abbas got on a plane to Riyadh immediately following Hariri’s resignation. Qatar, recently targeted by Saudi Arabia, has long funded Hamas, which for its part has been restoring its ties with Iran. With the exceedingly myopic decision by Trump to declare Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, a move openly praised by Vice-President Pence, and the naturally expected Palestinian response on top of reports of an extremely biased Saudi-backed peace-plan, one can only wonder what the future holds for the Palestinian people as well as the peoples of the Middle East more broadly.
However, as followers of Christ, it is our responsibility to remain equal parts committed to justice and peace, truth as well as mercy. As Colin Chapman wrote to me recently in a personal correspondence on 18 November 2017,
I have a concern that when many others talk so much about ‘reconciliation’, they are in danger of playing down justice. I ask how appropriate would it have been to talk about reconciliation in South Africa during the time of apartheid. How appropriate is it for westerners like me to come in and talk about the occupied being reconciled with their occupiers?
So as political alliances shift, form and reform, our ultimate allegiance must be to the messiah of peace and his peaceable Kingdom. To stand firm upon the rock of our crucified king amidst the shifting tides of regional politics – to hear his words and put them into practice in our lives and communities – is to eschew the mobilizing rhetoric of whichever country, faction, axis or alliance with which we might otherwise most naturally resonate. To believe at this point that Saudi Arabia is an ally in a new war on terror is a vulgar joke. To think that Iran and its client regimes have the best interests of Palestinians, or Lebanese, or Syrians, or even Iranians, at heart is likewise an extremely difficult notion to swallow. And, to think that the US (or Russia, or the West in general) can in any proper sense act as a viable mediator for regional peace is as equally preposterous, especially given the events of this past week. The report that Jared Kushner led an organization that funded illegal settlement activity and actively lobbied against the UN settlement vote prior to his most recent role overlooking the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is revealing.
But as members of the Body of Christ committed to the principles of kerygmatic peace building, our commitment is to the flourishing of all peoples of this region, be they Sunni or Shia, Israeli or Palestinian, Lebanese or Syrian, Iranian or Arab, Turkish or Armenian, Kurdish or Assyrian, Filipino or Bangladeshi. So as the world’s most powerful men and supreme leaders conspire within the walls of their gold-encrusted monuments to their own idolatrous self-importance – pretenders each to the lordship of their respective socio-religious communities – those of us who would dare follow the crucified messiah, born as he was among Bethlehem peasants, must look always to the impact such machinations have on those most vulnerable: on the widow, whose husband died a conscript in a needless war; on the fatherless, a child victim made vulnerable by these same brutal power plays; and on the refugee, the displaced alien forced against her will to live amongst a people not her own in a land she will never call home.