Periphery: Israel’s Search for Middle East Allies 
by Yossi Alpher.
Rowman and Littlefield, 196 pp., £23.95, January 2015, 978 1 4422 3101 6
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Israel​ is now confronted by the greatest unrest it has faced since the second intifada ended more than ten years ago. Palestinian protests and clashes with Israeli forces have spread from East Jerusalem to the rest of the West Bank, as well as to Gaza and Palestinian towns inside Israel. In the first three weeks of October, ten Israelis were killed and more than a hundred injured in stabbings and shootings, and by drivers ramming cars into pedestrians. Over the same period, Israeli forces killed 53 Palestinians and injured around two thousand. Compared to the second intifada, the protests this month have been smaller, the influence of Palestinian political factions weaker, and the attacks far less lethal. But they have been coming more frequently, with several of them, unco-ordinated, on most days.

In Jerusalem, police units, reinforced by the army, have been deployed on buses, trains and at major intersections. Private security guards have been hired at restaurants and cafés. Bomb squads have detonated half-empty shopping bags left in the streets. Darker-skinned Israelis boarding buses now sometimes shout out to the other passengers that they are Jewish; someone recently printed a T-shirt that reads: ‘Calm down, I’m a Yeminite [Jew].’ One was mistaken for a Palestinian and stabbed. Another was shot and killed by Israeli soldiers. An innocent Eritrean asylum seeker at the site of a shooting attack by a Palestinian citizen of Israel was shot and then, as he lay bleeding to death, kicked repeatedly in the head.

The government has taken harsher measures than the security establishment recommends. Palestinians in East Jerusalem, the source of much of the violence, have suffered most from the crackdown. Nearly five hundred East Jerusalem Palestinians were arrested in five weeks beginning in mid-September, more than double the number of East Jerusalemites arrested for security-related offences between 2000 and 2008, a period that included the second intifada. One government minister has proposed destroying all illegally built Palestinian houses in East Jerusalem, a measure that, because of restrictive zoning, would threaten nearly 40 per cent of the city’s Palestinian homes.

In the 48 years since Israel conquered the eastern half of what it calls its eternal, unified capital, Jerusalem has never been more divided. Checkpoints and police trucks with flashing lights mark the line between west and east. Large concrete blocks cut off the exits from Palestinian neighbourhoods. New checkpoints, long queues and heavy traffic deter residents from leaving. In one neighbourhood, new bus routes are operating on either side of the checkpoints, one for trips outside the area, the other for movement inside it. In another, a concrete barrier has been erected to separate Palestinian homes from a nearby Jewish settlement. At intersections along the divide, Palestinians are stopped at random, told to lift up their shirts, and then frisked against a wall. Police units with dogs make frequent raids into Palestinian neighbourhoods. The houses of Palestinians alleged to have carried out attacks have been demolished, and the interior minister has called for Palestinian attackers to be deported from East Jerusalem and some of the rights of their relatives to be revoked. The government has refused to return the bodies of some Palestinians killed in the unrest, both as a punishment and for fear that funerals would lead to new clashes.

As a result of years of Israeli efforts to quash Palestinian political organisation in Jerusalem, there is no leadership Israel can engage with to help tackle the unrest. The Palestinian government in Ramallah is prevented from acting in Jerusalem, as is the PLO, whose institutions in the city Israel closed down years ago. Jerusalem’s representatives to the Palestinian parliament have been deported to the West Bank. Israel’s security agency monitors ‘political subversion’, including lawful opposition to Israel’s occupation – in effect criminalising all Palestinian political activity.

Young Palestinians in Jerusalem feel they have been abandoned. Many of them loathe the political leadership in Ramallah, which they feel stood by as Israel slowly transformed and took over the city’s east, cutting it off from the rest of the West Bank. The international community has barely reacted as settlement growth in East Jerusalem has soared. When Israel imposed new restrictions on Palestinians’ access to al-Aqsa mosque, the Jordanian government, which officially administers the site, failed to reverse them. The international community, like the Israeli government, calls for calm and a return to the status quo, which in practice means the site’s continued control by Israel. As steadily increasing numbers of Israel’s Jewish citizens gain access the al-Aqsa compound, a site also revered by Jews as the Temple Mount, Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem continue to be forbidden from entering the plaza of the Western Wall (revered by Muslims as the Buraq Wall), which is located on the ruins of a Palestinian neighbourhood forcibly evacuated and destroyed by Israel at the end of the 1967 war.

Leaders of other Arab states have been largely silent, much as they were when nearly 2200 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces in the 2014 Gaza war. Israel’s tacit alliance with many of the Arab states is one of the reasons for the Palestinians’ sense of abandonment and despair. It was once thought that the need to reach peace with the Arabs would be a strong incentive for Israel to grant the Palestinians statehood. Yet a de facto peace has come to the Jewish state without its having to end the occupation, a significant victory for Israel in the history of its conflict with the Arabs. Even so, the current unrest – despite Arab indifference, Palestinian weakness and overwhelming Israeli military and economic strength – has reminded Israel that its greatest challenge, as well as its oldest, remains unmet.

In​ 1923, the revisionist Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky argued against those Zionists who wanted to avoid dealing with the Palestinians by first making peace with Arabs outside Palestine:

A plan that seems to attract many Zionists goes like this: if it is impossible to get an endorsement of Zionism by Palestine’s Arabs, then it must be obtained from the Arabs of Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and perhaps of Egypt. Even if this were possible, it … would not change the attitude of the Arabs in the Land of Israel towards us … If it were possible (and I doubt this) to discuss Palestine with the Arabs of Baghdad and Mecca as if it were some kind of small, immaterial borderland, then Palestine would still remain for the Palestinians not a borderland, but their birthplace, the centre and basis of their own national existence. Therefore it would be necessary to carry on colonisation against the will of the Palestinian Arabs, which is the same condition that exists now.

Jabotinsky’s bleak conclusion, which proved prescient during the next half-century, was that acceptance of Zionism would not come from Palestinians or other Arabs voluntarily. It would come only after the Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims of the region had concluded through bitter experience that Zionism could not be overcome. Until then, Palestine’s Jewish community would remain isolated and insecure, rejected by its neighbours as a foreign entity imposed by colonial powers.

This was the condition that prevailed for the first three decades of Israel’s existence, though there were several notable exceptions to Arab rejection: in 1948, Egypt proposed to grant Israel de facto recognition in exchange for Egypt’s annexation of territory in the Negev; in 1949 President Husni Za’im of Syria offered to take in 300,000 Palestinian refugees and sign a peace treaty with Israel if Syria was granted control over half of the Sea of Galilee; shortly before his assassination in 1951, King Abdullah of Jordan, too, sought a peace treaty with Israel; and in February 1973 President Anwar Sadat of Egypt offered to sign a peace treaty with Israel if it withdrew from the territory it conquered in the 1967 war.

But for the most part Israel learned to live alone, the only state between Morocco and Pakistan that is neither Arab nor Muslim. At first outgunned, outnumbered and convinced of the enduring hostility of its neighbours, Israel prepared itself for the battles that Jabotinsky predicted it would have to win, and win decisively, if it was eventually to be secure. Though Israel never formulated an official national security doctrine, its strategy against its regional adversaries could be said to have rested on several pillars: bringing diaspora Jews into Israel in order to consolidate a Jewish majority; securing the support of a great power (before Israel’s independence, the United Kingdom, followed by France, and, after the 1967 war, the United States); establishing a nuclear deterrent; building up conventional weapons capabilities; forging regional alliances with non-Arab states; and undermining enemies through military aid to minority populations. Several of these strategic priorities were advanced in what came to be known as the periphery doctrine, put in place in the 1950s by Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben Gurion, and the first heads of Israel’s foreign intelligence service, the Mossad. The strategy’s basic premise was that Israel faced a proximate ‘core’ of implacable Arab hostility, which could be countered only through action at its edges.

According to Periphery: Israel’s Search for Middle East Allies by the Mossad veteran Yossi Alpher, the strategy, though often ad hoc, consisted of three primary components: alliances with non-Arab states such as Iran, Turkey, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya and, briefly, Sudan; secret co-operation with Arab states at the outer edges of Arab-controlled territory, including Oman, Yemen and Morocco; and support for religious and ethnic minorities who were opposed to their Muslim or Arab neighbours – Maronites in Lebanon, black Africans in south Sudan and Kurds in Iraq (though not, of course, in the allied states of Iran and Turkey, where the Kurdish populations are much larger).

The periphery doctrine had several aims, not all of them directed at Israel’s adversaries. Perhaps the most important was for Israel to market its usefulness to the great power it was courting even before 1967, the United States. Israel collected information on US adversaries, shared intelligence with US allies, and presented its alliances as a counter to Soviet influence in the region. Another aim was military. The very fact of the trilateral alliance with Turkey and Iran, two of the region’s strongest powers, was meant to deter Arab attacks, in particular from Syria and Egypt after they briefly formed a union – the United Arab Republic – in 1958. Israel’s military support of the Kurds meant that Iraq couldn’t safely devote all its armed forces to the wars with Israel in 1967 and 1973. In July 1976, Israel’s peripheral alliances facilitated the rescue of more than a hundred Israeli passengers on a hijacked plane held at Entebbe airport in Uganda; Israel’s raid would have been impossible, Alpher writes, had the Israel Air Force ‘not been able to overfly Ethiopia and Kenya and land for refuelling in Nairobi, all fruits of Israel’s southern periphery effort’. Taken together, Israel’s policies and alliances forced Arab states to contend with it as a regional power, and not simply as a colonial implant.

What Israel’s partners sought from these alliances included money (Morocco, for example, received financial compensation and investment in return for allowing the clandestine immigration of Jews to Israel); arms (weapons captured by Israel in its wars with the Arabs were later transferred to Maronites and Iran-supported Shia clans in Lebanon, rebels in south Sudan, Kurds in northern Iraq and Zaidi royalists in Yemen); training (the Ethiopian army, the Moroccan intelligence agency and rebel groups in Iraqi Kurdistan and south Sudan); and intelligence-sharing, especially in the cases of Iran and Turkey. No less alluring to these allies was what they took to be Israel’s extraordinary power over Washington. Alpher writes that Israeli operatives sometimes cultivated their allies’ exaggerated and seemingly anti-Semitic beliefs about Jewish influence: ‘We knew that the issue of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion plays a very important role for them. To a certain degree even, we played that card, so they’d think we … could manipulate US policy in their favour.’

Not all Israelis were supportive of the periphery doctrine. Some security officials warned that these alliances, with the exceptions of those with Morocco and Oman, came at the expense of efforts to achieve a more strategically valuable Arab-Israeli peace: they had the effect of demonstrating to Arab neighbours Israel’s enduring antagonism, refusal to integrate in the region, and preference for achieving security without making the concessions necessary for peace. It was argued that the doctrine even encouraged Israel to spurn outstretched Arab hands, such as those of Sadat in 1973.

Another criticism of the periphery strategy was that, on matters of greatest importance to Israel, it was simply ineffective. In the June 1967 war, Israel’s allies didn’t lift a finger to help it. In the October 1973 war, Morocco sent a division to bolster Syria and Iraq in the Golan, and assurances made by Iran gave Iraq the confidence to leave the homeland less defended and send forces to fight Israel. The Kurds failed to fulfil their promise to open a front against Iraq, and were pressured not to help Israel by both Iran and the US. After the war, Iran supported the Arab oil embargo. At this point it wasn’t even clear, Alpher writes, that Washington placed much value on Israel’s peripheral alliances.

During the decade that followed the 1973 war, the periphery doctrine collapsed. In 1975, the shah of Iran signed the Algiers Agreement with Iraq, ending Iran’s support for the Iraqi Kurds and Israel’s access to them. By 1979, the shah had been deposed and replaced by Ayatollah Khomeini, turning what had been Israel’s most valuable regional ally into a principal adversary. Three years later, Israel invaded Lebanon and sought to bring to power a pro-Israel Maronite regime that would expel the Palestinians to Jordan, where they could establish a Palestinian state – thereby, it was hoped, allowing Israel to keep the West Bank. The endeavour was a total failure, serving as a warning to subsequent Israeli leaders of the dangers of meddling in Arab politics.

But what​ truly turned the periphery on its head was the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty, which invalidated the central premise of the strategy: that no peace could be reached with the Arab core. The peace with Israel’s best-armed enemy marked the beginning of the end of the Israeli-Arab conflict, to be slowly replaced by the far less menacing but more intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It set the precedent – later followed by the rapprochement with Jordan – of an Arab-Israeli peace that ignored the demands of the Palestinians. As Yasser Arafat ruefully remarked, ‘Sadat has sold Jerusalem, Palestine and the rights of the Palestinian people for a handful of Sinai sand.’ Abandoning the call for Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza was the price Egypt and the United States chose to pay for restoring Egyptian sovereignty in Sinai. Sadat understood this at the time, despite having signed another agreement with Israel – never implemented, but later to serve as a blueprint for the Oslo Accords – that called for a five-year ‘transitional period’ during which there would be a partial Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza; Palestinian elections for a self-governing body to replace the Israeli military government and civil administration; and negotiations over a final peace treaty to be concluded by the end of the transitional period.

In his useful book Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin and Sadat at Camp David, Lawrence Wright recounts a conversation between Sadat and his foreign minister, Mohamed Kamel, on the day before the signing ceremony, moments before Kamel resigned.* Kamel warned Sadat against a unilateral peace between Egypt and Israel that would isolate Egypt from other Arab states, doom Palestinian national aspirations, and provide Israel with the cover to build settlements and continue its occupation: ‘All Israel needs is a few years in order to bring the land under its control.’ Every one of Kamel’s predictions was borne out in subsequent years. But so, too, were those of Sadat, who told Kamel that without Egypt’s leadership the Arab states would ‘never solve the problems [in Palestine] … Israel will end by engulfing the occupied Arab territories, with the Arabs not lifting a finger to stop them, contenting themselves with bluster and empty slogans, as they have done from the very beginning.’

It wasn’t long before others started to follow Egypt’s lead. For a few years after the agreement, Egypt seemed to be diplomatically isolated in the region, but the Arab states soon reopened their embassies in Cairo. In 1982 the Arab states put forward a plan that offered implicit recognition to Israel, calling for peace between all states in the region in exchange for the dismantling of Israeli settlements and the establishment of a Palestinian state with the 1967 borders and East Jerusalem as its capital. The plan represented a dramatic advance in Arab willingness to live in peace with Israel, but was denounced by the Israeli government as something close to the opposite. Yitzhak Shamir, then foreign minister, called it ‘a renewed declaration of war on Israel’: the plan’s proposal for a Palestinian state, the foreign ministry’s official announcement concluded, ‘constitutes a danger to Israel’s existence’.

During the following decade, Israel’s position in the region grew progressively stronger. The peace with Egypt had greatly reduced the threat that Israel would face a war on two fronts. Arab attention had turned towards the Iran-Iraq war, further relieving pressure on Israel. After Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, the PLO was destroyed as a military force and expelled to distant Tunis. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 removed military backing from Israel’s fiercest Arab adversaries and brought nearly a million Jewish immigrants into Israel over the next 15 years – a significant aid in the demographic battle. The US invasion of Iraq in 1991 neutralised another of Israel’s primary threats. The first intifada, which lasted from December 1987 until 1993, pushed Israel towards accommodation with the PLO, which relinquished claims to 78 per cent of mandatory Palestine and, without obtaining even a promise of statehood, renounced terrorism and recognised Israel’s right to exist in peace and security. The PLO leadership agreed, as an interim step, to limited autonomy in parts of the West Bank and Gaza, as envisioned in 1967 by the former general Yigal Allon and proposed by Begin in the late 1970s.

The Madrid-Oslo peace process brought Israel to heights of co-operation with the Arabs that were unimaginable in the days of the periphery doctrine. Jordan signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1994. Seven Arab countries – Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Mauritania, Tunisia, Oman and Qatar – had diplomatic representation in Israel. Israel’s foreign minister Shimon Peres said Israel’s next goal should be to join the Arab League.

Though the euphoria didn’t last, the collapse of Oslo, the outbreak of the second intifada and the attendant cooling of relations with the Arabs didn’t have significant strategic implications for Israel or affect its military dominance. Comprehensive peace with the Arabs had become less important as their ability to wage a successful war had decreased, and as Israel came to be able to depend on the even stronger backing of the US after 9/11: the US and Israel now shared a sense of threat, bringing the two countries into closer co-operation. The US increased its already heavy presence in the Middle East, and the 2003 invasion of Iraq was enthusiastically supported by Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders. Iran and Syria worried that they could be next in line for US invasion. Libya volunteered to give up a clandestine nuclear weapons programme. As the closest Middle East ally of a hegemon at the height of its powers, Israel had little to fear from its adversaries.

For​ the first five decades of its existence, Israel’s primary concern had been how to deter surrounding Arab states from attacking, and how to prevail over them if deterrence failed. Today Israel faces no threat of conventional warfare from any Arab state. Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen have been all but destroyed. Syria’s chemical weapons programme, for many years among Israel’s top national security threats, has been neutralised. Egypt and Jordan are at peace with Israel, and the leaders of both countries have elevated security co-operation to new heights. Against Salafist jihadis in Sinai, as well as Hamas in Gaza, Egypt and Israel are working together more closely than at any time since the peace treaty was signed. In many respects Egypt and Israel now consider themselves to be closer allies to each other than each is to the United States. Jordan recognises that Israel is a guarantor of its security, the regional power most likely to intervene on its behalf should it face a serious threat.

The Palestinian national movement has been crushed. Since agreeing in 1993 to establish limited self-governance before achieving independence, the Palestinians have been stuck in an impossible situation: on the one hand, a quasi-state (the Palestinian Authority), on the other, a quasi-liberation movement (Fatah and the PLO), with neither being a success on its own terms. The PLO has gradually been drained of all its power, and is now an empty body with no plan for achieving independence. Palestinian political division – with Hamas controlling Gaza and the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority controlling the West Bank in security co-operation with Israel – has greatly reduced the pressure on Israel to allow the establishment of a Palestinian state. The main pockets of resistance to Israel’s occupation – militants firing from Gaza, lone wolf attackers from Jerusalem, protesters against Israeli prayer and visits to the al-Aqsa compound, weekly demonstrations at villages in parts of the West Bank fully controlled by Israel, the BDS movement in the diaspora and hunger strikers in Israeli prisons – have one thing in common: all of them fall outside the Palestinian Authority’s control. Suppression of resistance to Israel’s occupation – whether violent or peaceful – is one reason the PA is held in contempt by many Palestinians, though for now at least most are too dependent on it to seek its collapse.

The Muslim Brotherhood has been suppressed throughout the region: overthrown in a military coup in Egypt, besieged in Gaza, split into rival factions in Jordan, defeated in Tunisia’s last elections, weakened in Turkey and outlawed in the Gulf. Sunni jihadists in Syria are not only refraining from attacking Israel but are receiving medical treatment in Israeli hospitals. They may one day turn their guns towards Israel, but if they are in control of a state they can be deterred; and if they aren’t, they will remain, in the words of the former head of military intelligence Amos Yadlin, ‘third-order threats’. Hizbullah is preoccupied with a battle for its survival in Syria. Hamas’s room for manouevre is severely constrained by Israel and by the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and in Gaza it is seeking a long-term ceasefire. Israel has few good solutions to the current unrest, but it has also grown accustomed to living behind checkpoints and walls.

Saudi Arabia, Oman, the PA and the UAE are Israeli allies in all but name. They sided with Israel against Hamas in the 2014 war in Gaza. More recently, Saudi Arabia has made public some of its previously secret co-operation with Israel. Even Qatar, which hosts several senior Hamas leaders, works openly with Israel on the reconstruction of Gaza. In December 2013, President Shimon Peres was invited to address 29 Arab and Muslim foreign ministers. The Arab League unilaterally softened its still-standing 2002 offer of comprehensive peace to Israel, disproving Israeli claims that it is a ‘take it or leave it’ proposal that can’t be adjusted or negotiated. Today diplomats are searching for a way to help Israel and its Arab allies work together to reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace.

In Syria, the mutual bloodletting between Sunni jihadists and the Iranian-Hizbullah-Assad alliance is hardly harmful to Israel. A victory for either would be worse for Israel than the prolonging of the war. As Menachem Begin is said to have remarked about the Iran-Iraq war, Israel wishes great success to both sides. For the first time in Israel’s history, the old idea of a Druze buffer state in southern Syria has become imaginable, as has an Alawi state on Syria’s coast, and even, in the dreams of Israel’s right, the possibility of gaining international acceptance of Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights. The Kurds are closer to independence than they have ever been. Israel’s hope is that the establishment of other minority states in the region may not only create new allies but increase Arab and Muslim acceptance of Israel.

As the civil war spills over Syria’s borders, Turkey’s problems have steadily mounted, lessening its capacity to apply pressure on Israel. In the first signs of a potential thaw, Turkish and Israeli officials have again started to meet, and trade is increasing. Goods that Turkey once transported on trucks through Syria to the rest of the Arab world now arrive on ships in the port of Haifa, where they are loaded onto trucks bound for Jordan and the Gulf. Despite a great deal of noise about Israel’s international isolation, its trade with Europe is increasing too. It remains one of the top exporters of arms in the world. And with the discovery of large natural gas reserves in the Mediterranean, Israel has become an exporter of energy, which it plans to sell to Arab states. As Israel’s government often mentions when European-Israeli tensions increase over West Bank settlements, its ties with China and India are growing; India has even started supporting Israel at the UN.

Israel’s principal adversary, Iran, has just agreed to significant restrictions on its nuclear programme, and, for all the talk of spreading its tentacles and attaining Middle Eastern dominance, is overstretched and bleeding from rearguard fights throughout the region: in Syria, where despite Russia’s intervention Hizbullah will continue to lose a significant number of its combatants; in Iraq, where Islamic State and the Kurds are challenging Shia forces; and in Lebanon, where Hizbullah has never been more vulnerable to Israeli attack. Unlike Islamic State, Iran, as a Shia power, has limited ability to penetrate most states in the region, which are overwhelmingly Sunni. Israel is the region’s sole nuclear power, retains second-strike capabilities and is not a signatory to the July 2015 nuclear agreement, so has no commitment not to attack Iran. The current head of the Mossad has stated that the Palestinian issue is a greater danger to Israel than Iran’s nuclear programme, which, he said, doesn’t pose an existential threat.

The United States, meanwhile, is still devoted to maintaining Israel’s military superiority over all its neighbours. More than half of US spending on military aid goes to Israel alone, with the amount set to increase as compensation to Israel for the Iranian nuclear deal. The US protects Israel’s nuclear programme from Arab countries that call for a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East, and stands behind Israel in the UN Security Council and other international institutions. It is unwilling to contemplate sanctions against Israeli companies and institutions operating in the occupied territories. With a few exceptions, it has even insisted on referring to Israeli ‘neighbourhoods’, not ‘settlements’, in East Jerusalem. It still won’t dream of recognising a Palestinian state. Israel has been unyielding towards the Obama administration because it knows it has so little to fear.

The greatest dangers Israel faces today aren’t regional but internal: the need to subsidise a large non-working population of ultra-Orthodox men and Arab women; population growth among Palestinian citizens and ultra-Orthodox Jews; an excluded Palestinian minority; a rising number of attacks against Israelis, particularly in Jerusalem; and indecision about where to draw Israel’s still non-existent borders and what rights to grant Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. Jabotinsky, it turns out, was wrong to doubt that the Palestinians could be ignored. But he was right that an accommodation with the Arabs outside Palestine would not end the resistance of Arabs within it, as the current unrest shows. Without a peace with the Palestinians, relations with other Arabs can go only so far. It has always been the case that only the Palestinians themselves can confer the legitimacy and acceptance that Zionism craves. This is at the heart of the Israeli demand for recognition of Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people. That the demand is made of Palestinians and not of Jordanians or Egyptians reflects an Israeli recognition, at least an implicit one, of the legitimacy of Palestinian claims.

23 October

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Vol. 37 No. 23 · 3 December 2015

‘Seven Arab countries – Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Mauritania, Tunisia, Oman and Qatar – had diplomatic representation in Israel,’ Nathan Thrall writes (LRB, 5 November). To call Mauritania an Arab country is to overlook the 30 per cent of its population who are ‘black Africans’, mainly Wolof, Pulaar and Soninke. There’s nothing Arab about them, which is why strongman Maaouya’s Iraqi Baathist-backed junta tried to wipe them out in the 1980s and 1990s, inspired by Saddam’s going after Kurds further to purify his ‘Arab country’.

The majority of Mauritania’s Arabs are descended from Berbers. Defeated in the 17th century by vastly outnumbered but militarily superior Arab warriors, the Berber-speaking Zawāyā were forced to ‘abandon the sword for the book’: to lay down their arms and serve society as its marabous, or teachers of Islam. In this role they were deceptively servile: they embraced the imposed Arab social order, and created a kind of double-speak. (‘Kiss the hand you fail to cut off,’ says one Zawāyā proverb.) Gradually they came to join, and often to supersede, the Arabs as society’s nobles. The Zawāyā didn’t assimilate to the Arabs as much as swallow them.

The ‘Bidhane’ (literally, ‘white’), as these nobles came to be known, have done a pretty good job of persuading outsiders that they’re not merely ‘arabised’ but Arabs by blood – and the country’s ‘majority’ at that. But most of this ‘Arab majority’ is made up of the Bidhane’s slaves (Abid) and freed slaves (Haratine), most of whom are descendants of black Africans, now in the early stages of political activism.

Using different measurements, Mauritania’s two other majorities are religious (the country is 100 per cent Muslim) and racial (70 per cent of the population is black). The latter figure is most responsible for the Bidhane’s portrayal of the country as Arab: it marginalises non-Arabs, thus reinforcing the cultural divide that has helped keep the black majority from becoming a political one. This is the crux of la question nationale that has plagued Mauritania since it gained independence in 1960 – whether it is an Arab or an African country. Calling the country Arab implies the question has already been answered when it in no way has.

Lee Gillette

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