(Bloomberg Opinion) -- In the winter of 1977, a month after former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's historic trip to Israel, I went to Cairo as a member of the first Israeli peace delegation. This was a heady time, especially for me. I was optimistic that peace with the Arab world was now at hand.
I expressed this optimism to General Abrasha Tamir, a fellow delegate and one of Israel's most senior strategic planners. "Israel will always need at least one enemy in the Middle East," he snorted in reply.
I put this down to Tamir’s well-known contrarian streak. But the remark struck with me and I eventually came to understand its wisdom. I recall it today as Israel sits down, for the first time in a quarter century, to sign peace agreements with two Arab states, this time at the White House.
The Middle East is a famously contentious place. There is hardly a country that hasn't been at war with its Muslim neighbors. Egypt and Saudi Arabia fought over Yemen in the ‘60s. Syria invaded Jordan in the early ‘70s and threatened the Hashemite regime. Iran and Iraq waged a brutal war during the ‘80s and later Iraq invaded Kuwait. Today the Saudis and Gulf states are at war with Iran and Egypt is fighting Islamic State forces in the Sinai.
Countries survive in this region by playing power games. For many years, while Israel was officially non grata in the Middle East, it played behind the scenes. Jerusalem supported Turkish dissidents in Iraq and Syria, propped up Jordan against Syria and, more recently, supported Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States in their fight with Shiite Iran.
Sharing a mutual enemy is the way you make friends in the Middle East. Tuesday’s signing ceremony in Washington affirms that. It is not a display of mutual admiration. It is not about the shared economic and technological benefits that peace may bring. It is not even about the looming American election. It is, from Israel’s point of view, the public ratification of Jerusalem’s alliance with a necessary friend against a necessary enemy.
General Tamir's insight is on display in Washington. And so is its domestic corollary back in Israel. It turns out that at least one serious regional threat is indeed necessary to maintain Israel’s precarious internal stability.
Israel is not the melting pot that its Zionist, socialist founding fathers envisioned. It is a federation of polarized tribes that live together uneasily. The Arabs of Israel do not share the Zionist vision. Neither do the ultra-orthodox Jews, who live in a self-segregated world of their own and accept as a final authority only their own rabbis. The frequent flouting of government corona restrictions by both communities has sharpened resentment among mainstream Israelis.
The Zionist mainstream is fractured and polarized along interlocking ethnic, class and political lines. Large communities of second-generation Jewish immigrants from North Africa and Asia, mostly Likud voters, struggle for cultural and economic dominance against a left-leaning European secular elite. A million immigrants from the Soviet Union and more than a 150,000 from Ethiopia have yet to establish their place in Israeli society.
Politics are in disarray. Right-wing settlers, traditionally among Bibi’s main supporters, are furious over his decision to freeze the annexation of West Bank territory in return for treaties with distant Arab states. Bibi’s left-wing opponents are grudgingly willing to go along with the peace deal, but that hasn’t weakened their determination to continue an increasingly intense street campaign to force the prime minister’s resignation over indictments on charges of fraud and corruption.
On the day before his departure for Washington, Netanyahu announced that Israel -- which, along with Bahrain leads the world in per-capita Covid 19 cases -- is going into its second national shutdown. Some in the business sector, which has yet to recover from the first national shutdown, is threatening to emulate the non-compliance of the Arab and Ultra-Orthodox communities.
Fortunately for Israeli cohesion, the country has been able to keep some enemies. The Sunni Arabs of Gaza, who are pledged to Israel’s destruction, routinely fire incendiary balloons and occasional rockets at Israeli civilians along the southern border. Hezbollah has amassed a large arsenal of Iranian missiles supplied through Bashar Al-Assad's Syria.
In Washington, Netanyahu will thank his friend Donald Trump for putting the peace deal together. But he also owes a debt of gratitude to the threats and aggression of Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his proxies. They are General Tamir’s “necessary enemy.” And, for now, they are also the glue holding the country together.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Zev Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books. He was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine.
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