Iron empires, iron fists, iron domes
TEL AVIV, Israel — I went to synagogue Saturday not far from the Syrian border in Antakya, Turkey. It’s been on my mind ever since.
Antakya is home to a tiny Jewish community, which still gathers for holidays at the little Sephardic synagogue. It is also famous for its mosaic of mosques and Orthodox, Catholic, Armenian and Protestant churches. How could it be that I could go to synagogue in Turkey on Saturday while on Friday, just across the Orontes River in Syria, I had visited with Sunni Free Syrian Army rebels embroiled in a civil war in which Syrian Alawites and Sunnis are killing each other on the basis of their ID cards, Kurds are creating their own enclave, Christians are hiding and the Jews are long gone?
What is this telling us? For me, it raises the question of whether there are just three governing options in the Middle East today: Iron Empires, Iron Fists or Iron Domes?
The reason that majorities and minorities co-existed relatively harmoniously for some 400 years when the Arab world was ruled by the Turkish Ottomans from Istanbul was because the Sunni Ottomans, with their Iron Empire, monopolized politics. While there were exceptions, generally speaking the Ottomans and their local representatives were in charge in cities like Damascus, Antakya and Baghdad. Minorities, like Alawites, Shiites, Christians and Jews, though second-class citizens, did not have to worry that they’d be harmed if they not did not rule. The Ottomans had a live-and-let-live mentality toward their subjects.
When Britain and France carved up the Ottoman Empire in the Arab East, they forged the various Ottoman provinces into states — with names like Iraq, Jordan and Syria — that did not correspond to the ethnographic map. So Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites, Christians, Druze, Turkmen, Kurds and Jews found themselves trapped together inside national boundaries that were drawn to suit the interests of the British and French. Those colonial powers kept everyone in check. But once they withdrew, and these countries became independent, the contests for power began, and minorities were exposed. Finally, in the late 1960s and 1970s, we saw the emergence of a class of Arab dictators and monarchs who perfected Iron Fists (and multiple intelligence agencies) to decisively seize power for their sect or tribe — and they ruled over all the other communities by force.
In Syria, under the Assad family’s iron fist, the Alawite minority came to rule over a Sunni majority, and in Iraq, under Saddam’s iron fist, a Sunni minority came to rule over a Shiite majority. But these countries never tried to build real “citizens” who could share and peacefully rotate in power. So what you are seeing today in the Arab awakening countries — Syria, Iraq, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen — is what happens when there is no Iron Empire and the people rise up against the iron-fisted dictators. You are seeing ongoing contests for power — until and unless someone can forge a social contract for how communities can share power.
Israelis have responded to the collapse of Arab iron fists around them — including the rise of militias with missiles in Lebanon and Gaza — with a third model. It is the wall Israel built around itself to seal off the West Bank coupled with its Iron Dome anti-missile system. The two have been phenomenally successful — but at a price. The wall plus the dome are enabling Israel’s leaders to abdicate their responsibility for thinking creatively about a resolution of their own majority-minority problem with the Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
I am stunned at what I see here politically. On the right, in the Likud Party, the old leadership that was at least connected with the world, spoke English and respected Israel’s Supreme Court, is being swept aside in the latest primary by a rising group of far-right settler-activists who are convinced — thanks, in part, to the wall and dome — that Palestinians are no threat anymore and that no one can roll back the 350,000 Jews living in the West Bank. The far-right group running Israel today is so arrogant, and so indifferent to U.S. concerns, that it announced plans to build a huge block of settlements in the heart of the West Bank — in retaliation for the U.N. vote giving Palestinians observer status — even though the U.S. did everything possible to block that vote and the settlements would sever any possibility of a contiguous Palestinian state.
Meanwhile, with a few exceptions, the dome and wall have so insulated the Israeli left and center from the effects of the Israeli occupation that their main candidates for the Jan. 22 elections — including those from Yitzhak Rabin’s old Labor Party — are not even offering peace ideas but simply conceding the right’s dominance on that issue and focusing on bringing down housing prices and school class sizes. One settler leader told me the biggest problem in the West Bank today is “traffic jams.”
I am glad that the wall and the Iron Dome are sheltering Israelis from enemies who wish to do them ill, but I fear the wall and the Iron Dome are also blinding them from truths they still badly need to face.
Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.