Originally published as an oped in Haaretz, 29 Oct 2013
The current turmoil in the Middle East and its consequences are there for all to see. What began as a popular movement labelled the ‘Arab Spring’ has long since been hijacked by a number of malevolent forces.This is most obviously on display in Syria, where the conflict being waged involves a host of unsavory actors. But right across the region we have seen extremist actors seek to exploit a popular desire for change across the Arab world to advance their own narrow and intolerant agendas.For Israel, this is a deep worry. Uncertainty and instability is re-ordering the Middle East, and no-one knows just how the new strategic environment will look. But amidst the clouds of disruption, there is the hint of a silver lining.
The old organizing principle of the region – Arab antagonism towards Israel – is crumbling. New fault lines are emerging in its place, organised around the common threats of Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the growth of terrorism and extremism. Speaking at the opening of the Knesset’s winter session last week, Prime Minister Netanyahu touched upon this. “For the first time since the establishment of the State of Israel, a growing understanding is taking root in the Arab world, and it is not always said softly. This understanding, that Israel is not the enemy of Arabs and that we have a united front on many issues, might advance new possibilities in our region,” he told the Knesset.
The challenge now is to see if this growing understanding can be converted into something more tangible and enduring, for the benefit of Israel’s security and for greater peace and stability in the wider Middle East.
Southeast Asia faced a similar period of turmoil in the mid-1960s. In 1965, the Cold War was at its height and a major geopolitical fault line ran through Southeast Asia. The Vietnam War, already raging for several years, was escalating and embroiling its neighbours, Laos and Cambodia. All the non-communist countries of Southeast Asia faced serious internal threats from communist insurgencies or subversive movements, supported by a revolutionary government in China that was then launching the Cultural Revolution.
Trust between these non-communist states was low. Singapore had just been expelled from the Malaysian federation. Indonesia was pursuing a policy of confrontation (“konfrontasi”) against Malaysia. Brunei had put down an internal rebellion backed by Indonesia. There were irredentist pressures on the borders between Malaysia and Thailand and between the Philippines and Indonesia.It was in such unpropitious circumstances that Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and the Philippines came together to create the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN.
It was a case of putting aside smaller differences to focus on the larger picture. As Singapore’s elder statesman, Lee Kuan Yew. described it, “ASEAN was formed so that the non-communist states in Southeast Asia could contain and manage their differences to meet the greater threat from the communists.” ASEAN worked. Whilst territorial disputes, border skirmishes and political tensions persisted between members, they were kept at a manageable level. Member countries were freed up to focus on bigger challenges. No major conflicts erupted, and the spread of communism was contained.
After the Cold War ended, ASEAN gradually enlarged to 10 members, taking in nearly all of Southeast Asia, and has since become the primary platform for engaging the major powers in Asia, including the United States, Russia and China.
ASEAN frequently comes in for criticism for its slow pace of integration, its inability to resolve fundamental territorial and other disputes between its members and its unwillingness to coerce or pressure member states.
But ASEAN has never aspired to the level of integration and pooled sovereignty pursued by, for instance, the European Union. Its cardinal principles have been non-interference in internal affairs, strict respect for the political systems of its members, the utmost regard for sovereignty and decisions taken only by consensus. Its basic premise is that countries can disagree on some significant issues and yet still share an interest in more fundamental concerns.
There are obvious parallels with the situation in today’s Middle East. Countries with diverse political systems, territorial disputes and some long-standing disagreements nonetheless recognise that the existential threats and challenges they face warrant greater coordination and cooperation. There is a recognition that old differences and enmities on some issues should not be allowed to frustrate a united front on the main picture.
But trust and familiarity are low and habits of open cooperation almost non-existent.
It is no secret that Israel and the Arab states need to find a way to work more closely together to address common threats. The challenge is to create a mechanism to do so, and for an Arab state with vision and ambition to step forward and make it happen. It might start with something quite small, such as inviting an Israeli delegation led by think-tankers to the annual Manama Dialogue in Bahrain this December. The equivalent event in Asia, the Shangri-La Dialogue, held yearly in Singapore, has been an excellent forum over the years for building trust between unlikely partners.No-one is under any illusion that this will be easy, but Asia’s example shows that it can be done.