By Harold Rhode, who received in PhD in Ottoman history and later served as the Turkish Desk Officer at the US Department of Defense. He is now a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute.
Does it matter that Muslim Arabs cannot sign a true peace agreement with Israel? Not as long as Israel recognizes it must remain militarily strong and resolute in defending its culture and borders.
The news media is filled with reports that the Arab world – most notably Saudi Arabia and countries in the Persian Gulf, might be prepared to sign a nonaggression pact with Israel. What does this mean, however, from a Muslim perspective?
For countries with strong institutions, agreements are not made between leaders. Meaning that such agreements continue to be valid even if the countries’ governments change.
This is not the case in the Middle East, where with the possible exception of Turkey, agreements are made between leaders, and last as long as those leaders are still in power.
Middle Eastern states are by their very nature authoritarian, even if they appear to have the trappings of democracy – like parliaments, government ministers, etc. If a leader dies or is overthrown, all bets are off. The new leader decides which agreements he will honor.
In essence, in these authoritarian states institutions are by their nature weak, because they are loyal and respond to the leader – not to the people. Regarding Middle Eastern leaders, the late professor Bernard Lewis used to say “the state is their estate.” Meaning that they understand their countries to be their fiefdoms, where they can do pretty much what they want.
In summary, in democratic societies, a “government official” means a person who represents the people vis-à-vis the government. The people empower their governments.
In the Middle East, the Arabic/Turkish/Persian word for government official/bureaucrat is “maamur” or “mu’azif” – which mean “one who is commanded.” But commanded by whom? Answer: Middle Eastern government officials don’t work for the people, they work for and represent the rulers – i.e. a top-down structure.
In Islam, peace as we know it in the West, meaning letting bygones be bygones, cannot exist between Muslims and non-Muslims. According to both the Koran and the Shari’a, there can however be a temporary agreement – a truce or armistice. Such a truce is called a “sulha” or “hudna.” These agreements are modeled after the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah, a 628 CE treaty between the Islamic prophet Mohammad and the Quraysh tribe of Mecca, who Mohammad was unable to defeat.
The agreement was to last 10 years, but after only two – when Mohammad had managed to rearm himself sufficiently – he reneged on the agreement, attacked his enemies, and defeated them.
This sulha/hudna agreement is the type of non-aggression pact the Saudis and other Arab Muslim nations seem to be willing to sign with Israel. It is now in their interest to do so because their existential enemy is Iran, an enemy which they share with Israel.
Any agreement they sign with the Israelis must be understood in these terms. These are not peace agreements; they remain in force only as long as the leaders of these Arab countries believe it in their interest.
What would happen, for example, if the Iranian regime collapsed and the new government in Iran no longer threatened the Sunni Arab regimes? Would Israel and these Arab countries still share common interests? Would these agreements still hold? Can Muslim leaders recognize Israel as a Jewish state with the right to live within borders on land once conquered by Muslims?