ISIS: A Priority in the Region at the Expense of Palestine and Other Issues

03/20/2015 04:52 pm ET | Updated May 20, 2015

The anticipated American-Iranian deal has an implicit Palestinian/Israeli dimension that could force Tehran to change its political discourse regarding Palestine and Israel, and alter the Iranian regional policy based on compensation -- at least verbally -- for the Arab failures on Palestine. The re-elected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems determined not to allow the establishment of a Palestinian state. This puts Palestine and the Arab countries at an important fork in the road forcing them to think of alternatives to the two-state solution that a majority of Israelis reject, as this has become clear now. However, the Arab priority is not Palestine, not only now, but for the last few years. The Islamic State group (ISIS) has become the main focus of policies and alliances, including the international US-led coalition against ISIS which includes important Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Another important alliance is the de-facto alliance between the United States and Iran, in Iraq and beyond.

The evolution of the strategic relationship between Saudi Arabia/UAE and Egypt was not based on the ISIS problem, but rather on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and their Turkish dimension, and the Iranians in the Middle East and their Arab dimension. Israel is the fourth leg of the disrupted Turkish-Iranian-Arab-Israeli balance of power, and today it wants to put the Arab countries in the corner similar to Iran and Turkey.

The common denominator between the three, Iran, Turkey, and Israel, is the religious identity imposed on the state. The Islamic Republic of Iran, founded by the Khomeini revolution 35 years ago, imposed religion on the state at a time when the Arab region was moving away from religion towards nationalism and other identities. The theocratic regime in Tehran lasted until now, suggesting to many in the neighboring Arab region that religion provided a path to power as happened in Iran.

Israel clung on to religion and imposed it on the state by insisting to be a Jewish state in the theocratic sense, in preparation for "purifying" Israel from the Palestinians to become a purely Jewish state. Everyone knew the meaning of insisting on seeking recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, while pretending that this was just a definition of Israel as a Jewish state and not a prelude to a Jewish-only state. Ultimately, religion is the basis of the Jewish state in Israel, just like it is the basis of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The similarity between the Jewish state and the Islamic Republic was clear to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who found for himself a way to engage in the religious one-upmanship through the Muslim Brotherhood -- not only in the Arab region, especially Egypt. Erdogan sought to reverse the secularism that characterized Turkey after Ataturk, and to propel a crude rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power, especially in Egypt.

What the second revolution in Egypt brought was the popular rejection of imposing religion on the state. Egypt distinguished itself from the Jewish-Shiite-Sunni trio in Israel, Iran, and Turkey by insisting on rejecting the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is based on imposing religion on the state.

Egypt today occupies a priority position among the Arab majority, being eligible to repair the disequilibrium in the regional balance of power to ensure the presence of an Arab counterweight and prevent the balance of power to be exclusively dominated by Iran, Israel, and Turkey. The Egypt Economic Development Conference held last week, bringing together 120 nations and regional/international institutions produced $130 billion in pledges for economic and development projects that put Egypt on the path to sustainable recovery and to restoring its regional weight and confidence.

The first step was $12 billion pledged by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Kuwait to help Egypt confront US threats to punish Cairo for having toppled the Muslim Brotherhood rule. This step is part of what is now being called the Egyptian-Arab Marshall Plan and is a basic component in the bid to establish an Arab weight in the regional balance of powers. It is also an important investment in preventing religious encroachment on the state, whether through the Muslim Brotherhood project or the ISIS project. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Kuwait and other countries did well to support Egypt and revive it as a long-term steady strategy.

Egypt will not be involved on the ground in Libya, but it will confront ISIS and similar groups in the torn neighboring country. Egypt's leadership will not turn "pharaonic" because it realizes it is under the microscope locally and regionally. Egypt realizes the importance of the investments in it politically, and not just economically.

Palestine is an important challenge for Egypt at this juncture, especially since Israel wants Egypt to "inherit" Gaza to become Egypt's problem and not Israel's problem.

Regarding the Palestinian issue in general, the challenge for Egypt is a challenge for all Arab countries: what to do now that it has become clear that Israel does not want the two-state solution, that it would not allow a Palestinian state even on 20 percent of historical Palestine, and that it is uninterested in the Arab initiative, which offered recognition of Israel in return for ending the occupation?

The war option is highly unlikely, after a quick reading of Arab priorities. None of the Arab states wants to "liberate" Palestine. The boycott option seems more likely in line with new formulas such as the BDS formula; however, this also requires Arab and non-Arab government decisions that would raise the ceiling of boycotts.

Then there is the choice of suing the Israeli occupation and Israeli measures at the ICC, which requires a major Gulf investment in Palestine to allow it to endure punitive American and Israeli measures that will hurt Palestine without Aab support.

What is new is that the American-Iranian deal that is expected to go beyond the nuclear deal will lead Iran to stop outbidding over Palestine to embarrass the Arab countries and the Gulf countries in general. Tehran has its different priorities now, including having a good relationship with the Obama administration and trying to appease the Congress, which judges Iran's actions especially through its positions on Israel.

President Barack Obama will not jump to confront Israel for what is practically the cancellation of the two-state solution, which was the basis of US policy and international consensus equally. People who observe the US media scene will find that the usage of the word Israeli 'occupation' of Palestinian territory has receded in favor of 'dispute' over land.

The debate is no longer serious about whether Israel will choose to be a democracy and choose to end the occupation and allow a Palestinian state. The Israeli voters chose Netanyahu's pledge to disallow the establishment of a Palestinian state. The majority of the Israeli public wants Israel to be a purely Jewish state and considers that there is no solution to the demographic problem except by having a pure Jewish state. In reality, Israel has for years maintained that it considers Jordan to be the alternative homeland of the Palestinians, and has acted accordingly despite all promises.

Jordan today is sheltering behind American promises, which made the kingdom a necessary partner in the war on ISIS. Jordan hopes the United States would prevent its Israeli ally from taking measures that would be part of fulfilling its historic threats. However, counting on the United States has become a dangerous adventure. President Obama will do little more than express concern, as he is fully focused on his legacy by concluding a deal with Iran.

This, in Obama's opinion, could help remove the mutual perception of one another as "satan" or "great Satan" This, Obama believes, would allow the United States to crush ISIS through an American-Iranian alliance before any other alliance.

ISIS caused the US and Iran to close ranks, being a "natural" enemy as an organization with a Sunni background - the same background that staged the terrorist attacks of 9/11 in the United States. ISIS has become a gift for Iran at a crucial stage of the US-Iranian relationship as a result of the nuclear talks and the US blessing given to the role played by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Iraq and Syria.

ISIS has become an instrument that diverts attention away from Iran's rise on the US list of priorities and the fall of Palestine and Syria on the Arab list of priorities. ISIS has become a US priority equivalent to the Iranian priority for the Obama administration.

The Arab countries, notably Saudi Arabia and Egypt, must return to the policy-drafting board to explore options realistically and transparently, in light of Iran's rising stock with the United States and Iran's reduced one-upmanship on Palestine, as well as the clarity of Israel's choices against the establishment of a Palestinian state and its use of ISIS as a distraction and a bargaining chip for making deals. Such deals include what US Secretary of State hinted at when he spoke about the necessity of negotiations with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the same man had praised 5 years ago before starting to call him a butcher 3 years ago. Now, he wants accord with Assad on the 4th anniversary of the Syrian tragedy.

What happened at the Egypt Economic Development Conference is encouraging for having brought about new qualitative developments in terms of addressing the the challenges facing this major Arab nation, with Gulf decisions and assistance that has strategic dimensions and commitments. It is important to give Egypt the priority in investment, but also to expand this approach to other places facing major challenges, such as Palestine, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.

Translated from Arabic by Karim Traboulsi