The rise of Islamists Sets Up a Surprising Stance on Israel

Ahmad Jamil Azem

In his recent tour in Egypt, Sudan and Tunisia, Ismail Haniyeh, the prime minister of the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip, was welcomed by huge popular rallies. Such images - unimaginable just one year ago - raise the question of how the rise of Islamists to power in various Arab states could affect the Arab-Israeli conflict.
History could suggest a surprising conclusion: on many occasions, Islamists have played a pacifying role in this conflict.
The Palestinian Fatah movement of the 1950s was established after leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt refused appeals from young members in Gaza to initiate armed resistance. Yasser Arafat, Khalil Al Wazir, Salim Al Zanoun and Asad Al Saftawi were among the founders of Fatah in the second half of the 1950s. All were originally associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. In countries such as Egypt and Jordan, the Muslim Brotherhood gave priority to the domestic agendas, wanting to start with establishing a Muslim society and state.
Khalid Al Hassan, another founder of Fatah and its outspoken ideologist, was also a founder of Hizb ut Tahrir (the Liberation Party) that was established in 1953 as an Islamist rival of the Muslim Brotherhood. The party insists that an Islamic state and the Caliphate system must be revived before declaring war. In practical terms, that postpones any confrontation with Israel.
In the aftermath of the 1967 war, factions advocating armed struggle against Israel became leading powers in the Arab world. Islamist figures from the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups had no choice but to fight Israel. Among those was Abdullah Azzam, who later became a professor at Jordanian and Saudi universities until the 1980s, when he became a leading personality in Pakistan and Afghanistan during the struggle against the Soviet Union.
Azzam, who was assassinated in 1989, inspired many to participate in this jihad. It is believed that Osama bin Laden was among those he influenced. But many Palestinians believe that the Afghan jihad diverted resources, attention and manpower from their cause. Many Muslims and Arabs criticise Al Qaeda - which was established by Arab Afghan jihadists - for fighting the wrong battle rather than supporting the Palestinians.
In the mid-1980s, there was increasing criticism within Islamist groups over their passive role in the Palestinian cause. As a result, the Al Jihad Al Islami Movement was established by former members of the Muslim Brotherhood who wanted to adhere to Islamism while fighting Israel. Such criticism contributed to the establishment of Hamas in 1988 as a Palestinian resistance group affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.
This history demonstrates how Islamists, although never in favour of peace with Israel, have not always made resistance their top priority.
Palestine was not the major issue that led people to the streets in the recent Arab uprisings. This does not mean, however, that Palestine is now unimportant to people in the Arab world.
Before hosting Mr Haniyeh in Tunisia, Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of Ennahda (the Muslim Brotherhood political party in Tunisia) visited the United States. He became embroiled in a controversy over statements that he reportedly made to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "[In the Arab World], some revolutions have succeeded, others are on their way … Today the republics are on the verge of extinction, next year it will be the turn of monarchies," the institute reported him as saying. The statement could harm Mr Ghannouchi's relations with Saudi Arabia and other monarchies in the region, and he denied it, telling the pro-Saudi newspaper Al Asharq Al Awsat that the media should not depend on "Zionist-biased sources" - a clear reference to the pro-Israel institute.
Aside from the controversy, the comment demonstrated that Mr Ghannouchi himself was willing to speak to a "Zionist" body. He had, after all, accepted a speaking engagement at the Institute.
In a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, Mr Ghannouchi made a clear point: "Concerning the Palestinian-Israeli issue, it is mainly a Palestinian concern and a concern of the people that represent the Palestinian people - the Palestinian Authority or whomever represents the Palestinian people. And if the Palestinian people reach an agreement with the Israelis, it's no longer a major issue for other Muslim countries."
Egyptian Islamists have also shown surprising flexibility on the issue. Most people in Egypt, including Islamists, oppose normalisation of ties with Israel, says Dr Ewan Stein, lecturer at the school of social and political science at Edinburgh University.
But Dr Stein finds that Islamists make a distinction between "high politics" and "low politics" and this argues for a long-term view in relations with Israel.
Issam El Erian, the deputy leader of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party in Egypt, told The New York Times recently: "This is a commitment of the state, not a group or a party, and this we respect." He said Israel had to understand the implications of the Arab Spring - "the biggest change in the Arab world's history" - which had given new voice to Arab anger regarding the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.
Although Islamists use anti-Israel rhetoric in their popular propaganda, their policies clearly indicate that a confrontation is not high in their priorities. Egyptian Islamists will not work to rescind the peace treaty with Israel. Even Hamas, as the major Islamist Palestinian group, is showing more flexibility toward considering a compromise with Israel.
Nevertheless, if no serious political process takes place soon, Israel will face an angrier region. Any new wave of confrontations with Palestinians could invoke a different atmosphere, with radical Palestinians receiving increased support. Ahmad Jamil Azem is a visiting fellow at the University of Cambridge's faculty of Asian and Middle East studies The National