Step Two: Retaining Power

As we indicate above, a transfer of power from a dynastic leader, be he a monarch (Saudi Arabia, Morocco) or a strong man (e.g. Iraq, Syria) is only as good as the ability of the recipient of the power to remain in power. Even the most tyrannical of leaders, such as Saddam Hussein, are unable to wield power by themselves. The loyalty of key advisors is most important, as is the ability to use the military, the intelligence services, the secret police, and others, in order to protect oneself from competitors, to deter coups d’etat, to defend against foreign subversion, and to maintain one’s monopolistic hold on the reins of power. At the end of the day, the ability of a successor to remain in power is only as good as his ability to play the political game with the same effectiveness as the person that he replaced. Thus, although in some settings power can be ceded from one individual to another, it cannot be forgotten that the power is also this individual’s to lose if he is not an effective politician. For example, as we indicate at the outset, certain Arab heads of state have been able to forge arrangements and agreements with Israel which, if widely and popularly discussed, might have been unpopular. In reality, these were successful because of the political cunning and sophistication of the heads of state.

As further evidence of this, after the Arab-Israeli peace process began to evolve, several Arab heads of state began to allow their countries to increase their involvement with Israel, on both covert and overt levels, both politically and commercially. The first state to adopt this approach was Morocco, which, in fact, did so decades before the peace process ever began. Morocco has historically had a uniquely workable and nuanced, if somewhat subtle relationship with Israel. The reasons for this can be attributed almost exclusively to the skill of the late King Hassan who, for a variety of reasons, both rooted in Morocco’s contemporary political character, as well as its historical relationship to the Jewish world, impelled him to seek a relationship with Israel which other Moroccans might have opposed based on Islamic, Arab, and other factors.

King Hassan was a highly skilled politician and, thus, was able to bring these skills to bear in forging a relationship with Israel years before Sadat and Begin began the chain of events leading to the Camp David Accords. Whether his son and successor, Mohammad VI, shares his views on Israel, and has the skills to continue to implement them, will only become clear over time, although to date, there is no evidence to suggest that Mohammad VI differs in any way from his late father in his views on Israel.

Having said this, King Mohammad VI has already shown himself to be very much his own man. For example, in a move that is said to have “shocked” Moroccans, the King removed from office the powerful Interior Minister Driss Basri. Basri was said to be the most influential figure in Morocco, after King Hassan, and remained in power for more than twenty years. As The Washington Post noted, “it was stunning that King Mohammad, a meager thirty six years old, and in office barely one hundred days, summarily dismissed Basri.” The Post goes on to report on a number of other radical and dramatic changes that the king has undertaken in order to put his stamp on his reign. How far he is willing to go remains unclear, but it is evident that the new king is very much his own person.

Other states have also been able to engage in relationships with Israel in which the leaders were able to ignore public opinion that might have been reluctant to support a relationship with the Jewish state. Here, such states as Qatar, Oman, Jordan, and others, come to mind. The point being made is that political skill is as essential in non-democratic settings as it is in democratic ones. The personal attitudes and political skills of Arab heads of state are crucial determinants to whether or not their states will or will not engage in a peaceful relationship with Israel. And it is such political skill that helps to ensure political survival after a transfer of power.

Political succession complicates this issue even further. Heads of state who have been willing to explore, initiate, and improve ties with Israel, either overt or covert, have generally felt themselves sufficiently secure in their power in order to do this. Most of these heads of state have been risk takers, as status quo opposition to Israel would have been far easier for many of them than was recognition of it, no matter how informally. It is for this reason that political succession and the Arab-Israeli conflict are so directly linked. Only a head of state secure in his belief that he will retain his power is likely, at this juncture, to seek an improved political relationship with Israel.

The ability to attain and retain power is a two-step process. The actual conferral of the power is dependent upon the head of state and the support of his immediate circle of advisors (e.g. the military and others). Given King Abdullah of Jordan’s ties to the military, it was not difficult for King Hussein, for example, to get the support of the military for his deflection of the line of succession from Crown Prince Hassan to Abdullah. Once the baton has actually been passed however, it is then up to the individual who is the recipient of the power to retain it through the clever and systematic use of power, incentives, threats, coercion, or whatever is needed to stay in power. For example, an unconfirmed report by Israeli Military Intelligence (Aman) notes that although King Abdullah enjoys broad-gauged support with the army, “support for him in the middle and upper class is thin.8” The validity of this is as yet unclear, but what is evident is that although successional leadership skills can be taught, they are as much an art as a science. And, thus, we will not know for certain if Bashar al-Assad or Qussai Hussein for example, will be able to replace their fathers until after they are actually in power and remain in office for some time. The same holds true for King Mohammad VI of Morocco and King Abdullah of Jordan, as well as for any other aspirants to power in any Arab country.

In the race for political succession, the passing of the baton marks only the beginning of the struggle and not the end, as no matter how many years one’s father may have been in power, there is an expectation by some that the son or the recipient of power is not the man that his father or predecessor was. There are always those who hope that he will fail and who will work actively to undermine him. For this reason, principle three suggests that political succession can only be measured by the sustained retention of power and not merely by the allocation of it. It is noteworthy however, that no successor to any Arab peacemaker with Israel has withdrawn support for a peace made by his predecessor. Thus, the peace process should be vigorously pursued by Israel and its Arab interlocutors as Arab-Israeli peace has shown significant durability to date, as well as resilience and imperviousness to changes in leadership.