Policy Implications for the United States

Although American and Israeli concerns in the Middle East are not always synonymous, there are clearly some shared and significant policy concerns for both Washington and Jerusalem in the realm of leadership succession in the Arab world. The first of these is that the political elite in all Arab states must be identified, analyzed and understood with great care. Although this may appear to be an obvious and simple proposition, it is complicated and politically sensitive. As indicated above, the number of contenders for political power in every state is significant, and it is important to have an accurate read of who the contenders for power are, when their political fortunes rise, and when they may just as quickly ebb. Neither the U.S. nor Israel, or any other outside observer for that matter, can fully understand these complex processes of political succession. Thus, it is essential to recognize that nothing can be taken for granted. Today’s highly likely successor can just as quickly be forgotten as a successful and completely unanticipated aspirant takes power instead. Thus, while it was widely expected that King Mohammad VI would rise to power to replace his father in Morocco, in Jordan the unanticipated and complete opposite was the result. In short, it is essential that both the U.S. and Israel have hedging strategies. What is meant by this, is the conscious development of the ability to be nimble and flexible in policy formulation so that whoever emerges as the head of state will be an individual with whom both Washington and Jerusalem can quickly establish a constructive and positive political relationship, often with little advance warning. It is highly risky to exaggerate the value of political longevity as the fate of both the Shah of Iran and Sadat demonstrated.

A realization that there are no guarantees about political succession necessitates political flexibility. It is essential to be aware of all relevant players and aspirants to power, and not simply the obvious ones. This can be a tricky diplomatic and political proposition, as a reigning head of state is rarely eager for foreign powers, particularly ones that are as politically significant and often problematic as the United States and Israel, to establish relationships with a broad array of political figures, many of whom may be political competitors and even oppositionists. The most extreme example of this was Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini with whom neither the United States nor Israel had a prior relationship before his ascent to power. In large part, this was a casualty of the Shah’s heavy-handed unwillingness to permit his foreign friends to establish ties with his domestic political opponents. No less important was the fact that no one in the United States, in Israel, or even in Iran for that matter, suspected that Khomeini would eventually seize power. This experience is illustrative of the true opaqueness and complexity of elite succession in non-democratic settings. Even the most unlikely “candidate” may rise to power, although this happens rather rarely. Thus, our abiding recommendation here is that all relevant contenders must be identified and not merely the obvious ones.

It is also important to recognize that the Arab-Israeli issue occupies a variety of roles within different national and political contexts. Thus, Israeli and American policy makers must understand these differences and must be sensitive to them. For example, the perception of Arab-Israeli peacemaking and ties with Israel differs dramatically between Jordan and Egypt. Egypt’s leadership has always been more ambivalent about peace with Israel than has Jordan’s. In part, this relates to the culture created by the peacemakers themselves, although Mubarak’s succession placed peacemaking with Israel in the hands of a political successor and not in those of the author of the peace plan itself. A successor who inherits someone else’s peace process may well regard peace with Israel in a different way than did the visionary political leader who was the initiator of such a peace process in the first place.

Thus, an important question for us to ask is how does the successor generation regard a process that was initiated by its political predecessors? Mubarak is clearly not the same as Sadat. How does Jordan’s King Abdullah mirror or differ from his father Hussein, or Morocco’s King Mohammed VI from Hassan? Or to make the question even more deeply speculative, how will Syria’s Bashar al-Assad regard peace with Israel in comparison with his father Hafiz al-Assad? For Assad senior perhaps, a permanent standoff with Israel must obtain until Bashar assumes power. The opposite possibility is also plausible, with the father willing to take greater political risks than might his less experienced son. The point here, rather than formulating every possible permutation of this important question, is to recognize the different fashion in which the Arab-Israeli issue functions in different national political contexts, while being sensitive to such variance.

In addition to being nimble and politically flexible, it is also important for the United States and Israel to be as non-ideological and pragmatic as possible. Obviously, there are limits to such pragmatism, but what is important is the ability to work with a wide array of possible political ascendants and not to be immutably and unswervingly linked to a single political strain or tradition. This can be a risky temptation when a head of state’s tenure can be counted in decades. It is quite likely that a new generation of leaders will wish to place its imprint on the political systems that it inherits. On one hand, the younger generation, for a variety of reasons, is likely to treat the legacy of those before it with honor and respect, at least publicly. Nonetheless, on the other hand, new leaders may well have fresh ideas and visions and, thus, it is important for the United States and Israel to be sensitive to these new perspectives and not to make the assumption that the father is forever synonymous with the political future of a country in which the son, or designated political heir, will assume power. Certainly, there will be an acculturation or education process in which the United States and Israel will try to work with the new leader in order to try to make certain that he will remain or become sympathetic to Israeli and American regional concerns. Nonetheless, both states need to be prepared to accommodate their policies to possibly differing political preferences by successors who may have different visions and views of their country’s destiny then did those who preceded them.

It is also crucial for the United States and Israel to remain distant from the actual internal political maneuvering and politicking that determine political succession in every setting. Although there may have been a few broken hearts in some foreign capitals over the fate of Crown Prince Hassan, it is laudable and important that no evidence has yet to emerge of any attempt by the United States or Israel to in any way influence the political succession process of Jordan. There may be a temptation, particularly for the United States, to attempt to leverage a favorable political outcome in the complex and Byzantine world of Arab political succession. Yet this temptation must be resisted at all costs.

Both the United States and Israel must work with any leader who manages to make his way to the political forefront, as long as this leader is not inherently and immutably opposed to a political relationship with the United States and Israel. Certainly, Washington and Jerusalem will have preferences about whom they would like to see come to power and whom they would not. But these preferences must remain unvoiced, at least publicly, as the costs of becoming unsuccessfully involved in political succession could be extremely high and of long duration, not only in one country, but more broadly throughout the Arab world as a whole. There remains deep and profound skepticism throughout the Arab world about the motivations, intentions, and ambitions of both the United States and Israel. If there is ever any hint of involvement by Jerusalem or Washington in the mechanics of leadership succession in any of these countries, the political implications could be profoundly disruptive for all concerned.

As a general principle, it is essential that both the United States and Israel make clear that they are willing to work with all legitimate and constructive regional political forces. Here I am making reference to a perceptual issue in which it is important that the United States and Israel both be perceived as states willing to co-exist with, rather than to dominate or exert inappropriate influence over, the states of the Arab world. Again, this prescription is premised on recognition of and sensitivity to the deep skepticism with which both of these countries are still regarded throughout the Arab world.

Although this section has dealt with Israel and the United States simultaneously, there certainly are areas in which there may be different regional interests or priorities. The two are not synonymous in terms of their political and regional world views and there are instances in which there are differences of opinion between Washington and Jerusalem. Nonetheless, broadly drawn, there are also profound and deep similarities of interest between the two. In the general realm of political succession, Washington and Jerusalem both share a commitment to and interest in modern, responsible, political leaders coming to power who support the Arab-Israeli peace process, who are committed to pro-Western political leadership, and who otherwise believe in a stable, moderate, and constructive Middle East.