Something curious is happening in the Middle East.
Amidst President Obama’s repeated moves to withdraw American military power and influence from the Middle East and “pivot” to Asia, three regional leaders in the epicenter are forming a quiet, unexpected but fiercely determined alliance.
Why? To protect their people against two existential threats, one posed by the Shia Radical Islamists of Iran, the other posed by the Sunni Radical Islamists of ISIS.
Who are they?
- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu;
- Jordan’s King Abdullah II; and
- Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
They are meeting secretly. They are talking regularly by phone, as well as with other leaders in the region from Saudi Arabia to the Gulf. Their senior advisors are also in regular contact, coordinating moves to counter their most serious enemies. They are not waiting for Washington. Indeed, they often see the White House and State Department as less than helpful, and sometimes opposed to — or not truly understanding — their national and shared interests.
As 2014 began, I wrote a series of columns about why we should keep our eye on these three (for a sampling, see here, here, here, here, and here.) As 2015 begins, I hold to this analysis. These men are critically important players who are actively trying to shape the future of the Middle East for the better, and who are trying to work closely with the U.S. despite resistance from the White House.
NETANYAHU — Prime Minister Netanyahu declared war on Hamas last summer amidst a jihadist rampage sweeping the region. An experienced expert in battling jihad, few leaders have warned about the overall threat of Radical Islam — and specifically about the Iranian nuclear threat — not just to Israel but to the U.S. and the world more clearly or consistently than he.
“To defeat ISIS and leave Iran as a threshold nuclear power would be to win the battle and lose the war,” Netanyahu told leaders at the UN last September. “ISIS and Hamas are branches of the same poisonous tree. They share the same fanatical creed….The Nazis believed in a master race. The militant Islamists believe in a master faith….Militant Islam is on the march. It’s not militants. It’s not Islam. It’s militant Islam….Allowing Iran to reach nuclear capabilities will pose the greatest threat to us all.”
He leads the most faithful and trusted ally America has in the Middle East (and arguably in the world), yet he is persona non grata in the White House, and far closer to his colleagues in Amman and Cairo.
ABDULLAH — King Abdullah II has declared war on ISIS and launch repeated rounds of airstrikes after a Jordanian pilot was burned alive by ISIS. He is pro-Western and has worked closely with the U.S. military and intel community for years.
What’s more, the King and his top advisors are also actively engaged in trying to deconstruct and delegitimize the theology of Radical Islam. In 2005, the King issued the “Amman Message,” a public call for Muslims to reject violent extremism, promote tolerance and moderation, and project innocent human life, based on a “Reformer” interpretation of Islam. Since then, some 552 Muslim leaders, scholars and clerics in 84 countries have signed the document in agreement. He has also worked hard to protect Christian minorities in Jordan.
The King, perhaps America’s most trusted and faithful Arab ally, has the best relationship with Obama of the three — yet it is far from what it should be. The President reportedly was not even planning to meet with His Majesty on his recent trip to Washington, and apparently only changed his plans after learning of the Jordanian pilot’s death. Even then, they met for less than 20 minutes.
El-SISI — President el-Sisi has declared war on the Muslim Brotherhood and other brands of jihad. In the summer of 2013, he and the Egyptian military brought down the Brotherhood that was strangling Egypt and was trying to impose Sharia law. He declared a ferocious war on the lawless jihadists operating in the Sinai desert, shut down many of the smuggling tunnels connecting the Sinai to the Gaza Strip, and committed himself to cutting off the arms and money flowing to the Hamas terror group operating in Gaza.
Most recently, he delivered a major speech in Cairo on January 1, 2015 challenging Muslim leaders to reform Islam and rescue it from the Radicals. “Is it possible that 1.6 billion people [Muslims] should want to kill the rest of the world’s inhabitants – that is 7 billion – so that they themselves may live? Impossible!” el-Sisi told scholars at Al-Azhar University, the Harvard of Sunni Islam. “We are in need of a religious revolution. You, imams, are responsible before Allah. The entire world is waiting for your next move….I am saying these words here at Al Azhar, before this assembly of scholars and ulema (learned men) – Allah Almighty be witness to your truth on Judgment Day concerning that which I’m talking about now.”
Yet while el-Sisi has forged excellent working relations with Abdullah and with Netanyahu (especially important during the 2014 war with Hamas), the Obama administration refuses to treat el-Sisi as partner and ally of the United States. Instead, it condemned removal of the Muslim Brotherhood from power and called for Mohammed Morsi to be put back into power. (Morsi is the man who famously said during a campaign speech, “The Koran is our constitution, the Prophet is our leader, jihad is our path and death in the name of Allah is our goal.”)
Meanwhile, the Obama team has refused to dispense more than $500 million in promised aid to Egypt. A top Egyptian official said U.S-Egyptian relations were in “turmoil” in 2013. The situation remained so bad that in the summer of 2014 el-Sisi declined an invitation from President Obama to come to meet him in Washington.
Two U.S. officials told me of a meeting they had with President el-Sisi in Cairo last year. The Egyptian leader told them he had a better working relationship with Netanyahu than with President Obama.
True, Israel signed a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979, and signed a separate peace treaty with Jordan in 1994. But that has not always meant the countries worked closely together. Indeed, there have been times of much stress and tension in each of these relationships.
But times are changing. The rise of the Radicals, and the retreat of Mr. Obama, is bringing these three leaders together in unexpected ways.
Each sees his country in grave danger from the forces of Radical Islam.
Each has chosen to boldly and aggressively engage in military action against the Radicals to protect their people, despite widespread criticism at home and abroad.
Each is also increasingly speaking out publicly about the nature of the threat — the poisonous, genocidal theology of the jihadists — and each is calling on the world both to understand the threat and help them first contain and then defeat Radical Islam before it is too late.
Yet to their astonishment, Netanyahu, King Abdullah and el-Sisi have come to realize that President Obama and his administration do not fully appreciate the magnitude of the threat, and that the Obama team is not fully committed to taking decisive action to neutralize the threat.
Will this alliance succeed to stopping Iran, ISIS and other Radicals? Only time will tell. But it’s an important — though very sensitive partnership — and one the U.S. should be assisting, not resisting.