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Saturday, 10 November 2018 10:06

Guy Burton, Rising Powers and the Arab-Israeli Conflict since 1947, Lexington Books, 2018

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Guy Burton’s book is a highly timely and readable account of the rising powers’ policies vis-à-vis the Arab-Israeli conflict. The emergence of regional powers in the post-Cold War global setting has spurred an increasing volume of literature on their Middle Eastern policies. The author situates his work within this trend. His contribution is thus threefold: Burton puts together an assemblage of these states’ policies in one volume, which is a first. He addresses one of the conflict’s literature’s key disadvantages, which is the predominance of the great and super power vantage point. And by detailing both the contributions and shortcomings of the BRICS’ policies, the book serves as an innuendo on the BRICS’ potential to help resolve the world’s most intractable conflict and perhaps other conflicts too.

Burton does well to begin his book by inquiring into the definition of a ‘rising power’, which is different from that of a traditional middle one. While the latter more often than not acts as an anchor and agent of stability, the former tends to be more confrontational towards the international system. This is naturally far from unambiguous; in the case of the Arab-Israel conflict, Burton’s narrative establishes that even among rising powers, conformity has usually trumped confrontation. Yet common to all of them is the penchant for ‘status-seeking behavior’, directed at the hegemon or other rising powers. Depending on the circumstances, this inclination is pursued either by challenging or supporting the status quo.  

The book is structured chronologically, rather than by country. Although at times this can make the reader feel discombobulated, it makes sense given the structural shifts in the regional and global contexts and their consequent impact on the BRICS’ conduct.  At the dawn of the Cold War all countries had minimal ties to the region and its parties. For the most part this amounted to limited, ‘passive conflict management’ initiatives. Thus, while Brazil’s elites were mostly pro-Israel and India’s strongly identified with the Arab cause, not much was done by either by way of active steps towards resolution. The same holds true about the Soviet Union, whose regional attitudes are portrayed as ‘complacent’ with a preference for the diplomatic path, while being unable to exert sufficient influence over its allies. China’s anti-Israel and pro-Arab assertiveness, an exception, was mostly due to domestic, regional (i.e. East Asian) and global concerns, rather than a desire for further involvement with and diplomatic investment in the Middle East.

The book’s most eloquent chapter does a superb job of enunciating the mid- and late Cold War’s convoluted dynamics. While in theory superpower détente was an opportunity for more active rising power involvement, this did not happen because détente meant stability rather than an appetite for breakthroughs. At the same time, changes in the global economy meant that rising powers were increasingly sensitive to producer’s demands and by extension more accommodating of Arab demands in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Interestingly, this did not entail an exacerbation of ties with Israel on the bilateral level, but rather in the sphere of public pronouncements. By contrast, Israel’s expanding military power and arms industry transformed it into a coveted partner for all kinds of regimes. The same period would also witness another major shift in the conflict: from an intra-state one to a ‘more internally oriented nationalist struggle’. The implications were obvious: it is impossible to overlook that up to this day, the BRICS have always been more comfortable dealing with states, non-state actors engaged mostly tactically. Passive management measures, such as a China-proposed 1984 international conference, could hardly have had a great impact on the ground. By the end of the 1980s, the scope for action had greatly narrowed down.  

It was indeed in the period between 1967 and 1993 that the template for dealing with the Arab-Israeli conflict was established. As the author demonsrtates, the main corollary of Oslo, which all BRICS supported wholeheartedly, was a further decoupling of the conflict from bilateral ties with its actors. Given the large power disparity between the two protagonists and America’s status as the sole global superpower, the implications of this development would be hard to miss.

Yet, as Burton emphasises, the post-Second Intifada era witnessed shifting dynamics anew. Although the contours of the conflict did not change (at all), rising powers saw the Arab-Israeli arena as a means to promote themselves. In practice, this has meant more rhetorical assertiveness than practical substance. Also key here is that most initiatives have taken place strictly within the confines of the Oslo framework. The BDS movement can be regarded as the only attempt to circumvent the Oslo process, although Burton doubts its efficacy, given the relative weakness of civil society in the BRICS.

Burton’s concluding chapter offers much food for thought in terms of the BRICS potential for future conflict management. As he reiterates, a more open post-2000 global context has not translated into a more active approach by the five countries. This has been important for those living with the conflict and because it undermines the BRICS’ claims to something more than merely rising powers. At first glance, Russia’s Syrian mediation could be seen as a refutation of what Burton perceives as BRICS lacklusterness. But one should not forget that the Syrian context has been truly unique in more than one sense and is unlikely to reappear anytime soon.

Charalampos Tsitsopoulos