Time as a factor affecting the big picture

timeWe often think of time as more than a commodity; time can be a threat. And in the Middle East, time is used as a weapon to the detriment of the West.

Time can be perceived in different ways—objectively (by measuring its passage with a clock) and subjectively, where time slows down or speeds up, is precious or cheap, depending on one’s outlook and personal situation. For instance, two hours with friends seems to fly by, but a two-hour meeting can feel like an eternity.

Just as time can fly or lag, depending on circumstances, so can the importance of time change. Put bluntly, in negotiations or conflict, if a party believes that time is on their side, there is less pressure on them to reach a conclusion than the party who believes that time is against them. A party that believes time is against them will be willing to make concessions to conclude the process they’re in, to ensure that the passage of time doesn’t make things worse.

It is therefore important to be the party with whom time rests. Put differently, it is important to make the other party believe that time is not on their side. In this way time can be weaponised. There are different ways to weaponise time. Broadly speaking, they fall to three categories: military, political/diplomatic and nature.

While there are many variations of this theme, if you can make your enemy believe that your overwhelming military power will create a major problem for them if they do not do something (or do not desist from doing something) by a certain date, then you will have made your enemy aware that time is not on their side.

If you can make your enemy aware that increasing numbers of third parties are against them and, for as long as your enemy maintains its current course of action, this trend will continue, then your enemy will gain the impression that time is not on their side.

While it is difficult to categorise with one word, if you can make your enemy aware that nature – be it in the form of demographics or climate change or the rising tide – will make it worse for them as time goes on, then their perceptions of what their options are will be duly affected.

With these things in mind, we can turn to the Middle East. The three issues in the Middle East that are currently attracting media attention are: the perennial Israeli–Palestinian dispute; the Iran nuclear negotiations; and Islamic State (the actual Syrian civil war, of which Islamic State is only one party, has seemingly fallen off the radar, to be replaced by videos of Islamic State barbarity).

In regards to the Israeli–Palestinian dispute, both the Israelis and the Palestinians believe that Israel is time-poor and that Palestinians have time on their side. This is for diplomatic and natural reasons. On diplomacy, the international community is increasingly critical of Israeli positions and increasingly accepting of Palestinian decisions. Opinion polls show the same trend among the general public in Western countries. These trends are reflected in growing diplomatic recognition of ‘Palestine’ and growing public support for boycotting Israel, despite the moral bankruptcy of doing so.

On nature, most Israelis and Palestinians believe that the ‘demographic threat’ of, within a few decades, there being more Arabs west of the Jordan River than Jews has the ability to considerably change the equation.

Because Israel believes that time is against it, it has made increasingly large offers to compromise in search of Israeli–Palestinian peace. Palestinians, on the other hand, have barely changed their negotiating positions since 1993. A long as everyone thinks time is against Israel, don’t expect the Palestinian position to change.

Israel’s friends should want to change this time perception equation. They could do so by making Palestinians aware that the generous international aid it receives without (enforced) conditions will end by a certain date if Palestinians don’t start acting responsibly in haste.

As to the Iran negotiations, the Islamic Republic is confident that time is on its side. Broadly speaking, it knows that the West (in particular, US President Obama) wants a negotiated outcome more than Iran does. So it can afford to wait, and obfuscate, and delay and otherwise keep on drawing out the negotiations so the Western offers come more and more palatable. The West occasionally rattles a sabre (‘no option is off the table’), but these are not considered credible by Iran. Were the West or Israel to make a credible military threat based on an unmovable deadline, Iran’s perception of the time up its sleeve might change dramatically. But this is unlikely to happen.

Countries like Saudi Arabia – which perceive Iran as a threat – also believe time is against them. That is why many are beginning their own nuclear programmes.

Islamic State is where one can see time on the side of the West (or, at least, against Islamic State). As I wrote previously, it is inevitable that Islamic State will recede with time. Indeed, these signs are already coming to pass. (That said, in Islamic State’s wake will be only chaos and ruin. This will likely be filled with another party or many parties squabbling over the right to rule—particularly the right to rule the oil fields in the areas Islamic State currently controls. Without a significant amount of money and US troops on the ground—neither of which will likely be made available—it is unlikely that conditions can be put in place that will allow for peace and security to be restored for the people of the area in the foreseeable future.)

As time goes on, things are becoming more difficult for the West’s Middle East allies. Time cannot be stopped, but perceptions of how much time one or the other side has can be changed. Unfortunately, neither the US nor the Europeans have the will to slow down the Middle East’s current trajectory toward further instability and conflict. time