Saladin and the ongoing Arab-Israel Conflict

Nervan Mahmoud is a Doctor, blogger and analyst. She regularly comment on the affairs of Egypt, Arab world, Turkey, Iran and Israel/Palestine. Nervan’s blog is here and she can be reached at twitter.

Nervan Mahmoud

October 2, 1187: Saladin, the Sultan of Egypt and Syria, and leader of the Muslim forces battling the Crusaders in the Holy Land, captured the city of Jerusalem. Interestingly, this anniversary was only covered by two newspapers, Haaretz and al-Hayat. While Haaretz managed to shed some light on the narrative of the battle and how the city was captured, the Arabic article was more interested in Saladin, the leader, including his character and what lessons we can learn from him.


The fascination with Saladin is very old, though the Arab-Israeli conflict has raised it to a new level: now, we hear of him in movies and soap operas, not to mention fiery rants from religious scholars and political leaders who consistently push Saladin in their argument about “the liberation” of Jerusalem.

Undoubtedly, Saladin was an exceptional leader, not just as a military commander who was victorious over his enemies. Saladin was also a knight and chivalrous warrior leading many of his enemies to look to the Arabs with appreciation and fairness. However, I am not sure that Saladin is relative to the Palestinian cause. In fact, I think the fascination with Saladin reflects how many Arabs drew wrong parallels between the crusaders of the past and the Zionists in the present. Crusaders never claimed a historical link—unlike the Zionists—to the holy land and they were equally hostile to the Byzantine Empire in Constantinople (that initially controlled Jerusalem before the Arabs).

For years, I followed bitter arguments among Arabs about Zionism and the Arab-Israeli conflict; many openly or quietly subscribe to an oversimplified claim that Zionists ( just like the Crusaders) are a colonial power that has to be kicked out of the land. Others are for a one-state solution and ironically, do not withstand the Israelis with whom they want to unite. There are a few pragmatics who still support the two-state solution, but observed the decline of the Oslo-agreement and the current unfavorable environment that discourages any future negotiation.

All groups are not willing to dig deep in the psychological barriers that seem to be the main obstacles against solving the century-old conflict, the perspective of each side, and not even interested to differentiate the current conflict from previous ones that may look similar. In this context, I would like to highlight a few simple facts:

Firstly, Israel is not French Algeria or Moorish Spain; both had native countries (France and Islamic Morocco) that sponsored and protected the settlers of the disputed land. The United States is certainly not equivalent to the previous examples. The ranting of Netanyahu in the United Nations General Assembly and his bomb diagram proves my assertion.

Second, South Africa is another false example to follow for many reasons: The blacks of South Africa did not demand the right of return to the land confiscated by white Africana, and they never viewed the rest of Africa as a strategic depth that can protect and sponsor them. They also had a leader who offered reconciliation, a concept that is currently rejected by many Arabs and Israelis.

In addition, Israel/ Palestine have neither Saladin nor Richard Lion Heart, the kinds of leaders who are willing to fight each other until a decisive victory by one side; nor the Mandela-de Klerk type, who are willing to solve the crisis peacefully and initiate reconciliation. Instead, we have myths and apocalyptic assumptions: the champion on the white horse, who will liberate Jerusalem, versus “the villa” (Israel) that would be destroyed by a nuclear bomb.

Jacob’s Ford Battlefield (1179) on the Jordan River. Looking east from the Crusader fortress across the river in the direction from which Saladin’s forces attacked.

There was an interesting debate between Khalid Elgindy (Brooking institute) and Jonathon Schanzer (Foundation of defense of Democracies) on my Twitter timeline on Oct 1. These debates are essential, but I think it important to answer the question of empathy that – I think— lies at the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict before discussing any solution: Are both sides willing to accept each other? If yes, then the Mandela formula may work, but if the answer is no—which if honesty is a virtue, we should admit that it is the right answer—then let’s be frank with ourselves and admit it. Only then, the two-state solution may look appealing and convincing despite the “painful compromises” that may be needed.  Otherwise, we have to wait for long time for the repeat of Saladin’s moment in 1187 that may or may not happen.