[News] Who Lost the Arabs?: Regional Relations with Palestine

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Fri Apr 19 12:04:56 EDT 2019


https://al-shabaka.org/roundtables/who-lost-the-arabs-regional-relations-with-palestine/ 



  Who Lost the Arabs?: Regional Relations with Palestine

by Ibrahim Fraihat <https://al-shabaka.org/en/author/ibrahim-fraihat/>, 
Nadine Naber <https://al-shabaka.org/en/author/nadine-naber/>, Loubna 
Qutami <https://al-shabaka.org/en/author/LoubnaQ-2/>, Sherene Seikaly 
<https://al-shabaka.org/en/author/sherene-seikaly/> on April 18, 2019
------------------------------------------------------------------------


    *Overview: Nadine Naber *

For decades, progressive political analysts have critiqued Arab states 
for abandoning the Palestinian struggle for liberation. According to 
this critique, while Arab governments often claim solidarity with 
Palestinians, their actions involve complicity in Israeli 
settler-colonialism – from political and economic cooperation with 
Israel to scapegoating Palestinians and repressing solidarity with 
Palestinian liberation within Arab states – as well as using the 
Palestine issue to bolster their legitimacy.

This roundtable interrogates this critique, offering nuanced 
perspectives on whether and to what extent Arab states have abandoned or 
compromised the Palestinian cause. Contributors situate this question 
within the transnational context of US imperialism and the connected 
realities of Arab and Palestinian fragmentation. Their perspectives 
inspire new questions about the relationship between state-run Arab 
nationalism and the global right; the US-Gulf-Israeli relationship; and 
the Palestinian political establishment’s normalization with Israel.

As recent changes in the region have given rise to increased 
normalization with Israel and more and more cooptation of the 
Palestinian leadership, challenging the US and Israeli-backed 
fragmentation within and between Arab states is more urgent than ever 
before. To this end, contributors call upon readers to consider new 
possibilities for Palestinian-Arab solidarity.

*Sherene Seikaly*urges us to “return to the idea of Palestine for 
fortification in the next rounds of battle.” While *Ibrahim 
Fraihat*reminds us that Palestinians have allies in the people of the 
Gulf states, *Loubna Qutami*insists that “the schism is not between 
Palestinians and Arabs but between the revolutionary aspirations of the 
people and the interests of those in political power.”


    *Sherene Seikaly*

To grasp the present reality of the lone Palestinian confronting 
geopolitical brutality, we can return to the fortunes and fallacies of 
state-run Arab nationalism. The latest deformations of this fallacy must 
be situated in the consolidation of the global right. Targeting 
Palestinians, dispossessing them, and foreclosing their futures has 
become an initiation ritual. Do it and you are welcomed into the ranks 
of the triumphant practitioners of xenophobia, racism, sexism, and 
stupidity.

The Donald Trump-Narendra Modi-Jair Bolsonaro bromance is crucial here. 
More crucial still is Arab state participation in these masculinist 
celebrations of suffocating the Palestinian. Egyptian President 
Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi and Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman 
prove their credentials by bullying the Palestinian, who today, more 
than ever, stands as the figure of the weak and bereft outsider. Any 
casual observer of history knows that Arab states have rarely, if ever 
cared about Palestine and the Palestinians. Yet, since 1948, a thin 
rhetorical veil of pan Arabism discursively shielded the Palestinians 
from full-fledged assault against the very idea of Palestine. Today, the 
global right and its Arab handlers have shorn the Palestinians of this 
last remaining shred. They seek at all costs to kill the idea of Palestine.

The idea of Palestine was one of the false promises of the modern Arab 
state. The desperate and disparate Arab performance in the war of 1948 
mobilized that fateful group of young Egyptian officers. These men, 
along with their counterparts in Damascus and Baghdad, would become the 
vanguard of a never-realized revolutionary future. A future, they 
promised, of economic, political, and social equality nourished by 
anticolonialism, third worldism, and socialism. From the shores of the 
Mediterranean, the Nile, and the Tigris to the Ghouta oasis, these 
military men, these founding fathers, would destroy the anticolonial 
promise they had touted.

In its place, they built a resilient authoritarianism that imprisoned 
the very people that Arab nationalism had committed to liberating. If 
one stopped to search among the battered shards of revolutionary 
promise, one might have found the idea of Palestine. The Arab world’s 
authoritarian fraternity would excavate the idea as a stand for 
everything they failed to deliver. The founding military fathers used 
Palestine as evidence that they still believed in these imperatives just 
as their subjects bristled at their bald hypocrisies. The idea of 
Palestine stood for freedom and anticolonialism.

The idea of Palestine was one of the false promises of the modern Arab 
state 
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Today the authoritarian fraternity has killed the valiant and flawed 
efforts of the Arab revolutionaries to reclaim the future, and it 
differs from the military fathers of yesteryear. This fraternity finds 
pleasure in the international cohort of leaders who seek to butcher 
opposition and expect international impunity. They are under no 
obligation to give lip service to freedom. Freedom is the antithesis of 
their visions for the present and future, and they will seek to bury it 
ever deeper.

This is why the idea of Palestine is nowhere now to be found in Arab 
state rhetoric. We could mourn this disappearance. It has dire 
consequences for the further entrenchment of the ongoing Nakba that is 
Palestinian reality. To be certain, the future is dark. But perhaps we 
can return, as have so many radicals in the Arab world and beyond, to 
the ongoing struggle for freedom, to the idea of Palestine for 
fortification in the next rounds of battle. As we do so a devastating 
question haunts us: Has Palestine lost not just the Arab states but the 
Arab people?


    *Ibrahim Fraihat*

A number of events that suggest an improvement in the relationship 
between Israel and several Gulf states have taken place, especially 
since the arrival of Donald Trump to power. It started with former Saudi 
General Anwar Eshki’s 2015 meetings 
<https://www.cfr.org/event/regional-challenges-and-opportunities-view-saudi-arabia-and-israel-0>with 
former Israeli officials such as Dore Gold, and then Eshki openly 
visiting Tel Aviv. Recently, Oman received 
<https://www.economist.com/middle-east-and-africa/2018/11/03/israels-prime-minister-visits-oman-an-arab-monarchy-and-is-welcomed>Israeli 
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in an official visit, the UAE received 
Israeli Minister of Sport and Culture Miri Regev 
<https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/regev-visit-uae-sparks-questions-over-improving-relations-402480358>, 
Bahrain participated in a cycling race 
<https://www.reuters.com/article/us-cycling-giro-israel/palestinians-condemn-uae-bahrain-presence-in-cycle-race-in-israel-idUSKBN1I81NW>in 
Jerusalem on Nakba Day, and Qatar received an Israeli gymnastics team 
and played the Israeli national anthem 
<https://www.albawaba.com/loop/israels-%E2%80%98hatikvah%E2%80%99-plays-doha-qataris-campaign-against-%E2%80%98normalization%E2%80%99-1270586>when 
an athlete on the team won an event. Only Kuwait seems to have stood 
firmly against any form of relationship with Tel Aviv.

While more encounters are expected in the near future, a sustainable and 
long-term relationship between Israel and the Gulf states remains far 
from a reality. The Gulf states will likely revert to their original 
positions once they realize that all they achieve from the relationship 
is international legitimization of Israel and their own delegitimization 
among their domestic constituencies. This is good news for the 
Palestinians, who can benefit from relations with the Gulf states 
without Israeli interference.

The first reason why the Gulf-Israeli relationship is doomed is the fact 
that it is not supported by Gulf citizens and thus remains restricted to 
government officials on both sides. Not even in one Gulf country does 
the public support such a relationship. On the contrary, some public 
figures who are known to be close to their governments have openly 
expressed outrage 
<https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/at-a-sporting-event-in-an-arab-capital-an-unexpected-sound-the-israeli-national-anthem/2018/11/25/fb64049a-e2a2-11e8-ba30-a7ded04d8fac_story.html?utm_term=.147e6c1cc763>against 
such relations with Tel Aviv.

One might rightly argue that Egyptians never normalized with Israel 
though the Egyptian government’s relationship with Israel continued. Yet 
Egypt’s border with Israel renders the conflict central to Egypt’s 
national security. This is not the case for the Gulf, whose governments 
generally perceive their national security to be affected by 
developments with Iran rather than Palestine.

Furthermore, the emerging American-Gulf-Israeli alliance is not built on 
equal partnership – in terms of rights, obligations, and gains – but 
rather on manipulation and exploitation. Israel’s and the Trump 
administration’s gains are actuals while those of the Gulf states are 
promised or perceived. So far, the US has benefited from significant 
arms sales to the Gulf and withdrew from its obligations under the JCPOA 
<https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-33521655>, while Iran has 
remained committed to the terms of the deal. Israel too is achieving 
unprecedented gains regarding Palestine, given the US embassy move to 
Jerusalem and Trump’s aid cuts to UNRWA. Israel is also making cracks in 
the historical Arab boycott of Israel, which has always been seen as a 
Palestinian strategic reserve.

In contrast, the Gulf states’ gain is only the perception that one day 
the alliance will remove the Iranian threat. This objective is 
fundamentally questionable. First, the US and Israel have no incentive 
to risk further clashes with Iran after turning their gains to actuals. 
More importantly, it is not in their long-term interest to completely 
remove the Iranian threat, which they use to manipulate the oil-rich 
Gulf states. The threat allows the US, for example, to maintain itself 
as the sole security vendor to the Gulf region. The maintenance of the 
threat is even more important for Israel, which has historically milked 
the US for advanced technology, as the latter is committed to Israel’s 
military superiority in the region. The “Iranian threat” serves as a 
mechanism to ensure the continuous supply of funds and military 
technology from Washington.

The chance remains for the Gulf states to return to more robust support 
for Palestinian rights 
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Gulf states rushing to build a relationship with Israel are under the 
illusion that the road to Trump’s heart and mind goes through Tel Aviv. 
This is a myth that Israel hypes effectively, especially to the Gulf 
states. Gulf states should realize that they are giving indispensable 
services to Washington in many areas, including oil, counter-terrorism, 
and military bases, and thus they need no one to provide an in to the 
White House.

Moreover, the relationship will not succeed simply because it was tried 
before but failed. In 1995, Qatar opened a trade office for Israel but 
discovered that the relationship was nothing but a serious liability. In 
2009, Qatar shut down the office and ordered its officers to leave.

Similarly, the Gulf-Israel relationship is doomed because it goes 
against the interests of the Gulf states themselves. A normalized Israel 
in the Middle East will allow it to compete economically with cities 
like Dubai. For Saudi Arabia, normalization will not only delegitimize 
its leadership position in the Muslim world but also invite Iran’s media 
to emphasize Riyadh’s dealings with Israel and give Iran the ideological 
upper hand.

Finally, the alliance is not institutionally based, and the only power 
keeping it together is Trump being in office. If the 2020 elections lead 
to a Democratic leader in the White House, the entire project of 
“confronting Iran” will collapse and the parties will revert to their 
original positions. Washington and Tel Aviv will retain their actual 
gains, while the Gulf states will go back empty handed. They will have 
lost the cards that they once had to play: an influential role in the 
region’s politics.

Yet despite this turn of events, Palestinians should not abandon the 
Gulf states, as this would play into the hands of the Israeli 
government. The chance remains for the Gulf states to return to more 
robust support for Palestinian rights – as well as a more robust role in 
regional politics. Moreover, Palestinians have allies in the Gulf, that 
is, the people of the Gulf states who have never subscribed to 
normalization with Israel. It also appears that certain individuals 
within Gulf regimes are behind the collaboration with Israel, rather 
than entire state systems. It is thus in the interest of the 
Palestinians to engage the Gulf diplomatically and with its civil 
society actors to ensure that they do not lose a key player in their 
struggle with Israel.


    *Loubna Qutami *

The Arab region’s seismic transformations since the 2011 uprisings have 
stimulated critical questions regarding the relation between the 
unfinished Palestinian anti/de-colonial struggle and aspirations for 
freedom, justice, and an end to totalitarian rule among Arab masses. As 
Arab regimes re-establish a new – and perhaps more egregious – iteration 
of normalized political, diplomatic, military, and economic alliances 
with the Israeli state, they betray their peoples’ dreams of systemic 
change in their own countries as well. Thus, there are ready parallels 
between Palestinian and Arab peoples’ grievances with establishment 
political regimes, which often act as gatekeepers to the current order.

The story of puppet regimes is not new to the Global South, and 
certainly not new to the Arab region. For at least 40 years, several 
Arab countries have operated in the interests of global hegemonic powers 
rather than their own peoples’ interests. For Jordan and Egypt, these 
decisions were calcified in peace agreements with Israel, which ended 
prospects of direct confrontation between them and the Israeli state. 
But giving in to Zionist regional hegemony took place in other ways as 
well, including among countries that had no formal diplomatic relations 
with Israel.

Unfortunately, the Palestinian political establishment – a leadership 
that once included outspoken critics of other Arab regimes – has now 
joined these regimes, officially since the 1993 Oslo Accords but 
especially since 2007, when Palestinian-Israeli security cooperation 
deepened in unprecedented ways. Though 2011 offered a monumental chance 
to foreground Palestinian liberation as part of a new phase in Arab 
history, Palestinians were unfortunately ill equipped to seize the 
opportunity. This is in part due to the internal fragmentation within 
Palestinian political life, which intensified in 2006 when Hamas won the 
parliamentary elections. Since then, the split between Fatah and Hamas 
has hardened the segmentation of Palestinian constituencies, weakened 
Palestinians in the regional landscape, made the recuperation of a 
coherent vision and political program more difficult, and placed 
factional interests and geopolitical and global loyalties above the 
project of national liberation.

The paradox today is that in the exact moment that global efforts for 
Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) of Israel are at their most 
powerful, Palestinians remain engulfed in coerced relations with the 
Israelis and Americans and relatively powerless geopolitically, while 
Arab regimes are intensifying their normalization with the Israeli 
state. The Arab dimension of the Palestinian national struggle must be 
understood in the context of this divide between those in power and 
those who challenge that power.

First, one must comprehend the precarity of the Palestinian colonial 
condition. The Palestinian people inhabit an ontology of Nakba 
<https://escholarship.org/uc/item/6kn3k8jk>, whereby Palestinian life, 
land, political institutions, vision, and strategy development are 
persistently decimated by siege, exile, and annihilation across multiple 
phases of the struggle and physical sites of resistance.

For the Palestinian revolutionaries of the 1950s and 1960s who anchored 
the political parties and later the /fedayeen/movement, the ability and 
necessity to inaugurate their political operations while in exile meant 
that they formulated their national identity and strategies 
interdependently with regional and international actors. This 
interdependent formulation of the Palestinian national struggle, which 
the PLO largely spearheaded in the aftermath of the 1967 war, meant that 
Palestinians enjoyed considerable support from regional and global state 
and non-state actors but were also vulnerable to the whims of regional 
and global reconfigurations of power. With each moment of regional and 
global transformation, Palestinians were forced to start anew, unable to 
accumulate materially and politically in the context of multiple 
exoduses (for example, from Jordan, Lebanon, Cyprus, Tunisia, Kuwait, 
and most recently Iraq and Syria).

Attempting to resolve this precarity, the dominant strand of thought and 
political power within the PLO, largely anchored by Fatah leadership, 
took questions of Palestinian self-determination, self-reliance, and 
identity literally, such that it made pragmatic decisions in its quest 
for a state without paying attention to the trappings of statehood and 
its subsequent institutional arrangements. Each decision was 
overdetermined by pragmatism rather than frame, ideology, principle, and 
an intentional strategy to maintain or even garner direct confrontation 
between the Arab regimes and Israel. After 1974, this nationalist 
pragmatism became the ultimate driver of strategy rather than 
revolutionary tenets of disruption and denormalization of a Zionist 
Israel’s permanence and influence in the region at large.

The schism is not between Palestinians and Arabs but between the 
revolutionary aspirations of the people and the interests of those in 
political power 
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Though the PLO had not yet abandoned guerilla warfare and armed 
resistance as methods of acquiring power, it found itself increasingly 
vulnerable in the region as a result of deepening relations between the 
Arab regimes and both Israel and the US. During its time in Lebanon and 
following its 1982 exodus to Tunisia, the PLO began to rely on 
international diplomacy as its main strategy for statehood. Arab states 
had to cooperate with the PLO to levy taxes among the Palestinians 
living within their borders, and they maintained some ambivalence to 
brokering overt deals with Israel in the interest of retaining 
credibility among their populations. But such cooperation became largely 
symbolic and transactional rather than embedded in a joint-struggle 
model confronting Zionist expansionism.

By the early 1990s, The PLO had survived multiple phases of defeat, 
exodus, and loss across various sites in the region. On the heels of a 
monumentally successful first Intifada, Israelis were finally forced to 
negotiate with the PLO. For the Palestinians, the fall of the Soviet 
Union, the impotence of the Arab nations, the Gulf War, and the 
subsequent exodus of some 250,000 Palestinians from Kuwait after the PLO 
supported Saddam Hussein circumscribed the leadership’s ability to 
maintain their resistance struggle while in exile.

The road to the Oslo Accords, which marked official Palestinian 
capitulation and normalization with Israel, thus began long before 1993 
and was deeply informed by both the precarity of the Palestinian 
ontology of Nakba and the desperate turn to nationalized pragmatism as a 
way out of the leadership’s decline in power and permanence in exile. 
Under these conditions, Palestinian political leaders made harmful 
decisions for their people and took unprincipled – albeit pragmatic – 
positions when it came to support for the rights and dignity of their 
Arab brethren.

We would therefore do well to interrogate the long-too-accepted claim 
that the Arabs abandoned Palestine and the Palestinians. Rather, 
Palestinians must assume responsibility for the things over which they 
did have control in the context of colonial occupation and 
dispossession, though it must be said it was not very much. Arab 
regimes, alongside the Palestinian political establishment, operated in 
tandem to nationalize the Palestinian cause and neutralize Arab 
countries in the confrontation with Israel. In the end, the schism is 
not between Palestinians and Arabs but between the revolutionary 
aspirations of the people and the interests of those in political power.

-- 
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