Both Iran and its allies, as well as the Israeli right, stand to benefit at the expense of Palestinian suffering
As pressure for a ceasefire mounts, condemnations of Israel’s actions from Arab officials have been gaining momentum with a number of countries, most notably Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, forcefully expressing their opposition to Israeli attacks on Palestinians.
Speaking to al-Arabiya TV on Wednesday, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, made Saudi Arabia’s position on Palestine clear: namely reaching a permanent solution according to the Arab initiative and a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as the capital.
In response to continued Israeli airstrikes on the besieged Gaza strip, which as of May 17 have reportedly killed 212 people including at least 61 children, the foreign minister said that the Israeli campaign was “empowering the extremists” and urged “all parties” to stop the violence.
On this point, the Kingdom’s top diplomat is undoubtedly correct. Although he may not have meant it explicitly as such, the Israeli campaign ultimately does benefit ‘extremists’ by serving the interests of both Iran and the Israeli right, and Netanyahu in particular.
What the minister’s statement failed to account for, however, is that Arab states, not only those who normalised relations with Israel but also those who have been most vocal on curtailing Iranian influence, not only hold some latent responsibility for the current state of affairs but have also arguably missed a historic opportunity to forcefully assert themselves in regional affairs.
While the current situation has made it unlikely that Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar will themselves normalise relations with Israel, more forceful diplomatic action is collectively required if Arab states are going to be significant players with regards to both the Palestinian issue as well as the region’s big geopolitical questions.
Latent responsibility and regional repercussions
As numerous observers have pointed out in the wake of the current round of violence, the normalisation deals struck between Israel and several Arab states as part of the so-called ‘Abraham Accords’ have had their rhetorical bubble burst.
Trumpeted by the likes of Jared Kushner writing for the Wall Street Journal as the world “witnessing the last vestiges of what has been known as the Arab-Israeli conflict,” and promoted by its Arab signatories as a means of increasing influence on the Israelis, it has become abundantly clear that normalisation has done nothing to advance the cause of peace.
According to Kushner’s assessment shortly after the signing of the accords, “one of the reasons that the Arab-Israeli conflict persisted for so long was the myth that it could be solved only after Israel and the Palestinians resolved their differences”, adding that the accords “exposed the conflict as nothing more than a real-estate dispute […] that need not hold up Israel’s relations with the broader Arab world.”
In other words, proponents of the deal advanced the notion that Palestinians were so beaten down that addressing their grievances was no longer necessary. This has been emphatically proven wrong not only by what is taking place in Gaza, but perhaps even more importantly, by the mobilisation of Palestinians in Jerusalem, the West Bank and within Israel itself, not to say anything of the popular anger expressed around the world against Israeli violations against Palestinians.
Arab states that normalised relations with Israel not only put their public image on the line by claiming the deals would advance the cause of peace, they – either naively or cynically – risked their credibility as serious players in the region’s longest festering sore and arguably the biggest shame of modern Arab history.
There are also important consequences as far as regional politics go.
Firstly, and most immediately, is the empowerment of the Israeli right and Netanyahu in particular. Contrary to the views of its proponents, the normalisation deals arguably served to empower the maximalist Israeli position held by the Israeli right and championed by Netanyahu.
The Israeli political scene, which was on the verge of witnessing the unseating of Netanyahu by a broad coalition of his opponents, has given a political lifeline to Netanyahu by giving him the opportunity to present himself once again as the only leader capable of ‘defending’ Israelis.
Moreover, failing the unlikely suspension of the normalisation deals, Netanyahu can claim that establishing relations with the wider Arab world do not ultimately depend on a just settlement with the Palestinians, further denting what minuscule prospects for a just peace remained.
Secondly, Iran and its allies in the region stand to increase both the soft-power they gain from playing the Palestine card as well as their leverage vis-à-vis negotiations with the United States.
Regarding the former, the lack of more forceful action from Arab states has arguably indirectly amplified the ‘resistance’ narrative that Iran and its Syrian and Lebanese allies have pushed for years.
The advancement of this narrative, along with some notable tactical victories against Israeli forces (i.e. the 2006 Lebanon war), previously contributed to the popularity of the so-called ‘axis of resistance’ across much of the Arab world, a popularity that was mostly shattered by Iran and Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria on behalf of Bashar al Assad.
The inability of Arab states to make progress on the Palestinian issue, which remains so important to people across the Arab and wider Muslim world, serves Iran’s ‘resistance’ narrative well and arguably amplifies the reach of its soft power.
This is buttressed by the fact that, as numerous reports have shown, Hamas’ ability to launch rockets capable of circumventing Israel’s ‘Iron Dome’ is in no small part thanks to Iranian assistance.
And while the notion that Hamas is simply an Iranian proxy is inaccurate, armed conflict between Palestinian groups in Gaza - most prominently Hamas and Islamic Jihad - and Israel over the last decade has seen Iran’s position in the region enhanced.
As far as regional geopolitics is concerned, the latest round of violence could result in an enhanced Iranian position vis-à-vis its negotiations with the United States.
A recent brief published by the Soufan Center, a US think tank, states that:
“The Iranian role in the Israel-Gaza fighting may instill urgency in the Biden administration’s efforts to negotiate a mutual Iranian and U.S. return to full compliance with the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement. A collapse of the talks – when coupled with the Israel-Gaza conflict, Iranian naval challenges to U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf, and periodic rocket attacks on U.S.-manned facilities in Iraq by Iran-backed militias – could prompt a sense of crisis in the Biden administration's efforts to respond to turmoil in the Middle East […] the [recent] fighting appears to have reinforced the administration’s intent to reach a deal with Iran in the Vienna nuclear talks.”
Of potentially significant consequence to Arab states opposed to Iranian activities in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, is the fact that this could have the effect of watering down any provisions addressing Iran’s non-nuclear capabilities, including its conventional missile capabilities and asymmetrical warfare, both of which are of major concern to Arab states, particularly in the Gulf.
The burden of history
The Arab world’s post-Ottoman and then post-colonial history can be at least partly characterised as one of political impotence in the face of foreign domination.
With the important exception of Egypt in 1973, Arab militaries have proven unable to match the technically superior Israelis. Moreover, the 2003 US invasion of Iraq revealed a deep sense of frustration and anger amongst many Arabs at the realisation that they did not control their own destinies.
Prior to his assassination at the behest of the Syrian regime, the Lebanese journalist and intellectual Samir Kassir wrote of what he termed ‘Arab malaise’.
In his Being Arab, Kassir writes that “the Arab people are haunted by a sense of powerlessness […] powerlessness to suppress the feeling that you are no more than a lowly pawn on the global chessboard even as the game is being played in your backyard.”
While Kassir was writing in reference to the Arab peoples as a whole, the spirit of his argument could just as well be applied to rulers of the Arab world today. Palestine has symbolised this political impotency for decades and the fact that Arab states appear able to do little beyond condemning Israeli violations only serves to drive this point home.
For the states that recently signed normalisation deals with Israel, failure to withdraw from the agreements ultimately in the wake of the current round of violence, regardless of their stance towards Hamas, undermines their political credibility, both at home and abroad. For those who have not normalised, failure to exert pressure on those that have to either leverage those relationships or withdraw demonstrates a lack of influence and reflects a disunity unbecoming of a strong regional bloc.
Any way you cut it, as long as Arab governments are either unable or unwilling to seriously tackle the Palestinian issue, not only will Palestinians continue to suffer indignities, but Arab voices in regional affairs will continue to be fractured and ultimately forced to play by the rules of others.
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