Arab diplomacy: myth and reality

Arab diplomacy is a rare commodity. Understandingly so, since there is no such thing as an “Arab nation”, as it is currently alleged; the 20 odd Arab states have no common foreign policy on most issues.

True, the peoples of this region share a basic language, while speaking a variety of dialects, as well as cultural and religious values, mainly Islamic but also Christian, and these affinities generate natural solidarities, especially in periods of trial and affliction. However, other factors have built up separate and distinctive identities.

Each Arab people has its own specific character, local customs and traditions; virtually all of them were part of the Ottoman Empire, but they have had different experiences since their accession to statehood in the aftermath of the First World War. Before independence, some lived either under British occupation or French colonial rule. As sovereign states, they have been submitted to different political regimes, economic and social institutions. Some are rich, many are poor, and their vested interests are often contradictory. On a personal level, an Egyptian Muslim would feel closer to a Christian Copt than, say, to a citizen of Saudi Arabia or Morocco. Palestinian refugees were not integrated in “brotherly countries” not only because they were perceived as aliens, but also because they would and could not assimilate to the peoples that harbored them.

It remains that the idea of pan-Arabism persists in the form of a romantic yearning in the masses, and as a political slogan for some populist parties. Gamal Abdel Nasser, an authentic Egyptian nationalist, adopted this self-serving objective in the 1950s and ’60s, hoping he could use it as leverage for power on the international scene. When he utterly failed to achieve unity first with Syria, then with Iraq and Yemen, he hoisted the banner of “scientific socialism” and tried to use the Arab League for his struggle against “western imperialism” and its “surrogate state,” Israel. However, the pan-Arab organization was and remains more a useful public forum than a tool of coordinated action. Resolutions–conceived to please public opinion in member states–are rarely implemented.

Paradoxically, Zionists also actively cultivated the myth of pan-Arabism before and after the establishment of the State of Israel. It served them to argue that Palestinians were “Arabs” who could or should be “transferred” to any other Arab state; hence the policy of expulsions during the 1948 war, followed by the persistent opposition to the return of Palestinian refugees to their homeland; the “Jordanian option” was conceived to facilitate “territorial compromise” (in practice, expansion) and to prevent the creation of a Palestinian sovereign state. Pan-Arabism was also used as a scarecrow to cement national unity facing the threatening “Arab ocean”, a hostile, aggressive and powerful Goliath determined to crush a small but courageous David. “Bitakhon” (security) and “ein breira” (we have no choice) became key words in the Israeli political vocabulary.

It is difficult to believe that all Israeli decision-makers ignored the fact that the Arab League was impotent, divided and, for some of its members, favorable to the Jewish state for their own opportunist reasons. The Palestine Liberation Organization, and especially Yasir Arafat have been, from the start, unpopular among Arab rulers, who feared them for condoning revolution and terrorism. For different reasons, King Hussein in Jordan and Abdel Nasser in Egypt had good reasons to mistrust them. Again it is difficult to believe that the Israeli establishment did not know that conservative Arab leaders considered Nasser more dangerous to their regimes than the Jewish state, that some of them secretly rejoiced when Israel defeated the Egyptian leader in the Six-Day War; that, according to a press leak, the happy event was celebrated by a champagne party in one of the Arab royal courts.

Today, Arab governments believe that the stability of the Middle East is seriously threatened by the ongoing Arab-Israel conflict, which fuels anger against both the Americans and their “local lackeys”. Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, to name a few, are active behind the scenes in the implementation of the roadmap. It remains that the most significant move of the Arab League since its foundation was its commitment, in March last year, to full normalization with the State of Israel following the conclusion of a peace treaty, roughly based on the achievements of Israeli and Palestinian negotiators at the conference at Taba. The wording of the resolution clearly suggests that the offer is open to further negotiations, particularly on the sensitive issue of the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees.

Unfortunately, this unique initiative of Arab diplomacy has been treated with skepticism, scorn or hostility by Ariel Sharon’s government. If taken seriously, it could still lead to the end of a century long conflict.