The unprecedented success of recent Arab mediation vis-a-vis Lebanon raises the question of whether Arab mediation is a viable route to take in other conflicts and matters of Arab concern.
The escalation in tensions that led to an outbreak of violent confrontations two months ago in Lebanon created widespread fear that another civil war might erupt. This brought Arab countries, first represented by the Arab League and later the leadership of Qatar, to exert pressure on the different Lebanese parties to sit down for reconciliation. This in turn led to agreement resulting in the creation of a new national unity government.
One of the main lessons from that experience is that since the Lebanese tensions were partly a reflection of the conflicting interests of Arab countries supporting different Lebanese parties, a solution was possible only when these competing governments were willing to reconcile. The fact that Syria and Saudi Arabia were part of the collective Arab effort was a significant and decisive factor in ensuring its success.
The question, however, is whether this successful experience can be developed into a model that can be applied to other similar conflicts or in dealing with matters of concern for the Arab world. The experience of another Arab mediation process, to end the internal Palestinian conflict, may be telling.
That process began with the Saudi-mediated Mecca agreement of spring 2007, which brought a national unity government to power that lasted less than 100 days. Since then there have been a number of attempts, all unsuccessful, by Arab countries to bridge Palestinian divisions.
Saudi Arabia made several low-profile attempts to reconcile Hamas and Fateh after the June 2007 confrontations that resulted in the ousting of security forces loyal to Fateh from the Gaza Strip. Later the Egyptian government had a go, also failing in spite of Cairo’s success in mediating a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel.
The recent visit by President Mahmoud Abbas to Syria witnessed Syrian attempts at starting a dialogue between Hamas and Fateh. That attempt too had very little success, however, Bashar Assad, the Syrian president did accept Abbas’ position that Arab countries including Syria should support Egyptian-led meditation efforts in the future. Indeed, for historic and geographic reasons Egypt appears to be the right party to mediate intra-Palestinian tensions, especially when they center on Gaza.
The reason Arabs have so far failed to achieve reconciliation among Palestinians is the very strong influence of non-Arab factors in the domestic Palestinian situation. These non-Arab actors are beyond the sphere of influence of Arab countries.
First among them is Israel, the most influential party as far as domestic Palestinian politics is concerned. As long as Israel is directly and indirectly encouraging divisions among Palestinians, mediation will remain a huge challenge. The other non-Arab influence is Iran and the current Iranian-American tensions, which have engendered a tense regional atmosphere that undermines efforts at reconciliation.
There are two other factors that limit the potential for successful collective Arab efforts. The first is the absence of democracy. This weakens popular pressure on Arab governments to serve the common interests of the Arab people. It’s important here to note that western states have discouraged democratization in the Arab world over the last 50 years in order to keep Arab regimes loyal.
The other factor, in essence an outcome of the first, is the trend of radicalization and political Islamization that on the one hand creates justification for continuing to avoid democratization and on the other hand gives rise to new fears and tensions that further divide the Arabs and prevent successful collective efforts.
As long as Arab regimes are not subject to democratic elections and consequently public accountability, continued fragmentation and radicalization will undermine any serious ambitions for systematic mediation serving Arab interests and wielding Arab legitimacy.