There is an ongoing discussion in the media and social media about the Arab-Israeli conflict going back to centre stage in the Arab world. What’s new is that the belief is being voiced louder following national revolutions in Arab countries since December 2010 even though Arab individuals are more concerned with freedom and the future of their countries which are witnessing “national” demands.
Is the Arab-Israeli conflict still a central issue for the Arabs? What causes the Arab citizen weighed down by their “national” concerns to pay attention to what is happening in Palestine?
Before discussing this, we must first pinpoint the bases of the argument, its contexts and the groups involved.
The first is the elite which has recently turned its back on pan-Arab nationalism and turned to the nation state as a panacea. It stresses the importance of each Arab country to look for solutions to their domestic problems instead of thinking about the Arab-Israeli conflict. Its reasoning is justified by the revolutionaries’ national slogans about internal concerns rather than external problems.
However, the elite have overlooked the fact that even in the middle of the struggle against the tyrannical regimes the demonstrators did not forget the struggle to free Palestine. “The people want the liberation of Palestine” was heard in Tunisia on the anniversary of the fall of the Ben Ali regime; and the people of Cairo targeted the Israeli Embassy, while demonstrations against Israel’s offensive in Gaza were held in several Arab capitals last November.
The second group is representative of the youth and activists who are fed up of the Arab regimes using the Palestinian issue as a justification for every type of domestic failure. This was especially applicable to places like Libya and Syria.
The third group consists of some Islamists who raise the flag of nationalism and view Palestine as an Islamic country like any other due to the religious significance of Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa Mosque. As such, they believe that it should not be given more attention than any other “Islamic conflict” like the civil war in Syrian, the Sunni-Shia issue, Kashmir, Afghanistan and others affecting Muslims around the world.
Regardless of the context of this argument, it remains an issue that needs to be discussed carefully. National slogans are insufficient for this purpose since the return of Palestine to centre stage also focuses on the rationality of Israel’s strategic value as a western colonial project in the region. Israel is at the core of several conflicts and has an impact on domestic policies in the region.
Since its establishment, Israel has been at the forefront of western attempts to keep the Middle East divided and thus weakened. As such, in 1948 the nascent state was nurtured by the British Empire even though the latter was in decline, and it gained swift recognition from the rising superpowers of the day, the United States and the Soviet Union (USSR).
As the Cold War developed, Israel took on a new significance for the US, becoming a “strategic ally” and tool for increased colonisation of the region. After its crushing defeat of Soviet allies Egypt and Syria in June 1967, Israel convinced the US that it could be relied on to the extent that today some regard it as America’s only ally in the Middle East.
The links between Tel Aviv and Washington include two-way military cooperation, with US bases in Israel and Israeli arms manufacturers developing weapons pioneered by American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Israel has stayed out of two US-led wars against Iraq, in 1991 and 2003, in order to preserve Arab participation in the alliance against Saddam Hussein. In 1981, of course, Israel bombed Iraq’s nuclear reactor in a move later considered by the likes of former US vice president Dick Cheney as an “introduction” to the 1992 move to push the Iraqi army out of Kuwait. In addition, Israel has acted as a buffer between the US and countries of concern such as Syria and Iraq before the US invasion, and has tackled non-governmental players like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Palestinian resistance movements like Hamas. It also offered to provide military assistance to key US ally Jordan, in 1970 and 1971.
These examples show clearly how Israel’s significance to the US has grown, facilitating the colonial objectives of the latter as it aims to stunt Arab progress and control key energy resources.
The Arab states were created by the outgoing colonial powers and have themselves witnessed conflict with each other, some of which are ongoing. Despite the superficial reasons for these conflicts, dig deep enough and you will find Israel there. Of course, this doesn’t mean that Israel was responsible, but it is usually involved directly or indirectly, one way or another. Positions taken with regards to the Arab-Israeli issue have led to conflict between “progressive revolutionary republics” and “backward monarchies”, for example. Moreover, competition between the “revolutionaries” over Israel sometimes led to clashes such as those between Abd al-Karim Qasim in Iraq and Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser.
The axes within the Arab world are still based on national positions vis-a-vis the US and the conflict with Israel, with the axis of resistance and the axis of moderation. This has prevented any real harmony existing between Arab states.
Using the centrality of the Arab-Israel issue as a tool, some Arab states have sought political power at the expense of their smaller neighbours. Some used the PLO to gain power in Jordan before “Black September” and the organisation’s expulsion by King Hussain. Similarly, the Syrians under Hafez Assad used the Palestinian resistance to meddle in Lebanon.
Ultimately, the Arab-Israeli conflict led to the loss of one of the most important Arab countries, Egypt, which effectively left the Arab bloc on signing the Camp David Accords and making peace with Israel. It is only just returning to its place at the pinnacle of the Arab world following the ousting of Hosni Mubarak.
Furthermore, Israel has played a role in domestic issues across the Arab world. For example,
• Missed opportunities for development due to Arab regimes’ argument over the importance of paying the cost of confronting Israel, even though these regimes have not established sustainable development or a strong defence capability.
• The use of the Arab-Israeli conflict by some Arab regimes to prevent the establishment of democracy, claiming that “no voice is higher than the voice of the battle”.
• Using the Palestinian presence in some Arab countries, in the form of refugees, as an excuse for delays in making true reforms, as well as manipulating sensitivities over their presence, especially in Jordan and Lebanon.
• The use of the Palestinian card in political and ideological conflicts between political groups in some Arab countries, such as the Syrian state’s accusation that the Palestinians fabricated events at the start of the revolution, and the shameful use of the Palestinian card by some Egyptian parties in their attempt to weaken and defame President Morsi by linking security incidents such as the Rafah crime to Hamas, with its ideological ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Finally, some of those calling for the marginalisation of the Palestinian issue or the Arab-Israeli conflict agree on several of the above points and twist them round to “prove” that placing the issue centre stage across the region is holding the Arab states back.
However, just as the Arab-Israeli conflict has been an issue in stoking inter-Arab problems, so too is it important for it to be solved if peace is to break out in the region. The Arab world should spend more time on the issue, not less.
In-depth analysis of the complex relationship between the stability of the region and the Arab-Israeli conflict leads to only one conclusion: it is central and critical; the only way to end the negative effects on the Arab states is to struggle against Israel’s colonial project and resolve the conflict once and for all with the restoration of Palestinian rights.
Furthermore, the Palestinian people must be involved at all stages by going back to the roots of the conflict and avoiding being sidetracked by chauvinism which has no benefits for the Arab countries. The conflict is an Arab conflict, not simply Palestinian-Israeli, and those who doubt this must look again at the history, geography and politics of the matter.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.