Now that the Obama show has left town the Middle East can return to reality. All eyes are focussed on the 24th meeting of Arab heads of state due to take place in Qatar next week.
When the tiny Gulf state called an emergency meeting to discuss the Israeli attack on Gaza in January 2009, only 13 countries attended. While notable absentees included Tunisia, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Syria’s Bashar Al Assad went along; but four years is a long time in Middle Eastern politics and the region has since changed almost beyond recognition.
Today, Egypt’s former president Mubarak is serving a life-sentence in prison and Assad is using all the military means at his disposal to put down a popular uprising. Meanwhile, Iraq’s vice president, Tareq Al-Hashemi, has become an itinerant exile after being sentenced to death in absentia. One key non-state player who attended the 2009 summit was the head of Hamas’s political bureau, Khaled Meshaal. His movement has left its base in Damascus.
Though by no means the entire picture, these changes indicate the scale of the challenges and what the agenda of the 24th summit might consist of. Back in 2009, some of the leaders who stayed away claimed that they were not willing to attend because they saw little benefit in a meeting where leaders make weightless statements. It remains to be seen who will attend on this occasion and what the excuse for staying away will be this time.
Four years ago Palestine’s President Mahmoud Abbas claimed that he could not secure the necessary security pass from the Israelis to travel to the emergency summit on Gaza. In similar mercurial fashion he recently shelved reconciliation talks with Hamas until after the Obama visit. Unless something dramatic occurs in the coming days he will most likely attend this meeting. Had it not been for the bloody civil war in Syria and the escalating crises elsewhere in the region, the Palestine dossier alone could easily fill the agenda of the two-day meeting.
Ironically, it was the same Arab League which declared the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) to be the “sole legitimate representative” of the Palestinian people at its 1974 Rabat summit, in return for its renunciation of armed struggle in pursuit of a democratic secular state in all of Palestine, with equal protection for Muslims, Christians, Jews and others. Since then, the PLO has pursued the elusive two-state solution to the conflict.
The negotiating strategy adopted by the PLO has not resulted in the desired state; instead it has witnessed haplessly the “Bantustanisation” of the occupied West Bank. During Obama’s visit, the Arab League’s assistant secretary general for Palestinian affairs, Muhammad Sabeeh, lamented the fact that the American president did not offer a new plan for a Palestinian state: “There was expectation from the Arab and Palestinian street that Obama’s visit would entail an initiative for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the territories captured in 1967. That has not happened.”
To most open-minded observers it has become palpably clear that Israel has no intention of vacating the 1967 territories. For its incumbent prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, these are the biblical Samaria and Judea; in his eyes they belong exclusively to the Jews.
Accordingly, the 24th summit of the Arab League convenes at a time when all of mandated Palestine has been conquered. This is the challenge the organisation must address with much more than weightless statements. To be blunt, the options are few. Politically, there are no negotiations taking place; legally, the US Congress has threatened to cut all financial assistance to the Palestinian Authority if it attempts to prosecute Israel at the ICJ over its illegal settlements in the occupied territories. In the circumstances, the League’s choice is simple; either it keeps the 2002 peace initiative proposed by the then Saudi crown prince Abdullah or returns to the pre-1974 PLO plan.
Either way, the Arab leaders can no longer allow themselves to be seen as witting or unwitting instruments in the hands of the US and Israel. Instead of using their copious wealth to turn the clock of progress back in the region, they should pour more investment into Egypt and Tunisia and allocate the necessary funds for the reconstruction of post-Assad Syria after his inevitable demise. Whatever their differences in Doha, they must acknowledge that Israel will be the sole beneficiary from the criminal destruction of Syria and balkanization of Iraq.
Waiting for western intervention in Syria is like waiting for Godot. However cynical it may sound, the common perception across the region is that the West will not intervene until Syria has been exhausted and returned to the Stone Age. Then, it will be like Iraq, incapable of being a genuine force for change.
This is probably the Arab League’s last chance to redeem itself and stem the drift towards fragmentation and chaos. Whether the Arab leaders know it – or like it – or not they are propping each other up in the last chance saloon.