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A new-old Arab summit

Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun (C), Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil (R) and Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheith (L) participate in the Arab League’s 4th Economic and Social Development Summit on 20 January 2019 in Beirut, Lebanon [Jihad Muhammad Behlok/Anadolu Agency]
Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun (C), Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil (R) and Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheith (L) participate in the Arab League’s 4th Economic and Social Development Summit on 20 January 2019 in Beirut, Lebanon [Jihad Muhammad Behlok/Anadolu Agency]

The summit in Tunisia is no different from the Arab summits before it. It adopted the same discourse that accompanies every summit: promises to the people and threats to the opponents. They raise the ceiling of expectations without adopting mechanisms or implementation plans that can be executed. While this is the case with the summits in general, some summits have been distinguished from others due to the difficult and complex circumstances surrounding it, especially if a challenge or crisis preceded the summit. This was the case with the Tunisia summit when the US President Donald Trump made an executive decision to recognise Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights just days before the summit.

In addition to Trump’s deliberate insult in the form of his decision immediately before the summit, the importance of the issues raised in the summit this year has surpassed all previous summits. The challenges facing the Arab nation has reached the level of direct threats to the existence of countries and nations. However, the nature of the Tunisia summit’s responses and reactions to these matters were no different than past summits.

It is the same dilemma faced by the Arab summits for the past 50 years: the gap between the written resolutions and the policies implemented after the summit. However, recent years have witnessed an intensification of the Arab weakness on every level, which has been reflected in the Arab League’s dependency. Its crisis is no longer limited to failing to implement strong resolutions and decision but has reached the level of the resolutions themselves becoming weak. The Arab League’s problem has become its failure to address the challenges in the required manner, albeit theoretically, using decisions and statements made by the Arab League, from both the Ministerial Council and the summit meetings.

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This decline in the effectiveness of the Arab League’s activity is due to the state of internal turmoil many important and pivotal Arab countries are suffering from, especially after 2011. The Arab countries are either fragmented; in a state of civil war; on the verge of the complete disintegration of the state’s components; or busy working to avoid such collapse and decay. Only a few Arab countries have the luxury of being preoccupied with the general Arab situation and have the will to seek to bring the Arab pieces back together and form coordinated Arab positions on the series of challenges and problems.

However, before the internal threats, which have only emerged a few years ago, there is another equally important reason for the weakness of the Arab League and its transformation into a body for a show, not a real regional organisation. It is also due to the difference of the Arab countries’ priories on the levels of threats and interests, as until the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Israel was the biggest and main threat to the Arab countries in general.

General view of Arab League foreign ministers emergency meeting in the Egyptian capital Cairo on 9 December, 2017 [Stringer/Anadolu Agency]

General view of Arab League foreign ministers in the Egyptian capital Cairo on 9 December 2017 [Stringer/Anadolu Agency]

In less than 20 years, Israel has become a party to security, political and economic alliances and arrangements with Arab countries. Some are bilateral, and others are multilateral. Israel’s status in the region has reached the point of becoming a partner in the confrontation of other threats, particularly Iran.

The result of this fundamental shift in priorities is that Arab agreements and coordination on decisions and developments directly related to the position on Israel have become almost impossible, if not in terms of the theoretical announced stances then at least in terms of the actual behaviour and actions. Therefore, the Arab countries cannot agree to take a united stance against Israel as long as it is a direct party in the various forms of cooperation and coordination with some of these Arab countries. If the situation with Israel reached this point, then it is not likely to adopt any positions or decision against the US, no matter how biased it is in favour of Israel and its arbitrary actions against the Palestinians.

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In light of the current Arab deterioration, it was not surprising that the Tunisia summit issued a statement rejecting Trump’s decision to recognise Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. It is merely a formal position on paper that does not involve any actual moves or practical steps to counter the American position or force Washington to back down from it. Despite the unfortunate new American development, the Tunisia summit did not bring anything new in this regard. Instead, it joined all the other summits before it with weak decisions that do not match the events and developments, as well as pathetic statements confirming the inability to implement them.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Araby Al-Jadeed on 1 April 2019 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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ArticleIsraelMiddle EastOpinionPalestineTunisia
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