The Deal of the Century has inspired much discussion about Washington’s latest political gambit in the Middle East. Largely excluded from the debate, however, is the emotional toll involving the Arab peoples everywhere.
The ‘politics of humiliation’ is fairly a new discourse associated with the sense of collective defeat and emasculation generated by the violent and condescending American foreign policy in the region, especially in the extremely bloody response to the September 11, 2001 attacks. The Donald Trump administration’s anti-Muslim and pro-Israel policies have further cemented the pervading sense of humiliation felt by Arab collectives, especially as Arab rulers are themselves taking part in Trump’s regional designs, all with the aim of normalizing Arab-Israeli relations, at the expense of Palestinians and their rights.
But the Middle East is not entirely shaped by US interests. Since the early decades of the 20th century, Palestine has served as a meeting point for all Arabs, a just cause for their collective fight and a rallying cry against western colonialism and its direct spawn, the Zionist movement.
Cognizant of the depth of meaning that Palestine symbolizes to Arab masses, Arab rulers have used and misused the Palestinian struggle to achieve a degree of political validation, especially as their regimes have often lacked any democratic legitimacy. Thus, since the establishment of Israel on the ruins of the Palestinian homeland in 1948, freeing Palestine became a common official Arab mantra, even when Arab regimes conspired with the very colonial powers, and oftentimes with Israel itself against the Palestinians.
While Israel occasionally raged against Arab ‘incitement’, using official Arab discourse to further illustrate its point of being a perpetual victim of Arab hostility, both Tel Aviv and Washington were unperturbed by the status quo. As long as Israel was able to enrich its military occupation unhindered, through the construction of more illegal Jewish settlements, the Arabs could carry on with their harmless tirade and claims of Palestinian solidarity. The barter suited Arab rulers well.
The 2011 Arab revolts created a new paradigm in the region. While it pitted newly empowered Arab populations against their corrupt, undemocratic governments, it left the door wide open for further foreign intervention. US-led Western governments, desperate to sustain the century-old status quo, fought for relevance, doing their utmost to prop up rotten political systems, especially in oil-rich countries. While gains of Arab revolts were reversed by counter-revolutionary forces – sending the whole region into a seemingly perpetual quagmire – the political hawks within the Trump administration discovered in the region’s chaos an opportunity to settle old scores against Iran, to advance Israeli interests and to further exploit Arab wealth.
As if the humiliation of military defeat and the faltering revolutionary momentum were not enough, the Deal of the Century, championed by Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner arrives with the intentions of associating collective Arab misery with an actual document, a new American Sykes-Picot that divides the Arabs once more with the aim of weakening them even further so that Israel may reign supreme a while longer.
But the truth is, the Deal of the Century is not just an official document authored by Kushner, US Middle East envoy, Jason Greenblatt or any other pro-Israel US official. It is the marriage of interests between corrupt Arab governments and those of Israel and its benefactors. Neither Palestinian rights nor Arab aspirations for which generations of Arabs fought factor in the least in this arrangement.
Thus, it is not the Deal of the Century, in its technical details that matter, but its timing and implications as the Arab world continues to reel under failed revolutions, foreign interventions, civil and regional wars. The US initiative is the political equivalent of the shock and awe, the unprecedented violent bombing campaign unleashed against Iraq in the early days of war and subsequent invasion in March 2003. The idea is that while Arab nations are desperately trying to weather the storm of regional upheavals, the US and Israel are presented with the perfect opportunity to alter the very reality of the region’s politics, discard Palestinian rights altogether, and make Tehran – not Tel Aviv – the new common enemy.
All of this is likely to contribute to the growing sense of anger and betrayal that Arab nations feel towards their self-serving governments, who are playing into American and Israeli hands to guarantee their own survival. However, the Arab peoples shouldn’t be so easily dismissed and discounted, for humiliation can have many unintended consequences.
The rise of the ‘humiliation’ discourse has placed much focus on how emotions – those of despair and humiliation – often lead to terrorism as a way to explain militant groups’ abilities to generate new recruits. That conclusion – while it contains much truth – caters to research interests in western academic institutions, always keen on deconstructing and combating terrorism as opposed to ending western hegemony and challenging the destructive US-Israeli relationship. However, the collective humiliation that has been felt by Arab masses throughout the years deserves to be studied from an Arab-centric viewpoint. Indeed, humiliation leads to a sense of collective emasculation, which undermines the sense of nationhood altogether, leading to economic downturns and mass migrations. Violence is only a component of the politics of humiliation. And even then, it should not be readily assigned the ever-denigrating designation of “terrorism.” In his introduction to Frantz Fanon’s ‘Wretched of the Earth’, Jean-Paul Sartre refers to violent resistance as a process through which “a man is re-creating himself”.
Due to the current restrictions on the media, public demonstration and opinion in general, it is not always possible to demonstrate the centrality of Palestine to the popular Arab discourse. However, ordinary Arabs take every opportunity to show their solidarity with their Palestinian brethren. Who could forget how in February 2016, 80,000 Algerian sports fans cheered for the Palestinian national team against their own team, simply because for them their love for Palestine trumps their love for sports? The same pattern is often repeated, most notably in Morocco as well.
In fact, for various Arab nations, solidarity with Palestine seemed a most urgent priority following the toppling of corrupt regimes. Aside from the fact that Palestinian flags accompanied national flags of rebelling Arab nations in Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Yemen and elsewhere, delegations of Arab youth from some of these countries attempted to break the siege on Gaza soon after the launch of their popular revolts. In Tunisia alone, several caravans of activists representing many civil society organizations tried to break the siege on Gaza, some succeeding and others getting turned back at the Rafah border.
Egyptians who were not allowed to display solidarity in such a way turned their anger at Israel into protests against the Israeli embassy in Cairo. They were met with violence, of course, but remained committed to their demand that their government must sever diplomatic ties with Israel.
Most meaningful of all such solidarity is the fact that tens of thousands of Yemenis continue to protest in solidarity with Palestine despite the fact that their country is struggling against a Saudi-led war, economic collapse and mass hunger. The fact that Yemenis under the harshest of conditions still see Palestine as a national priority tells volumes about the importance of Palestine to the Arab nation everywhere.
As occasional leaks and statements convey how the Deal of the Century is meant to marginalize Palestine and the aspirations of the Palestinian people, tens of thousands of Jordanians launched numerous protests throughout the country in recent weeks. The protesters chanted for Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa Mosque, and vowed to fight the US-Israel plot which aims, as Trump himself has asserted, to “take Jerusalem off the table.”
But Jerusalem cannot be taken off the table, nor will the Palestinian people and their historic rights as enshrined in international law. What the Deal of the Century, however, is likely to achieve is widening the gap between humiliated Arab peoples and their undemocratic rulers who are mainly interested in survival, even if that entails the very destruction of the collective values embraced by all Arabs.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.