Arab governments fiddle while Palestine burns

Feb 20, 2024
Israel-Palestine Conflict in West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The Arab response to the unfolding Palestinian catastrophe has been underwhelming. Palestinian intellectuals, journalists, activists, and the wider Palestinian public have had no illusions as to what to expect of the US political and military elites. They did, however, expect more of Arab governments.

The hope was that, with Israel’s barbaric conduct in Gaza glaringly obvious, Arab leaders would seek to apply maximum pressure on Israel and its Western backers. Little of this has eventuated, provoking among Palestinians anger, frustration, and above all a deep sense of betrayal.

Perhaps the two best placed countries to exert pressure, namely Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have been at best guarded – the occasional strong word and feeble deeds.

Arab governments as well as the Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Conference have been content to condemn and exhort. They have called for an immediate, permanent and sustainable humanitarian truce leading to the cessation of all hostilities.

They have also repeated their previously stated objective of a just, comprehensive and lasting peace based on the establishment of an independent, sovereign Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Arab officialdom, however, has steadfastly refused to explain how any of these objectives can be realised, how Israel can be persuaded to stop its armed offensive, or what practical steps the Arab world will take to overcome Israeli intransigence.

A notable exception has been the Houthi targeting of ships in the Red Sea, forcing large container shipping companies to send their vessels on much longer journeys around Africa. Retaliatory UK and US strikes have followed but are unlikely to guarantee safe passage anytime soon.

A few other governments have made small gestures. Jordan has recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv, and Saudi Arabia has temporarily frozen its normalisation talks with Israel. Significantly, Egypt, Morocco, Oman, Sudan and UAE have so far maintained diplomatic relations.

The case of Egypt is especially revealing. The standard Egyptian line has been that it opposes any mass exodus from Gaza because this would be tantamount to accepting Israel’s use of force to displace a people from their own land.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi has justified his refusal to open Egypt’s borders on the grounds that such displacement would “shatter the dream of an independent Palestinian state, and squander the struggle of the Palestinian people.”

But is the underlying concern of the Sisi regime quite so noble? A larger concern is the unwelcome prospect of a significant influx of Hamas and other Palestinian militants onto its soil.

Egypt regards this as a red line, which the projected Israeli assault on Rafah cannot cross. It is the one contingency that may prompt Egypt to review the Camp David peace accord. A Palestinian influx into Sinai could exacerbate the Islamist insurgency which Egypt has found difficult to quell, and which is estimated to have cost since 2013 the lives of more than 3,000 military and police personnel and some $4 billion.

Egypt, we should remember, has supported Israel’s blockade of Gaza since Hamas took control in 2007. It restricted the flow of materials and personnel between Gaza and Sinai and destroyed many of the tunnels near the border extensively used by Hamas and other Palestinians.

Nor is antipathy to Hamas the only point of convergence in Egypt-Israel relations. In a highly revealing interview given in December 2023, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry spoke glowingly of the solid foundations of the 1979 peace agreement with Israel, and reiterated Egypt’s commitment “to maintaining the peace and continuing to have. . . the channels of communications that are deep and have been productive to both countries.”

Notwithstanding the unique circumstances of the Egypt-Israel rapprochement, similar influences have been at work in Israel’s relations with other Arab countries.

Like Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Morocco boast authoritarian regimes of different complexion that share a common visceral hostility to Hamas, the Muslim brotherhood, and other radical Islamic movements. In important ways Israel’s invasion of Gaza can be said to serve the interests of these regimes.

A second factor helps explain the meagre Arab response to the Palestinian tragedy. For different reasons and to different degrees many of these regimes have come to value closer ties with Israel.

Though Saudi-Israeli diplomatic normalisation has some way to go, secret contacts and visits involving military and foreign ministry officials, academics and business people have been steadily gathering pace.

In October 2018, in a deal mediated by the United States, Saudi Arabia reportedly acquired state-of-the-art espionage equipment from Israel at a cost of over $250 million.

Last July, Israel announced plans for a $27 billion rail expansion that will connect its outlying areas to metropolitan Tel Aviv and later provide overland links to Saudi Arabia. Two months later, Netanyahu outlined plans for major infrastructure projects, including a 20,000 km fibre optic cable that would link countries in Asia and Europe and run through Israel, Cyprus and the Arabian Peninsula.

The prospect of expanding business ties was a key factor in the signing of the 2020 Abraham Accords and the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and four Arab countries: UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco.

Two other considerations, the US connection and hostility to Iran, have been decisive.

For several Arab countries, the United States has been the primary source of economic and military aid. In 2022, the US disbursed close to $1.4 billion in aid to Egypt, and $1.2 billion to Jordan. For oil rich countries, it has been the primary source of arms transfers and military training. Between 2017 and 2021, US military sales to Saudi Arabia and UAE amounted to $34.5 billion and 9 billion respectively.

Simply put, US economic, military, and political support offers an indispensable prop for regime survival. In return these regimes are expected to be sensitive to US diplomatic and strategic interests.

In the Middle East Washington’s paramount interests are to contain Iran, crush Islamism, and promote Israeli-Arab normalisation. All of this within the larger framework of containing China’s rise and thwarting Russia’s resurgence.

When it comes to confronting Iran and Islamist insurgencies, most Arab regimes and US administrations share common ground. Striking a balance in relations with competing great powers is far more challenging but not unmanageable.

The dilemma facing Arab leaders is how to avoid confrontation with Israel while not incurring the wrath of their populations who remain ardently committed to the Palestinian cause.

In the coming weeks and months, Arab rulers will face excruciatingly difficult questions:

  • Will they join South Africa in actively pursuing the State of Israel and its leaders for the crime of genocide and other war crimes?
  • Will they bring their full weight to bear on the US and Europe, including use of the oil weapon, to rethink their current support for Israel?
  • In the absence of an immediate ceasefire, will they consider severing or suspending diplomatic and economic ties with Israel?
  • Will they lead a campaign for a complete ban on arms sales to Israel?
  • Will oil rich countries financially underwrite the economic reconstruction of Gaza?

Much will hang on how they answer these questions, not least their standing with their respective populations and the rapidly growing international movement in support of Palestinian liberation.

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