Of all the complexities surrounding the reaction of the world to the horrifying spectacle of Israel’s severe criminality in Gaza none is more perplexing than the complicity of most governments throughout the Arab world. What makes their political posture particularly bewildering is the degree of ethnic, religious, cultural, and historical commonality that creates such close ties of identity among the peoples of the region.
And no single issue has been as unifying over the decades for these people than their long intensely felt opposition to the injustice, suffering, and exploitation that the Palestinian people have endured for the past century as a result of the encroachments of the Zionist movement on their lands.
It should be recalled that at earlier stages of the Palestinian ordeal, the governments of the neighbouring Arab countries did exhibit strong, if ineffectual, solidarity. They jointly attacked Israel, initially in 1948 to prevent the establishment of Israel, and later in the failed wars of 1967 and 1973 that challenged Israel’s existence. But such solidarity at the level of Arab governments is now a distant and ironic memory.
Some official hostility to Israel and sympathy for the Palestinian struggle continues at the rhetorical level, but only there. It is true that many Arab countries to this day refuse entry to anyone with an Israeli stamp in their passport.
Anwar Sadat’s assassination in 1981 was widely interpreted as a populist response to his willingness to make peace with Israel without first securing justice for the Palestinians. It was observed by the Western media that few Egyptians bothered to watch Sadat’s funeral procession as it passed through the streets of Cairo because the slain leader was so reviled for shamelessly appeasing Egypt’s enemy.
Above all, the ongoing struggle for Palestinian self-determination is understood by the peoples of the Middle East, and indeed the world over, as a struggle for the empowerment and liberation of the Palestinian people in the face of severe injustices verging on genocide. Increasingly, and never more than in reaction to this recent Gaza horror show, the Palestinian struggle will have to be waged not only against Israel, and its American and European allies, but also against the Arab collaborationist governments in the region.
It is notable that only Turkey and Qatar have acted responsibly in light of these recent developments. The Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has spoken movingly, without hiding behind the euphemisms of diplomacy, in characterising Israel’s behaviour in Gaza as criminal.
Even distant Latin American countries, including Brazil and Chile, have at least shown the depth of their disapproval of Israel’s conduct by withdrawing their ambassadors from Israel. This small expression of disapproval is something that not one government in Europe or North America, the self-proclaimed centres of world civilisation, has yet done.
Taken together these considerations make it morally distressing and politically mystifying to observe that almost every Arab government has seemed either to be flashing a green light in Israel’s direction or pointedly looking away. Given the criminality of the Israeli attack and the suffering of the Palestinian people, complicity by way of such diplomatic endorsements, or even stony silent acquiescence, is at the very least a breach in Arab and Islamic identity, and worse, seems to be an unimaginable case of aiding and abetting genocidal violence against the Palestinian people.
Israel’s persistence in a massacre mode despite the near universal calls for a responsibly negotiated ceasefire was widely attributed to the fact that the Netanyahu government was being encouraged behind the scenes by Egypt and Saudi Arabia “to finish the job”, not of the tunnels and rockets, but of Hamas itself as “the head of the snake”. To be so inclined despite the frequency and magnitude of Israeli atrocities shocks all but the most numbed of political imaginations.
To be sure, the behaviour of these Arab governments as legally and morally unacceptable, and politically self-destructive deserves condemnation, but it also needs to be understood and explained as clearly as possible.
The enemy of my enemy
The core explanation of Arab complicity has to do with the Arab governments hating and fearing the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), of which Hamas is viewed as a branch, far more than they resent Israel, and its encroachment on their region, and even its appropriation and control of Muslim sacred places in Jerusalem. Such an initial assessment pushes the question one step further but it does not give us any insight into why this should be so.
The MB is perceived as the essential expression in the Arab world of political Islam that is considered as dangerous to the established order because of its grassroots legitimacy. This reality has made the Arab regimes fearful at least since the explosive implications of the Iranian Revolution that overthrew the Shah’s imperial rule in 1979.
This revolutionary process caused high intensity tremors throughout the Arab world, and especially among the monarchies nurturing privileged and unscrupulous elites that have long kept their populations cruelly repressed and in conditions of mass misery. These regimes, generally aligned with the United States, remain obsessed with the maintaining stability, and silencing all voices calling for change.
Hamas in this sense is seen as an acute threat to the kind of future preferred by these Arab governments. First of all, it has historical ties to the Egyptian MB, the parent organisation that has kept the flame of political Islam burning despite enduring harsh suppression for decades.
Secondly, it proved its legitimacy and durability as a voice of the Palestinians living in Gaza by its electoral victory in 2006, and more recently by its resilience and resistance to Israeli tactics of aggression and massacre.
Thirdly, Sunni Hamas crossed sectarian boundaries by having its closest political ties with Shiite Iran and Hezbollah, and the Alewite regime in Syria, and although these relationships have grown weaker in view of recent regional developments, their very existence further alarms the Sunni supremacists in Riyadh.
Of course, in the foreground is the experience of the Arab anti-authoritarian upheavals in 2011, especially the dislodging of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, followed by expressions of far greater popular electoral support for Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi candidates throughout Egypt.
The Gulf countries made no secret of their disappointment with Washington’s refusal to do more to beat back this populist tide that swept over the Mubarak regime, who like the Shah in Iran 30 years earlier, had seemed to offer these leaders the only political gift that they wanted, and needed: stability in relation to their citizenry.
And so two years later in 2013 when the chance came, as it did during the faltering presidential term of Mohamed Morsi, it is no secret that the counterrevolutionary coup led by General Ahmed Fattah el-Sisi was most welcomed by such seemingly opposite political players as Israel and Saudi Arabia.
The Sisi coup won immediate aid in huge quantities from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, hoping that contributing billions of dollars would create a soft economic landing for the new regime. It was hoped that this would reassure the majority of Egyptians that they were experiencing a change for the better even if there was little effort by the new leaders to hide the return to the methods and style of the previously despised Mubarak rule.
What is startling is that these Arab supporters never blinked in the face of the crimes of Sisi’s military leadership in Cairo, which featured bloody crackdowns of anti-government demonstrations, including even the killing of many MB members. Sisi proceeded to move against the MB as an organisation, having it defined legally as “a terrorist organisation”, encouraging judicial action that included mass death sentences for its members, and generally engaging in state crime on a scale that far exceeded the abuses of the Mubarak period.
Even Washington was embarrassed by these excesses, although it maintained a pragmatic silence that overlooked the tensions between its calls for democracy and its actual strategic dependence on the stability of the pre-Arab Spring status quo.
Iran explodes the myth of regional stability
Until this pattern became evident I didn’t appreciate the relevance of some remarks made to me by Ayatollah Khomeini while in Paris just as he was about to return to Iran from exile to lead the new Islamic Republic. This austere religious leader was very clear about rejecting the then prevailing idea that a national revolution was taking place in Iran.
He said again and again during the meeting, “This is an Islamic revolution, not an Iranian revolution.” He went on to observe that the dynastic regime in Saudi Arabia was decadent and oriented toward the West. In his view it was as illegitimate a source of governance as was the Shah’s regime that had just been overthrown in Iran, and a justifiable target for further political initiatives.
The revolution in Iran, whether understood as a national or ideological phenomenon, was deeply threatening to political stability of the region. It was a political movement from below that shattered a monarchic power structure in Iran that was viewed in the region and by the West as invulnerable to internal challenge.
In other words, it was not just that the foundations of the status quo gave way in Iran, but that their crumbling was brought about by populist tremors that enjoyed widespread cultural legitimacy. It was this cultural legitimacy that again surfaced in the immediate aftermath of the Arab upheavals in 2011, and sent tremors of fear throughout the region.
The explosive emergence of the Islamic State group (formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) reinforces Ayatollah Khomeini’s central message. Its proclamation of a new caliphate is precisely in line with this type of thinking. The whole carving up of the Arab world into a series of sovereign states is seen from these perspectives as an imposition of European civilisation, destroying and destabilising the only true political community, that of the Islamic Umma.
Israel’s parallel universe
Israeli strategists over the years have been divided about their regional priorities, but agreed on the general contour of principal goals. Israel’s preferred Middle East would consist of governments that were both friendly and stable, which made Iran a favourite until it unexpectedly fell apart in 1978-79.
Next best, were governments that were formally cool, or even hostile, but remained mostly on the sidelines in relation to the conflict with the Palestinians, such as King Hussein’s Jordan, Mubarak’s Egypt, and the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia.
If such stability was not attainable, then strife in a country that was politically hostile was viewed as next best, which is the story of Syria, and to a degree Iraq, in recent years. In other words, Israel could live with regional actors that were rhetorically hostile, as with passport exclusions or UN speeches, but not with states that were politically hostile, and perceived as allies of Palestinian resistance struggle.
In that sense, Israel pushed behind the scenes for the US attack on Iraq after 2001 and has done its best to push Washington into a belligerent encounter with Iran in recent years.
When it comes to Gaza, and Hamas, the convergence of the Israeli approach and the Arab governmental consensus is an invaluable political blessing. It gives Israel unlimited space to push its militarist agenda, however great the carnage and devastation, and even if much the rest of the world may lament the assault upon international law and morality.
Even the United States, and its subaltern UN Secretary General, have felt the pressure to use their influence to establish a ceasefire, although without daring to lift a critical finger in Israel’s direction and following an Egyptian-oriented peremptory diplomacy that seems more concerned about PR dimensions than achieving an end to the violence. This critical reflection was exhibited in the earlier ceasefire proposal that was presented to Hamas on a take it or leave it basis that its leaders found out about only through its media publication.
The newer ceasefire approach, based on a collapsed 72-hour truce, follows the same pattern with Israeli and US negotiators refusing to sit at the same table as the representative of Hamas, and yet hoping to produce an agreement.
While Israel talks about rockets and tunnels, its massive military operation is being increasingly interpreted as punitive, and directed not only at Hamas but at Palestinians generally. A second punitive motivation, and more explicitly endorsed, is a punishment directed at Palestinians in general for daring to form a unity government back in early June. Crushing Hamas is seen as a way to make Palestinians submit to the permanence of occupation.
More than anything else, these terrible happenings in Gaza should lead to a realisation that the future of the Palestinian people and of the region as a whole depends on finding a just solution of the conflict.
The abysmal failure of the Kerry-induced talks showed definitively that Israel has lost all interest in a diplomacy that promises the Palestinians a sovereign state at the end of the road. The Knesset made clear its own rejection by choosing an ardent Likud one-stater, Reuven Rivlin, to replace Shimon Peres, as president of Israel.
It is past time for the peoples of the world to wake up to the real nature of the challenge and support a more militant international campaign of solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, and insist on boycott and divestment in all venues, working toward arms embargoes and sanctions on the part of as many governments as possible.
Richard Falk is Albert G Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Research Fellow, Orfalea Center of Global Studies. He is also Former UN Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights.