There should be no doubt regarding the centrality and intensity of the relationship between the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the internal and external politics of Arab and Muslim nations, regardless of their geographic immediacy and level of involvement. By ignoring this intrinsic connection, one also forfeits a chief component in fathoming, thus remedying the entrenched sentiment of anti-Americanism (as a political, rather than a cultural sentiment), reverberating throughout the Muslim world.
For Arabs, ‘freedom for Palestine’ was the height of nationalistic expression, an idiom that transpired over the confining particularities of the nation’s locale, into the collective imagination. To truly be an Arab meant to join the struggle for Palestine; for without the latter, Arabism was somehow devoid of its authenticity.
It ought to be recalled that concepts such as Arab unity and the Arab front were largely mustered due to the conflict in Palestine. Unity would not have had much urgency without a threat; a frontier would not have meant very much without a hostile entity on the other side. The merit and declared mission of the League of Arab States, since its establishment in 1945, was to some extent a collective Arab response to what was understood as Zionist territorial designs that would later feed upon the entirety of historic Palestine and encroach on the sovereignty of other Arab states.
In the Muslim hemisphere at large, similar values applied with seemingly minor discrepancies. Muslim nations constructed Palestine, and thus its relationship toward the conflict in religious terms. On a popular level, Muslims identified with Palestinians simply for being Muslim just as people in the West identify with the Jews ironically ignoring the 20 per cent Christian Palestinian population that was falsely seen as ‘caught in the middle.’
Muslim nations understood the spiritual connotations of Palestine among their people, and as a result, they have supported the Palestinian struggle as an exclusively Muslim affair that compels unyielding allegiance. The first meeting of the Organization of Islamic Countries in Morocco in 1969 “was held in the wake of the criminal arson perpetrated on August 21, 1969 by Zionist elements against Al-Aqsa Mosque in Occupied Jerusalem,” read the OIC’s web site. The bond couldn’t have been clearer.
Israel exploited the mostly sentimental relationship Arabs and Muslims held toward Palestine. While the tangible and perpetual conflict was in fact taking place between Israel, a newly forged entity with further colonial ambitions, and a fragmented and displaced Palestinian refugee population, Israel labored to relate a different interpretation, that of a tiny little country struggling for survival amongst hordes of hostile Arabs and Muslims, who were up in arms to erase this little stretch of land from the face of the earth. Considering the political and military positioning of most Arab and Muslim countries, the Israeli claim is almost comical.
What was also clear from the earlier years of the conflict was the US’ unequivocal support for the state of Israel. US support augmented following the 1967 war and arrived in many forms to the point that it raised sharp criticism from Americans themselves, not only because their stance ultimately endangered national security, but also for squandering immense resources that could’ve contributed considerably to the welfare of the poorest segments of society within the US itself.
Arabs and Muslims have also taken note. The expressions of intensifying nationalism and growing religious awareness have now acquired a greater sense of purpose. It was not only ‘tiny little’ Israel that successfully managed to infringe upon the national aspirations and violate the spiritual underpinning that linked most Arabs and Muslims to Palestine, but there were also successive US governments, whose role eventually evolved from that of patronage in the earlier years to full sponsorship and ultimately becoming an agent itself, willingly recruited to ensure Israel’s military dominance. Most Arabs see a clear connection between the occupation of Iraq and Israel’s quest for military supremacy.
The above point is of great significance as far as the prevailing and perpetual problem of anti-Americanism is concerned. While Arabism was partly fuelled by its hostile perception and historic mistrust of American motives, a much more extreme interpretation was deduced throughout the Muslim world. That interpretation did not necessarily invent the Osama bin Laden phenomenon, but definitely echoed its logic, thus providing it with vigor and local extensions, which will unlikely weaken without the fundamental alteration of the circumstances that lead to its formation in the first place.
One major policy axiom rooted in US foreign policy in relation to Arab and Muslim nations has been the offer of political validation to those governments that ‘choose’ to normalize with Israel, while displaying utter hostility toward those who opt not to. Since most Arab and Muslim leaderships have been self-imposed and have enjoyed little popular support amongst their people, a faltering on the sense of commitment that Arabs and Muslims felt toward Palestine would lead to further de-legitimization.
While various Arab and Muslim governments have clearly wished to end their sentimental strife with Israel, initiating the move has always required the procession of a dramatic event or an unbeatable incentive. Cases in point were the Camp David treaty between Egypt and Israel – whose survival is still generously funded by the US budget – the Jordan-Israel peace treaty and Mauritania’s initiation of diplomatic ties with Israel. There are also the hushed but real normalizations with Israel taking place with Morocco, Tunisia, Oman, Qatar, Libya and most likely Iraq. And finally there was the ‘historic’ meeting between Israeli foreign minister Silvan Shalom and Pakistan’s Khurshid Kasuri in Istanbul on September 1 of this year.
Despite Pakistan’s ‘assurances’ that full normalization will not actualize without a comprehensive agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, it is becoming clear that Pakistan’s interest in joining the ‘forward looking countries’ – as described by Pervez Musharraf – has been facilitated by the ever ‘friendly Muslim’ Turkey for years. Israeli officials are promising that the list of Arab and Muslim countries wishing to normalize with Israel is a long one. For once, I believe them.
It’s rather curious that countries that wish to normalize with Israel without the precondition of ending the latter’s military dominion over Palestinians and other occupied Arab territories often manage to escape American repudiation for being undemocratic and for committing uncountable human rights violations. The challenge thus remains: facing up to the risk of normalization or to that of democratization. Obviously, the latter contains a greater risk factor.
However, one must not underestimate the danger of unconditional normalization with Israel, especially by those who have historically been designated as the defenders of Palestinian rights. It deprives Palestinians from another line of defense however shaky. But it will, as was the case in Egypt following Camp David, create another rift between the regimes and the populace while fuelling anti-Americanism to perhaps a much more violent extreme.
Israel and the US must understand that arm-twisting, political intimidation and bribery might achieve a few more ‘historic’ meetings and treaties with self-imposed juntas, but will not invite and sustain lasting peace. The continued deflation of national aspirations and the undermining of the spiritual value that Arabs and Muslims hold toward Palestine will most likely result in further alienation of the masses, who are in fact the principal sustainer of anti-Americanism throughout the world, and whose consent can’t be bought or sold.
-Veteran Arab American journalist Ramzy Baroud teaches mass communication at Australia’s Curtin University of Technology, Malaysia Campus. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Writings on the Second Palestinian Uprising (Pluto Press, London.