Israel’s ambassador to the U.N., Ron Prosor, came out guns blazing this week against a new U.N. report setting out a grand vision for Arab economic integration, sustainable development and democratic resurgence.
In correspondence addressed to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, Prosor described the report by the U.N.’s Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) as “the epitome of modern-day anti-Semitism.” The accusations also pinpointed remarks made by the ESCWA’s executive secretary, Dr Rima Khalaf, in a February speech for the launch of the report, where she condemned Israel’s occupation of Palestine. Prosor thus demanded Khalaf’s immediate suspension.
Is Arab freedom a threat to Israel?
The new U.N. report, titled “Arab Integration: A 21st Century Development Imperative,” sets out a roadmap for Arab economic integration to generate six million jobs by 2020, and to increase gross domestic product by 3 percent.
Among its recommendations is the creation of a Greater Arab Free Trade Area (GAFTA), as well as an Arab customs union to redistribute revenue from tariffs among various countries. Such policies could reduce unemployment by over 4 percent across the region while creating an additional $760 billion in Arab revenue – equivalent to more than the total revenue last year of Arab countries in North Africa.
Arab disunity is largely because most Arab regimes are “not representative of their people or accountable to themDr. Nafeez Ahmed
Contrary to Prosor’s claims, the 300-page report breaks new bounds in criticising both internal Arab policies and external interference. As Amira Hass writes in Ha’aretz, “the lion’s share of the report is inward-looking, at the Arab world.” She dismisses Prosor’s “aggressive demand” for Khalaf’s suspension as reflecting “Israel’s deep disdain for the countries of the region in which we live and for the issues that concern them. The excessive use by him and his ilk of the ‘anti-Semitism’ charge is bringing us closer to the day when ‘anti-Semite’ is a compliment.”
The report highlights on-going “Arab complacency,” which has “led to Israel’s continued violation of international conventions and resolutions through the persistent occupation of Palestinian and Arab lands” – violations which despite their egregious nature “have not affected the strong political and economic relations between so-called ‘moderate Arab countries’ and Israel.”
The report’s harshest criticism of Israel is its questioning of the democratic implications of the Israeli government’s self-definition of Zionism (a definition increasingly contested). “By pushing for an exclusive Jewish State,” the U.N. report finds, “Israel propagates the concept of the religious or ethnic purity of states, a concept that inflicted on humanity the worst crimes of the last century. This concept undermines human development based on equal rights for all citizens, and non-discrimination against any person on the basis of religion or ethnicity.”
The U.N. report also points out that Western interests in the region have often worked with Israel to undermine Arab interests: “The Western parties perceive the Arab region as vital to their achievement of three main goals, namely, maintaining oil flow at reasonable costs; preserving the security and military supremacy of Israel; and fighting terrorism.”
Internal corruption, disunity, self-interest to blame
But Arab leaders are far from innocent in this predicament. Their complicity in dubious bilateral relations with Western powers has allowed them “to win greater concessions and more preferential trade conditions from individual Arab States.”
This has enabled the West to “circumvent Arab opposition to collective negotiations with Israel, by delinking that State’s economic integration in the region from a just and comprehensive resolution to the question of Palestine.”
Arab disunity is largely because most Arab regimes are “not representative of their people or accountable to them.” Instead, some regimes assumed that their “legitimacy and security were guaranteed by regional or international powers rather than by their people. As a result, they made little effort to serve the interests or priorities of their people.”
Lack of Arab leaders’ interest in regional cooperation and a “lack of transparency” has rendered regional institutions like the League of Arab States “inauthentic and ineffective.”
The region’s divided political systems “do not enable Arabs to stand tall in the world or face threats within the region from a position of strength;” and their failed economic policies, combined with “rampant corruption,” have accelerated illiteracy, “unemployment, poverty and social injustice.”
Blaming the West and Israel is ultimately a red-herring. Rather, “weak Arab cooperation has produced a regional system incapable of defending Arab interests, development or the sovereignty of Arab countries,” and rendered Arab countries “acutely vulnerable to foreign interference” – symbolized by the entrenchment of “foreign military bases” across the region.
The most serious threat, however, comes from internal “cultural distortion,” generating “sectarian and ethnic feuds which threaten to tear Arab societies apart.” A cultural crisis compounded by “domestic policy failures” and “external aggression” has distorted “the concepts of jihad and ijtihad,” permitting extremist groups with “exclusionary doctrines based on narrow readings of scripture” to grow in popularity in a climate of uncertainty: “Their intolerance restricts public rights and freedoms, especially for women and non-Muslims.”
The new U.N. report offers an important wake-up call for political, business and cultural leaders across the region: continued complacency could see a prolonged ‘Arab winter.’ But efforts to transform Arab societies could bring unprecedented dividends for all, and renewed strength in the face of foreign interference.
Dr. Nafeez Ahmed is a bestselling author, investigative journalist and international security scholar. He is executive director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development in London, and author of A User's Guide to the Crisis of Civilization among other books. His work on international terrorism was officially used by the 9/11 Commission, among other government agencies. He writes for the Guardian on the geopolitics of environmental, energy and economic crises on his Earth insight blog. Follow him on Twitter @nafeezahmed.