Israel and the Arab world: From illusion to realism

Turki al-Hamad

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Fifty-three years ago on August 29, 1967, the Fourth Summit of the Arab League was held in Khartoum, Sudan, in the aftermath of the Arab defeat in the Six-Day War, where the Israeli army invaded the lands of three Arab countries and occupied large parts of them. Some areas, like the Sinai, were liberated later through negotiations, while others are still occupied, becoming part of the State of Israel.

The most important outcome of that summit was the Khartoum Resolution, known as “The Three Nos”: no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel.

In reality, the Khartoum Summit was a missed opportunity to end hostility with Israel and start negotiations that could have restored occupied territories, chiefly the Old City of Jerusalem, but each event must be viewed through the lens of its own historical circumstances, and today’s circumstances cannot be projected onto yesterday’s. In any case, these “Nos” were hailed with great jubilation in Arab streets where slogans of armed resistance echoed. Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser proclaimed that “What was taken by force can only be recovered by force.” On November 9, 1977, the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat made an unexpected visit to Israel, where he spoke at the Israeli Knesset about the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people, extending the olive branch of full peace with Israel and effectively calling for an end to war. Twenty-five days later, on December 15, the Mena House conference was held in Cairo. Most of the countries who were invited did not attend, with the most notable absence being the Palestine Liberation Organization represented by Yasser Arafat. According to President Sadat, if they had attended, the Palestinians could have reclaimed the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and established an independent Palestinian state there. But the PLO had joined the Steadfastness and Confrontation Front, which was established at the initiative of President Muammar Gaddafi, in the wake of Sadat’s declaration of his intention to visit Israel in the Egyptian Parliament.

Thus the Palestinians, and all Arabs, wasted a historic opportunity to achieve goals that they could not have achieved by military means. But again, we must remember that each event is governed by its own historical circumstances, so we cannot project the circumstances of the present onto the past.

Runners taking part in the Palestine Marathon pass by the Israeli separation barrier in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Friday, March 27, 2015.  (AP)
Runners taking part in the Palestine Marathon pass by the Israeli separation barrier in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Friday, March 27, 2015. (AP)

The aim here is not really to talk about the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, as much as it is to review the Arab attitude, both official and popular, toward the peace process with Israel. Absolute rejection ruled that stage of the peace process, with most Arab countries boycotting Egypt. The Arab League Assembly was transferred to Tunisia in protest, and Sadat became a symbol of betrayal, both official and popular.

At the time, Palestine became the Arabs’ primary, and perhaps only, cause. In the end, the saying that “No voice is louder than the sound of the battle” prevailed.

But as time went by, other events transpired and circumstances changed, ushering new players onto the scene of Arab, regional and international politics. The Soviet Union collapsed, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and was then ousted before his regime finally fell. The world witnessed the Oslo Accords and subsequent Palestinian developments, the rise of Shia political Islam after the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Iranian expansion through proxies in the Levant and Iraq, and other changes that led to reshuffling the deck in the Middle East. But the two most important changes that led to a shift in the Arab political mentality are the decline of the ideology of Arab nationalism, and the rise and fall of Sunni political Islam, namely al-Qaeda, precipitated by the events of 9/11.

These two changes, in light of all the previous developments, led to a kind of Arab mental shift, albeit a limited one at first, toward Palestine and its cause. Palestine, in the Arab nationalist conception – Nasserism, Baathists, Arab nationalists, and the Arab left in general – is not just a specific geographical area, whether we call it Palestine or Israel, that can be negotiated politically, but rather it is a “mental” concept that has been behind many events in the Arab world.

Since 1948, the year the Israeli state was established, Palestine and its cause and liberation have been used to justify coups in Egypt, Syria and Iraq, and have always been in the forefront of “the first manifesto of the revolution.” This has led to disrupted development, suppressing of freedoms, deprivation of rights, cutting off international relations, and widespread tyranny, without the smallest sliver of actual Palestine being liberated. On the contrary, Israel’s strength, dominance and cultural prestige only increased, as it reinvented itself from a “Zionist guerrilla state” to a “Zionist entity” to a dominant and capable regional state and power, at a time when the Arab “revolutionary states” descended to the depths where they reside today.

Palestine, in the religious mind, is a sacred icon, and the hostility with Israel is not a conflict over land, but rather a struggle of “existence, not borders,” an eternal religious struggle between Muslims and Jews, which will not end until the Day of the Judgment.

 Palestinians wave flags as they celebrate their successful bid to win U.N. statehood recognition in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012. (AP)
Palestinians wave flags as they celebrate their successful bid to win U.N. statehood recognition in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012. (AP)

Therefore, there is no place for negotiation or realistic compromises in such a vision, after all, victory is guaranteed in the end, we need only be patient. With the fall of these two major ideological currents, “political realism” began to emerge in the Arab world. Yes, this realism had existed before, like the proposal of Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba in the 1960s on dealing with the “cause,” but it had negligible weight, and the charge of treason always loomed as a threat to this approach. It is believed that President Anwar Sadat was a pioneer in the introduction of political realism in relation to the Palestinian issue when he removed it from ideological illusion to political reality, from state of mind to geographical space. He saw Arab-Israeli hostility, refusing to deal with Israel, or rejecting it, more precisely, as a result of a mental block that grew over the years through continuous ideological messaging that portrays Israel as a permanent Zionist imperial conspiracy that will never alter its nature regardless of the nature of reconciliation with it. By this logic, dealing with Israel, in any way, is an exercise in futility.

With the ebbing of the Arab nationalist tide and the Islamic fundamentalist tide, the covering that was blocking the Arab mind with regard to the Palestinian cause began to gradually fall away, especially in those countries that were stigmatized as reactionary – particularly the Arab Gulf states.

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Palestinian fragmentation, and the vying for power and financial gain among the Palestinian leadership, was a major factor in removing this cover or accelerating its deconstruction. Therefore, we see that the call for a realistic way to deal with Israel, as it is an established state whether we like it or not, and as a regional power with which other states can ally against the imperial ambitions of Iran and Turkey. In other words, the most direct threat to us is no longer completely rejected as it was in the past.

Today, political realism has taken a much firmer hold in our collective thinking. Of course, as we mention the imperial ambitions of Iran and Turkey, some might ask about the statement “Your land, O Israel, from the Nile to the Euphrates.” Does it not also express imperial ambitions? The fact is that this a story from the Bible that we have become very attached to, but it does not mean anything, even for Israel, whose policy is based on gains and losses from a realistic angle, and not on religious myths. For Israel, Judaism is an expression of a national identity and not a religious belief, but that is lengthy discussion for another time.

What is important today is that political realism in considering and dealing with the Palestinian issue and the relationship with Israel has begun to impose itself to a greater degree, and the recent initiative by the UAE to normalize relations with Israel is only a model and a foretaste of what will occur in the region.

People are tired of wasting their resources, sacrificing their prosperity and entire generations’ futures, for the sake of illusions tied to the cause. Let us not choose a political impasse where neither the cause is resolved, nor is a more prosperous future assured. All matters are in God’s hands, what has come before and what will come after.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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