The “Arab system” after Gaza

Khaled Hroub
27 January 2009

George W Bush in an inimitable way succeeded in his aim of creating a "new middle east" - albeit one that is almost opposite to the outcome he had in mind. The ideologically-driven agenda that the former United States president and his neo-conservative advisors pursued in the aftermath of 9/11 was ambitious: waging a "war on terror", crushing the Saddam Hussein regime, talking loosely of democracy while shoring up friendships with authoritarian allies - and abandoning more than a cursory search for political progress in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.


Khaled Hroub is director of the Cambridge Arab Media Project in association with the Centre of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of Hamas: Political Thought and Practice (Institute for Palestine Studies, 2000), and Hamas: a Beginner's Guide (Pluto Press, 2006)

Also by Khaled Hroub in openDemocracy:

"Hamas's path to reinvention" (9 October 2006)

"Palestine's argument: Mecca and beyond" (6 March 2007)

"Annapolis, or the absurdity of postmodern politics" (22 November 2007)

"Hamas after the Gaza war" (15 January 2009)This last element in particular meant granting Israel a de facto free hand to enhance its post-1967 policy towards  the West Bank and the Gaza strip. The effect has been so to alienate Arab publics and even the leaders of "moderate" Arab states that when Israel unleashed its war on the Hamas movement and on Gaza on 27 December 2008, something broke in the minds and hearts of the region's people. The hunger for change, for progress, for movement, for dignity in the shadow of the Gaza bombardment has become resounding. All the governments of the region are feeling its effects, even as their mechanisms to contain and divert popular pressures seem more and more hollow. 

A new formation

The Gaza war can be seen in part as the culmination of America's short-sighted middle-east policy in the 2000s: that is, of leaving things to take their own shape in Israel-Palestine without external intervention. The result of such indulgence of Israel and indifference to the deep-rooted and long-standing problems of the Palestinians is the emergence of new realities in the region, where pro-western Arab countries (Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan in particular) are now being forced to take harder stances as their "moderation" is exposed as ineffective.

The counterproductive effects of the Bush years have buried the aspiration of a peaceful "new middle east" and produced instead emerging signs of what might be called a "resisting middle east" - a region where the moderates have been weakened, the radicals are stronger, anti-Americanism is deeper, and Palestine as the core issue in the region is as persistent as ever.

The rise of this "resisting middle east" is grounded in two great failures over the past two decades: that of Israel to end its occupation and/or subjugation of the West Bank and the Gaza strip, especially after the historic Palestinian compromise accepting the two-state solution in 1988; and that of the United States to adopt a fair policy toward Palestine-Israel. Both have fuelled alienation and anger among Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims in ways that have helped strengthen the "resistance" camp.

The results can be seen in the diplomatic reactions to the Gaza assault. Several of those countries often seen as important (if not uncritical) US allies in the region, such as Jordan, adopted harsh language in criticising the Israeli operation. The condemnation by Qatar and Turkey was so vehement as to put them effectively alongside the Syrian-Iranian "axis of resistance" (which on its own flank encompasses Hamas and Hizbollah).

True, this new ad hoc regional formation - visible at the summit in Doha of thirteen Arab states (as well as Turkey, Iran and Senegal) on 16 January 2009 - may prove temporary. But it is almost certain that the dominant trend in the region is in the direction of a resisting middle east - one that, if it continues, would confirm the US-constructed image of a "new middle east" as a mirage and (more importantly) threaten the traditional "Arab system" centred on the League of Arab States.

Among openDemocracy's articles on the Gaza conflict of 2008-09:

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: hope after attack" (1 January 2009)

Ghassan Khatib, "Gaza: outlines of an endgame" (6 January 2009)

Avi Shlaim, "Israel and Gaza: rhetoric and reality" (7 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: the Israel-United States connection" (7 January 2009)

Tarek Osman, "Egypt's dilemma: Gaza and beyond" (12 January 2009)

Mary Robinson, "A crisis of dignity in Gaza" (13 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: the wider war" (13 January 2009)

Menachem Kellner, "Israel's Gaza war: five asymmetries" (14 January 2009)

Prince Hassan of Jordan, "The failure of force: an alternative option" (16 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "After Gaza: Israel's last chance" (17 January 2009)

Martin Shaw, "Israel's politics of war" (19 January 2009)

Conor Gearty, "Israel, Gaza and international law" (21 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: the war after the war" (22 January 2009) A corroded system

This would be very bad news for the "Arab system" - that operating network of empty and declarative elite diplomacy that has long allowed Arab regimes to pretend that their regular summit meetings and collective statements amount to anything. This approach has also, by creating the appearance of a new (in fact mostly Washington-led) "strategic" orientation, served to absorb and channel public anger. At times the pressures were so great that the "system" effectively cracked - notably over the visit of Egypt's president Anwar Sadat to Jerusalem in 1977 and the subsequent peace treaty with Israel, and later over the wars with Iraq in 1991 and 2003.

The invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the subsequent war put the "Arab system" under immense strain, but it is again the Palestine issue that has created its deepest crisis. The outlines of a pronounced rivalry have emerged over the Gaza war of 2008-09 that pit Egypt and Saudi Arabia (seen by many Arabs as too silent over or even tacitly approving of Israel's assault on Hamas) against Syria, Iran and even Qatar and Turkey (which have taken strong positions against Israel's war). 

The response of the historic "Arab system" to large-scale crises in the region has tended to combine the noisiest of rhetoric with the least effective of actions. The appearance of unity in the status quo it sought to maintain was always hollow, a sort of "sustained fragility". The best that can be said of it is that it has worked to the extent that it survived (albeit with great strain at times) and kept the Arab roadshow in business.

The reaction of this system to the Gaza war fell within the same parameters of maximum rhetoric/minimum action. This time, however, the pressures are becoming unbearable. In part this is because the great and almost unopposed destructiveness of the Israeli military campaign in Gaza has exposed the corrosion of the system from within. But more is involved - for what makes this moment differ from previous crises and even near-breakdowns of the system is the emergence of a new geopolitical environment in which powers such as Iran and Turkey are eager to play a central role in regional politics.

In a sense, long-term inaction by Arab states has created a vacuum of political leadership which two non-Arab countries now seek to fill. The vast majority of Arab public opinion has - if the evidence of media reports, commentaries and street demonstrations are a guide - welcomed their arrival. Some analysts even portrayed Turkey's prime minster Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a defiant Ottoman sultan refusing to accept the humiliation of fellow Muslims. This very reminder of past hegemony also suggests that only the issue of Palestine and its complex of historic claim and national aspiration could permit Arab publics to welcome Turkey and Iran into their heartlands.

A desperate hope

The Gaza-focused summit in Doha may prove a significant event in the formation of a "resisting middle east". Egypt and Saudi Arabia saw the event as an overt attempt by Qatar to play a bigger and (to them) intolerable regional role, and they pressured other Arab countries not to attend. But the Qataris, angry and frustrated, went ahead with a gathering that also included the daring and prominent presence of three radical, non-state actors - Khaled Meshal of Hamas, Ramadan Abdullah Shallah of Islamic Jihad in Palestine, and Ahmad Jibril of a smaller leftist/pan-Arab nationalist Palestinian faction.

The Qatar-hosted summit suggests that Arab governments can - if they want to - make principled decisions that depart from the norm. The proof is that Qatar itself was able during the Gaza crisis to play a much bigger role than its small size and limited leverage should allow. The decisions taken at the summit may have been largely symbolic, but they were in context very strong: a threat to withdraw support of the Arab peace initiative of March 2002, and the freezing by Qatar and Mauritania of diplomatic relations with Israel.

The initiative, agreed at the Arab summit in Beirut in 2002, offered Israel full normalisation of relations with all Arab countries in return for its acceptance of the two-state solution based on pre-1967 borders. It could still be a strong basis for progress, but the fact that even the Arab states most likely to support it are losing faith that it can ever be implemented tells its own story.

After the Gaza war, any deepening of a "resistance" camp backed by new states would be chilling news to the Egyptians and Saudis (and their western backers). This was clear at the Arab summit in Kuwait on 19-20 January (already scheduled to discuss economic and social development, but hastily including Gaza reconstruction on its agenda); there, a defensive Riyadh was forced into a bolder stance - echoing the threat to back away from the 2002 initiative, pledging $1 billion for Gaza reconstruction, and calling for Palestinian unity.

Indeed, the Gaza war has placed the entire moderate Arab camp on the defensive. Barack Obama is their last hope: in particular, that he and his administration turns out to be more even-handed between Israel and the Arab world, embraces and builds on the Arab peace initiative, takes steps to end Israel's occupation of and settlement on land seized in 1967, and works to make an independent Palestinian state a reality. If this hope too dissolves, the prospect is that a growing wave of radicalisation that encompasses state as well as non-state actors will transform middle-eastern realities on its own account.

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