There was a time when it was accurate to use the term ‘Arab-Israeli conflict’ to describe the dispute between the Jewish state, the Palestinians, and much of the Arab world. Yet lately, given that the upheaval regarding this troublesome spot is increasingly coming from the non-Arab Muslim world, the term has become a misnomer. From Turkey, to Iran, to Malyasia, non-Arab actors are jumping on the anti-Israel bandwagon in order to bolster domestic support and gain regional and global standing. This effectively treats the Palestinians as pawns, and risks harmful consequences for the people these nations claim to support. It is time for the Arab world to reclaim its influence and advance its own interests by working towards finally resolving this conflict.
The latest regional rift is between Israel and Turkey, the latter of which helped organise the ‘humanitarian aid flotilla’ which was designed to break the Israeli blockade of Hamas-controlled Gaza. The Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, called the Israeli action aboard the flotilla “terrorism under the aegis of an inhuman country”, saying that if Israel had “chosen to side with terrorism and bloody operations, Turkey would choose to side with law, peace, justice, Palestine and the Gaza Strip”.
Turkey’s ambivalent relationship with its secular Kemalist legacy, ascendant strains of Islamism, and angst over the faded glory of the Ottoman Empire all have caused it to amplify its soft power by creating these unsavory yet strategic relationships. As a non-Arab country, Turkey’s newfound camaraderie with Hamas and its solidarity with the Palestinians is clearly not borne out of Arab nationalism but out of a desire to gain regional standing.
This tactic has long been embraced by another non-Arab Muslim country — the Islamic Republic of Iran, who trumpets the Palestinian cause, at the expense of its own citizens. Having lost some soft power to Turkey in the region, Iran seems to be doubling down with increasing bellicosity in its anti-Israel rhetoric, its ongoing commitment to financing terror groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, and its quest for nuclear capability. This is all to the detriment of the Arab states.
Even Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of Malaysia’s political opposition and someone who has become known as a strong advocate of liberal democracy in Muslim countries has been employing anti-Israel rhetoric. Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post has astutely observed that Ibrahim’s “transition from pro-American democrat to anti-Israeli zealot is sobering — and it is on the verge of becoming a trend”.
The hijacking of the Palestinian cause by non-Arab actors has caused jealousy and anxiety in the Arab world. This is due to the Arab world’s belief that the Palestinian cause is its flag to wave and the primary mode from which various Arab leaders derive legitimacy. Regrettably, it is rife with hypocrisy when it comes to this issue and has done little to alleviate Palestinian suffering, paying lip service to Palestinian rights but only when those rights are sullied by Israel. When it comes to Palestinian liberty under Hamas — a terrorist organisation who imposes its strict Islamic doctrine on the people of Gaza — or of the rights of Palestinian refugees who are discriminated against in Arab countries, there is silence.
Alas, for the chorus of disapproval emanating from the Arab world, Palestinian refugees are marginalised in their host countries by being confined to refugee camps and refused citizenship despite the fact that many are native born. Additionally, they are the only group to be granted refugee status on the basis of descent alone, explaining why the number of Palestinian refugees continues to increase. Unfortunately, the Arab and Muslim world benefit from exploiting the Palestinians as it ensures that the all-defining ‘cohesion’ of the Muslim world — its hatred of Israel — is maintained. Exploiting them also means that Israel’s ‘illegitimacy’ is constantly on the world’s agenda, diverting attention from their own unwholesome regimes.
The Palestinian people have long been sacrificed for a larger purpose but the time has come for the Arab states to regain their rightful position by supporting them politically, rather than allowing them to rely on ‘support’ from non-Arab states. This is especially important given the convergence of interests with respect to Iran’s nuclear advancement, among the Arab states and Israel.
One of the conditions for Arab recognition of Israel in the Arab Peace Initiative was the attainment of ‘a just solution to the problem of Palestinian refugees to be agreed upon in accordance with the UN General Assembly Resolution No 194′. Israel regards the naturalisation of millions of Palestinian refugees as demographic suicide and thus, a red line. The absence of the usual term ‘right of return’ was hailed as a breakthrough vis-à-vis previous peace negotiations. While this does indeed represent progress, the term ‘just solution’ remains ambiguous and therefore problematic.
Saudi King Abdullah, the initiator of this Initiative and the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, should take responsibility for the Arabs’ role in perpetuating the fate of the refugees and modify the wording to explicitly say that ‘a just solution’ does not mean the ‘right of return’. This would increase Israeli public support for the Initiative — a prerequisite for negotiations.
Finally, Abdullah should follow in the footsteps of the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, by taking the bold step of personally delivering this modified proposal to Israel to show that for the Arabs, Palestinian self determination is more important than using them as a political pawn.