The Egyptian, Saudi and other Arab “moderates” position on the Gaza war over the past three weeks has been presented in most media discussion and political analysis as a striking departure from previous policy and indication of a new shift towards Israel and its view of Hamas, “resistance” and other regional challenges to the global order. The fact is, however, that their Gaza policies are the consequence of over a decade of restructuring of Arab positions to accommodate the United States.
The trend began as a result of Western pressure during the Al-Aqsa Intifada and in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Stung by the involvement of 15 Saudi Arabian nationals in the al-Qa’ida attacks on New York and Washington, Riyadh instituted a major effort to convince the US administration it was a loyal ally. One of the first acts in this long apology was the Arab Peace Initiative, which was famously revealed to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman by then crown prince Abdullah without coordination with other Arab states.
At Saudi instigation, the Gulf states’ collective position on the conflict gradually shifted. In 2004 for the first time they called for a “viable Palestinian state” living side-by-side with Israel, acquiescing in the US-Israeli view that Israel should not have to give up all of the settlements built in the occupied territories. It also echoed the US-Israeli view that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s death removed an obstacle to a resolution of the conflict, declaring “the importance of seizing the appropriate circumstances and opportunity presented” for obtaining Palestinian rights. The 2005 GCC summit welcomed Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and in 2006 it called for an end to “violence and counter-violence”, the first such clear position against “resistance” to the occupation.
2006 was a watershed because of the stance the moderate camp took on the Israeli attack on Lebanon, taking little action to stop the war in its early stages in the hope that Israel would finish Hizbullah off. Saudi Arabia adopted the US line that blamed Hizbullah for the Israeli air, sea and land invasion, decrying the group’s “irresponsible adventurism”. Hosni Mubarak couldn’t even bring himself to call Hizbullah by name, referring to it infamously as “thingy”. As it became clear Hizbullah was capable of fighting back and winning public sympathy, the regimes panicked. In a US diplomatic document published by Wikileaks, Saudi foreign minister Saud al-Faisal summoned then US ambassador James Oberwetter to demand Washington order a ceasefire. “What is occurring is strengthening Hizbullah, not weakening it,” he told him. The scenario was repeated in December 2008 and January 2009 when muted reactions from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and others reflected a hope that Israel would finish off Hamas in Gaza.
That Egypt and Saudi Arabia are today on Israel’s side when it comes to Hamas has been stated even more publicly than ever, by Israeli officials and US media. In a press conference on Saturday, Netanyahu even talked about “new possibilities” in regional cooperation that would surprise many. Except it will not be a surprise at all. Spurred by a common fear of Iranian power, Saudi Arabia allowed several Israeli journalists to enter the kingdom to cover events such as the Arab summit of March 2007, a series of meetings between Israeli officials and Prince Bandar bin Sultan began in 2006, and former intelligence chief Turki al-Faisal wrote last week that “arrogant” Hamas was to blame for the current war, and Qatar and Turkey were complicit in perpetuating it by aiding Hamas in its negotiating position over a ceasefire.
While any or all of these positions by the Arab moderates could be analysed as timely pragmatism and an effort to bring the historic conflict to an end, it’s worth noting a few points regarding their evolution and their impact in the region. Firstly, they are the policies of governments with problematic claims to popular legitimacy. While it’s difficult to make absolute judgements, it would be fair to say that, despite the media apparatus available to propagate these views, they do not reflect popular sentiment across the Arab region. The policies are a product of Western pressure, not honest conviction among their formulators, and this affects their reception among the public.
Finally, in the shadow of the Arab uprisings of 2011 regimes around the region are more acutely aware than ever of the organic link between Palestinian mobilization against Israel and domestic protest against entrenched systems of rule: one encourages the other. The Saudi Grand Mufti spoke clearly against sympathy protests for Gazans in January 2009, denouncing them as “rowdiness and noise”. The king this week equated the terrorism of “groups and states” in a keynote speech on Gaza this week, conspicuously blaming Hamas as well as Israel, while mentioning neither by name. The revival of Islamic jihadism through the wars in Syria and Iraq have injected a further element of danger in the equation. Thus, the tenor of rhetoric over Gaza 2014 has been notably higher than four years ago, with the moderates more blatantly opposed to Hamas than before and more shrill in their anger at those states which have maintained close ties with it.