Key shifts in the Arab ‘moderates’ position on Hamas and Israel

Published by Middle East Monitor

The Egyptian, Saudi and other Arab “moderates” position on the Gaza war 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 the traditionally recognized right of resistance to 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 Hezbollah off. Saudi Arabia adopted the US line that blamed Hezbollah for the Israeli air, sea and land invasion, decrying the group’s “irresponsible adventurism”. Hosni Mubarak couldn’t even bring himself to call Hezbollah by name, referring to it infamously as al-bita’ da (“that thing”). As it became clear Hezbollah 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 Hezbullah, 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. During that war Mubarak’s regime first proferred the argument publicly that there was no use in armed resistance, justifying the destruction of tunnels that were a lifeline for Gazans. Then Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni’s trip to Cairo on the eve of the invasion had the effect of Egyptian approval of the coming carnage. Such was the shift of Arab entrenched unrepresentative regimes towards an Israeli view of managing the conflict.

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. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin 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 – many of them leaked to media and fervently denied by Saudi state media – began in 2006, and former intelligence chief Turki al-Faisal wrote in July that “arrogant” Hamas was to blame for the latest Gaza war while Qatar and Turkey were complicit in perpetuating it by aiding Hamas in its negotiating position over a ceasefire.

In the United States and other Western nations these positions have been viewed as timely pragmatism in an effort to bring the historic conflict to an end; thus the narrative that allows these Arab states to be termed “moderates”. But it’s worth noting a few points regarding the evolution of these policies 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 and the growth of state-promoted opinion that seeks to lower the importance of the Palestinian issue (Saudi-owned pan-Arab channel Al Arabiya TV night after night quickly moved on to other news items), 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.

While Saudi Arabia has its concerns about Iranian support for Hamas and Egypt has its paranoia that Hamas activism will play into Israeli dreams of either forcing some Gazans into Sinai or obliging Egypt to resume control of the territory, both policies are underpinned by a disdain for Palestinians and their struggle for liberty. Since Sadat’s pro-Western turn, the Egyptian political elite have developed a racist anti-Palestinian chauvinism, casting Palestinians as Third World rejectionists of a putative march towards modernity led by the Egyptian (police) state. Expressions of anti-Palestinianism in media have never been as vulgar as they have been in recent weeks. As for Saudi Arabia, as a government, it has lost any interest in even superficial support for Palestinian challenge to the West-imposed order. The Saudi Grand Mufti spoke clearly against sympathy protests for Gazans in January 2009, denouncing them as “rowdiness and noise”. In a keynote speech before the recent round of ceasefires, King Abdullah equated the “terrorism of groups and states”, placing Hamas and Israel on a par, while mentioning neither by name.

The logic of “surrender and reap the economic benefits” prevails, though Arabs instinctively understand that what this means is that corrupt elites can enrich themselves at the expense of ordinary Palestinians’ rights. 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 liberty that Palestinians seek is the liberty denied to many others living under oppressive regimes. The claim made by US commentators such as Thomas Friedman that the Arab uprisings had nothing to do with traditional causes like Palestine was patently untrue. For protesters, the link between the state of rot and decay internally is organically linked to government behaviour externally. The revival of Islamic jihadism through the wars in Syria and Iraq has injected a further element of danger into 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.

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