The Arab street in general, and the Palestinian in particular, is in a state of expectation of what might be the outcome of the Arab peace initiative launched by the Saudi King Abdullah.
It is no secret that the conflicts between the Arab states are largely affected by the policies of the American administration pertaining to the Middle East issues and the developments of the Palestinian-Israeli track on the one hand; and by the contentious files on the other hand, such as the relation with Iran and the assessment of its role in different Arab cases, in addition to dealing with the Arab initiative, especially in the presence of a right-wing Israeli government and the Obama administration which is concerned with conducting dialog with the Arab and Muslim worlds.
The positive signals which came from the American administration towards Syria turned out to be a mere symbolic change, which means that there would not be a crucial breakthrough in the Arab scene. Thus, it is expected that the Arab-Palestinian situation would swing on the hinges of three possibilities: the first of which is the consensus on the Arab initiative in a way that corners any Palestinian side that refuses to “adhere” to the initiative; the second possibility is the persistence of the current Arab stand and consequently of the Palestinian division; while the third is an Arab lull which includes the Palestinian front and facilitates the process of dialog without a consensus on a national government.
The Arab official regime is witnessing a political situation which is relatively calm compared to the tumultuous period that prevailed till the Arab summit was held in Qatar in the end of last March. The calm is tightly related to the reconciliation efforts which Saudi Arabia has conducted between Egypt, Syria and Qatar since the economic summit held in Kuwait three days before the Arab summit; among the primary achievements of those efforts was the halt of mutual propaganda and media campaigns, to pave the way for in-depth dialog that terminates contentious issues, that have started then and are still limited to four overlapping files, namely:
1. Regulating the Arab relation with Iran, in addition to the regulation of the Iranian role in Iraq and various Arab files including the Palestinian issue.
2. Managing the Arab peace initiative, in the light of the changes which have pushed Israel towards the right extremism, and the presence of a Democratic administration in Washington which proposes dialog and participation as a way to approach the whole world and shows relatively positive attitudes towards the Palestinian issue, Iraq and Syria in comparison with the former Bush administration.
3. Dealing with the Palestinian division and activating a Palestinian reconciliation that is endorsed by all Arabs and not only Egypt.
4. Dealing with the situation in Lebanon, in the light of the fierce electoral competition between the streams of pro-government/March14 which is close to Egypt and Saudi Arabia on the one hand and the opposition/March8 which is close to Syria and Iran on the other hand.
Despite the peculiarity of each of these files, they are so overlapping and intertwined that no defining lines could be drawn between them; hence the need for a comprehensive approach that does not depend only on the Arab parties but also requires regional and international participation. This shows the magnitude of the difficulty in resolving controversial Arab issues in case the solution was not accompanied with the settlement of the critical matters between important Arab parties and other regional and international actors.
1. The prevailing calm on the Arab level hides mutual policies of anticipation for the way some issues would evolve in the light of the new American strategy towards Iraq, Palestine, Syria and Lebanon; the outcome of the Lebanese developments after the elections; and the destiny of the national Palestinian dialog.
2. On the official level, the Arab stance towards the Arab peace initiative seems to be persistent; however, the degree of actual enthusiasm towards the initiative among the Arab countries is discrepant for while one side perceives of the initiative as the only available option, a second party sees that the initiative is not posed ad infinitum and that the Arabs should reconsider it in case Israel insisted on rejecting it, and a third party who considers that the initiative has failed and the only possible alternative is the resistance.
3. The Arab assessment of the Iranian role in different Arab issues witnesses a significant split between two main camps. The first considers Iran an irreplaceable key ally for the Arab issues and having it as a part of the equation in the conflict with Israel would fill the gap between the Arabs and Israel; in addition, Iran could not be considered as a threat for Arab security and the defects in its policies do not amount to the existential Israeli threat for the Arab world in its entirety, and the dialog with Tehran is the only way to address those defects. The second camp, while agreeing with the first on the qualitative difference between Israel’s threats to the Arab world and Iran’s offensive policies in general, sees that Iran’s intervention in Iraq and the Palestinian issue is a direct reason for hindering security in Iraq and deepening the Palestinian division; in addition, a number of Iranian activities within many Arab countries are a source of anxiety and worry and should not be overlooked. For this camp, having Iran as a part of the equation in the conflict with Israel complicates the issues against the Arab interests more than it makes up for the imbalance with Israel.
4. The Lebanese elections scheduled in June serve as a laboratory for testing many important elements in Arab politics. On one level, the elections are a test for the Syrian policy announced towards Lebanon pledging the non-interference in the Lebanese affairs and the consequent Arab standings, especially the Saudi and Egyptian positions, towards Syria. On another level, the elections would outline the general orientation of Lebanon and its future relations with the United States and Iran.
5. The current Arab scene involves a fluctuation in the possible relation between Syria and the US. While Syria is betting on a major breakthrough in its relation with Washington, recognition of a direct Syrian role in Lebanon, an American standing supportive of its demands to restore the whole Golan in any probable negotiations with Israel, the development of the economic relations, accepting the special Syrian relation with Iran as it is and an understanding of the establishment of the Palestinian resistance factions on its territory; the actual American stance towards Syria seems to be mere symbolic changes limited to visits of American officials and the discussion of various files without reaching specific agreements. Besides, Obama’s decision of extending the economic sanctions on Syria imposed since 2004 was unexpected and it shows that the Syrian-American dialog is still unripe.
6. The issue of political reform, political participation and democratic transition is no more a factor of pressure on any Arab country.
7. The preliminary indicators since the arrival of the Obama administration reflect a kind of breakthrough in the Egyptian-American relations and an exit from the state of crisis which stamped that relation during Bush’s last tenure. Obama’s decision to display his vision of his country’s future relations with the Islamic world from Cairo on June 4 is considered as an affirmation of the vitality of the Egyptian role in the affairs of the Arab and Islamic region.
1. A political and geographic division that threatens towards the re-definition of the Palestinian issue in a way detriment to it as the just case for people struggling for their legitimate right to an independent, fully sovereign state.
2. The Palestinian division is politically represented in the disparity regarding two visions; the first is represented by the Palestinian Authority (PA) headed by Mahmoud Abbas, that believes negotiation is the only way to attain a state and its sovereignty, that the imbalance of power with Israel does not leave any room for military action, and that the Obama administration is a promising opportunity to pressure the Israeli government to agree to the two-state solution and put an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The main flaw in this vision is the poor yield of the negotiations the PA has conducted with the former Israeli government under Olmert and Netanyahu’s current government’s disavowal of the two-state solution while proposing merely the bettering of the Palestinian economic situation as a basis for the future negotiations.
The other view is represented by Hamas and its government in Gaza with a number of other Palestinian factions notably the Islamic Jihad. This view questions the feasibility of negotiation with any Israeli government, believing that the two-state solution ends the Palestinian cause without restoring the rights of the Palestinian people and that the first point to deal with should be the Israeli occupation, thus resistance is the only viable response to this occupation. Further, holders of this vision believe that it is more efficient for the resistance to have official Arab support and for practical consideration they accept aid from any party which endorses this standing, especially Iran and Syria. The defect of this vision lies in the fact that the proposed resistance with its military capacity is not efficient in ending the Israeli occupation and that any military confrontation would cost much and increase the Palestinian suffering like the case in the Gaza Strip during and after the Israeli aggression in January 2009.
3. In extension of the aforementioned split in the political visions, the PA regards the Iranian role as a negative one which impedes the negotiations, deepens the division and exhausts the Palestinian negotiator with additional burden. On the other hand, Hamas and its allies believe that Iran is an important backup for the resistance and that it is difficult to give up on its support or think negatively of its role while at the same time they do not consider themselves as subjugates to the Iranian policy or an extension thereof or a threat to the Egyptian security specifically from Gaza as some speculate.
4. The outcome of the Palestinian dialog after five rounds of Egyptian auspices, emphasized that a state of mutual suspicion is prevailing and that every side is acting on the basis of the primary conviction that any concession in any case means losing popularity; the main concerned parties, Fatah and Hamas, insist on their visions regarding the national reconciliation government, their political program and the electoral system.
5. The Egyptian sponsor would prefer that the Palestinian accord be concluded on the basis of self- convictions of all parties participating in the dialog; yet at the same time, Egypt warned that time is not a contributing factor and that a formula could be imposed in case the Palestinians could not agree on a formula suitable for them.
6. The Palestinian division is not only between Hamas and Fatah but within Fatah itself. This was clear in the standing of Fatah parliamentary bloc towards the formation of Salam Fayyad’s new government on May 19 where it objected on this government for political and executive considerations. In this standing, Fatah met with Hamas that perceived of the formation of this government, before the end of the national dialog, as nipping the Palestinian dialog in the bud, and that the new government is submitting to American and Israeli pressures which would hinder the attainment of reconciliation.
III. The Interplay between the Arab and the Palestinian
It is clear from the deconstruction of the general Arab and Palestinian scenes that each influences the other and is influenced by its developments:
– Both the Arab and Palestinian divisions are associated with the dispute on three interrelated factors: the first is the approach to the Arab initiative in the next stage and how this is related to an alternative for resistance; the second is the two-state solution as a basis for the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations; and the third is the Iranian role and the Iranian interference in the Palestinian affairs whether directly with some parties or through a third party like the Lebanese Hezbollah. Thus, an essential part of solving the Palestinian issue is overcoming the Arab divisions first.
– Despite being influenced by the Arab division, the Palestinian division could still maintain its own dynamics, emphasized by the interests that resulted from the geographical split since June 2007; these interests are to a large extent factional preferences and ideological priorities that do not fall within the Palestinian consensus.
– The Palestinian division, like the Arab division, has become sensitive to the changes in the American policy towards the different Arab issues, and other regional changes, notably the possible American relation with Iran.
– Although the right extremist trend has prevailed in Israel, and was reflected in many policies of the Netanyahu government, that reject the rights of the Palestinian people; this did not catalyze the Palestinian reconciliation or push towards the necessary Palestinian unity to face that, while the opposite seems true.
– The Palestinian division is a pressure factor in the daily life of the Palestinians, particularly in the besieged Gaza Strip.
– The external intervention in the Palestinian affairs could not be terminated; yet, it could be limited if it contradicted with the higher interests of the Palestinian people.
Based on the above we could say that the Palestinian scene would be open on one of the following possibilities:
1. An Islamic-Arab consensus on the Arab initiative leading to cornering the Palestinian side that does not adhere to this initiative. This possibility is based on the Obama administration’s view towards the Arab initiative as a proper ground for negotiation and its call to expand its framework to include the “comprehensive Arab-Islamic peace” with Israel.
2. The continuation of the current Arab alignment which threatens with a continuation of the Palestinian division. This possibility is likely due to the Arab “moderation” camp’s support for Abu Mazen and the Ramallah government, as well as the efforts made to achieve a harmony with the Quartet’s conditions parallel to a continuous Syrian support for the Palestinian factions in Damascus; in addition to the understanding of some Arab countries of Hamas’s opt for resistance and appreciation/support of its steadfastness in the Gaza Strip.
If we take into account the continuing strong relation between Tehran and Damascus, the failure to reach an agreement between Damascus and Tel Aviv, and the faltering relation between Damascus and Washington, it would be possible to anticipate the continuation of the current Arab stand, which means that the Palestinian reconciliation would remain beyond the expected.
3. An Arab lull which includes the Palestinian front and facilitates dialog but without consensus on a national government. The need of the countries of “Arab moderation” to secure Arab and Islamic support for the Arab initiative urges these countries to achieve the Palestinian reconciliation as a compulsory passage towards the “Palestinian State”. However, the radical right-wing’s control of the Israeli government is more likely to affect the future of the Palestinian dialog and leave it in a state of deadlock without moving into free, fair elections or to one unity government in the West Bank and Gaza.
1. Washington’s need for dialog with the Arab and Islamic world through the Palestinian gate is an opportunity that should be taken by the Arab countries of regional importance, in order to exercise a kind of pressure on the Obama administration to reconsider the Quartet’s conditions, as these bear part of the responsibility for the state of division among the Palestinians.
2. If the Arab conflict has influenced the Palestinian scene, the adoption by an Arab side of the policy of one of the parties to the Palestinian division is also responsible for the aggravation of this state of division. This requires this Arab side to reconsider its policies in a way that promotes Palestinian unity and respects the free will of the Palestinian people and the legitimate institutions that have been created by this will, in addition to emphasizing the peaceful transfer of authority.
3. In the light of the severe state of division and the numerous controversial issues, going back to the approved national documents is the shortest and most guaranteed way towards a Palestinian reconciliation based on political vision and Arab support; especially that most documents approved by the Palestinians were concluded under Arab auspices or supervision. Clear examples of these are Cairo Agreement 2005, the National Reconciliation Document 2006, the Mecca Agreement 2007, and the program of the Government of Unity 2007. Thus it would be appropriate to have Arab consensus on the necessity of a Palestinian reconciliation in reference to these documents or similar grounded concepts.
Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations would like to sincerely thank Dr. Hassan Abu Taleb, the expert in the Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, for writing the original text on which basis this assessment was written.