Faced with the carnage in Gaza, which came to an end following the Wednesday night ceasefire, how should Arab states react? Heartbreaking TV pictures of death and destruction — of mauled children being pulled from the wreckage of their homes — must certainly have aroused consternation and stirred the conscience of every family from Cairo to Baghdad, and from Riyadh to Rabat. What will Arabs now expect from their leaders?
To get some sense of Arab opinion, I conducted my own limited poll, phoning and e-mailing contacts in different Arab countries. I tried to understand how they felt about the punishment of Gaza? Was their reaction one of anger and a thirst for revenge? Or did they feel a painful sense of humiliation, coupled with impatience with their leaders?
The reaction of most of my correspondents was robust. Their view was that Egypt and Jordan should freeze their peace treaties with Israel and close the Israeli embassies in Cairo and Amman. “Do Arab leaders not understand,” one of them said to me, “that the new Arab generation, freed from the dictators of the past, will no longer tolerate submissive policies? Arabs and Muslims must now show their muscle.”
Two proposals I heard seem worth conveying to a wider public. One was that Egypt President Mohammad Mursi, Qatar Emir Shaikh Hamad Bin Khalifa, Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Recep Erdogan and a very senior Saudi such as Prince Salman should together seek an urgent meeting with US President Barack Obama. They should convey to him the clear message that Israel’s siege of Gaza, and its continued occupation and land theft on the West Bank, have become intolerable. Israel’s violent policies were not only destroying the Palestinians. They were undermining the legitimacy of every Arab regime. They were a danger to the whole Arab order. No Arab government was safe from the anger of its people. That was the main lesson of the Arab Spring.
My contacts said that these regional leaders should give Obama a clear choice. They should tell him that if in 2013 — the first year of his new presidential mandate — he failed to bring Israel to the table to negotiate peace and statehood for the Palestinians on the basis of the 1967 lines (perhaps with some agreed land swaps), then the Arabs would be compelled to downgrade their relations with the US.
Purchases of American arms would be frozen. American bases in the Gulf would be closed. American aid could be dispensed with. American interference in Arab affairs would no longer be tolerated. American protection was worthless and unwanted: it merely exposed the Arabs to Israeli aggression.
Arab oil producers, some of my contacts said, were fully aware that the US was no longer a major customer for Arab oil. The international oil trade had switched towards Asia. It was time for the Arabs to join with China in protecting the new strategic oil routes. If the US wanted influence in the Arab region, it had to change its policies and become a truly neutral mediator. If that were not possible, the Arabs would look elsewhere for help. As for the Arab leaders, they too should understand that profound changes were taking place on the international scene. It was time for them to carve out a new place for the Arabs in the world — outside of the American orbit.
Some contacts linked the Arab-Israeli conflict to America’s current undeclared war against Iran — a war driven by Israel. They said that the Arabs should not allow themselves to be squeezed between Israel and Iran. They should know which one of the two was their real enemy. Gulf countries — a senior contact in that area told me — should conclude a non-aggression pact with Iran and draw Tehran into regional security arrangements with the Arabs. If the Arabs allied themselves with Iran and Turkey, they would be strong enough to contain Israel’s aggression and protect the Palestinians. The cruel fate of the Palestinians was a badge of dishonour for every Arab.
Yet another suggestion which I heard from several sources was that Arab oil states, flush with funds, should coordinate and consolidate their financial aid to ailing Arab economies — like those of Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen. They should make plans for the reconstruction of Syria once a way out was found from the current nightmare in that country. Only when Arab money was used in defence of Arab causes could Arab independence be truly genuine.
Should the Arabs then prepare for war with Israel? I asked. No was the unanimous reply. The solution had to be political, not military. But most of my contacts — in countries as diverse as Yemen, Algeria and Kuwait — blamed the US for the Gaza slaughter. It was America’s support, they said, which allowed Israel to kill Palestinians with impunity. They complained that Obama had again collapsed in the face of Israel and the Jewish lobby. He had adopted Israel’s argument that Israel had the right to defend itself and that Hamas was a terrorist organisation. This was a slap in the face to the Arabs. No doubt, it was the duty of the Israeli government to defend its people. But had no one else such a right? Was no other country allowed to seek deterrence? Hamas was a democratically-elected government. Was it not also responsible for defending its people?
How did Arabs react, I wondered, when Israel’s Minister of Interior, Eli Yishai, said that “the goal of the operation is to send Gaza back to the Middle Ages?” Or when Gilad Sharon, son of former prime mister Ariel Sharon, said, “We need to flatten all of Gaza. There should be no electricity, no gasoline, no moving vehicles, nothing. Then they’d really call for a ceasefire?”
“Israelis like this are psychopaths,” one of my contacts said. “They are insane killers living in their own closed, fanatical world. They don’t seem to understand that saying such obscene things fuels violent anti-Semitism and puts Jews everywhere in danger.” But another of my contacts said: “Hamas is to blame. Why did it expose its population to attack? Why did it embarrass President Mohammad Mursi? He needs to give his full attention to the Egyptian economy. Why put him in an impossible position?”
One of my interlocutors put the matter in stark terms: “Should the Arabs accept to be beaten into pulp every few years so that Israelis can feel safe and the Israeli-American alliance flourish?”
Another view I heard was that Israel was exploiting the vacuum created by Syria’s internal war. “By smashing Gaza,” one of my contacts said, “its intention is to remind Iran and the United States of its strength. It wants to prove that it can do what it likes when it likes. It wants to show that its freedom of action is total — whatever the world may think.”
The above is a sample of views conveyed to me over the past few days. The coming weeks will show whether Arab leaders heed the voices of their people, or whether they will simply decide to go back to business as usual, however many Palestinians perish.
Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs.