Egyptian President Husni Mubarak and his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Asad will convene an Arab summit in Cairo this weekend to formulate a common stance against the harsh Israeli response to the ongoing Palestinian uprising in the Occupied Territories and within Israel. The summit, the first in over a decade, reflects substantial pressure on Arab regimes from their own populations: large demonstrations in Egypt, Jordan and elsewhere manifest an unusually strong feeling of solidarity with the Palestinian cause on the Arab street.

If the Arab world’s reaction to the first intifada was directed primarily at Israel, the failure of the Oslo “peace process” over the last seven years has directed fresh anger at US complicity in Oslo’s fatal weaknesses. Many perceive the Oslo process, combined with the Gulf war, the international “war on terrorism” and neo-liberal economic reforms encouraged by the US in the Arab world, as a premeditated plan to weaken Arab countries, take advantage of inter-Arab divisions and dehumanize Arabs and Muslims. This popular hostility; to the US role in the region greatly worries most Arab regimes, whose ties to the US have never been as close as they are now. Especially after yielding to President Bill Clinton’s entreaties to host the October 17 Sharm al-Sheikh meeting, Mubarak—like other “moderate” Arab leaders—cannot afford to appear a mere pawn of US pressure. But he and others will be hard pressed in Cairo to find a formula for concrete inter-Arab action against Israel: Arab leaders can’t afford that either.

Soft Tone from the Palestinian Authority

The Palestinian Authority (PA) is eager for Arab countries’ “political support” for its position, but the PA has not issued a clear and explicit list of demands from the summit. One prominent Palestinian figure, Faruq al-Qaddumi, has openly called for Arab states to cut diplomatic relations with Israel. But pressed by the media to specify their demands, Palestinian leaders closer to Arafat—Abu Mazen and Nabil Shaath—will not go beyond vague generalities, ranging from simple shows of solidarity to putting undefined pressure on Israel and lobbying at the UN. This soft tone does not betray a lack of vision. In its desperate need for Arab solidarity, the PA does not want to embarrass other Arab leaders. Gone are the days when the PLO would put forth straightforward demands and threaten to attack the credibility of governments that wouldn’t endorse them. The PA’s own damaged credibility bears much responsibility for this.

The PA spent much of recent years mending its battered relations with the Gulf states, who were incensed by Yasser Arafat’s public support for Iraq during the Gulf war. The Palestinian relationship with Syria and Lebanon is also far from cordial, and any statements of bravado from Arafat can easily backfire — the Syrians may remind him of their reservations about the Oslo process and their own “steadfastness” in dealing with Israel. Both Syria and Lebanon will claim credit for forcing the Israeli evacuation of south Lebanon in late May 2000, and remind Arafat that this victory was not won at the negotiating table. The only important state that the PA can count on for unequivocal support is Egypt, which has wholeheartedly embraced Arafat throughout the post-Oslo years. But what can Egypt do? Egypt’s foreign minister Amr Moussa, asked whether “moderate” Arab states would consider suspending or even freezing diplomatic ties with Israel, replied that “this is not the time for showing off,” and that the Arab states must weigh each option very carefully. Probably, the summit will let individual governments decide whether or not to close Israeli diplomatic and commercial missions. Oman has alread¸ closed the Israeli commercial office in Muscat, but to expect Egypt and Jordan—both already benefiting from Israeli investment, trade and tourism, not to mention enormous US largesse—to do so is far-fetched.

What Can the Summit Do?

The major players at the upcoming Arab summit will be Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia, although other participants, especially Iraq, may make their presence felt by various means. Most probably, Syria will easily get what it wants from the summit: a declaration that all Arab countries will stand by its side in the case of an Israeli attack in retaliation for Hizballah’s October 7 capture of three Israeli soldiers in the Shebaa Farms area and a fourth Israeli late last week. But what exactly does it mean to stand by Syria’s side? Egypt’s Moussa declared that an attack on Syria would be considered an attack on Egypt. Faraway countries like yemen or Algeria might not hesitate to sign such a declaration. But it is doubtful that the Saudis or the Gulf countries can go that far. Bashar al-Asad may have been exploring the extent of his Gulf brethren’s support for Lebanese/Syrian demands in his recent visit to Saudi Arabia. The Syrian position at the summit will not be one of weakness: a threatened country looking for help from stronger brothers. To the contrary, Asad’s first pan-Arab meeting should present an occasion for showing his rival Arafat the consequences of breaking ties with Syria and Lebanon and concluding unilateral accords with Israel. For these reasons, Asad may not press for more than a strong statement of solidarity.

A second show of solidarity will likely come on the financial front. The first intifada was exhausted in part because Palestinians trapped in the West Bank and Gaza were on the brink of economic collapse, and no significant aid was forthcoming. The escalated Israeli military response to the present uprising—including missile attacks, an effective internal blockade and the virtual stoppage of economic activity—may mandate more help from Arab leaders. Here Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states are expected to make their contribution, at least in order to claim credit back home for concrete achievements. Sheikh Zayed Al Nahayan, ruler of the United Arab Emirates, has already requested that one day’s pay be deducted from the checks of all government employees and donated to the Palestinian cause. Thanks to a booming oil market, the establishment of a Gulf-sponsored Palestine fund may be an easy job.

The Iraq Factor

Much media attention has focused on the planned appearance of Iraq—until very recently a pariah in the Arab world—at the Cairo summit. Iraq’s delegation to the summit has not been announced, but no one expects Saddam Hussein to head it. Two deputy premiers may be there: Taha Yasin Ramadan and/or Tariq Aziz, in addition to the foreign minister. Given the immediacy of the Palestinian cause, Iraq may not press for its own cause&mdashlifting the US-led economic embargo—to be present on the summit’s agenda. Egypt will exert “friendly” pressure in this direction, to avoid clashes with the Kuwaitis and Saudis. But the Iraqi delegation may try to embarrass other Arab regimes by telling them that it is Iraq’s self-reliance—and not Arab help—that is slowly eroding the crippling sanctions against the will of the US. Having nothing to lose, Iraq may revert to its traditional tactic at such summits: posing maximalist scenarios knowing that others will reject them, and thereby showing Iraq to be the true champion of the Palestinian cause. The Iraqi delegation will remind the gathered leaders how the present state of Arab powerlessness vis-a-vis Israel would not have come to pass if “the Arab nation” had not helped the US to destroy Iraq’s military capacity in 1990-91.

Arab “Unity” After the Cold War

Emotions in the Arab street in solidarity with the Palestinians are running higher than during the first intifada from 1987-1991. Whereas in 1987 a sense of pride and dignity engulfed Arabs, the mood now is closer to humiliation and anger. Images from the first intifada put Arab causes on the Western agenda, and sowed popular hopes that active Western involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might produce a just resolution. Seven years after Oslo, those hopes lie in tatters. To reflect this mood on the street, the rhetoric emanating from the Arab summit will be strong.

But serious policy shifts are highly unlikely. In the Cold War era, Arab governments could put some pressure on the US by threatening (at least verbally) to reevaluate their mutual relationship, withdraw the huge Arab assets from US financial institutions, seek other arms suppliers and, most importantly, use oil as a weapon in the battle against Israel. In 1973, Arab governments imposed a partial embargo on states that supported Israel. But the demise of the USSR is not the only factor that has altered the political landscape and made such measures impossible today. All oil producers, including Saudi Arabia, are in desperate need for cash revenues from their oil exports. The Gulf Cooperation Council countries have become totally dependent on US military and security “protection” following the Gulf war. Even the PA has invested so much in cultivating US-Palestinian relations that a Palestinian demand to bring serious pressure to bear on the US would be unthinkable. The likely outcome of the summit is a strong statement expressing “concern” over continuing US bias toward Israel in the “peace process,” and renewed calls for the world’s only superpower to play the role of an “honest broker.” The Arab regimes’ predicament in the present crisis results to a large extent from their own financial and political reliance on the US—a fact that Washington policymakers know very well. Here one might recall the eccentric Muammar al-Qadhafi’s reasoning for opposing the summit: far from displaying the pined-for Arab “unity” of earlier decades, the gathering will only expose Arab helplessness.

How to cite this article:

Isam al-Khafaji "Shows of Solidarity Forever," Middle East Report Online, October 20, 2000.

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