Less than a month after the Second Intifada erupted in September 2000, the Arab heads of state held an extraordinary meeting in Nasr City, a district of Cairo.
After the meeting, held at the urgent invitation of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, the Arab leaders issued a communique in which they “hailed the intifada of the Palestinian people in the occupied Palestinian territories” and held Israel “responsible for returning the region to a climate of tension and to manifestations of violence as a result of its practices, its assaults and its blockade of the Palestinian people, in violation of its obligations as the occupying power under the terms of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949.”
In response to a proposal by Saudi Arabia, the Arab leaders decided to establish two funds to help the Palestinians. Al-Aqsa Fund, they said, will be allocated a sum of $800 million for “the funding of projects designed to preserve the Arab and Islamic identity of Jerusalem and prevent its loss, and to enable the Palestinian people to disengage from its subordination to the Israeli economy.” The second one, Al-Quds Intifada Fund, was to have capital of $200m. to be allocated for disbursement to the families of Palestinian “martyrs.”
A year later, the Arab leaders held another summit, this time in the Jordanian capital of Amman. As usual, the leaders issued another statement expressing full solidarity with the Palestinians and hailed “with great pride the Palestinian people’s steadfastness and brave intifada in the face of the savage onslaught waged by Israel.”
Although the Palestinians never saw much of the financial aid promised by the Arab heads of state, they were nevertheless encouraged by moral support they received from the Arab world during the intifada. Those were the days when the Palestinians felt that they had the full backing of the entire Arab world and that the Palestinian cause was the central issue of all Arabs and Muslims.
The Palestinians were further encouraged by the widespread support they received from the Arab street. No one in the Arab world dared to criticize the Palestinians, especially not during a time when they were engaged in a violent confrontation with Israel.
“We never had much faith in the Arab leaders, but at least they publicly stood with the Palestinians and strongly condemned Israel,” a veteran PLO official in Ramallah told The Jerusalem Post. “Back then, the Palestinians felt that all the Arabs were with them, and that allowed them to continue with the intifada. We did not feel that we were alone.”
IN 2002, the Arab leaders held a summit in Beirut and announced the Arab Peace Initiative, a 10-sentence proposal for an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The initiative calls for normalizing relations between the Arab world and Israel, in exchange for a full withdrawal by Israel to the pre-1967 lines, a “just settlement” of the Palestinian refugee problem based on United Nations resolution 194, and the establishment of a Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital. Former Palestinian Authority president Yasser Arafat immediately embraced the initiative. His successor, Mahmoud Abbas, also supported it.
Some Palestinians saw the Arab peace plan as the turning point in the Arab world’s attitude toward the Palestinian issue and Israel. It was the first time that Arab heads of state had talked about the possibility of normalization with Israel, though they conditioned it on a full Israel withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.
“The Arab Peace Initiative represented a decline of the Arab position [toward the Arab-Israeli conflict],” noted Palestinian political analyst Hani al-Masri. “The Palestinians identified with the plan despite the concessions it contained.”
Masri believes that the Arab Peace Initiative (also known as the Saudi Initiative) came in the context of Saudi Arabia’s “atonement” for the 9/11 attacks. Fifteen of the 19 terrorists who carried out the attacks were Saudis.
In 2007, the Arab leaders met in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and “reiterated the adherence of all Arab countries to the Arab Peace Initiative” as it was approved by the Arab summit in Beirut five years earlier.
The Riyadh summit came against the backdrop of reports suggesting that some Gulf states were secretly engaged in normalization activities with Israel. The Palestinians were aware of the secret contacts between some Arab countries and Israel, but refrained from publicly denouncing these states so as not to alienate them.
“We saw the rapprochement between some Arab states and Israel, but we decided that it would be a bad idea to attack them,” explained a senior PA official. “We did not want to deepen divisions in the Arab world. In addition, we didn’t want to be accused of meddling in the internal affairs of any Arab country. We did our best to maintain good relations with all the Arab countries, particularly those that were secretly normalizing their relations with Israel.”
In retrospect, the official said, “we may have made a mistake by remaining silent.”
Had the Palestinian leadership raised its voice and made it known that normalization with Israel was a blatant violation of the Arab Peace Initiative, it’s possible that the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain would not have taken a decision to establish relations with Israel, the official added.
SOME PALESTINIANS see the peace deals between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain as the direct result of the failure of Palestinian diplomacy.
“The Palestinian leadership failed to see the writing on the wall,” remarked Palestinian lawyer Khalil Zahran. “By the time the Palestinian leadership woke up, it was too late. The leadership’s strong reaction to the Israel-Emirati deal, meanwhile, has proven to be counterproductive. It was a mistake to accuse an Arab country of betraying al-Aqsa Mosque and the Palestinian issue. Worse, it was a big mistake to send people to the streets to burn pictures of UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.”
By the time the PA leadership realized that its harsh rhetoric against the UAE was fruitless and harmful, it was too late.
First, the Arab League turned down a Palestinian request to hold an emergency meeting to discuss the repercussions of the Israel-UAE accord. When the Arab League foreign ministers held their ordinary meeting in early September, they refused to endorse a Palestinian draft resolution condemning the UAE for its “agreement of shame” with Israel.
Shunned by their Arab brothers, the Palestinians were finally forced to come to terms with the fact that the notion of Arab solidarity has passed away. For the first time in decades, the Palestinians now realize that the Palestinian issue is no longer the central issue of the Arab world. And for the first time in decades, the Palestinians are now fully aware that the Arab world has changed.
“As far as many Arab countries are concerned, Iran, Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood organization are the real enemy, and not Israel,” said Amjad Shaheen, a prominent activist with the Palestinian ruling Fatah faction. “What’s worrying is that many Arabs are attacking the Palestinians and are saying they are fed up with us and our issue. The Palestinian people feel abandoned and isolated. I don’t think our leadership has a clear strategy how to cope with the new developments in the Arab world.”
Respected east Jerusalem Prof. Sari Nusseibeh believes that the Palestinian leadership has no choice but to make the best of what it has.
“It is incumbent on the Palestinian Authority leadership to transcend whatever feelings and to see if an opportunity has risen,” Nusseibeh said. “I think this has to be studied. Why not ask, for instance, the UAE to push for the kind of solution that the Palestinians have always asked for? Why not ask them to push for things that people have always wanted, such as the release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli prisons? I believe that one should make best use of what one has.”
The Arab summit resolutions with regard to the Israeli-Arab conflict have failed, Nusseibeh noted. “The support we’ve had from the Arab world over the past two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight decades has not actually borne fruit, as far as the Palestinians are concerned. It is in this light that one should assess the recent agreements between Israel and Arab countries, whether implicit or explicit. Things seem to be sliding back, so to speak. Of course, this causes a great deal of pain for the Palestinians, just as the failure of the Oslo agreement causes a great deal of pain.”
Nusseibeh, who once served as the PLO’s representative in Jerusalem, advised the Palestinian leadership “to try and see if they could use the developing relations between Arab states and Israel to see if they can push forward the peace process.
“Perhaps it is more possible to do this now than it was in the past, when there were no relations [between the Arab states and Israel],” he said. “I think the Palestinian leadership should look into this possibility, in spite of the pain at the sense of being betrayed. In politics, one has to always be on the lookout for what possible opportunity there is to advance the interests of one. In the past, we had an Arab consensus, which was no peace with Israel until there is peace with the Palestinians. If you look at the history of this policy, one can’t but say it has failed. Why be blind to the fact?”
Like many Palestinians, Nusseibeh is disappointed with the Palestinian leadership for lacking a strategy to deal with the new developments in the region.
“One should be expecting changes sometime soon,” he said. “I don’t think [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu is going to be there forever. On the Palestinian side, there may well be change, and some of the changes may actually not come about in a positive way. What I’m concerned about is that the stalemated position our leadership finds itself in might well put some pressure to bring about change in that leadership. Our leadership is under pressure not only because it has not been moving forward with the peace process, but because the Palestinians in the areas it controls are not happy with its governance. I don’t even discount violent change. Everything is possible.”
Under the current circumstances, it seems unlikely that Abbas and his cohorts in Ramallah are going to listen to advice such as the one offered by Nusseibeh. The Palestinian leadership has placed itself on a course of collision with many Arab countries, and it’s hard to see how Abbas will be able to climb down from the tall tree anytime in the near future.