For decades, the PLO depended on the Arab world’s diplomatic, financial, and military support to survive and to fight against Israel. Next to a stated determination to destroy Israel through violent means, the PLO Charter’s most important point was the claim that it had a right to demand the Arab states’ full support. This expectation was often disappointed. And whatever leverage the Palestinians once had was considerably eroded in the 1980s and 1990s by the PLO’s own mistakes–including backing Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait–as well as shifting regional and international politics.
Today, the Arab states’ role in Israel-Palestinian issues, as important as it might be, is less directly linked to the peace process’s details and less subject to Palestinian influence than it seems. Strong factors restrict the Arab states’ willingness or ability to act. Their policy is based on regime interests as well as the new shape of regional politics, alliances, and power balances. This paper examines the basis of Palestinian and Israel relations with Arab states, including Arab leaders’ motives, strategies, and goals.
Once the PLO made its own agreements with Israel, it could no longer deny other Arabs a right to do the same thing. Most Arab governments took the opportunity to withdraw even further from the conflict or to reduce help for the Palestinians. In this new context, the Palestinian Authority (PA) can neither expect moderate Arab states to forego normalizing relations with Israel nor radical regimes to fight for its own cause.
Western observers and governments are sometimes slow to understand these changes though the PA is quite aware of the problem. Criticizing Israel is not equivalent to helping the PA, and limits on Arab states’ help for the Palestinians goes hand-in-hand with a growing unwillingness to act against Israel in material terms. Even if Arab state action is taken on the PA’s behalf, the PA itself has no control over the timing or details, remaining a secondary player in Arab politics.
The future of Arab-Israeli relations and peacemaking are key issues in contemporary Middle East politics. Arab regimes are trying to adjust to Israel having a more normal regional role. The Palestinian transition from revolutionary movement toward statehood is an important new element in inter-Arab politics. (1)
But while Arab leaders publicly criticize Israel and endorse the Palestinian cause, their policies are remarkably passive in giving the PA direct material or even diplomatic assistance. To note four recent examples:
–Syria demands that Israeli concessions to itself, not progress on the Israel-Palestinian front, be the Arab states’ criterion for normalizing relations with Israel.
–Egyptian President Husni Mubarak, the PA’s main backer, refused to attend the September 1996 Washington summit despite Arafat’s pleas that he attend to reinforce the PA’s position, Mubarak’s absence did hurt the Palestinians but made him seem tougher, and hence more popular, at home.
–Jordanian-backed officials supervising Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem tried–though they failed–to give way to a PA-appointed group in 1996.
–Only Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) offered the PA any significant economic aid, and even they give less than formerly contributed to the PLO.
Of course, the perceived negative attitude toward compromise on the part of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government also leads to a slowdown or freeze on progress toward peace with Arab states. The October 1997 crisis over an Israeli assassination attempt of a Hamas leader in Amman or the refusal of most Arab states to participate in the November 1997 regional summit in Doha, Qatar, are examples of the link between Israeli actions and missed diplomatic opportunities. Clearly, a failure by Israel to have a flexible policy, make compromises, and advance on negotiations with the Palestinians will also block improvements in its relations with Arab states.
At the same time, though, while the PA welcomes Arab states’ tough words as a source of diplomatic leverage, this rhetoric has a mixed meaning. Aside from attacking Israel, that approach can also implicitly criticize the PA, whose very existence stems from the peace process. Moderate states complain in order to distance themselves from involvement or helping the PA; radical regimes are denouncing all peacemaking efforts.
In the past, while putting their own interests first, Arab states were sometimes willing to go to war, use diplomatic capital, enforce an economic boycott, and give large-scale aid to the Palestinians. The PA continues to claim–as the PLO always did–that it has some control over the Arab world’s stance toward Israel, the West in general, and the United States in particular. Yet this is untrue, as Palestinian leaders, to their dismay, know very well.
Of course, Arab nationalist and Islamic solidarity are still extremely important forces in Arab countries. Antagonism from these states denies Israel the fruits of peace and causes some in the West to believe that only pressure on Israel can avoid regional war or damage to their own relations with the Arab world. At the same time, Arafat’s overestimating this factor makes him less conciliatory and slower to conclude agreements. Ironically, by making Israel and the PA less flexible, the Arab factor may damage Arafat’s cause and make his goal of statehood harder to achieve.
A. HISTORIC ARAB-PLO AND ARAB-ISRAELI RELATIONS
The PLO always had a contradictory view of the Arab states. They were an indispensable base of support without which the movement might have collapsed or been ignored. But these same forces often injured and tried to dominate the PLO, inflicting many of its casualties, setbacks, and internal divisions. ‘Virtually every Arab state has stabbed them in the back at one point or another,’ wrote a veteran Palestinian nationalist. A PLO intelligence chief estimated the Arab states were responsible for slaying three-quarters of Palestinians killed in the struggle. (2)
Arab states treated the PLO more as tool than partner, neither consulting it nor respecting its interests when setting policy toward Israel or the United States. They saw the conflict with Israel largely as a way to mobilize domestic support or gain advantage over rival Arab states. Such considerations meant they benefitted by exploiting, not by peacefully resolving, the issue.
Meanwhile, Pan-Arab nationalism steadily weakened–in practice if not rhetoric–as individual Arab states gained stronger identities and more diverse interests. Arab states stood by, or even pushed, as the PLO was chased from Amman to Beirut, and from Beirut to Tunis. In this context, voting on UN resolutions, donating money, or even secretly abetting terrorism were low-risk propositions. But a PLO trying to drag them into another losing war with Israel or endangering their links to the West was a nuisance.
A sympathetic historian wrote, ‘Few independence movements have been so heavily dependent on external assistance,’ making the PLO’s survival require maintaining ‘unity at any price.’ (3) Thus, Arafat walked a tightrope, balancing a favor to one state with a gesture to its rival, keeping his independence by using it only sparingly. He always remembered that the Arab leader who shot at him one day might become the one he kissed another, and vice-versa.
Arafat travelled in perpetual motion among Arab capitals, preserving his connections and making deals. Conflicts between Arab states gave him maneuvering room. When Jordan attacked the PLO, Arafat took refuge with Syria; when Syria assaulted the PLO, he turned to Jordan and Egypt. Falling out with the moderates, Arafat accepted the patronage of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
By avoiding domination by a single patron or conflicts with Arab states that might make them revoke his license as the Palestinian leader, Arafat won a considerable degree of autonomy for the PLO, though most of its smaller member groups were clients of Arab regimes. He understood that having some Arab states as permanent enemies meant having others as masters, and vice-versa. Arafat’s route to survival showed his skill but also damaged the PLO’s ability to adjust to conditions and opportunities.
Granting or withholding patronage gave Arab regimes tremendous leverage over the PL. Over time, Arab states went from reluctance to wage war for the Palestinians’ sake to refusing to help the PLO or even fighting it. Syria and Egypt refused to let the PLO to attack Israel across their borders in the 1960s; Jordan expelled it in 1970; Syria attacked it in Lebanon in 1976; Iraqi gunmen shot down its officials in 1977; Egypt abandoned it by making peace in 1978-1979; Syria split it in 1983 and expelled the PLO from Syrian-controlled parts of Lebanon. Lebanese Christians and Shi’a Muslims massacred its people in 1982 and 1985. Iraq pushed it aside by invading Iran in 1980 and Kuwait in 1990.(4) Arab financial pledges often went unpaid. A 1978 inter-Arab agreement promised $250 million a year to the PLO and $150 million to a Jordan-PLO committee. Only Saudi Arabia paid its share. Nor did Arab states give much to UNRWA’s relief effort for Palestinian refugees. The United States paid over 40 percent of its budget.
Frustrated at their inability to destroy Israel, Arab states reduced their efforts. The high cost and negative outcomes of the 1967 and 1973 wars; inter-Arab disputes; the Iran-Iraq war; and political quarrels with the PLO advanced this trend. Once Egypt, exhausted from wasting limited resources for so long, broke the Arab consensus and made peace with Israel, Syria had more reason to avoid a conflict. Other threats–Iran, Iraq, revolutionary Islamic fundamentalism distracted and reoriented the policies of Arab regimes. These states were largely passive during the 1982 Lebanon war and the post-1987 Palestinian Intifada. Then came the Saudi-Kuwaiti aid ban to punish Arafat’s support for Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
Several principles can be adduced from this experience:
–There is strong public sentiment in all Arab states supporting the Palestinian cause. To some extent it can be manipulated by Arab rulers; to some extent it directs them.
–Most Arab states shifted their stance from demanding that a Palestinian state replace Israel to backing the PA’s goal of an independent Palestinian state with its capital in east Jerusalem.
–Arab states make policy decisions about Israel based on their own interests and only secondarily on Palestinian concerns.
–The PLO worked hard to maintain independence from all Arab states. This goal brought it into collision with Arab rulers wishing to alter its policy, install puppets as leaders, or use it as an instrument of their own ambitions.
–The Palestinian cause has always had more effect in constraining Arab states from moving toward peace with Israel than it has in forcing them to go to war with Israel.
–It is far easier for Arab states to speak in support of the Palestinians than to help them materially by large-scale economic aid or sacrificing other political and strategic interests.
B. THE ERA OF NEGOTIATIONS
All Arab states rejected Israel’s creation in 1948 and maintained a position of total hostility toward it throughout the next 30 years. Egypt changed this situation by making peace with Israel in 1978-1979. But despite some secret contacts (especially with Jordan) no other Arab country followed this example for an another 15 years. Egypt was isolated, boycotted, and ejected from the Arab League. Lebanon’s 1983 agreement with Israel was killed by pressure from Arab states and domestic forces.
Only at the start of the 1990s did this situation change, due to global and regional developments as well as the evolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict itself.
Global factors: The Cold War’s end and USSR’s collapse made the United States the world’s sole superpower, weakened radical Arab regimes, gave moderate ones an incentive to improve relations with Washington, and reduced U.S. constraints on using its own power. Israel generally benefitted from this trend since Arab states needed to limit conflict and make peace with Israel if they were going to improve relations with America.
Arab-Israeli Conflict factors: In a long-term cumulative process, the Arab states’ inability to defeat a seemingly stronger Israel and the high cost of war and conflict made them tire of the battle and seek a way to withdraw from it.(5)
Other regional factors: Arab states became increasingly distinctive, gaining a stronger sense of individual interests. Pan-Arab nationalism proved both illusory and dangerous. Growing radical Islamic movements, Iran, and Iraq all posed new dangers to Arab rulers, including the Iran-Iraq war and Iraq’s seizure of Kuwait. They needed regional stability to preserve their independence, retain power, and pursue economic development.
For these and other reasons, over a dozen Arab states began talks with Israel in 1991. Once the PLO made a unilateral decision to make an agreement with Israel in 1993, Arab leaders could now say the PLO’s decision freed them to decide themselves how to make peace with Israel, consider their obligation to the Palestinian struggle as ended, or condemn Arafat as a sell-out.
Obviously, some Arab states want to prolong the conflict. Disengagement is also a way to avoid making formal peace. Since radical regimes oppose and try to sabotage the peace process while moderate ones want to avoid tensions or real costs, either way, the PA has no Arab card to play.
Lack of progress in the Israel-Palestinian peace process deprives Israel of normalization with several states, while a breakdown would raise security threats. Still, these problems are unlikely to lead to war or revive the old regional situation.
C. THE PEACE PROCESS CYCLE: FULL STOPS AND FORWARD STEPS
Historically, the Arab intellectual and policy approach to dealing with Israel was set by the radical camp. This is no longer true. According to the June 1996 Arab summit’s final resolution, peace ‘is a strategic decision.’(6) In contrast to all preceding modern Arab political history, a serious, conscious decision has been taken to recognize and make peace with Israel, even though several Arab states still reject this outcome.
For most Arab leaders, the question is the price, not the principle. ‘We call upon the new Israeli government,’ Mubarak told the 1996 Arab summit, ‘to cooperate with us so as to complete the peace process without slackness or hesitation.’ This statement is a demand for Israeli concessions but also a call for cooperation, which is clearly preferred over confrontation. Jordan’s King Hussein noted that the Arabs always knew peacemaking would be hard, but the current process was ‘the only available option…[and] possible means to bring the conflict to a just and lasting solution that can endure.’ (7) Having pioneered this new situation by its own 1993 agreement with Israel, the PLO cannot easily reverse it.
From 1993 onward, the peace process and the Arab states’ behavior followed a consistent pattern, though this became more apparent after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s election in May 1996. Some crisis would arise–over Arab fears about the Netanyahu government’s intentions, May-August 1996; the tunnel opening in Jerusalem, September-October 1996; the Hebron withdrawal, November 1996-February 1997, the building of the Har Homa neighborhood in east Jerusalem starting in March 1997, etc.–during which Arab state criticisms of Israel increased and normalization slowed.
The rhetorical tone could be quite ferocious. During the September 1996 rioting, for example, an Arab League meeting issued a statement that ‘hails the Intifada of the Palestinian people…in intrepidly confronting Israeli repressive practices [and] considers what is happening to be part of an Israeli Zionist plot to destroy the Aqsa mosque, set up the Temple of Solomon, obliterate Islamic Arab landmarks and create more facts which harm the legal status of Jerusalem.’ (8)
But Arab countries took few or no concrete steps against Israel. Each period of friction would be followed by an agreement in which Israel made some concessions, though short of Arab demands. Moderate Arab states would then take another step toward normalization. For example, just after the Hebron redeployment, the following events took place in the first quarter of 1997:
–Mubarak hosted a long, friendly visit from Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai, and proclaimed a ‘new atmosphere’ in the region. Officials discussed improving ties between the two armies, including exchanging delegations and setting up a hotline.
–The Egyptian president then invited Netanyahu to Cairo, meeting with him and an Israeli business delegation, saying there would be no barriers to developing commercial links.
–Egypt informed Israel that economic cooperation would be resumed and expanded. Dr. Ibrahim Kamel, an Egyptian businessman with close links to Mubarak, visited Israel and bought a large amount of stock in Israel’s Koor Corporation, ‘We do not have hesitations about doing business with Israel,’ he said.
–Jordan invited Israel to attend a Mediterranean trade conference in Amman. Elscint became the first Israeli company to win a Jordanian government tender, a $1.5 million deal to supply the government hospital in Amman with CAT-scan equipment. On 6 March the two countries signed an agreement to establish a jointly operated airport in Aqaba.
–Oman announced a thaw of economic relations with Israel. Abu Dhabi renewed contacts with Israel regarding cooperation in the exchange of tourism delegations. Projects with Dubai that had been suspended were revived. Qatar restarted contacts about sending a representative to Israel (an Israeli diplomat had already set up an office in Qatar). Relations with Morocco also improved. Dr. Dore Gold, then Netanyahu’s foreign policy advisor, went to several Gulf states for secret meetings in late January.
–Israel, Jordan and the PA launched an international joint advertising campaign to attract tourists, with the slogan, ‘Peace. It’s a beautiful sight to see,’ in spring 1997.
D. PALESTINIAN NEEDS AND INTERESTS
The PA wants to mobilize and must rely on Arab state help, especially since this is one of its few points of leverage and only real international asset. It wants Arab states to:
–Maximize economic and other aid to the PA to promote development, reduce unemployment, and reduce dependence on Israel.
–Condition normalization of relations with Israel on the PA’s interests and strategy, demanding prior Israeli concessions.
–Promote PA demands in all international institutions and with the West, with rewards and punishments as well as words.
–Stop supporting anti-Arafat Palestinian elements.
The one area where Palestinians have their wish concerns Arab state support for an independent Palestinian state with its capital in east Jerusalem. The PA falls far short, however, in being unable to regulate moderate Arab states’ good relations to the United States or degree of normalization with Israel.
Significantly, the line that Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia tried to impose on other Arabs rested not on a Palestinian but on a Syrian veto. In this view, normalization should occur only when Israel had also made full peace with Damascus, regardless of what happened in the Palestinian sphere.
These PA goals each require a detailed review:
1. MONEY AND MATERIAL AID
It is startling to realize that of $2 billion pledged to the PA internationally, 50 percent came from Europe, 25 percent from the United States, 10 percent from Japan, and only 5 percent ($125 million) from the Arab world (Saudi Arabia and the UAE). This aid provides only enough money to pay the PA’s budget and for some make-work and minor development projects. It does not make up for losses due to Israel’s closure of the PA-ruled area or the declining number of Palestinian workers employed in Israel.
Foreign financing of the PA must stem from political motives because profit-making opportunities (especially if the goal is to avoid excessive Palestinian dependence on Israel) are going to be limited. Arab states make investment choices based on commercial considerations. The PA’s area lacks resources and infrastructure; its products often compete with Arab economies. Projects in the West, Asia, or even deals with Israel are more attractive than putting money into the West Bank and Gaza. The PA intensifies this reluctance with bureaucratic barriers and corruption.(9) Fears of instability and uncertain future also discourage investment.
Whether critical or verbally supportive of the PA, Arab states are not going to give much material help. The UAE has been most generous, offering in November 1996 a $164 million grant to build 3,800 housing units and support facilities in Gaza City. (10) The wealthy Gulf Arab states prefer to spend money at home or make profitable investments in the West. Real development–vital to promote stability and maintain the PA’s base of support–requires an infusion of capital which can ultimately come only from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Gulf Arabs donate some money directly to Palestinian institutions, but far less than they did before the 1990 Kuwait crisis. duck
The 1996 Arab summit’s final communique is both ironic and indicative on this issue. The Arab leaders urged Europe, Japan, and other countries, ‘to continue providing political and economic support to the Palestinian people and their National Authority.’ But there was absolutely no Arab pledge–not even a non-binding recommendation–for their own aid program to the Palestinians. (11)
2. ARAB PRESSURE ON ISRAEL
The PA would like Arab states to force Israel to meet its demands in negotiations. But this is not easy and may not be possible. Arab states can deny Israel most regional and some international benefits from the peace process. But they cannot–given realistic options–so endanger Israel or raise the costs as to force it to change policy.
The Arab states have three levels of engagement and pressure. But failure on any one of them further erodes Arab credibility:
The first is verbal, criticizing and condemning Israeli policy while trying to persuade the United States and Europe to coerce Israel into making concessions. While their tone is harsh, the goal is more moderate than ever before: to force Israel into a compromise peace.
The second level is a freeze on normalization with Israel, rejected by the 1996 summit but adopted at the March 1997 summit. Contacts were to be cooled, multilateral talks discouraged, and economic projects curtailed. This did not affect countries having a peace treaty with Israel (Egypt and Jordan) and did not reverse steps toward normalization taken by Morocco, Tunisia, Mauritania, Qatar and Oman. But new deals or upgraded arrangements are discouraged, including plans by the UAE or Bahrain to open lines of communication with Israel.
Still, a freeze has not been totally imposed on all Arab states. For example, Israel and Jordan continued to sign accords on transport, building a joint Aqaba-Eilat airport, allocating water, and highway improvements. (12) King Hussein said that peace would bring the ‘qualitative progress that we have always sought.’ (13)
Despite giving the PA morale support, a freeze does not do much for Arafat’s interests. Israel’s doubts of Arab readiness for peace reduces public and leadership incentive for supporting concessions. Ultimately, a freeze cannot force Israeli policy to change. Shown to be ineffective, Arab leverage is diminished.
The main alternative remains a third stage: a return to the era of no-war, no-peace basically typifying the conflict between 1974 and 1994. The 1996 Arab summit’s resolution warned Israel that breaking its commitments could bring ‘a resumption of tension in the region and compel all the Arab states to reconsider steps taken in the context of the peace process, vis-a-vis Israel.’ (14)
Most Arab states, however, worry that such a step would endanger them, not only from military defeat but also economic losses, gains for radical forces, damaging relations with the United States, and lacking a superpower patron to help them. The collapsed economic boycott against Israel cannot be reinstated without hurting the investment climate in the Arab world as well. Mubarak told the 1996 summit, ‘None of us wishes to return to war and destruction nor seek to revert to the state of no-war, no-peace.’ (15)
This view reflects historic lessons Mubarak mentioned in his speech to the 1985 Arab summit: ‘God has granted us a mind with which to think. We fought for many years, but where did we get? I am therefore not ready to take more risks….Wars have generally not solved any problem.’ (16)
3. ENDING ARAB AID TO ANTI-ARAFAT PALESTINIAN GROUPS
Another important PA goal is to stop Syria, Libya, and Sudan from helping its Palestinian rivals, which can be divided into several categories:
a. Radical Islamic groups:
Hamas receives aid from Islamic radical groups in Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon, with growing sponsorship from Syria and some help from Iran. This constitutes an international competitor to the PA’s Arab League backing.
Islamic Jihad has several independent actions with links to Libya, Syria, Sudan, and Iran.
b. Anti-Peace, anti-PLO groups:
These include the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), Abu Nidal’s group, Fatah defectors from the 1983 split, and Fatah factions that turned against Arafat when he made peace with Israel. These groups are closely tied to Syria.
c. Anti-Peace PLO groups:
The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) are headquartered in Damascus and subject to Syrian influence. Syria also has links to some PLO leaders still abroad, notably Faruq Qadumi, the second-most popular Fatah chief.
d. Non-PLO groups
Finally, several groups in the West Bank and Gaza accept the 1993 peace agreement but criticize Arafat’s tactics. These include the People’s (Communist) party, the Democratic party (split from the DFLP), and various local forces around such figures as Haydar Abd al-Shafi. These groups have no important foreign Arab connections and Arafat has successfully brought several of their leaders onto his cabinet.
As long as Arafat pursues the peace process, those in categories A through C will be his bitter enemies. By undermining Arafat’s authority, the Arab states make it hard for him to convert them into a legal, peaceful opposition like those in Group D.
Arafat’s willingness to block such assaults varies depending on whether he thinks they will strengthen his position. In terms of PA/Arab state relations, however, this issue poses considerable problems for him.
–These attacks are promoted by states and Palestinian forces opposing him and his policy. If such operations make them more influential or popular among Palestinians, Arafat’s power is reduced. In Lebanon, his rivals have used this strategy to steal the allegiance of many Palestinians there.
–If Arafat turns a blind eye to terrorism, Israel responds by punishing the PA.
–But if Arafat arrests those responsible for attacks or planning them, his domestic popularity is reduced.
However Arafat’s feels about indigenous terrorism, Arab state-sponsored terrorism strengthens his enemies, undermines his strategy, and escalates violence out of his control.
4. USE OF LEVERAGE WITH THE UNITED STATES AND EUROPE
The PA wants Arab states to urge the United States and Europe to press Israel for concessions. As a U.S. aid recipient, the PA must avoid seeming to organize an anti-American campaign in the Arab world. Moreover, despite his differences with Washington, Arafat knows the United States provides his best hope for effective pressure on Israel. (17)
Moderate Arab states were wary of jeopardizing relations with the United States even before 1993 for the Palestinians’ sake. Now they need U.S. protection and their economies are more intertwined with those of the West. Egypt will not risk $2 billion annual U.S. aid; Saudi Arabia or Kuwait will not jeopardize their investments and markets. Statements urging U.S. and European support for the Palestinians yield no result. Even if Arab states were more eager to help, they have less leverage than in past campaigns failed to make the West accede to the PLO, despite threats to join the Soviet camp if their demands were rejected.
The PA is certain to be disappointed, and Israel left unaffected, by Arab state policy in each of these four areas.
E. DIFFERENT CAMPS AMONG THE ARAB STATES
In developing a typology of Arab states regarding Israel and the PA, three groups are clearly apparent:
The Peace Camp
Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia(18), Bahrain, Djibouti, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon [if not for Syrian control], Mauritania, Oman, Qatar, the UAE and Yemen. (19)
These countries would like:
–The Arab-Israeli conflict to go away so they are not dragged into crises or must spend resources fighting it.
–To avoid attacks or sanctions from radical forces and states that accuse them of being too soft toward Israel.
–To ensure their citizens think them pious, patriotic, nationalist and in no way Western or Zionist puppets.
–Avoid a return to the old era of all-out conflict and war.
They all (though Jordan is less enthusiastic) support an independent Palestinian state with its capital in east Jerusalem. But they are indifferent (except for Jordan) about other details of an agreement. Whatever the Palestinians accept is good enough for them. Breathing a sigh of relief, they could then get on with other concerns, problems, and interests.
What is especially interesting about the peace camp is that, except for Egypt, they are the region’s weaker countries. Of course, Egypt, the most powerful Arab state, was the first to make peace with Israel partly because that pioneer had to be strong enough to defy and survive powerful pressures brought against it.
But weak countries are readiest for peace with Israel because:
–Lacking ambitions for regional hegemony, unlike the radical states or Egypt, they do not feel threatened by Israel becoming a factor in the regional power equation.
–In fact, Israel might be useful to deter stronger, radical Arab or Islamic regimes that menace them. Having relations with Israel also strengthens links with their main defender, the United States and may provide commercial benefits.
It must be remembered that one-fourth of the Arab League’s members moved toward relations with Israel despite Syrian–and, at times, Palestinian, Egyptian, and Saudi–pleas to wait until there was a comprehensive peace agreement. These states find it easier to abandon a conflict in which they have played only a marginal role. Egypt and Jordan (Lebanon could be added here) learned that deep involvement in the conflict damaged their stability and prosperity.
Even now, the moderates continue to restrain the Arab world as a whole from returning to the old, high-priority, war-oriented approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Their own fragility and preoccupation with other issues, including Maghreb and Persian Gulf problems, makes them resist militancy and realize their need for U.S. protection.
There is great, genuine sympathy in these countries for the Palestinians and real distrust of Israel. But the most important factor making smaller states slow normalization is fear of the internal (including Islamic) and inter-Arab reaction.
Israel’s problem is that it can offer them nothing significant enough to counteract those factors. Its protective ability is still an abstraction. Commercial and technological cooperation are promising but not worth the high risk of confronting the powerful Arab states.
PROFILE ON EGYPT
Egypt wants to see a successful peace process, but its view of Israel as competitor and drive to be the Arab world’s leader makes its stand more ambiguous. Egypt is the PA’s patron and the only Arab state both willing and able to help it. But Egypt can only do so much, especially on an economic level.
Arafat frequently appeals for Egyptian intervention in the process. For example, in August 1996, he asked Mubarak to mediate with Netanyahu to halt Jewish settlements. ‘I’m sure that your excellency will not spare any effort to get the peace process back to its correct track,’ he said. (20) During tough negotiations over Hebron, Israel repeatedly charged that Egypt was telling the Palestinians to go slow and make more demands. But in June 1997, the United States and Israel accepted Egypt as intermediary in trying to restart talks.
Even as the PA’s patron, though, Mubarak backs the PA position only up to a point. His main concern is asserting leadership over the Arab world, preserving good relations with the West, and avoiding a major confrontation with Israel. In contrast to the past, Egypt’s bid for regional leadership is largely cost-free.
In this context, he faces a paradox. (21) On one hand, Mubarak would like to see a rapidly progressing peace process. After all, Egypt has a strong interest in preserving regional peace and stability and is threatened by radical regimes (Libya, Sudan, Iran, and perhaps Iraq), as well as Islamic revolutionaries responsible for bloody terrorism within its own borders. It is the main Arab ally of the United States.
On the other hand, though, Egypt often criticizes Israel and prefers a cooler peace between Israel and Arab states. It sees Israel’s integration into the area as building up a strategic and economic rival which would at least challenge Egypt’s leadership and at worst might dominate it. Egypt reads this concern reads into Israel’s close links with Turkey and Jordan, its diplomatic breakthroughs in smaller Arab states, and any development in Arab-Israeli economic links.
Egypt also wants to have its own leadership accepted by those taking a tougher line. And as Syria’s sponsor in its negotiations, Mubarak also wants to keep Asad happy by discouraging normalization with Israel until a Syria-Israel agreement is completed. This strategy did not fully succeed: Syria rejected Israel’s offer to return the Golan Heights. Arab states like Jordan, Morocco, and Oman made deals with Israel despite the absence of an Israel-Syria agreement.
The idea that Israel can challenge Egypt as a regional leader seems strange. Aside from the two countries having several common interests, continued hostility by several Arab powers and popular opinion severely limits Israel’s ability to play such a role. Nonetheless, this belief plays an important role in setting Egyptian policy, just as many Arabs want to limit cooperation with Israel because they think it will lead to its economic domination. (22)
Mubarak also knows that attacking Israel makes him popular at home despite Egypt’s many domestic problems. While somewhat disingenuous, Mubarak’s claim that he cannot improve relations with Israel lest Egypt’s people tell him to ‘go to Hell’ or that the peace process’s collapse would bring terror ’10 times worse than anything we’ve seen before,’ reflect real concerns, too. (23)
Mubarak presses Israel for concessions and preserves Arab unity while being determined to avoid war, crisis, or a break with Washington. But while Egypt sees peace with Israel as being in its own interest, it has mixed feelings about other Arab states normalizing relations with Israel.
PROFILE ON JORDAN
Jordan has a stronger national interest in allying with Israel than any other Arab state. It gains a counterweight to Iraq, Iran, and Syria; the two states have some common interests on the Palestinian issue; and the Jordan-Israel relationship strengthens U.S.-Jordan links. (24) Amman works in Arab circles to limit hostility toward Israel. While public opinion in Jordan is largely against a warm peace with Israel, this has not deterred the government. (25)
Jordan-Palestinian relations have been very complex:
–For many years Jordan tried to regain control of the West Bank. In May 1988, King Hussein renounced this claim, however, and seems unlikely to reinstate it.
–But Jordan remains concerned about the fate of the lands west of the Jordan river. It cannot afford to let this place be under the rule of radical forces aligned with Amman’s Arab enemies and internal revolutionaries. Thus, Jordan has mixed feelings about an independent Palestinian state but feels no ambiguity about its need to maintain influence regarding the West Bank.
–Jordan’s role as guardian of the east Jerusalem Muslim holy places was guaranteed in the Israel-Jordan peace treaty, conflicting with PA claims. In October 1996, PA supporters seized the office administering the Temple Mount mosques. Jordan appealed for Israeli help to retain control (But the Netanyahu government dealt with the PA-approved group.)
–The PA fears Jordan’s ambitions over the West Bank and cooperation with Israel.
The PA considers Jordan as neither a desirable nor reliable patron for the PA. As for Israel, the same threats pushing Jordan to stay in the Arab consensus also motivate it preserving toward good relations with that neighbor in self-defense.
THE RADICAL CAMP
IRAQ, LIBYA, SUDAN, AND SYRIA.
These states oppose and seek to subvert the Israel-Palestinian process regardless of how much the PA or Syria might obtain from a negotiated settlement. Any slowdown in diplomatic progress is only a pretext for them to pursue this policy, though it may make their calls for a tougher anti-Israel stands more credible among Arabs. (Non-Arab Iran also fits into this category.)
The radical states are ruled by militant dictatorships advocating ideologies that reject Israel’s existence. Similarly, the existence of a Western-oriented Palestinian state under some mixture of Egyptian-Jordanian-Saudi patronage does not benefit their interests. There are three other key factors here:
a. The radicals believe they have nothing to lose by a hardline policy. Four radical regimes, distant from Israel, can demand its destruction at little risk. They need no talks since they have no bilateral issues to resolve with Israel. Syria’s proximity to Israel forces it into a more nuanced but still uncompromising stance.
b. Extremely dissatisfied with the status quo, they want to wreck the peace process and stop other Arab states from normalizing relations with Israel. They see an Arab world’s return to past militancy as a way to escape isolation and seize leadership. The radical states’ relative regional and international isolation, lack of cooperation or a superpower backer, an unfavorable power balance, and shattered ideological taboos make them weaker in the area than at any other time during the last 40 years. All except Syria face U.S. sanctions; Iraq and Libya are under UN-mandated sanctions.
c. These regimes have a material interest in blocking the peace process. If Israel were to be accepted as a normal part of the region it would be better able to oppose their attempts to bully neighbors, promote revolutions or become the dominant regional power. A Palestinian state which did not side with their ambitions, but whose existence might even reduce regional tensions, is also a negative development from their standpoint. A successful peace process will also reinforce U.S. influence, further weakening radical forces.
Given this impressive array of factors, radical states are unlikely to support peace with Israel even if it signs a peace treaty with the Palestinians.
PA relations with the radical Arab states are paradoxical. They say they back its cause but also criticize and subvert the PA. Arafat could win their approval only by totally changing his strategy. But if he were to do so, they lack the political influence or military force to change the situation in his favor.
PROFILE ON SYRIA
Why did Damascus reject the offer of Israel’s Labor government to return the Golan Heights in exchange for full peace and adequate security guarantees, preferring to suspend talks rather than conclude an agreement with Israel? Similarly, why has Syria been so cold in its relations with the PA, instead backing groups trying to subvert both Arafat and the peace process itself. The reason is based on Syria’s view that peace with Israel and the PA’s emergence–even if it became the ruler of a Palestinian state–would severely hurt its interests:
–An Israel-Syria accord would open the door for most Arab states to have relations with Israel and to work with it on matters of common interest. But Israel would remain equally determined–and far better able–to oppose Syria’s ambitions for sway over Jordan, Lebanon, and the Palestinians.
–A comprehensive agreement would strengthen U.S. power in the region, also blocking Syrian goals.
–An Israel-Lebanon agreement would follow any Israel-Syria accord, reducing Damascus’s leverage in Lebanon and producing international pressure for a Syrian withdrawal.
–An agreement with Israel is unlikely to bring Syria much Western aid or investment.
–Syria would lose prestige, aid, and deferral to its interests, advantages that being a militant confrontation state have brought it in the Arab world.
–There could be domestic opposition to the regime’s dramatic policy reversal. Peace would create a situation in which freer access for foreigners and more open commerce and communications might weaken the dictatorship’s hold over its own people.weakening the minority government’s hold over the country.
In short, Syria would be reduced to a secondary power in the region. Consequently, its interests are against making peace. Syria’s willingness to talk was motivated not by a desire to reach agreement but rather an effort to avoid friction with the United States or the blame for blocking a diplomatic solution.
As for Syria-PLO relations, almost since the two men first became leaders a quarter-century ago, Arafat and Asad have had cool relations. The underlying problem was Damascus’s desire to control the PLO and make it serve Syria’s interest, through its own client Palestinian groups. Syrian-PLO fighting in Lebanon in the mid-1970s and the 1983 Syrian-provoked split in the PLO intensified the rift.
Today, Syria criticizes the PA’s strategy, supports anti-Arafat Palestinians in Lebanon, bars Arafat’s forces from areas it controls there, and funds anti-Arafat groups. Syrian permissiveness toward Hizbollah and Iran’s influence in Lebanon also hurts Arafat, since they help his rivals. Moreover, Syria and the PA compete over whose demands take precedence in shaping Arab policy toward Israel.
Arafat may want reconciliation but Syria seems uninterested. No matter how hardpressed by Israel or other problems, he cannot expect Syrian help. On the contrary, Syria will exploit opportunities to sabotage Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, hurt them both, discredit Arafat, and help his rivals.
PROFILE ON IRAQ
During the 1970s and 1980s, Iraq helped Abu Nidal kill PLO officials. Baghdad also maintained its own client groups in the organization. Arafat did, however, support Iraq against Iran in their war, despite his own earlier good relations with Tehran’s Islamic revolution. When Iraqi President Saddam Hussein began a bid for Arab leadership in 1988, Arafat again strongly backed him and did the same in the 1990 invasion of Kuwait and subsequent crisis.
Despite Iraq’s regional and international isolation, Arafat remains more faithful to Saddam than to any other Arab leader. Iraq insists that the critical situation requires its readmission to the Arab world and an end to sanctions. Though hostile to the peace process, Iraq never condemns Arafat, ordering client groups in the PLO to back him and even to vote for changing the Palestinian Covenant at the May 1996 Palestine National Council meeting.
Saddam’s 17 July 1997, National Day speech sets forth the pro-Arafat and anti-peace process elements of this strategy, as well as the need to reintegrate Iraq into the Arab world as a precondition for Arab victory: ‘No matter how we Arab officials assess Yasir Arafat, he is now the man in command of his people….It is extremely important that we back him.’ Under Arafat’s leadership the Palestinians must undermine Israel with full Arab state financial and diplomatic support. ‘Until Palestine is liberated, the Palestinians must avoid building a material base for the state that could become a heavy burden when the Zionist entity threatens to destroy it or actually does destroy it. The so-called self-rule area must be more of a base for revolutionary struggle than of a state structure. (26)
Arafat would like Iraq’s reintegration into the Arab world as his ally but this will not happen soon and this policy does not endear the PA to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
SAUDI ARABIA AND KUWAIT
These states seek to remove themselves from the conflict while minimizing contact with Israel and avoiding formal peace with it. Their wealth makes them the best source of medium- to long-term aid for the PA and potential leverage in affecting states in the peace and radical camps or the West.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Saudi Arabia was the PLO’s most reliable source of aid. But aside from this financing and apart from the short-lived 1973 oil embargo, the Saudis and other Gulf Arab monarchies largely refrained from direct involvement in the conflict. In the latter 1980s, Saudi aid dwindled as it spent more money at home and diverted funds to help Iraq in its war against Iran. Saudi investments in the West discouraged actions against Western interests. The real crisis came when Arafat backed Iraq’s seizure of Kuwait, provoking a strong, bitter Saudi response. All aid to the PLO and Palestinian institutions was cut off.
Kuwait, whose many Palestinian residents had always made it so sympathetic to the PLO, went even further. After Iraqi forces retreated, Kuwait expelled most Palestinians from the country and has virtually boycotted the PLO since then.
Unwilling to alienate Iraq or fully admit his own past mistakes, Arafat has failed to rebuild relations with Saudi Arabia or defuse Kuwaiti hostility.(27) Consequently, despite rejecting normalization, these two countries will give the PA little material aid and certainly not risk their relations with the United States on its behalf.
Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have opposed normalization and discouraged other Gulf Arab states from doing–even when Israel was offering big concessions to the Palestinians and Syria–based on their perceived self-interest. This stems both from desire to maintain Saudi hegemony over the smaller monarchies and a Saudi fear and demonization of Israel, extreme even by general Arab standards. In both countries strong Islamic forces oppose making peace with Israel and could be turned against a government that did so.
One can argue that these Saudi and Kuwaiti policies belay their national interest. Israel does not threaten them, they all face common militant enemies, and want strong U.S. influence in the region. The problem is that such assessments do not convince Saudi or Kuwaiti leaders.
Chart: Arab State Attitudes Toward the PA
Hostile to the PA; Aid anti-Arafat Palestinians:
Iran-, Lebanon, Libya-, Sudan-, Syria-?, [Radical Camp]
Friendly to the PA; unable to help much:
Algeria^, Bahrain^, Djibouti^, Mauritania*, Morocco*, Oman*, Qatar*, Somalia, Tunisia*, UAE^, Yemen^ [Peace Camp]
Friendly to the PA AND able to help:
Egypt* [Peace Camp but seeks to coordinate all groups]
Cool to the PA; able to help but don’t do so: Kuwait, Saudi Arabia [Drop-Out Group]
Supports but also competes with the PA:
Key to symbols after country name:
* States having some form of relations with Israel.
^ States open to normalization but stopped by the freeze.
– States opposing the peace process.
The peace process’s course has produced a cycle in Arab policy toward Israel. Each forward step brings gains in normalization, followed by another period of deadlock as talks bog down and criticisms are renewed.
There is, of course, a potential avalanche effect, in which an anti-Israel campaign spins out of control. This is less likely than in the past but cannot be ruled out. Aware of this scenario, Mubarak and other Arab leaders will also be more careful to avoid it.
On one hand, Arab states neither can nor are ready to try doing much to achieve the PA’s goals. A disinclination to restart the conflict means that deadlocks in the process are unlikely to produce a real regional crisis, benefit Arafat, or force Israel to revise positions. On the contrary, doubting Arab readiness for peace will produce a less flexible Israeli policy.
On the other hand, however, Israel’s failure to progress or reach a full settlement with the Palestinians bars it from achieving a more secure place in the region. An Arab lobbying campaign may persuade some Western leaders that only Israeli concessions can avoid a Middle East conflict or damage to their own commercial and strategic position there.
Thus, while there is a strong link between progress in the peace process and advancing Israel’s relations with Arab states, the political connections are far more complex than they seem. Yet:
–Half the Arab world’s countries want more normal, mutually beneficial relations with Israel and one-quarter of them have already moved in this direction. The moderates are constrained not by their own interests but from fear of foreign Arab and domestic pressure, which they hope progress in peacemaking will dissipate. They find a temporary freeze a cheap price to pay for their bigger neighbors’ approval.
–The main opponents of peace are impelled not by concern over details of negotiations or the Palestinians’ fate but by their own interests. They view a successful process as dangerous, and a breakdown as a chance to pursue their ambitions, destroy an unfavorable situation, and strengthen their regional influence.
–Turning the clock back is not attractive for Arab leaders who know the dangers and costs this poses for them. They are not interested in fighting Israel and lack the resources, interests or unity to do so. Similarly, the Arab economic boycott against Western companies dealing with Israel cannot be reestablished.
Ironically, Israel may be more hurt by Arab states’ lack of help or active sabotage regarding the PA–reducing its stability and ability to fulfill commitments–than by any direct Arab state pressure on Israel.
–Israeli flexibility and compromise with the Palestinians give Arab states the rationale to reduce tensions and improve relations with Israel.
–Israel could feel more secure in making compromises with a weaker PA than with one which enjoys Arab support for its most militant claims. These factors also show that Arab states would not give much material help to a future Palestinian state which wanted to break its peace treaty with Israel.
Most Arab countries’ desire and interest to end the conflict with Israel remains. It is their readiness to act immediately that has been reduced temporarily. They will continue to resist a return to a past era of conflict, seeing that as dangerous for themselves and successfully opposing it.
1. The historical record on Arab state-Palestinian relations show themes similar to those analyzed here. For the author’s discussion of this pre-1956 situation, see Barry Rubin, The Arab States and the Palestine Question, (Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, NY, 1982). On the pre-1993 history of Arab state-PLO relations, see Barry Rubin, Revolution Until Victory?, especially Chapter Six, as well as the author’s article ‘Is the Arab-Israeli Conflict Over?’ Middle East Quarterly, Fall 1996, and monograph, Assessing The New Middle East: Opportunities and Risks Bar-Ilan University BESA Center, Security and Policy Studies, 1995.
2. Yezid Sayigh, ‘Fatah: The First Twenty Years,’ Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 13, No. 4, (Summer 1984), p. 115. Walid Kazziha, Palestine in the Arab Dilemma (London, 1979), pp. 15-19.
3. Alain Gresh, The PLO: The Struggle Within (London, 1985), p. 246. See also Walid Khalidi, ‘The Asad Regime and the Palestinian Resistance,’ Arab Studies Quarterly, Vol. 6, No. 4, (Fall 1984), p. 265.
4. PLO Executive Committee member Muhammad Milhim commented, ‘It makes no sense for a Palestinian in Lebanon to use his arms against Israel when he is being stabbed in the back.’ Al-Anba, 19 September 1989, (FBIS, 22 September, 1989, p. 7).
5. Avraham Sela, The Decline of the Arab-Israeli Conflict: Middle East Politics and the Quest for Regional Order, (SUNY Press, 1997).
6. Official text of the resolution obtained at the summit.
7. Text of 22 June, 1996, speech from Egypt’s Ministry of Information, State Information Service.
8. Washington Post, 27 September 1996.
9. Glenn Robinson, ‘The Growing Authoritarianism of the Arafat Regime,’Survival, Summer 1997.
10. Ha’aretz, 19 November, 1996.
11. Resolution, op. cit.
12. Associated Press, 24 June 1997.
13. Ma’ariv, 6 June 1997.
14. Resolution, op. cit.
15. Text of 22 June, 1996, speech from Egypt’s Ministry of Information, State Information Service.
16. Interview, Middle East News Agency, 24 January, 1989, in Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS), 25 January, 1989, p. 15.
17. For a detailed discussion on Arafat’s views and relations regarding the United States, see Rubin, Revolution Until Victory?, op. cit.
18. On the history of Israel and the North African states, see Michael Laskier, ‘The Israel-Maghreb Connection: Past Contacts, Future Prospects,’Jerusalem Letter/Viewpoints, #355, April 1, 1997.
19. In addition, a high level of Israel-Turkey cooperation is an important regional development, intimidating the radicals (especially Syria) while also discomfiting Egypt which sees this alignment as challenging its own (and Arab) regional hegemony.
20. Reuters, 20 August 1996.
21. In fact, some argue that Arab passivity might more likely produce confrontation as Israel’s demands become so extreme that the peace process collapses. As the Egyptian newspaper al-Ahram put it: ‘If Israel thinks Arabs will not act, then the region will return to what it was before negotiations.’ Quoted in The Washington Post, 27 September 1996.
22. Fawaz A. Gerges, ‘Egyptian-Israeli Relations Turn Sour,’ Foreign Affairs, Vol. 74, No. 3, May-June 1995, pp. 69-78.
23. Interview with Jerusalem Report, 19 March 1997.
24. For an excellent, detailed discussion of bilateral relations since the peace treaty, see, Lori Plotkin, ‘Jordan-Israel Peace: Taking Stock, 1994-1997,’ Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 1997.
25. To cite only one example, Jordanian opposition lawyers rushed to defend a Jordanian soldier who murdered seven Israeli junior high school girls.Jordan Times, 19 March 1997.
26. From the FBIS translation of the speech, Part Three. Thanks to Laurie Mylroie for this text.
27. WP, 3 October 1996.
Barry Rubin is Senior Resident Scholar at the BESA Center for Strategic Studies of Bar-Ilan University and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs. His books include Revolution Until Victory? The Politics and History of the PLO; Assessing the New Middle East; and, as co-editor, The Israel-Arab Reader.
The Arab states’ relationship to the Palestine question has been saturated by myth and misunderstanding. Unquestionably, the issue has been an important aspect of modern Arab politics. But while Arab states seemed to be strongly engaged in the Arab-Israeli conflict, giving full, passionate backing for the Palestinian cause since the 1930s, they often acted in a cautious, constrained way based on national or regime self-interest.