It has long been conventional wisdom that the resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a prerequisite to peace and stability in the Middle East. Since Arabs and Muslims are so passionate about the Palestine problem, this argument runs, the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate feeds regional anger and despair, gives a larger rationale to terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and to the insurgency in Iraq and obstructs the formation of a regional coalition that will help block Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons.
What, then, are we to make of a recent survey for the Al Arabiya television network finding that a staggering 71 percent of the Arabic respondents have no interest in the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks? “This is an alarming indicator,” lamented Saleh Qallab, a columnist for the pan-Arab newspaper Al Sharq al Awsat. “The Arabs, people and regimes alike, have always been as interested in the peace process, its developments and particulars, as they were committed to the Palestinian cause itself.”
But the truth is that Arab policies since the mid-1930s suggest otherwise. While the “Palestine question” has long been central to inter-Arab politics, Arab states have shown far less concern for the well-being of the Palestinians than for their own interests.
For example, it was common knowledge that the May 1948 pan-Arab invasion of the nascent state of Israel was more a scramble for Palestinian territory than a fight for Palestinian national rights. As the first secretary-general of the Arab League, Abdel Rahman Azzam, once admitted to a British reporter, the goal of King Abdullah of Transjordan “was to swallow up the central hill regions of Palestine, with access to the Mediterranean at Gaza. The Egyptians would get the Negev. Galilee would go to Syria, except that the coastal part as far as Acre would be added to the Lebanon.”
From 1948 to 1967, when Egypt and Jordan ruled the Palestinians of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, the Arab states failed to put these populations on the road to statehood. They also showed little interest in protecting their human rights or even in improving their quality of life — which is part of the reason why 120,000 West Bank Palestinians moved to the East Bank of the Jordan River and about 300,000 others emigrated abroad. “We couldn’t care less if all the refugees die,” an Egyptian diplomat once remarked. “There are enough Arabs around.”
Not surprisingly, the Arab states have never hesitated to sacrifice Palestinians on a grand scale whenever it suited their needs. In 1970, when his throne came under threat from the Palestine Liberation Organization, the affable and thoroughly Westernized King Hussein of Jordan ordered the deaths of thousands of Palestinians, an event known as “Black September.”
Six years later, Lebanese Christian militias, backed by the Syrian Army, massacred some 3,500 Palestinians, mostly civilians, in the Beirut refugee camp of Tel al-Zaatar. These militias again slaughtered hundreds of Palestinians in 1982 in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, this time under Israel’s watchful eye. None of the Arab states came to the Palestinians’ rescue.
Worse, in the mid-’80s, when the P.L.O. — officially designated by the Arab League as the “sole representative of the Palestinian people” — tried to re-establish its military presence in Lebanon, it was unceremoniously expelled by President Hafez al-Assad of Syria.
This history of Arab leaders manipulating the Palestinian cause for their own ends while ignoring the fate of the Palestinians goes on and on. Saddam Hussein, in an effort to ennoble his predatory designs, claimed that he wouldn’t consider ending his August 1990 invasion of Kuwait without “the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Israel from the occupied Arab territories in Palestine.”
Shortly after the Persian Gulf War, Kuwaitis then set about punishing the P.L.O. for its support of Hussein — cutting off financial sponsorship, expelling hundreds of thousands of Palestinian workers and slaughtering thousands. Their retribution was so severe that Arafat was forced to acknowledge that “what Kuwait did to the Palestinian people is worse than what has been done by Israel to Palestinians in the occupied territories.”
Against this backdrop, it is a positive sign that so many Arabs have apparently grown so apathetic about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. For if the Arab regimes’ self-serving interventionism has denied Palestinians the right to determine their own fate, then the best, indeed only, hope of peace between Arabs and Israelis lies in rejecting the spurious link between this particular issue and other regional and global problems.
The sooner the Palestinians recognize that their cause is theirs alone, the sooner they are likely to make peace with the existence of the State of Israel and to understand the need for a negotiated settlement.
Efraim Karsh, a professor of Middle East and Mediterranean studies at King’s College London and the author, most recently, of Palestine Betrayed.