What Can the Arabs Do?

Faced with the carnage in Gaza, how should Arab states react? Heartbreaking TV pictures of death and destruction 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 emailing 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 polices? Arabs and Muslims must now show their muscle.”

Two proposals I heard seem worth conveying to a wider public. One was that President Mohamed Morsi, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani of Qatar, Prime Minister Tayyip Recep Erdogan of Turkey and a very senior Saudi such as Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud should together seek an urgent meeting with President 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 are not only destroying the Palestinians. They are a danger to the whole Arab order. No Arab government is 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 fails to bring Israel to the table to negotiate peace and statehood for the Palestinians, then the Arabs would be compelled to downgrade their relations with the United States.

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 is worthless and unwanted: It merely exposes the Arabs to Israeli aggression.

Arab oil producers, some of my contacts said, are fully aware that the United States is no longer a major customer for Arab oil. The international oil trade has switched toward Asia. If the United States wants influence in the Arab region, it has to change its policies and become a truly neutral mediator. If that is not possible, the Arabs will look elsewhere for help.

As for the Arab leaders, they too should understand that profound changes are taking place on the international scene. It is time for them to carve out a new place 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. 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 ally themselves with Iran and Turkey, they would be strong enough to contain Israel’s aggression and protect the Palestinians.

Yet another suggestion that 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 is found from the current nightmare in that country. Only when Arab money is used in defense 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 has to be political, not military. But most of my contacts — in countries as diverse as Yemen, Algeria and Kuwait — blamed the United States for the Gaza slaughter. It is America’s support, they said, that allows Israel to kill Palestinians with impunity.

They complained that Obama had again collapsed in the face of Israel and the pro-Israel lobby. He has adopted Israel’s argument that Israel had the right to defend itself and that Hamas was a terrorist organization.

This is a slap in the face to the Arabs. No doubt, it is the duty of the Israeli government to defend its people. But has no one else such a right? Is no other country allowed to seek deterrence? Hamas is a democratically elected government. Is it not also responsible for defending its people?

But another of my contacts said: “Hamas is to blame. Why did it expose its population to attack? Why did it embarrass President Morsi? 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?”

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.

Patrick Seale’s latest book is The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East. This article was distributed by Agence Global.

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