Justice for the Palestinians can unlock Middle East peace
It is obvious that the Palestinian cause has lost its centrality in the Arab world. There was a time when the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was indistinguishable from the broader definition of an Arab-Israeli dimension, but this is no longer the case. Whatever the reasons, this is not a healthy situation: In the long run, there can be no peace in the region without a just solution that takes the rights of Palestinians into consideration.
The height of the impact of the plight of the Palestinians was probably in 2009, when the aftermath of a brutal Israeli war in Gaza divided the Arab world. The Arab League itself broke up into two separate meetings: One emergency meeting of the “radicals” was held in Doha, with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the guest of honor and attended principally by Hezbollah, Hamas and Bashar Assad; and an economic summit in Kuwait shortly afterwards, where King Abdullah called for reconciliation with Assad.
The Saudi rift with Assad was over the assassination of Rafik Hariri and the rapprochement was over the question of Palestine, which no one could afford to be on the wrong side of at the time. Contrast this with recent years, such as when the US moved its embassy to Jerusalem with hardly any reaction from the proverbial “Arab street.”
The Palestinian leaders bear some of the responsibility for the current situation. Throughout the years, they have alienated much of the Arab world from the cause by being on the wrong side. From the attempt to overthrow King Hussein in Jordan to destabilizing Lebanon, supporting Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, and opposing the Camp David agreement with Egypt and the current rapprochement between Israel and the Gulf states. No one understands their position on Syria and they are also out of tune with their own population.
A crisis of leadership, stagnation in the negotiations and internal divisions among the Arabs and the Palestinians are only part of the problem. The world has drastically changed in the last 10 years and so have the demands of much of the new generation of Palestinians: The emphasis is now more on equal rights and justice, while internationalizing support through the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. This has replaced the pursuit of an armed struggle and the use of violence. Such a change in the narrative, with all its shortcomings, should be seen as a positive development.
Just causes can attract the worst type of support — those that exploit the tragedy to further their own aims. The injustice done to the Palestinians for more than 70 years should not be left to be exploited by the “Axis of Resistance” in support of tyrannical regimes, criminal organizations and an agenda of perpetual war. The best way to fight those is to resolve the issues they play on. It is the equivalent of legalizing cannabis and other drugs to pull the rug from under the feet of illegal cartels.
The injustice done to the Palestinians for more than 70 years should not be left to be exploited by the ‘Axis of Resistance.’
Even in Israel there is a peace camp demanding justice and the end of occupation. In the Arab world, there is a war camp and an apathy camp and this is bound to backfire at a later stage. The just cause of the Palestinians is not only the prerogative of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the Assad regime, Hezbollah and Hamas.
Most serious is the perceived ambiguity toward the tragedy in Syria; there can be no zero-sum game between the rights of Syrians and Palestinians. The support of the Assad regime from the so-called “anti-imperialist” advocates among the Palestinians is indeed alarming and very harmful to them. The gravity of this contradiction was encapsulated in a tweet by the Syrian-Mauritanian activist Nasser Weddady during the 2014 Gaza War, which coincided with the use of chemical weapons, barrel bombs and starvation sieges against civilians in Syria: “That moment when you have to check on the identity of the child before expressing outrage.”
Nine months from now, in October of this year, it will be the 30th anniversary of the Madrid Peace Conference. I was a young man then and the majority of today’s Arabs were not yet born. The world was also a very different place in 1991. Madrid was the last conference attended by the USSR before its collapse, Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali had barely settled as the president of Tunisia, Libya was under Muammar Qaddafi, Egypt under Hosni Mubarak, Hafez Assad was at the height of his influence, having destroyed Hama, and Saddam Hussein was still busy killing his own people after crushing the uprisings of March and April of that year. America had liberated Kuwait, declared a new world order, and dial-up internet and cable TV were a novelty.
Yet, as far as the Palestinians are concerned, we are still repeating the same things and are nowhere near a satisfactory outcome. The two-state solution is there; 30 more years of negotiations will only take us farther away from it.
There is now an opportunity to use the leverage created by the Abraham Accords and the Gulf Cooperation Council reconciliation to turn the page and move forward. The new administration in the US should realize that the way to deal with Iran is not through appeasement. The pursuit of peace in the region is the best antidote to the pursuit of perpetual war. This is how the problems of the Middle East should be seen: In one comprehensive picture with two opposing narratives and agendas.
Peace in the whole region includes Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and Palestine, especially Gaza. All are conflicts in which there is Iranian involvement through proxies that consider it to be one single conflict and not a series of unconnected issues. The war on terror against Daesh and the IRGC, as well as the pursuit of freedom and human rights, are also linked to these conflicts and the Palestinian question is what links them all.
- Nadim Shehadi is the executive director of the LAU Headquarters and Academic Center in New York and an Associate Fellow of Chatham House in London.