quotes Arab world and the West have found a common empathy

25 February 2023
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Updated 25 February 2023

Arab world and the West have found a common empathy

The UN General Assembly has endorsed a strong resolution asking Russia to immediately and unconditionally withdraw from Ukrainian territory. In the Arab world, we are elated to see that the overwhelming majority of the UN’s 193 member states are expressing a moral and empathic reflex against the occupation of Ukraine’s territory and asking for that territory to be returned, without condition, to Ukraine.

I think you know where I am going with this. In 1945, at the close of the Second World War, when US President Franklin D. Roosevelt met with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdulaziz, the US president asked the king to help him with a thorny problem: to find a homeland for the Jewish people, who had been persecuted for centuries and killed in their millions by Nazi Germany. The king gave the president an astute look and said that, in the Arab world when two tribes are in conflict, the victorious tribe is the one that decides what peace will look like, by displaying magnanimity or by requiring a fair price be paid.

Surely, it should be those responsible for the persecution of the Jews who should be asked to provide an adequate homeland for them. Roosevelt was rather surprised to hear these words, but the story caught his attention, and in a letter two months later he responded with great clarity: “Your Majesty will recall that on previous occasions I communicated to you the attitude of the American government toward Palestine and made clear our desire that no decision be taken with respect to the basic situation in that country without full consultation with both Arabs and Jews.

“Your Majesty will also doubtless recall that during our recent conversation I assured you that I would take no action, in my capacity as chief of the executive branch of this government, which might prove hostile to the Arab people.”

Tragically, just one week later, Roosevelt died.

It was President Harry Truman who ended up taking the Jewish and Palestinian issue to the UN and decided to create an Israeli state that resulted in dispossessing a vast number of Palestinians from their land.

Arab foreign ministers were not consulted, and, indeed, they waited 27 days before Truman would speak to them, only after the election. In a stark display of realpolitik, he told the Arab foreign ministers that while he did have a significant Jewish constituency in America, he had no such Arab constituency to take into account.

We Arabs have been waiting ever since that day for the West to arrive at the moral and empathic conclusion that, whoever the intruder, occupied lands must be returned to their rightful owners.

There is no moral hesitation to be had in such a case, whether the occupiers be Russian or Israeli. To be fair, France has taken strong stands of solidarity with the Arab world, most memorably Charles de Gaulle in 1967 and Jacques Chirac in the leadup to the Iraq war.

What matters today is that Arabs and the West have found a common reservoir of empathy that we are keen to express, sprinkling it in equal parts over Israel and Russia in the hope that they find such empathy within themselves also.

This is how an opportunity appears, waiting to be harnessed toward a more promising outcome for all. Would it not be a better world if we allowed the Palestinians to live peacefully in their lands in the same way that we want the Ukrainians to enjoy their own territories without the risk of Russian invasion?

The friendship between the Arab world and the West can only be strengthened by a concordance of moral and empathic reflexes on both issues.

Hassan bin Youssef Yassin worked with Saudi petroleum ministers Abdullah Tariki and Ahmed Zaki Yamani from 1959 to 1967. He headed the Saudi Information Office in Washington, DC from 1972 to 1981, and served with the Arab League observer delegation to the UN from 1981 to 1983.