The disconnect between the past and the present in the Middle East is growing fast. Consider the anachronism called the Arab League.
In December, after an “emergency meeting” called by Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby declared that “not one” Israeli soldier could remain in the territory of Palestine. An Arab League report condemning American support for “Israeli security expansionist demands” was also cited in Middle Eastern news sources but made little impression in the West.
The statement made little impression on US Secretary of State John Kerry who was “grateful that the Arab League as a whole and Saudi Arabia individually will be significantly involved in helping build support for this effort.” He also promised to update “our Arab League partners.”
The very idea that the Arab League is a ‘partner,’ and the League’s recent pronouncements, are reminders of the Arab-Israeli conflict as it once was; an era when furious expressions of “unity” over Palestine were taken seriously, and which mostly excluded the Palestinians.
The Arab League was formed in March 1945, its charter filled with boilerplate about the strengthening, safeguarding and coordinating of between member states. But the founding treaty’s annex stated while that Palestine’s “international existence and independence in the legal sense cannot, therefore, be questioned,” “outward manifestations of this independence have remained obscured for reasons beyond her control” and that “until that country can effectively exercise its independence, the Council of the League should take charge of the selection of an Arab representative from Palestine to take part in its work.” The League’s raison d’être was control of the Palestine question.
The pan-Arab takeover had actually begun earlier, with the Bludan conference of 1937 “to study the duties of the Arabs in their respective countries and to agree on effective measures to resist the dangers posed by the Zionists.” There the Peel Commission’s recommendations on partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states were rejected and a boycott of “all Jewish goods and activities” was proposed.
But Palestinians and certain Syrians were unsatisfied since, as a British report put it, “They had hoped, it appears, so far to stir up public opinion as to obtain from an excited mob a declaration of the Jihad.” Existential fear and loathing of Jews – not Zionists – in Islamic terms was pronounced even then.
After World War II the Arab League’s contradictions became more pronounced. At the Inshas conference of 1946 Arab rulers declared “Palestine is Arab and cannot be separated from the rest of the Arab states, for it is the center of the great Arab nation and its destiny rests with that of the Arab states.” But the next year in London Arab League delegates accepted the idea of a unitary Palestinian state in which Jews would be a recognized minority with representation. The Palestinians under Haj Amin al-Husseini, the “Grand Mufti” and leader of the Palestinian nationalist Arab Higher Committee, refused to even participate.
The Mufti’s aspirations to rule Arab Palestine also clashed with those of Abdullah of Transjordan, who sought to annex it to Transjordan. In 1947 the League formed the “Arab Liberation Army” that invaded Israel upon independence, while keeping Husseini and his military force in marginal roles. Abdullah’s Arab Legion operated independently, while he met secretly with Zionist representations. Upon defeat the League authorized a provisional government for Gaza, which was barely symbolic before being dissolved by Egypt.
The League’s most notable achievement was the boycott against Israel. This prohibited direct economic relations, as well as with countries and firms that did business with Israel. Though the boycott limited investment and economic relations, it hardly achieved its goals of bringing about “the eventual collapse of the State of Israel.” The boycott may have hurt Arab countries more than Israel, scaring off investors from the Middle East and damaging regional economies. The 1966 decision to kick Ford Motors out of Arab countries following a trade agreement with Israel cost 6000 jobs in Lebanon alone.
On the issue of Palestine the League has always taken extreme stances. It suspended Egypt in 1979 after the Camp David Accords and rejected the Gulf Cooperation Council’s decision to lessen trade restrictions on Israel in 1994. Even the League’s endorsement of the much-vaunted Arab Peace Initiative in 2002 was predicated on reading UN Resolution 194 to mean the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees.
Only in fostering creation of the Palestine Liberation Organization, in 1964 did the Arab League inadvertently advanced the Palestinian cause, albeit through an irredentist entity dedicated to violent “resistance” that preyed on Arab states almost as much as Israel. The PLO and its culture have reliably enforced extremism ever since.
The Arab League’s other activities have been incoherent and hopelessly divided. It did not defuse the 1958 Lebanon crisis, although it played a larger role in the Yemen civil war from 1962 to 1970, in effect a proxy war between member states Egypt and Saudi Arabia. It supported Iraq against Iran but was split over the first Gulf War, and its solution to the Lebanese Civil War was to license the Syrian takeover and almost three decades of occupation. The list of failure goes on until today’s Syrian crisis.
The Arab League’s usurpation of Palestine served higher purposes, Arab national integration around the twinned themes of protecting Palestine and hating the Jews. Palestine was a fetish but this was never the same as advancing the Palestinian national project. As with all fetishes it became a trap. Shared outrage helped generate a common sense of ‘Arabness’ as well as distinctive Syrian, Iraqi and other national identities but contributed little positive except to continually focus attention outward from corrupt, repressive regimes. But once ignited, the flame could not be ignored lest outrage be redirected inward towards regimes whose obsession wavered.
The Arab League’s routine continues but the Palestinian fetish has been taken over by UN and EU apparatchiks and US diplomats. With more than a little antisemitism (on the UN and European sides), they have institutionalized Palestinianism and the “peace process” in ways the Arab League, forever banging the tables at “emergency meetings” or even at the UN, could only have dreamed. Perhaps the Arab League succeeded after all.
But ceding control of their national fate is now also part of Palestinian culture. Sometimes Palestinians genuinely think they are the paramount pan-Arab or pan-Islamic cause. Other times it just gives Palestinians cover for being indecisive, divided, or merely to go about business as usual.
This is immensely profitable for Palestinian elites who make money from legal and illegal business deals, who skim or divert Western aid, less so for the enormous Palestinian public and NGO sectors. The status quo and “occupation” rhetoric keep money flowing and postpones hard-decisions about self-governance and self-responsibility. The Arab League gives the Palestinians rejectionism plausible deniability, and helps put peace impossibly, but profitably, out of reach.
But state failure, the ‘Arab Spring,’ and now the Shia-Sunni civil war, have disrupted the cycle, at least for now. And in a supreme irony, the Jews are temporarily more useful as Sunni allies than cosmic enemies, while the Palestinians are neither especially relevant nor interesting.
The sooner everyone, including the US and especially the Palestinians themselves, admit that the Arab League is an impediment the sooner a negotiated peace with Israel may actually arrive.
Alex Joffe is a historian and archaeologist. He is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow of the Middle East Forum.