SINCE the recent Israeli attack on Gaza, a dark cloud has hung over the Arab world. The conflict exposed more starkly than ever the political rifts that scar the region. Subsequent attempts at reconciliation have revealed how few resources the largely secular Arab regimes have to draw on to confront the many challenges facing them — not least that of political Islam.
The formation of a weak, right-leaning government in Israel has added to the gloom felt in Arab capitals. The unresolved Arab-Israeli conflict remains the single issue that has the power both to confound the secular regimes and to inflame popular Arab sentiment.
Attempts to restore some order to Arab ranks are focused on the Egyptian capital, Cairo. Delegations from the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and the Hamas-led government in Gaza spend hours each day in talks mediated by a senior Egyptian army officer.
Progress thus far has been limited. Hamas has steadfastly refused to accept the main condition imposed by Fatah for the formation of a Palestinian government of national unity: in essence, a recognition of Israel’s right to exist, and a commitment to a two-state solution.
Hamas, one might argue, is hardly in a position to dictate its terms, having conducted a hopelessly lopsided war against Israel, which led to high civilian casualties and billions of pounds’ worth of physical destruction. Yet its stand strikes a chord among Arabs from Morocco in the west to Oman in the east.
The formation of the Benjamin Netanyahu-led government in Israel gave Hamas another opportunity to claim that its rejectionist position was justified. Ahmad Qurei, head of the Fatah negotiating team, said that this meant that “the peace process has gone back to square one.”
A Hamas spokesman was quick to pick up on this remark: “Suggesting that it has gone back to square one implies that it had made progress in the first place.”
The editor of the daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi, Abdul Barri Atwan, expressed in print what millions of Arabs are asking privately: why should Hamas submit to Fatah’s condition of accepting a two-state solution when the government in Israel rejects this principle?
HAMAS might well have presented an argument along these lines at the latest Arab summit, held in the Qatari capital, Doha, at the end of March, if it had been invited to attend. But it was not.
In order not to offend Saudi Arabia and other Arab states that are critical of Hamas, the only Palestinian representative present was President Mahmoud Abbas. Also absent was President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, who is at odds not only with Hamas, but also with the governments of Syria and Qatar. Given that the theme of the summit was supposed to be Arab reconciliation, this did not augur well.
To be fair, when the summit convened, the challenges were presented fairly and squarely. In his opening address, the Amir of Qatar, Shaikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, spoke of “developments in our region that we need to deal with to stop them doubling the rising tensions and turmoil that we face”.
Formulating an Arab plan has for decades been the elusive goal of the regimes. Today, the goal looks more distant than ever. After the stirring words of the Amir of Qatar, the meeting of Arab leaders turned into even more of a vacuous farce than most previous ones. Colonel Gaddafi of Libya, looking like an ageing pantomime performer, fired a tirade of abuse at King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia before storming out to visit a museum near by.
After a series of ritualistic speeches exhorting the need to unite ranks, the assembled Arab heads of state seemed to lose the stomach for more. They wound up the meeting on the first evening, one day earlier than planned.
THE HAPLESS TASK of putting a positive spin on the proceedings fell to the secretary-general of the Arab League, Amr Moussa. Asked to point to concrete measures that had been agreed by the Arab leaders, he waved the final declaration in front of the cameras.
“We have agreed on the need to set a precise time for Israel to abide by its commitments to the peace process,” he said. “This is not a vague declaration: we are demanding a precise time for them to honour what they have promised.”
The problem was that no precise time was agreed on or specified in the summit declaration.
Nobody in the Arab world was fooled. “I think you could have expected a better performance from kids,” read one comment on an Arabic blog. “If these are the leaders, God help the rest of us. As a nation we are doomed. They all deserve nothing but contempt.”
On balance, President Mubarak probably felt he had made the right choice in staying away from the Doha meeting. After all, the Egyptian leader has more than enough problems to deal with at home.
Egypt’s lack of support for Hamas in the Gaza war, and its close ties to the West, have put the government under considerable domestic pressure. The Muslim Brotherhood, by far the strongest opposition group, continues to gain support, despite a string of detentions by the security forces.
Again, the Arab-Israeli issue is a major factor. A senior Muslim Brotherhood official wondered publicly: “Why is it that, while Israel occupies Arab land and launches a bloody assault on Gaza, it has easier and more friendly access to the Egyptian government than we have?”
It is a question that exposes a raw nerve. Secular Arab regimes, through their inability to agree a joint strategy to deal with the Israel issue, are leaving the ground open to Islamic groups.
Islam may not hold the solution to the Arab-Israeli dispute. But Islamic groups speak with a language that resonates with the emotions of the Arab public.
The Arab-Israeli problem, then, has an impact on more than just the Israelis and the Palestinians. There are some shaky-looking secular regimes in the region who need it to be resolved just for their own survival.
Gerald Butt is the Church Times Middle East Correspondent. The new edition of his Life at the Crossroads: A History of Gaza has just been published by Rimal Publications.