Israel is getting away with atrocities as the US is backing out of the Middle East and the Arab States want to keep the Palestinians at bay, Western scholars say.

By P.K.Balachandran

Colombo, February 23:

There is no doubt that the plight of the Palestinians in Gaza has led to a groundswell of sympathy for them the world over. South Africa has approached the International Court of Justice at The Hague charging Israel of genocide. And yet, no State has intervened militarily to stop the carnage. There are no signs of hard diplomatic action either.

The other notable feature is that while the US and some Arab countries are engaged in securing a pause in the Israeli offensive in order to reach humanitarian aid to Gaza, no country is trying to get Hamas to release the hundred odd hostages still being held by it. Israel has said that if the hostages are released, it will stop its offensive, though with the hostages issue still not resolved, Israel has vowed to continue the war till Gaza is fully occupied by it. There are also dark hints that the Gazans will be driven out with no plans to settle them anywhere.     

However, Israel presented a window of opportunity to settle the matter amicably by saying that it will stop the war if the hostages are released before Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting spanning  March-April.

But instead of trying to bring the war to an end, diplomats of various countries have jumped the gun by talking about a Two-State solution to the Palestinian problem after the end of hostilities when there is no sign of the hostilities ending.

Israel has in fact rejected the Two-State solution, saying that it is a dangerous proposition, particularly after Hamas’ stunning attack on it on October 7, 2023. Therefore, the need of hour is not a political solution but an immediate end to the war and an immediate release of the hostages.          

The question then arises as to which power can bring this about. Dalia Dassa Kaye and Sanam Vakil state in their article in Foreign Affairs that only the Middle Eastern countries can fix the Middle East as the US involvement in the region is flagging.

Kaye and Vakil posit that the US is in the process of disentangling itself from messy Middle East despite its stepped up arms aid to Israel and some action against Iran-backed Islamic groups in Syria and Lebanon and the Houthis in the Red Sea. They also point out that the incessant travels of the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in the  Middle East have yielded no results.

The Biden administration is more concerned about Russia’s war in Ukraine and Chinese expansionism in the Indo-Pacific. If anything, the Gaza war’s increasingly complicated dynamics may result in even less US appetite for engagement in the region, they say.

But what is the way forward? Kaye and Vakil suggest: “Given this emerging reality, regional powers—particularly Israel’s immediate Arab neighbours Egypt and Jordan, along with Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which have been coordinating since the war began, urgently need to step up and define a collective way forward.”

During the initial months of the war, one of the US Administration’s few accomplishments was a one-week pause in fighting in late November, which led to the release of over 100 Israeli and foreign hostages and a modest delivery of humanitarian aid to Gaza. But even in that case, Qatari and Egyptian mediation was crucial, the authors point out.  

Anticipating a further US disengagement, in 2019, governments across the Middle East began to mend previously fraught relations. This unusual regional reset was driven partly also by economic priorities. These States had seen the benefits of economic development and were eager to subordinate ideological considerations to tangible benefits.

The Gulf States and Iran made up to protect their interests from groups that had been disrupting Gulf shipping. Abu Dhabi formally resumed diplomatic ties with Iran in 2022, paving the way for Saudi Arabia to follow suit with Chinese mediation. And that was backed by back channel talks by Oman and Iraq. 

In 2021, Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE ended a three and a half year blockade of Qatar because of the latter’s support to the Muslim Brotherhood groups. The UAE and Saudi Arabia reconciled with Turkey, which they had previously shunned because of its ties with the Muslim Brotherhood. The Saudis and Emiratis opened the doors to investment in the struggling Turkish economy.

In May 2023, Arab leaders invited Syrian President Bashar al-Assad back into the Arab League, marking the end of more than a decade of isolation during Syria’s civil war.

Governments across the Middle East also began to participate in regional forums such as the Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership; the East Mediterranean Gas Forum, and the I2U2, a group that includes India, Israel, the UAE, and the United States, which was set up in 2021 to foster cross-regional partnerships in a variety of fields.

Through the 2020 Abraham Accords, Bahrain, Morocco, and the UAE agreed to establish formal ties with Israel, creating opportunities for new developmental cooperation and trade.

However, the Gaza war did create new obstacles to regional cooperation. Both Turkey and Jordan withdrew their ambassadors from Israel, and direct flights between Israel and Morocco stopped in October. But collective Middle Eastern efforts to end the end of the war have not been suspended.

Turkey has floated the concept of a multi-country guarantor system, with states in the region protecting and bolstering Palestinian security and governance and the US and the European Countries providing security guarantees for Israel. Others have proposed that the United Nations run a transitional authority in the West Bank and Gaza.

But Kaye and Vakil suggest the establishment of a permanent forum for regional security like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, have been able to develop alongside bilateral and regional security alliances, they point out.

Ambassador Cocker’s Doubts

But a look at the assessment of former US Ambassador Ryan Crocker (who is an expert on the Middle East) would make one wonder if Middle Eastern countries would be able to do the job. While giving verbal support to the Palestinians, they also fear them seeing them as a troublesome lot.

In an interview to Politico, Crocker says that “nearly every Arab state has long viewed the Palestinians with fear and loathing.” He recalls the Tall al-Za‘tar Palestinian refugee camp massacre by the Lebanese forces in 1975. The Lebanese Shia, backed by Syria and Iran, laid siege to the Shatila and Bourj el-Barajneh camps for almost three years killing a large number of Palestinians.

All the wrath against the Palestinians started after the Six Day War in 1967 when Arab leaders first recognized the Palestine Liberation Organization as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.” Before that, the Palestinians were controlled by the Arab states and their armies. After the PLO emerged as the sole representatives, the Arab countries began to fear the Palestinians especially the refugees amidst them. This was because these countries became targets of Israeli attacks.

In 1970, the PLO tried to overthrow the Jordanian monarchy. The Hamas has been anathema to Egypt and the other Arab regimes because of its Muslim Brotherhood-inspired ideology.

The Palestinians contributed to their isolation also through some spectacular acts like the assassination of a Jordanian prime minister in front of the Sheraton hotel in broad daylight in Cairo by two Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine [PLPF] gunmen, one of whom stooped down to drink the assassinated prime minister’s blood, Crocker recalls. Today, Egypt does not want Gazans to enter its territory.

“As you go around the region almost all [the Arab governments] are united on one point, which is that the Palestinians are a threat, a foreign population that should be weakened if not exterminated,” Crocker says.