Hazem Saghieh

Normalization, the Palestinian Cause and Some Issues Kept Quiet

The reactions to some Arab states’ recent normalization agreements with Israel lack an unwritten aspect, and that is the vital needs of these states. Very few took notice that these states and their peoples have their causes too.

The danger of Iran and its proclivity for expansion, Morocco retrieving what it considers its territorial integrity and Sudan being removed from the terrorism list and the economic implications of this development, are not trivial issues. Even Lebanon, which did not normalize ties, is seen by some to have pursued direct negotiations with the Israelis on border demarcation because of its need for extracting its oil.

So long as the “Arabs” are an assortment of states, societies and interests, it will remain difficult to disregard these issues and concerns, limit them to the desire of this or that ruling class, or to demand that they are sacrificed in the name of a “national commitment” that no longer means much to anyone.

Some among those who oppose normalization say that it facilitates regimes’ suppression of people. But how would they reply when the most tyrannical authorities, indeed the ones that have ravaged Palestinians’ lives more than any others, are the regimes most vocal about fighting Israel and hindering normalization? So, this argument is multifaceted and can be taken in various directions, with or without normalization.

The Palestinians’ bitterness is understandable, especially given the expansion of settlements that chips away at their land and the ongoing erosion of the two-state solution, which undercuts their uncontested rights. Exacerbating the bitterness and blending it with a sense of having been deceived is the Arabs’ history of lying to the Palestinians. Those lies appeared under various slogans: “the Arabs’ foremost cause.” “The Arabs’ central issue.” The “compass”. “Our position on the countries of the world is based on their position on Palestine cause.” Those who would hear this often expressed and repetitive rhetoric were divided between those who believed it and those pretending to do so because they didn’t really know what to think.

Having said that, and since we are discussing states and policies- ones that are sometimes contradictory- the Palestinian cause no longer intersects with Arab countries’ national concerns. It no longer carries the promise of liberation for anyone. It no longer holds an economic promise for a better life. The calls for infinite resistance and endless confrontation that emerge on the cause’s margins have lost all their appeal in the Arab world and, in all likelihood, among the Palestinians themselves.

This rupture between the Palestinian cause and Arab countries’ affairs and concerns has become everyone’s catastrophic conclusion, one that Palestinian policies themselves are not innocent of. The cause no longer speaks to states and peoples’ interests or fears; indeed, it sometimes feeds those fears. Let us think for a second about movements like Hamas or the Islamic Jihad that ally with Iran, which a significant segment of Arab societies is fearful of. The pair is repeating a worse version of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s decision to support Saddam Hussein in his invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

Furthermore, at the very least, it has become possible to say that what goes on between Israel and Palestine has barely an impact on the rest of the Arab world. It is precisely because the noise around the cause has become bigger than its actuality that the ability for anyone to take hold of and utilize it has expanded: This is how Bashar al-Assad was capable of exploiting it in the way he did, and Iran was able to represent and lead it.

This disengagement is not without a history: Since 1969 in Lebanon and 1970 in Jordan, it has become clear that interests and wills could clash in such a way that cannot be mediated by nationalist slogans. And from the Camp David Accords (which was not opposed by any mass uprising in Egypt!) to the First Gulf War, the contradiction widened before the Arab revolutions pointed to many national issues that broke the rhetorical centrality of the Palestinian cause.

At times it was more glaring: Iraqis and Syrians, who had been locked up in Saddam and Assad’s prisons, for their loyalty to the Palestinian cause to be approved of, were expected to hold their grudges against the US because it backs Israel! In such cases, it seemed that the Palestinian cause’s costs were too high for mortals to bear.

Meanwhile, the number of Arab states engaging in wars declined remarkably: 7 in 1948, 3 in 1967, 2 in 1973 and 1 in 1982, followed by a number of conflicts in Lebanon and Gaza.

The way this state of affairs was being forged contrasts with the entrenched penchant for giving the cause additional weight that makes it impossible to solve:

The Islamists linked it to the Crusades, the leftists linked it to imperialism and its global expansion, and the nationalists tied it to the “Arab Nation’s” disintegration. The solution could thus only be attained by defeating the West, the “modern crusader,” in the context of an international socialist revolution’s victory or as part of a process through which the Arabs are unified. These slogans were dealt setbacks successively and appeared akin to strategies leading nowhere. Nevertheless, there remains of them the precious gifts they offered hardline Zionists, who also wanted to give the cause additional weight to make resolving it impossible. Because Israel is the strongest militarily, it was the only one to benefit from this extra weight, amplifying its intransigence, occupation and usurpation of land.

All of this is sad, as is nostalgia, but living on nostalgia is not without its repercussions on the nostalgic.