Hazem Saghieh

Statehood in the Arab Levant Faces a Miserable Fate

Let us remember what happened in Beirut in 2002 for a moment. Despite over two decades having gone by, recalling this juncture remains useful for understanding the present. Not only has the past not truly passed, it has become more present and painful with time, and its meanings have become more transparent.

That year, during an Arab Summit, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, who would later become king, put forward what came to be known as the "Arab Peace Initiative.” The tragedy of 9/11 in the United States and the Second Intifada in Palestine were propelling a major shift in the "Middle East crisis" and its resolution.

The most prominent dimension of this initiative was its announcement that Arab states were prepared to recognize the State of Israel in exchange for the establishment of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders and Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Golan Heights it had taken from Syria.

Then Israeli Prime Minister of Israel Ariel Sharon prevented Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat from traveling to Lebanon to attend the summit in which his cause would be discussed. For his part, Arafat complied with the decision for fear that if he went to Beirut, the Israelis would prevent him from returning to Ramallah.

In turn, Emile Lahoud, then President of Lebanon, who is known for being a subordinate of Damascus and Tehran, denied Arafat’s request to deliver a speech at the summit via satellite. The pretext for removing the speech from the conference's agenda was scandalous: "fears Israel would interfere and distort the speech."

What happened was even worse: Hamas carried out a terrorist attack in Netanya during the summit, which coincided with the Jewish holiday of Passover, resulting in the deaths of 30 Israeli civilians.

Sharon and his government found in the attack an opportunity to ignore the Beirut summit and avoid engaging with the offer it presented. Sharon’s dismissal of the summit was reinforced by the fact that it refused to address (let alone condemn) the terrorist operation because of pressure from Syria and rejectionist Arabs.

Nothing attests to the collusion of Israel and Iran in undermining Palestinian statehood and the notion of peace in general - albeit from a position of enmity - more compellingly than this incident. Mind you, the war against the Oslo Accords also spoke volumes about this same collusion: the Israeli right assassinated Yitzhak Rabin, and rejectionist Palestinian factions planted explosives among civilians.

In addition, we add nothing novel in mentioning what happened after the Hamas coup and takeover of Gaza in 2007, which left the Israeli right happy and reassured. It was thus impelled to come to the aid of Hamas and to bolster its authority financially, not necessarily out of love for Hamas but out of hatred for the prospect that any kind of Palestinian national structure could take shape.

Both Israel and Iran sought to destroy Palestinian statehood and prevent it from evolving. Tel Aviv believed that perpetuating the split between the West Bank and Gaza Strip was crucial to achieving this end, while Tehran believed that nothing less than fragmenting the Arab Levant and preventing its stabilization into a system of statehood was necessary.

The birth of a Palestinian state leads to two undesirable outcomes:

On one hand, it deprives rejectionists of a useful flammable element, as well as proving that solving this obstinate problem is possible.

On the other hand, the creation of such a state would be a celebration of statehood and evidence of the state system's success in the Arab Levant. The reality, as many of our experiences have shown, is that the existence of a Palestinian state has become tied to the question of whether the state system is viable or absent and unachievable in the region.

Both sides, in any event, do not want the problem to be resolved, leaving it to remain a "cause." They prefer the project of promoting the turn towards militias that hinders the formation of states and spreads social decay.

Completing the picture, Assadist Syria saw itself as a partner in the Iranian effort to fragment the Levant and foster its militarization, provided that this fragmentation excluded Syria and allowed it to control the process. However, it soon fell into the hole it had dug for its "brothers" in Lebanon, Iraq, and Palestine. Thus, there was no longer any exception to this Levantine rule, and the Iranians and Israelis were the only ones left on the field. The former tosses us in the air like a ball and the latter kicks it.

Now, with October 7 and the war on Gaza, it can be said that the push to nip Levantine nationhood in the bud has been successful, starting from and building on its success in Palestine. Anyone looking for regional stability that could foster statehood will find nothing but a war that springs from Gaza and does not end there. It will likely be multipronged and complex, albeit while taking various forms.

And anyone looking for autonomous forces in the Levant capable of benefiting from the Israeli-Iranian conflict will find only increasing fragmentation accompanied and aggravated by rival communal and centrifugal groups fighting among themselves. The continued population drain, brain drain included, attests to the impossibility of building on demographic solid grounds, while the defeat of revolutions and reform movements in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq show that dynamics needed to bring about positive change will remain pending for a period that is difficult to predict.

As for the influential global powers in our region, their footprint remains overwhelmingly linked to military and security matters that overshadow their minimal political presence and role in shaping a vision for the future. What was that? “Future”?