Monday,25 March, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1417, (8 - 14 November 2018)
Monday,25 March, 2019
Issue 1417, (8 - 14 November 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Arab policy and generosity

The Arabs often display a critical weakness in general: the willingness to offer concessions without assurance of reciprocation, writes Mohamed Salmawy

The PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation) Central Committee’s recent decision to suspend recognition of Israel throws into relief an ingrained weakness in Arab policy in general: the willingness to volunteer concessions in order to morally oblige the other party to reciprocate. This tendency spread epidemically in the Arab world since the 1970s when President Amwar Al-Sadat took the initiative to recognise Israel practically and officially when he visited it in November 1977 after which he gave Israel the time and space to consider its next step. Critics at the time agreed that the Egyptian action would have been more generous had the recognition on the part of the largest Arab state come within a comprehensive framework for a political settlement that designated the obligations of both sides. 

I still recall how the Israelis toyed with us at the time. When asked how he planned to respond to Sadat’s visit, Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin answered that he would visit Sadat in Egypt. If Egypt eventually obtained more than just the Israeli prime minister’s return call, this was thanks to more than a decade of painstaking efforts until the day when Egypt finally raised its flag on its eastern border, in Taba, in 1989. 

Sadat followed the generosity tactic four years before that Jerusalem visit when he expelled the Soviet advisers from Egypt without obtaining anything in return from the US. The US secretary of state and national security adviser at the time, Henry Kissinger, expressed his government’s surprise at the Egyptian decision as Washington would have been willing to pay for it had Egypt negotiated on it beforehand. 

The Arabs adhered to the policy of volunteering concessions after the Sadat era and Israel continued benefit, entering into negotiations only at the time and at the pace of its choice, if it felt like negotiating and if it decided to offer some gesture of reciprocation. Perhaps the best example of the syndrome is the Arab Peace Initiative. Coming more than 20 years after Sadat’s death, it offered Israel recognition, normalisation and everything else it had asked for in exchange for withdrawal from the occupied territories and the establishment of a Palestinian state. The Arab side of that initiative has since become an implicit and explicit reality that many Arab countries have manifested politically, economically and even athletically. Yet, Israel has not withdrawn a single centimetre from the occupied territories and it barely pays lip service to the principle of a Palestinian state, for which obstinacy, moreover, it was rewarded with Jerusalem as its capital on a silver platter. 

I personally heard the US journalist Thomas Friedman relate how he had managed to convince the late Saudi monarch, king Abdullah bin Abdel-Aziz, that the Arab initiative would be, as he called it, a total “game-changer” in the Middle East because it would force Israel to face up to its responsibilities and because international pressures would build up on Israel to reciprocate. Friedman got the response he had anticipated from the Arabs thanks to their legendary generosity. They adopted the Arab initiative in the Arab summit in Beirut in 2002, ever since which they put into effect their obligations without waiting for Israel to concede to the terms that apply to it. 

It was not until last week that the Israeli prime minister, who is more hated internationally than all his predecessors, welcomed that initiative. This was during an official visit to Oman accompanied by his wife, Sara, who is stalked by charges of corruption. Then, the following day, we saw the Israeli minister of culture and sports fighting back tears of emotion as Emirati ministers rose to standing when the Israeli national anthem played during her official visit to the UAE. Meanwhile, there is still no sign of Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories or a move in the direction of the creation of the Palestinian state that the Arab initiative called for. 

So, the PLO did well when, in its last meeting in Ramallah, after the Palestinians finally awoke and reassessed their previous policies that gave Israel so much in return for so little, it voted to terminate all the PA’s obligations under previous agreements with Israel and to suspend recognition of that state until Israel recognises the Palestinian state in the pre-June 1967 borders with its capital in East Jerusalem. At last, for the first time, the Palestinians applied the principle of simultaneous reciprocation, which is the norm in international affairs. 

At the same time, we should note that, in fact, the Palestinians do not need Israel’s recognition for their state. The international instrument that approved the creation of the state of Israel was the same international instrument that approved the creation of the Palestinian state. I refer here to the Partition Resolution adopted by the UN General Assembly in November 1947. That we waiting for the Palestinian state to emerge as a result of an extra Israeli stamp of approval, as well, is another manifestation of the futility of the Arab approach. The Arabs should have addressed the international community which had already recognised the Palestinian state in 1947 and the individual members of which did so, again, officially, instead of relying on Israel which only accepted the half of the partition resolution that applies to itself and that it uses as a basis for legitimacy while it continues to reject the other half.

The Palestinian decision to suspend recognition of Israel until Israel recognises the Palestinian state is, in effect, an attempt to apply both halves of the UN Partition Resolution, as opposed to the warped way that Israel applied it. This should compel the international community to face up to its responsibility to implement the whole resolution, in all its parts, instead of waiting for the types of Arab generosity that have remained unrewarded for so many years.

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