(Efraim Karsh is head of Mediterranean Studies at King’s College, University of London, and author most recently of “Islamic Imperialism: A History,” available from Yale University Press. He is a member of the SPME Board of Directors.)
In discussions of the contemporary Middle East, few arguments have resonated more widely, or among a more diverse set of observers, than the claim that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict constitutes the source of all evil and that its resolution will lead to regional peace and stability. No sooner had the guns fallen silent on the Israel-Lebanon border than Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, fresh from his summer vacation in the Caribbean island of Barbados, announced his intention to embark on a mission to the Middle East next month in an attempt to both stabilize the situation in Lebanon and to resuscitate the stalled peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. This sense of urgency was echoed by the American former national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who claimed that “Today, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to separate the Israeli-Palestinian problem, the Iraq problem and Iran from each other.” And the Jordanian commentator Rami Khouri put it in even stronger terms: “Every major tough issue in the Middle East is somehow linked to the consequences of the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict… Its bitterness kept seeping out from its Palestine-Israel core to corrode many other dimensions of the region.”
While there is no denying the argument’s widespread appeal, there is also no way around the fact that, in almost every particular, it is demonstratively, even invidiously, wrong. For one thing, violence was an integral part of Middle Eastern political culture long before the advent of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and physical force remains today the main if not the sole instrument of regional political discourse. At the domestic level, these circumstances have resulted in the world’s most illiberal polities. Political dissent is dealt with by repression, and ethnic and religious differences are settled by internecine strife and murder. One need only mention, among many instances, Syria’s massacre of 20,000 of its Muslim activists in the early 1980s, or the brutal treatment of Iraq’s Shiite and Kurdish communities until the 2003 war, or the genocidal campaign now being conducted in Darfur by the government of Sudan and its allied militias, not to mention the ongoing bloodbath in Iraq. As for foreign policy in the Middle East, it too has been pursued by means of crude force, ranging from terrorism and subversion to outright aggression. In the Yemenite, Lebanese, and Algerian civil wars, hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians perished; the Iran-Iraq war claimed nearly a million lives.
Nor have the Arab states have ever had any real stake in the “liberation of Palestine.” Though anti-Zionism has been the core principle of pan-Arab solidarity since the mid-1930s – it is easier, after all, to unite people through a common hatred than through a shared loyalty – pan-Arabism has almost always served as an instrument for achieving the self-interested ends of those who proclaim it.
Consider, for example, the pan-Arab invasion of the newly proclaimed state of Israel in 1948. This, on its face, was a shining demonstration of solidarity with the Palestinian people. But the invasion had far less to do with winning independence for the indigenous population than with the desire of the Arab regimes for territorial aggrandizement. Transjordan’s King Abdullah wanted to incorporate substantial parts of mandatory Palestine into the greater Syrian empire he coveted; Egypt wanted to prevent that eventuality by laying its hands on southern Palestine. Syria and Lebanon sought to annex the Galilee, while Iraq viewed the 1948 war as a stepping stone in its long-standing ambition to bring the entire Fertile Crescent under its rule. Had the Jewish state lost the war, its territory would not have fallen to the Palestinians but would have been divided among the invading Arab forces.
During the decades following the 1948 war, the Arab states manipulated the Palestinian national cause to their own ends. Neither Egypt nor Jordan allowed Palestinian self-determination in the parts of Palestine they had occupied during the 1948 war (respectively, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip). Palestinian refugees were kept in squalid camps for decades as a means of whipping Israel and stirring pan-Arab sentiments. “The Palestinians are useful to the Arab states as they are,” Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser candidly responded to an inquiring Western reporter in 1956. “We will always see that they do not become too powerful.” As late as 1974, Syria’s Hafez al-Assad referred to Palestine as being “not only a part of the Arab homeland but a basic part of southern Syria.”
If the Arab states have shown little empathy for the plight of ordinary Palestinians, the Islamic connection to the Palestinian problem is even more tenuous. It is not out of concern for a Palestinian right to national self-determination but as part of a holy war to prevent the loss of a part of the “House of Islam” that Islamists inveigh against the Jewish state of Israel. In the words of the covenant of the Islamic Resistance Movement, better known by its Arabic acronym Hamas: “The land of Palestine has been an Islamic trust (waqf) throughout the generations and until the day of resurrection…. When our enemies usurp some Islamic lands, jihad becomes a duty binding on all Muslims.” In this respect, there is no difference between Palestine and other parts of the world conquered by the forces of Islam throughout history… Edward Said applauded Andalusia’s colonialist legacy as “the ideal that should be moving our efforts now,” while Osama bin Laden noted “the tragedy of Andalusia” after the 9/11 attacks, and the perpetrators of the March 2004 Madrid bombings, in which hundreds of people were murdered, mentioned revenge for the loss of Spain as one of the atrocity’s “root causes.” Within this grand scheme, the struggle between Israel and the Palestinians is but a single element, and one whose supposed centrality looms far greater in Western than in Islamic eyes…
The pretense of pan-Arab or pan-Islamic solidarity has long served as a dangerous elixir in Palestinian political circles, stirring unrealistic hopes and expectations and, at key junctures, inciting widespread and horrifically destructive violence. Self-serving interventionism under these false pretenses had the effect of transforming the bilateral Palestinian-Israeli dispute into a multilateral Arab-Israeli conflict, thereby prolonging its duration, increasing its intensity, and making its resolution far more complex and tortuous. Only when the local political elites reconcile themselves to the reality of state nationalism and forswear the false notions of pan-Arab and pan-Muslim solidarity, let alone the imperialist chimera of a unified “Arab nation” or a worldwide Islamic umma, will the long overdue regional stability will be finally attained and the Arab-Israeli conflict resolved. Not the other way round.