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Tom Charles

Where are Palestine's good neighbours?

Nabil al-Arabi, Secretary General of the Arab League fronts a disunited and weak collective [Getty]

Date of publication: 16 June, 2016

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Comment: Palestine's natural allies are either too weakened by internal crises or too eager to secure American sponsorship to provide solid support for their neighbour, writes Tom Charles

The French Middle East peace initiative, launched by President Francois Hollande on 3 June, is the latest international attempt to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict.

One of its many inherent problems is that at best, Palestinians have sponsors, but no true friends, with its natural allies in the region weak, preoccupied with internal crises and interested in strengthening strategic and economic relations with Israel.

Regional developments since 2011 have strengthened Israel's hand and left Palestinians as desolate and divided as ever. Western and Israeli media coverage of the Paris meeting has focused on the presence of significant international figures such as Ban Ki-moon and John Kerry along with representatives of the European Union and Russia. But what of the Arabs? Where are Palestine's friends?

Iraq and Libya can be dismissed as states neutered by Western invasions.

Egypt - return to the Mubarak era

The 2013 counter-revolution in Egypt strengthened Israel's position regarding the occupation. Cairo sees Hamas as the enemy, a threat to its eastern border. For Palestinians, the destruction of the tunnels in to Gaza and the closure of the Rafah crossing marked the loss of all the positive developments to have come out of the 2011 revolution and the Muslim Brotherhood's aborted reign.

During the 2012 Israeli assault on Gaza, then-President Mohamed Morsi brought Turkey and Qatar into the fold to secure a ceasefire, and Palestine looked to have significant regional support. The 2014 assault saw Egypt jealously guarding its role as the sole Arab peace broker, which resulted in terms that were much more favourable to Israel and a higher death toll.

Regional developments since 2011 have strengthened Israel's hand and left Palestinians as desolate and divided as ever

Under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the military, Egypt has chosen to view the Palestinian situation primarily as a security matter. A peace settlement brokered by the United States is consistent with the Egyptian vision for resolving the conflict, chiming with Sisi's outlawing of the Muslim Brotherhood, as it naturally follows that Hamas will be treated with suspicion, and the Palestinian Authority afforded more respect.

Jordan - balancing act

Regarding Palestine, Jordan's focus has been on Jerusalem, particularly the al-Aqsa mosque, over which it is custodian. Public pressure to protect al-Aqsa has risen in line with Israeli violations at the site, and this public outcry has been reflected in parliament. MPs demanded the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador to Amman, but the monarchy has been able to act independently of parliament and maintain pragmatic political relations with Israel.

Under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the military, Egypt has chosen to view the Palestinian situation primarily as a security matter

Relations between Jordan and Israel have grown closer in terms of security and economics. Jordanian fears of a Shia encroachment on its borders, as well as the lurking threat of IS means that security coordination with Israel has increased to guard against common enemies.

Israel has sought to avoid upsetting Jordan, showing much more restraint than with other states in the region. Jordan's geographic position means that it can act as a buffer, prompting Israel to tread carefully. Jordan's geostrategic importance has the potential to be used to serve Palestinian interests, but at the moment the Kingdom supports peace talks sponsored by the US.

Syria - collapsing

Syria is inevitably entirely focused on its own existential crisis. Years of reconstruction lie ahead when a stable political entity is finally established on Israel's northern border, and Syria's position as part of the 'refusal front' will not be reconsidered any time soon.

Syria's relationship with Hamas, once so close, was severely damaged when Hamas' leadership quietly abandoned Damascus in protest at the Assad regime's murderous repression of the Syrian population.

The Syrian government has been keen to maintain calm in the occupied Golan Heights, as a conflict with Israel would further stretch resources

Trapped in the country, hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees have been internally displaced in Syria, and thousands more killed. Israel has refused to allow these Palestinians their right of return to Israel/Palestine, and the international community has applied no pressure to this effect.

The Syrian government has been keen to maintain calm in the occupied Golan Heights, as a conflict with Israel would further stretch resources. As for Israel, it has carefully limited its provocations of the Syrian government, and is content to see a potentially awkward neighbour collapsing as a political force.

Lebanon - chronically weak

Lebanon's fragility has only increased as a result of the conflict in Syria, worsened by increasing tension between Hizballah and most of the Arab world. The chronically weak state has received well over a million refugees fleeing Syria and remains unable to substantially support the Palestinian cause at the political level.

Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states

Like Jordan, Saudi Arabia has a huge democratic deficit when it comes to Palestine, with the views of the population having little impact on government policy. In terms of priorities, the conflict with Iran, the rise of IS, the war in Syria, the changes in Egypt and Lebanon all now take precedence over Israel's occupation. Added to this is the war in Yemen, led by Saudi Arabia, one of 10 Arab states involved.

Of the Gulf states, Qatar has retained the most focus on Palestine, with positive relations with both the PA and Hamas.

The Gulf states support the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which has recently received coverage thanks to an internal Israeli discussion about its merits. The Initiative is an offer on behalf of the Arab League that all states will normalise relations with Israel in return for Israel's withdrawal from occupied territories (including the Golan Heights) and the return of Palestinian refugees.

Of the Gulf states, Qatar has retained the most focus on Palestine, with positive relations with both the PA and Hamas.

Prime Minister Netanyahu regards the return of the refugees and Israel leaving the Golan as "obsolete" ideas. On the ground, his government is doing everything it can to ensure the whole Arab proposal becomes unworkable.

French peace initiative

The highest profile Arab at the Paris meeting was Nabil al-Arabi, Secretary General of the Arab League. But he only carries the combined strength of a disunited and weak collective. French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault has engaged two traditional allies of Israel, Germany and the Czech Republic in the plan, and has vowed to press ahead despite Netanyahu's opposition.

However, the French initiative already appears doomed to fail. Under American pressure, the initial aims of agreeing parameters, an agenda and deadlines have been watered down, and France's 'threat' to recognise a Palestinian state disappeared after meetings with Netanyahu.

Israel fully expects US sponsorship of any peace talks. Unfortunately for the Palestinians, their Arab neighbours are either in agreement regarding American patronage, or they are too weakened to push for a sensible alternative.

Tom Charles is a London-based writer, editor and literary agent. He previously worked in the UK parliament, including as a lobbyist for Palestinian rights. He has contributed to Jadaliyya and the Journal of Palestinian Refugee Studies. Follow him on Twitter: @tomhcharles

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

 

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