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Pan-Arab myth and “deal of the century”

Neïla Latrous
By Neïla Latrous

Middle East and North Africa editor, Jeune Afrique

Posted on Friday, 14 February 2020 08:30

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at a meeting of the UN Security Council, February 11, 2020. © Seth Wenig/AP/SIPA

Once unanimous on never making peace with the State of Israel following the Six-Day War in 1967, Arab countries are today divided on the "deal of the century" proposed by American President Donald Trump. Why such a turnaround?

Certain dates mark history. 1967, for example. In that year, in Montreal, Charles de Gaulle launched “Vive le Québec libre!”

In Gabon, Omar Bongo Ondimba began his 41-year reign, now extended by his son Ali, while in Bolivia, the star of Che Guevara died out.

The Arab countries, heavily defeated during the Six-Day War, swore in Khartoum not to recognize the State of Israel, and never to negotiate or make peace with it.

A “triple no” signed by Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Sudan.

In retrospect, it is permissible to consider 1967 as the death certificate of pan-Arabism, since this “triple no” was anything but a sincere support for Palestine. First, most of the signatories reaffirmed the right of (other) peoples to self-determination, when they denied this same right to their own people, trampling on fundamental freedoms at home.

Second, the worm of disunity was already in the fruit of Arab solidarity.

Condemned to relive History

Since then, history has shown that secret negotiations took place with Israeli officials during the six years that the Khartoum resolution was supposedly in force. In 1973, the facade collapsed: discussions took place immediately after the Yom Kippur War. Egypt and its neighbour smoked the peace pipe in Geneva. Amman would follow in Cairo’s footsteps. Therein lies the myth of Arab nationalism.

As is often the case, the error lies in the definition of terms.

The original Arab nationalism was built on the rejection of Ottoman hegemony, long before that of European imperialism.

But the anti-colonial dimension of the 1960s was projected exclusively in opposition to the West. The doctrine was reduced to a minimalist reinterpretation of Marx and Engels: “Arabs of all countries, unite”. It was then simply a question of endowing young states with a history, an identity, a cultural heritage.

If States are the fruit of independence, the Nation is a thousand years old. History, identity, and cultural heritage nourish a collective unconscious. They are not decreed by a political-military discourse. Decades later, tensions between Berberists and Arab Jacobines reappeared. If we neglect history too much, we are condemned to relive it.

From the “triple no” to the “triple yes”

The deal of the century, then.

A message from Benyamin Netanyahu, dated 3 February, caused a stir.

  • “I met in Entebbe [Uganda] with the Chairman of the Sovereign Council of Sudan,” the Israeli head of government wrote on Twitter. “We agreed to start cooperation that will normalize relations between our countries.”

It took only half a century for Khartoum to move from a “triple no” to a “triple yes.

And what of the other signatories? Egypt called on Israelis and Palestinians to “carefully” and “thoroughly” examine Trump’s plan. Morocco said it “appreciates the constructive peace efforts of the current US Administration”.

Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita was more explicit before Parliament. “The first issue of Moroccan diplomacy is that of the Sahara, not Palestine.” He said.

This statement has the merit of clarity, but Morocco was acting on what had already transpired in 1967: realpolitik came first.

Given ideologies are making a resounding comeback at the beginning of the 21st century, against a backdrop of contestation of globalization, this was a bold gamble. Turkey and Iran were not moved, throwing all their force into the battle of pan-Islamism and forcefully rejecting Washington’s plan.

Neither did the Party for Justice and Development (PJD) agree.

One year before the legislative elections in Morocco, the Islamist party, which has a majority in Parliament, hastened to make known that its leader, Saadeddine El Othmani, who is also head of government, had telephoned the political leader of Hamas, Ismail Haniyeh.

Trump Jerusalem

Aside from Sudan, Egypt, and Morocco two other states — Jordan and Algeria — did not fall in with Trump’s “deal”.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II, whose country is flooded with US aid, sees the establishment of an independent Palestinian state on the 1967 borders as “the only path to a comprehensive and lasting peace”.

The same position was expressed by Algiers, which reiterated its “unconditional support for the right of the brotherly Palestinian people”, calling for the establishment of a state “with Al-Quds as its capital”. But in Tunis there was indignation.

“This is the injustice of the century and a high treason! Palestine is not to be bargained for,” thundered Kaïs Saïed, deploring that “the culture of defeat has contributed to the submission of the Arab system to such negotiations”.

One asks is there enough to lay the foundations for a new pact?

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