Arab leaders need to be seen as being on the right side of public opinion while not rocking the boat.
A little noticed subtext to furious protests across the Middle East and North Africa against US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is simmering anger at Arab governments. This demarcates a delicate balance between Arab youth frustrated with governments that are seemingly unwilling and unable to stand up for Arab rights, and Arab leaders whose survival instincts persuade them to maintain failed policies.
The anger is driven by a continued display of Arab inability to end the Israeli occupation, a readiness to overtly or covertly cooperate with Tel Aviv in the absence of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, and reports that Gulf states were willing to support a US peace plan that failed to meet minimal Palestinian demands for an independent state.
Underlying the anger is frustration that Arab regimes, six years after the 2011 popular Arab revolts and amid years of a brutal and violent counterrevolution that has rolled back the achievements of the uprisings everywhere except Tunisia, have still fail to deliver public services and goods.
RESPONSE TO JERUSALEM COMMENTS
The potentially explosive mix is highlighted by the Arab and Muslim world’s response to Trump’s move that amounts to little more than toothless statements and a glaring lack of diplomatic action. Virtually no Arab government has summoned a US ambassador or chargé d’affaires to protest the decision. Nor have Arab leaders sought to pin President Trump down on what his statement, which is riddled with apparent internal contradictions and vague assertions, actually means. Only Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas drew a line by announcing that he would not meet with US Vice President Mike Pence when he visits the Middle East later this month.
The strategy of Arab leaders seems to be to verbally condemn Trump’s move and hope that prolonged protests will prove unsustainable. Arab leaders have good reason to believe that maintaining the degree of mobilization on the streets of Jerusalem, Palestinian cities and Arab capitals will be difficult. Their repressive policies and the Middle East’s dissent into chaos and violence as a result of the post-2011 counterrevolution has dampened appetite for renewed mass anti-government protest, despite calls for a third intifada or anti-Israeli uprising by groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.
That may be a risky calculation in the medium rather than the short term. If the Arab revolts and the escalation of extremism proved anything, it is that Arab leaders ignore frustration and anger at their peril. Explosions of public anger are more often spontaneous than planned.
Gulf leaders are not wholly oblivious to the threat. Forced by lower oil prices, they have announced reform plans that aim to diversify and rationalize their rentier state economies, loosen social restrictions, and unilaterally rewrite social contracts while tightening political control. Yet leaders like Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have yet to deliver jobs and greater economic opportunity.
The question also is to what degree Gulf leaders have their ear to the ground. Bahrain, a Saudi ally that seldom moves without consulting Riyadh, allowed a 30-member interfaith group to make a rare visit to Israel despite Trump’s move. The timing of Bahrain’s decision to violate a 2002 Saudi-driven Arab peace plan adopted by the 57-nation Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) — which calls for the normalization of relations with Israel only when the Jewish state withdraws from occupied territories that were captured during the 1967 war — could not have been worse. It reinforced a belief among protesters that Arab leaders attributed greater importance to strengthening informal ties with Israel, whom they view as an ally in their efforts to counter Iran, than to protecting Arab and Muslim rights.
While unwilling to risk their relationship with Washington despite deep-seated passions evoked by the controversy over Islam’s third most holy city, Arab leaders, paradoxically, have so far failed to exploit the wiggle room offered by Trump’s comments. A careful reading of President Trump’s statement leaves room for interpretation, even if there is little doubt that he intended to bolster Israel’s position. American officials, including US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, have struggled to explain how the statement furthers the peace process without alienating Trump’s domestic base that endorses the Israeli claim to all of Jerusalem.
Trump catered to his base by refraining from qualifying his recognition of Jerusalem with a reference to Palestinian claims. Yet he asserted that he was not prejudging the outcome of peace negotiations. The president insisted that the US “continues to take no position on any final status issues. The specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem are subject to final status negotiations between the parties. The United States is not taking a position on boundaries or borders.”
Arab leaders could project themselves as getting in front of the cart by seeking clarification from Trump on what limitations he may put on the recognition of Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem. This would be in terms of what that means for the status of the Palestinian population and Israeli settlement activity in East Jerusalem.
The former Saudi intelligence chief and ex-ambassador to London and Washington, Prince Turki al-Faisal, appeared to allude to that when he warned in an open letter to President Trump that “your action has emboldened the most extreme elements in the Israeli society … because they take your action as a license to evict the Palestinians from their lands and subject them to an apartheid state.”
Amid the raw emotions, Arab leaders and protesters are both walking a fine line. Protesters’ anger is about more than fury with Trump. It is about their leaders’ multiple policy failures. Arab leaders need to be seen as being on the right side of public opinion while not rocking the boat.
If there is a silver lining in Trump’s move, it may be that Arab leaders need to bridge the gap between public perception and their survival instinct. Leading the charge in pressuring the president to clarify his statement is an opportunity that Arab leaders have so far failed to capitalize on.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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