Does the US Really Know the Arab World?
Paola Caridi, Orinoc Tribune, Oct 28, 2023
US President Joe Biden’s brief trip to the Middle East, which lasted just a few hours in Tel Aviv, will be remembered in this tragic chapter in the Middle East’s recent history for two main reasons. Firstly, for the almost exaggerated reaffirmation of the alliance with Israel, and secondly, for the metaphorical slap he received from the abrupt cancellation of a summit in Amman that was organized and canceled within a few hours, due to the increase in tension following the Al-Ahli Hospital massacre in Gaza (a reorganized conference was held in Cairo last Saturday; 31 countries were represented, as was the UN). The cancellation was a humiliation for the US president and his diplomacy, but also a sign of a change in direction and the beginning of a new order in the power equation in the Middle East.
Let’s start with the reasons behind the US request to meet at short notice with King Abdullah of Jordan, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The objective of the summit revolved around the idea of removing as many Palestinians as possible from the Gaza Strip.
This idea, which involves emptying the enclave to aid the military objective of eliminating Hamas and its infrastructure, came from Israel, but has gained support by the Biden administration in Washington. To begin carrying out this action, Israeli authorities ordered more than a million Palestinians from northern Gaza to move south, mainly towards the cities of Khan Younis and Rafah, Gaza’s gateway to Egypt, which Cairo authorities kept closed.
Danny Ayalon, former deputy foreign minister of Israel, made the following comments in an interview with Marc Lamont Hill on Al Jazeera English on October 15: “[We are not telling Gazans to] go to the beaches, if they drown, God forbid… There is an enormous expanse, an almost infinite space in the Sinai desert, right on the other side of Gaza. The idea is… that they leave for the open areas where we, and the international community, will prepare the infrastructure… Tent cities, with food and water… just like for the refugees from Syria who fled the massacre of [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad a few years ago to Turkey.” Being refugees or fugitives: this is what Ayalon, and indeed Israel, is offering 2 million Palestinians.
The majority of Gaza’s population is, in fact, made up of descendants of Palestinians who took refuge on the southern coast of Mandate Palestine, in the commercial port area of Gaza, forced to abandon their homes in places such as Jaffa, Majdal and present-day Ashkelon. Even then, waiting for them, like almost all the refugees of 1948, were tents and tent cities. Anyone familiar with the name given to the Nakba refugees, the “tent people,” knows that to propose a tent city in Sinai is to remind them, if necessary, of what they were forced to become.”
This proposal cannot be accepted, and not just by the Palestinians. Delve into the most significant change in the region in the last century, the birth of the State of Israel and the Nakba. This change is recorded in the history of neighboring countries, especially Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. The uprooting of Palestinians to Sinai would be a burden on the shoulders of Arab countries, a burden they cannot bear, as was loudly stated in statements issued by all Arab leaders following Blinken’s visit. Everyone focused on the issue of Palestinian refugees, rejecting any possibility of a new population transfer from Palestine.
Hypothetically, even if Blinken had received suggestions from Israel to propose, during his diplomatic visit to the region, a transfer of the Palestinian population to Sinai, the firm position of all Arab actors would have convinced the US administration that it could not go any further. Blinken made clear in an interview with Al-Arabiya’s Randa Abul Azm that the United States would not support a transfer. “We have heard, and I have heard directly from the President of the Palestinian Authority, Abbas, and practically every other leader I have spoken to in the region, that this idea is a failure and therefore we do not support it. We believe that people should be able to stay in Gaza, their home.”
King Abdullah explained the reason for the refusal on Tuesday at a press conference in Berlin with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, where he referred to refugees as “a red line.” The following day, the Egyptian president said the same to Scholz at a meeting with journalists in Cairo. Finally, after his quick return from Amman to Ramallah following the attack on Al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza, Abbas clarified that the Palestinians will not leave their country. Abbas, a veteran refugee from Safed, has all the experience to determine that, for Palestinians, Nakba 2.0 is the fear that has hung over them in recent months and years, and is a chapter in their history that they refuse to live again at all costs.
Blinken’s quick diplomatic trip to the main Arab capitals, from Cairo to Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Amman, in which he tried to formulate an exit strategy for the Israelis from Gaza, effectively failed even before the mass murders at Al-Ahli Hospital. From the moment Al Jazeera began broadcasting the horrific images of those killed in the hospital complex, another element came into play: the emotional and political reaction of the Arab streets, of people and societies looking at a history that is already recorded in their lives, personal biographies, and national history.
There were spontaneous and immediate demonstrations on the streets of Amman, Tunisia, Beirut, and Cairo. Governments have been careful not to ban protests, but rather to restrict them, because they know very well that everything has been different since the Arab Spring of 2011. Throughout the history of rebellions and revolutions, those who took to the streets internalized the following: a regime can fall. Everyone knows this, including government officials.
The surprising dynamics of the events that followed the bombing of the hospital led to the hasty cancellation of the US-sponsored summit. For Arab actors, it was impossible to meet with the United States on the refugee issue, while the US is increasingly seen as clinging to their alliance with Israel. On the other hand, events shifted the discussion from the refugee issue to an immediate demand for a ceasefire, not humanitarian corridors, but an immediate cessation of hostilities. The Arab states demand an end to the war, as does the UN.
As has happened in the history of the region, the wind that blows from Gaza blows beyond the narrow limits of the enclave, with all the dangers involved. For example, President Sisi does not want to be considered the first president in the history of the Egyptian republic to allow Nakba 2.0, and certainly not before the Egyptian elections next December, which are expected to consolidate his government. King Abdullah leads a state with a significant Palestinian presence, not only numerically, but also in terms of economic weight. And, above all, relations between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Hashemite Kingdom have always been cold and at times very complicated. The issue of preserving the holy sites of Islam and Christianity in the Old City of Jerusalem is, among other things, at the center of a fierce diplomatic conflict between Jordan and the far-right coalition led by Netanyahu that has developed in recent years.
Even Saudi Arabia, although it has begun the process of normalizing its relations with Israel, is no longer the same country that offered a peace plan 20 years ago in exchange for security, out of sensitivity to its alliance with the United States. China’s growing presence in the Middle East, which during the COVID-19 pandemic has consolidated its economic ties with many of the Persian Gulf coastal countries, is one of the main factors in the game today, firstly because China has managed to mediate a surprising reconciliation between the two biggest competitors in the region, Saudi Arabia and Iran.
In other words, room for United States’ action is shrinking. Washington’s role, which is so closely linked to Israel, risks being tested at a critical moment when the Middle East will no longer be what it was. It seems that the United States does not have a sufficient understanding of the region, just as the 100 million dollars offered by Biden in aid to the Palestinians at the end of his visit to Israel are certainly not enough: each of the reconstruction plans for Gaza, after five Israeli military operations over the past 15 years are estimated at billions of dollars.