More of the Same at the Arab League

by Ali Bakeer and Giorgio Cafiero

When the Arab League held its annual summit last month in Tunisia, a major focus was on Palestine and the Trump administration’s recent recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights. Tunisia’s president hailed the gathering as a “summit of solidarity and determination.” One after another, leaders and representatives of member-states expressed support for the Arab consensus on Palestine and the Golan Heights.

But the 2019 Tunis Summit will not likely be remembered for achieving anything concrete on behalf of the Palestinian struggle or in defense of Syria’s territorial integrity. Most past Arab League summits produced nothing other than empty rhetoric designed to appease disgruntled citizens in member countries, and the most recent one appears to be no exception.

Many Arab governments, from Algeria and Sudan to Libya and Iraq, are facing internal crises. But the members of the league that depend on support from Washington are increasingly nervous about taking actions that could invite backlash from the Trump administration, which has closely aligned U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East with the agenda of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Without any realistic plan for backing up such statements, the rhetoric about Palestine at the summit was intended more to deflect attention from the lack of freedoms, corruption, youth unemployment, poor quality public services, and a dearth of economic opportunities throughout the Arab world. Moreover, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member-states, with the exception of Kuwait, are gradually moving toward normalization of relations with Israel—at the expense of Palestinians and a two-state solution. Nor are the Gulf monarchies likely to do much to challenge Israel’s control of the Golan Heights beyond some rhetoric condemning Trump’s recent decision and affirming Syrian sovereignty over the territory.

As Arab leaders burnished their pro-Palestinian credentials at the 2019 Tunis Summit, the Trump administration has been attempting to restructure the parameters for resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict away from the “land for peace” principle. Devised by Trump’s advisor and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, the administration’s plan for “peace” between Palestinians and Israelis, the details of which have not been released to the public, has already received support from the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi.

Thus, the commitment of the major players in the Arab League to settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 is, at best, questionable. In the new regional environment, the Saudi, Emirati, and Egyptian leaders care more about suppressing political Islam and countering Iran and Turkey than using their leverage to pressure the United States and Israel into making concessions to the Palestinians. At the summit, Arab League leaders strongly condemned both Tehran and Ankara, prompting the departure of the Qatari emir (Doha’s relations with both non-Arab capitals have significantly deepened since the Saudi-led blockade began in mid-2017).

Of course, most Arab League members have not been confrontational actors in the Arab-Israeli conflict for the past several decades. What is new today, however, is the openness with which GCC member-states pursue improved relations with Israel. Last month, for instance, the UAE called on Arab states to be more open to Tel Aviv, and last year Netanyahu visited the Sultanate of Oman.

The actions of Arab governments diverge increasingly from the views of their citizens. As long as Israeli authorities deny Palestinians their basic rights, the vast majority of the Arab public will not accept the normalization of relations with Israel. That’s another reason why those states, especially Saudi Arabia, won’t publicly admit their de facto alliance with Israel. This divergence in opinion between government and citizenry helps explain the perennial failure of Arab states in working collectively, either on the regional level such as the Arab League or a sub-regional level, including the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU) and the GCC.

Ali Bakeer (@AliBakeer) is a Senior Researcher and Coordinator of Gulf Studies at ORSAM (@ORSAMTR), an Ankara-based think tank. 

Giorgio Cafiero

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO and founder of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy. In addition to LobeLog, he also writes for The National Interest, Middle East Institute, and Al Monitor. From 2014-2015, Cafiero was an analyst at Kroll, an investigative due diligence consultancy. He received an M.A. in International Relations from the University of San Diego.