Ian Black
The Guardian (Opinion)
January 20, 2009 - 1:00am

It was Monday, so it had to be Kuwait. And there they were, 17 leaders and five senior representatives of all 22 members of the Arab League, gathered to discuss the impact of the global economic crisis, though the original agenda was hijacked by the end of Israel's devastating three-week onslaught against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Yesterday's summit of kings, presidents and emirs did produce one piece of good news for the battered Palestinians: a Saudi cheque for $1bn that will certainly help rebuild bombed mosques, schools and homes. But it raises the wider question of what Arabs can and should do to help the cause they hold so dear - when they cannot even agree an agenda and when or where to meet.

On Sunday the heads of state of Egypt and Jordan, both stalwarts of the so-called moderate or western-backed camp, were the only Arabs to attend the Sharm el-Sheikh conference.

Last Friday there was an Arab majority in the Qatari capital Doha - though still not the required two-thirds quorum for a formal Arab League summit. Bashar al-Assad, Syria's president, was the star of that show, along with the leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, his Palestinian guests in Damascus. Non-Arab Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was the other special invitee. This is the core of jabhat al-mumana'a - the Arab "refusal front".

Thursday saw leaders of the smaller Gulf states summoned to the Saudi capital Riyadh to upstage the next day's gathering in Doha. It all brings to mind Gandhi's smart response to a question about his view of western civilisation: Arab unity would be "a good idea" too.

Arab disarray was a fact of life before Israel's Operation Cast Lead. But the crisis has put it on cruel and very public display, drawing the contempt and fury of what is so condescendingly called the "street" from Algeria to Yemen. The league may be a bad joke, but its members still represent 320 million people. "In the fog of war," commented the Egyptian scholar Mamoun Fandy in the Saudi-owned daily al-Sharq al-Awsat, "everything was suddenly crystal clear".

Anger with Israel and solidarity with the Palestinians are still natural instincts across the Middle East and North Africa. The memory of the 1948 nakba (catastrophe) has never faded; the humiliation of the 1967 defeat lives on. Yet sympathy for the martyred children of Gaza does not equate automatically with support for Hamas, which is often attacked for recklessly believing it can defeat Israel.

Very few imagine a return to the unified Arab military efforts of the past. Most Arabs, including most Palestinians, accept Israel as a reality, though there are those - with whom Ahmadinejad agrees - who take the longer view. That sees Israel as a modern Crusader state that may yet endure for a century or more but is an artificial, colonialist implant that is destined to wither. This may be no more than wishful thinking. But it ignores Israel's evident strengths and the fact that the majority of its now native-born, Hebrew-speaking Jewish citizens have no other homeland to go "back" to. Still, the perception that it is a fundamentally illegitimate entity combines with resentment at its unassailable (nuclear-armed) regional hegemony.

Not surprisingly, the most strident voice of the "refusal front" has been that of Seyyid Hassan Nasrallah, the charismatic leader of Lebanon's Hezbollah, who blundered into war with Israel in 2006 and served as a model for Hamas in Gaza - though this time he kept his powder dry. Islamists elsewhere mocked the impotence and passivity of "treacherous" Arab governments they scorn as US puppets or Zionist stooges.

Egypt's Hosni Mubarak has been the target of much fury. Now 80 and serving a pharaonic fifth consecutive presidential term, he has been attacked for refusing to open the Gaza border. It has all been grist to the mill of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest (but outlawed) opposition movement and supporter of the like-minded Hamas - whose election was so uncomfortable for Cairo. But criticism of Egyptian policy has been spun as an affront to the nation, reviving the argument that, in four wars with Israel, Egypt made great sacrifices for the Palestinians. It was Mubarak who inherited the original "sin" of recognising Israel from his predecessor Anwar Sadat, gunned down in 1981 by homegrown jihadis who emerged from the torture chambers to found al-Qaida a few years later.

In the same boat is Jordan's King Abdullah, the other Arab neighbour with a peace treaty with Israel - though like his father Hussein, Abdullah is ever mindful of the Palestinians who make up the majority of his subjects.

Facing them is the canniest, but perhaps also the most pliable, of the "refusers", Syria's Assad, a weaker version of his famously iron-willed father Hafez. Hopes of seeing him press Hamas or Hezbollah or abandon his alliance with Iran ensure a steady stream of western supplicants to his Damascus palace. Barack Obama's envoy may well be next. Another semi-partner is Qatar, the super-wealthy Gulf maverick which manages the extraordinary feat of commercial ties with Israel, support for militant groups, and hosting both al-Jazeera TV - whose images of death and destruction in Gaza have done so much to horrify Arab viewers - and the largest US military base in the Middle East.

So against this complex, deeply fissured background, whither Israel and the Arab world after Gaza? Israel makes much of Saudi and other conservative Arab fears of Iran's nuclear ambitions and its promotion, in Iraq, Lebanon and beyond, of Sunni-Shia divisions. But this ignores the crucial importance - symbolic and real - to all Arabs of finally resolving the Palestinian issue.

Yehoshafat Harkabi, a former head of Israeli military intelligence, wrote a classic and deeply pessimistic book in the 1960s suggesting Arab attitudes to Israel were immutably hostile. But he revised his view after the 1967 war to insist that a withdrawal from the occupied territories and the creation of a Palestinian state would turn the tide. The brief blossoming of Israeli ties with Arab states after the 1993 Oslo agreement with the PLO proved his point.

Saudi King Abdullah told the Kuwait summit that the 2002 Arab League initiative, offering Israel the recognition of all 22 Arab states in return for a return to the 1967 borders and the creation of an independent Palestinian state, remains on the table, but warned that it will not remain there indefinitely. The Arab "refusers" wanted it withdrawn after the pounding of Gaza. It is hard to see it surviving another bloodletting like that.


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