By George S. Hishmeh – Washington, D.C.
Forty years ago this month, the Arab world was mourning in an unprecedented numbers the unexpected death on September 28 of a great Arab hero, Gamal Abdel Nasser, the president of Egypt, and subsequently the abandonment of his much-desired dream of Arab unity. Few Arabs still talk about this squandered opportunity, or the short-lived union between Egypt and Syria, and more significantly, hardly any think that mergers among the 22-member Arab League are possible in the foreseeable future. In fact, Sudan may even be divided in the near future as a result of the upcoming referendum.
And most, if not all, Palestinians blame the Arab regimes for failing to unify their ranks and save their homeland, which was being overrun by Israeli troops soon after the United Nations partitioned their country in 1947 and Great Britain ended its mandate a few months later. The Israeli usurpation was completed in 20 years in June 1967 and over 750,000 Palestinians had already been driven from their homeland or escaped the ensuing warfare into neighboring Arab countries.
Nowadays, the division among the Arabs is still overwhelming and in some cases has become bloody, particularly as sectarianism crept in. Just take a quick look at what is happening in Iraq and Lebanon. The Palestinians, too, are divided: the Palestine Authority runs the Israeli-occupied West Bank, while Hamas is in control of Gaza Strip, a small 365 square kilometer enclave still besieged by Israel.
In most of all these regional problems the big powers sometimes had an unsavory role, including the United States, now the only superpower and a strong ally of Israel. And lately both the Iranians and the Turks have become influential allies. Syrian-Turkish relations have mushroomed to the extent that Syrian President Bashar al-Asad would prefer Turkey – and no one else – to mediate a Syrian-Israeli peace settlement, covering Israel’s occupation of Syria’s strategic Golan Heights in 1967.
But in the case of Iraq, the Iranian role has reportedly been disappointingly divisive. Tehran has been supporting the unpopular Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki, and though his party had the largest bloc of Shiite lawmakers it narrowly lost the election held nearly seven months ago. Regardless, he still refuses to yield to his rival, Ayad Allawi, the former prime minister and the non-sectarian Iraqi Shiite leader of the Iraqiya group. Whether the two leaders can manage a power-sharing formula remains to be seen.
In Lebanon, scene of a 15-year multi-faceted civil war that ended in 1990, will be receiving for the first time the Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on October 13. He comes at a time when the country is embroiled in a war of words over the investigation into the assassination in 2005 of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, whose son, Saad, is now the prime minister.
These ongoing melodramas coincide with the Arab world’s decades-long conflict with Israel and the refusal of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to extend a moratorium on colonial expansion in the occupied Palestinian areas which ended last month. The Palestinians, led by President Mahmoud Abbas, is refusing to continue his face-to-face talks with the Israeli leader unless he extends the moratorium on building for two months, a position reportedly supported by the U.S.
The final answer of Abbas, who has won support from most Palestinian factions, may depend on whether an Arab League meeting on Friday endorses his position, which is most likely unless there are last-minute interventions, regionally and internationally.
But the key question that all Arabs should consider is how their decision can halt Israel’s continued refusal to abide by international law which bars building of settlements in occupied land. Israel has been doing been building settlements for more than 40 years and none of the world powers, including the U.S., has threatened any counteraction, knowing that, for example, denial of substantial U.S. economic or military assistance can most likely nip in the bud this flagrant Israeli aggression. The Israeli liberal group, Peace Now, points out that Israel finances the building of illegal colonies to the tune of over 500 million dollars a year.
What the Arab countries ought to consider other than resorting to the U.N. Security Council is to form a joint committee of key Arab states and call on major western powers to isolate, as a first step, this right-wing Israeli government, politically and financially. Former President Jimmy Carter put it bluntly this week: “The key thing is for Israel to give up its ambition to occupy and control Palestine.”
– George S. Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist. Contact him at: Hishmehg@aol.com.