Azmi Bishara: Return to Arab Survival

By Azmi Bishara

Will the deception of historical progression — or the irony of fate — manifest itself in this region with the collapse of Arab nationalism, not at the hands of pan-Arab or pan-Islamic movements but by force of local kin and sectarian groupings, which had originally inspired the ideology of pan-Arab statehood in the colonialist mandate era?

It seems that these forces, with the help of some petit politicians, are incapable of tearing down the edifice on their own. However strong the ambitions of their leaders are to free themselves from the constraints of ideology and to mobilize popular bases behind them, not on the basis of a political calling, but on the basis of blood ties and cries for vengeance without going so far as to exact revenge, not all countries are Somalia.

Elsewhere there are actual states, with governing institutions and national armies. It is in their interest to survive, even, perhaps, if that requires reform, and their survival instinct should have been sharpened by having been first-hand witnesses to the catastrophe that is Iraq. Yet the danger looms that the regimes of these states will ally themselves, individually or in coalitions, with the organic tribal or sectarian groupings inside each separate country, heedless of the exorbitant costs entailed in the attempt to realize their short-term and narrow political ambitions. The price will be no less than the sacrifice of any dream of national unity and all possibility of creating an overarching bond of citizenship because these will have been cast to the winds by the drive to fuel fears and to inflame ethnic and sectarian hatreds, and by the cries for blood that resound from the primitive depths of the earth.

Iraq was smashed to pieces because various Arab powers colluded with American designs and the Arabs that opposed this war were effectively isolated by force of the same collusion. Iran rose to the vanguard of the most vocal opponents to the war as a result of the official Arab stance, particularly that of the Gulf states, which could barely conceal their glee at the fall of the Iraqi regime beneath relentless bombardment and at the subsequent capture of Saddam Hussein.

But what a different tune they were singing then in contrast to their recent protests against the execution of Saddam on the first day of the Feast of Sacrifice. What has happened in the interval to cause this remarkable about-face? On the one hand, the Iraqi resistance has proven its efficacy and durability. On the other, the boundaries of regional axes have gelled, and the members of one of these are pounding their chests and protesting the insult to their honor, now that they’ve realized that Iran was the foremost beneficiary of the dissolution of the Iraqi army and anti-Baath Party law which they had once cheered so rowdily. Not that these Arab officials went so far as to actually denounce Saddam’s execution. They were just upset that it had been carried out on the first day of the feast. Which is worse. What this implies is that they actually approved of the execution and hoped for the opportunity to exploit it, themselves, to stir sectarian passions against adversaries who had nothing to do with the fall of the Saddam regime or his execution, such as Hizbullah and the Palestinian resistance.

At various points along the way, most importantly when the constitution came out, certain parties called into question Iraq’s Arab identity and scoffed at those who protested the refutation of this identity. Not a single voice from Arab officialdom, which is now wringing its hands over Iran’s gains from the decimation of Iraq, was among the protestors. And, today, instead of responding to Iran’s (and America’s) sectarian tactics with calls for Arab unity, Arab officialdom is busily fuelling Sunni anti-Shia sentiments. Nothing could be further from the spirit and behavior of the Sunnis who had once rallied and still rally behind the call to Arab nationalism and unity.

In none of the other trouble spots that flared up or that were ignited in the Arab world is there sufficient endemic cause for full-scale internecine conflict. In Lebanon, for example, the internal dynamics of Lebanese politics, the Lebanese political mentality and the Lebanese political rhetoric are, in themselves, insufficient to spark confrontation, let alone civil war. No one in Lebanon, if left to his own devices and left to face his society on his own, would dare suggest that he hopes to or can settle the conflict over power in his favour and to the exclusion of others. No one in Lebanon could look themselves in the mirror and honestly say that they are capable of governing alone. The structure of Lebanese society would not permit it; nor would the structure and history of the state, or the economy of the country, or the demands of national security, which happens to be the most crucial factor in this case.

Nothing bears this out more than the fact that the most crucial formative experience of the contemporary Lebanese national consciousness was the protracted civil war, lasting from the mid-1970s to the Taif Agreement. The civil war was about power-seeking adventurism. It was about the delusion of one side that it could settle the conflict in favor of moving Lebanon into the Soviet camp, and the delusion of the other side, allied with Israel, that it could wrest Lebanese national security out of its cultural, Arab nationalist and historical context because it refused to fathom that Lebanon had expanded from an Ottoman directorate with a Maronite majority and Druze minority into a state with a Muslim majority in the grips of an identity crisis — or multiple identity crises — just like all the other by-products of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. The true deterrent against internal strife is not some illusory dreamy dove of peace. Rather it resides in that new open-eyed Lebanese identity that has shed its illusions, an identity forged in the crucible of a civil war that drenched its blood with militias and warlords and their self-serving and destructive slogans.

But just as there exists no internal mechanism propelling the Lebanese to confrontation, there exists no internal mechanism to deter it. They are thus all the more vulnerable to the external dynamic that does propel towards civil strife: the conflict between regional axes. Lebanese society is still holding out against this threat that is encroaching upon it so forcefully. However, it will not be able to continue to do so for long unless it develops some mechanism for promoting and safeguarding national concord and unless the axes in question realize that it is in their mutual interest to talk with one another.

Until a short time ago, neither the Lebanese government as a whole, nor individual Lebanese leaders, had openly come out for disarming the resistance or made moves to effectively seize power with the aim of bringing Lebanon into the American fold. Undoubtedly, some of the leaders harbored this intent. But they would not have believed themselves capable of acting on it until certain tensions mounted in Saudi-Syrian and Saudi- Iranian relations and encouraged them in that direction.

This was before the war against Lebanon. After Israel attacked, the game of bisecting the region into opposing camps played itself out in the form of censuring the resistance for triggering the war and the steadily intensifying campaign to capitalize on this in Lebanon in order to tilt the balance of power towards a single player. The campaign culminated in Security Council Resolution 1701. Because the resistance leadership realized that it would wake up to an entirely different Lebanon within less than a year if it failed to act, it quickly moved to break the blockade. But the aim of its counterattack was not to seize power for itself. What the resistance seeks is a share in power, rather than a monopoly on power, the notion of which it has vehemently protested. But it insists upon real power-sharing, not power-sharing in form with actual decision-making power in the hands of an eternal "democratic minority" that has disproportionate weight in forming a government.

It demands an effective say on crucial issues, especially security related ones. The problem is that the other side is pushing for a monopoly on power, not particularly because it is capable of exercising this monopoly or really wants it, but because its most extreme wing, which could be kept in check in the past, is now taking its cues from a regional axis that, for the time being, rejects talks with the other regional axis.

How do people who know they do not possess the leverage to resolve things the way they want justify trying to do that anyway? Perhaps they believe that by securing for themselves key offices and allying themselves with the mightiest military and economic power in the world they can turn the situation to their advantage and push through their plans gradually and without confrontation.

In Palestine, for example, a particular faction might contemplate changing the government in a manner that would guarantee it hold over such key authorities as the ministries of interior, foreign affairs and security. Add these to the presidency, recognized by the government, and access to various sources of money and it becomes possible to strike an agreement with Israel through secret negotiations. It’s all a question of time. Afterwards, of course, the agreement can be put to general referendum, and the best way to ensure that this comes out in favor of an unjust settlement is to choke off the people’s access to food, release the grip gradually to give them a taste, and then let the people use their imaginations to draw the comparison between times under economic blockade and the times to come after it is lifted.

The only alternative open to the other side, which had formed a government after attaining a parliamentary majority through a fair and transparent electoral process, is to put a stop to these tactics by refusing to cooperate and insisting on the appropriate conditions for national unity. But this is not to the liking of one of the regional axes. With the failure of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon coming on top of the unmitigated disaster in Iraq, the members of this axis, along with Israel, are desperate to revive the Palestinian-Israeli negotiating track. Towards this end they feel it necessary to propel the Palestinians towards an internal confrontation that most of the Palestinians themselves believe unnecessary and unwarranted.

But Israel is not hanging around with Christmas presents, such as Jerusalem and the Palestinian right to return, to hand out to the clever folks who ignite this confrontation. Israel is not suddenly going to turn into Santa Claus. This realization alone should be sufficient cause for the Palestinians to reject the ploys of the extremists, known as "moderates" abroad, who are propelling the situation towards civil war at home in order to secure a settlement abroad, and to forge ahead with the creation of a national unity government that will challenge the blockade. Haste in reaching a settlement is "the devil’s work," as we say, and the work of those who are heaping their destructive divide-and-conquer tactics on certain trouble spots in the region.

States that had never stepped foot in Lebanon before are now gate crashing into the country through the torn off doors and windows of Lebanese domestic politics, because suddenly they discovered that the way to America’s heart is to sign up with the anti-Iran axis. Lebanon is the place to be. As for why these same parties hadn’t joined the anti-Iran axis in Iraq, by supporting the Iraqi resistance, this is a question that can only be answered by someone who realizes that these parties’ allegiances have nothing to do with being for or against Shias or Sunnis in Iraq or elsewhere, and everything to do with being with America, in Lebanon, in Iraq and in Palestine. They tuned their attitude on Iraq to America’s. They may have contributed to a small extent to altering the American attitude, here, the major determinant of the American shift in attitude was the Iraqi resistance, which they opposed and which opposed them.

The most tragic disasters are those that could have been avoided. After Iraq, the US no longer had the ability to force its confrontationist policies on anyone, and the pro-American Arab axis that coalesced during the build-up to the Iraqi war could have made the US understand that its coalition politics would lead to nothing but the collapse of Iraq and, along with it, the collapse of the regional order that had emerged from the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. They could have told America that the ensuing chaos would sweep away everything and that, while this might please Israel and some of Israel’s supporters in Washington, they would have nothing to do with bringing it on. They could have been so bold but, sadly, they passed up the chance.

The only sound alternative these powers have now is to abandon this coalition politics and pit their forces together, as sovereign governments that have in interest in a stable Iraq, following the American withdrawal. This will require an understanding between Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iran, and cooperation with Turkey. Saddam Hussein was pushed into war against Iran and then abandoned and subsequently cold-shouldered by the Gulf and barely tolerated by Iran. Syria managed to sustain good relations with both Iran and with the Gulf countries and, therefore, was able to act as a pacifying mediator between them. But rather than capitalizing on this role, the partners to coalition politics are contributing to the isolation of Syria. Iran, for its part, should reassure the Arabs — by which I mean Arab public opinion — that it recognizes the Arab identity of Iraq. It should further relinquish its vindictive policies and its collusion with vindictive practices in Iraq, the most recent manifestation of which was the disgracefully bloodthirsty execution of the president of an Arab state, beneath the axe of the occupation — a savage act recorded and broadcast with such disgusting felicity that even Arabs who hated Saddam could not help but to feel insulted and degraded. The only way to restrain Iran is to establish a relationship with it that keeps the channels of communication and understanding over Iraq open. To do so, Arab regimes must reassure Iran that they are not colluding with the US against it, as they colluded with the US during the build-up to the war against Iraq, "on the condition that this war gets rid of Saddam."

Many fingers got burned by confrontationist coalition politics in Iraq. Entire hands will get burned from this type of politics in Lebanon and Palestine. But everything will be consumed by a confrontation with Iran. It is not just the Arab axis that will crumble from igniting sectarian tensions in a confrontation of this nature. So, too, will the entire Arab order, that is, if it has not entirely lost its instinct and will to survive.

-Member of the Israeli Knesset from Nazareth. He is heading the National Democratic Coalition "Balad". This article was published in al Ahram Weekly.

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