Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Arab Summit: What Emergency?

When Arab leaders gather on Friday in Doha to discuss Gaza in what they describe as an emergency summit, Palestinians will have the region's empathy while Hamas is likely to discover that it is more disliked than ever.

It is hard to see how the summit is going to immediately bridge the credibility gap that has widened after virtually daily mass demonstrations in Arab capitals demanding Arab action to call a halt to the suffering in Gaza. Many Arabs like the Palestinians will take the urgency Arab leaders ascribe to their summit at best with a grain of salt. After all, the summit will be convening one day short of three weeks after Israel launched its offensive.

For many Arab leaders, particularly those of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the urgency lies in the fact that their hopes that the Israeli offensive would produce a clean and swift defeat have turned into a nightmare with some of the worst civilian carnage that the Arab Israeli conflict has witnessed. In fact, it threatens to produce exactly what it was designed to prevent: the strengthening of the Islamists and the emergence of even more militant forces than Hamas.

As a result, Arab leaders more than ever are likely to look for speedy involvement by President-elect Barack Obama. That involvement will have to be literally from the day he takes office on Jan. 20 if no Israel Hamas ceasefire has been agreed and implement by then and immediately thereafter will have to involve efforts to revive peace efforts. Saudi King Abdullah, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Palestine Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas need to show their Arab constituency that their pro-American policies can produce results for the Palestinians. This would not only lend legitimacy to their opposition to Hamas but also help them undermine the opportunity the Gaza conflict presents to Islamists of all stripes, moderate and Jihadi.

The level of anger the Israeli offensive has generated in Arab public opinion and among Arab leaders who have seen Hamas ride roughshod over their political calculations was expressed by Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former head of Saudi intelligence and ambassador to Britain and the United States, when he last week told the 6th Gulf Forum on January 6th: "The Bush administration has left (the United States with) a disgusting legacy and a reckless position towards the massacres and bloodshed of innocents in Gaza…Enough is enough, today we are all Palestinians and we seek martyrdom for God and for Palestine, following those who died in Gaza."

Hamas is unlikely to benefit at the Arab summit from the emotion expressed by Prince Turki. It seems to be banking more on the capital it has garnered in Arab public opinion for its resistance to the Israel and less inclined to exploit that to build bridges to conservative Arab governments and seek their support in the current crisis. Hamas this week criticized Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal and Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa's successful efforts to achieve a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire. Hamas' criticism did not focus on the fact that the UN does not have the teeth to enforce its resolution but on the Arab failure to consult with Hamas on the terms of the resolution.

"I have no doubt whatsoever that Hamas's attack on Saudi Arabia will cause it to lose all of its support since the Saudis endured the political recklessness of some Hamas leaders who have foreign ties in order to avoid any dispute with them. These peripheral battles that come at a time when Hamas is in need of everybody's support demonstrate the extent of the crisis of leadership and the lack of a commander to take final decisions … It is odd that the Hamas leadership is calling for an end to the crimes being committed by the Israeli killing machine and the genocide of the Palestinians in Gaza, and is condemning the Security Council's procrastination. Yet when an Arab delegation together with a number of Arab ministers worked continuously for days in New York, pushing for a resolution that called for an immediate ceasefire, a number of Hamas officials attacked these people," said Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed, general manager of Saudi-owned Al Arabiya television, writing in Al Sharq Al Awsat. Al-Rashed was referring to Iran when he spoke about Hamas' foreign ties.

Anger and frustration in Arab official circles appears to translate itself in turning a blind eye to a revival of some of the worst racist anti-Jewish rhetoric the Arab world has seen. Following last week's denial of the Holocaust in the Gulf News, this week Dr. Walid Al-Rashudi, head of the Department of Islamic Studies at Saud University, declared on Hamas' Al Aqsa television: "Allah! Allahm count the Jews and kill them to the last one and don't leave even one."

Allowing the venting of frustration by racist Jihadis constitutes for Arab leaders a double edged the sword. In the same speech Al-Rashudi denounced pro-American Arab governments as traitors. "We believe in Almighty Allah and you believe in America and Israel. We believe that Allah sent His soldiers against America in many places in the world."

As Islamists capitalize on public Arab outrage at the continuing carnage in Gaza and Israel pushes ahead with its military campaign, Egypt and the direction it will take in the post-Mubarak era is the political battleground for Hamas and Israel. The more brutal the Israeli offensive becomes – Gaza is reported to have last night witnessed one of its worst nights since the attack began – the greater Mubarak's predicament becomes. Critics charge Mubarak's ability to relieve Palestinian suffering by fully opening the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt is restricted by the US and Israel. Conceding to Islamist demands would strengthen the Muslim Brotherhood, the main opposition to the regime, and would risk thousands of Palestinians pouring across the border, something many Egyptians don't want to see.

Most immediately, the battle for Egypt involves Hamas and Arab public pressure on Egypt to fully open the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt, control of the passage once a ceasefire has been agreed and Israel seeking to force Egypt to seriously crackdown on smuggling. Israeli officials argue that the underground tunnels connecting Egypt and Gaza through which Palestinians smuggle badly needed basic goods in a bid to break the Israeli siege of the strip as well as arms continue to function because corrupt Egyptian officials benefit from a booming business. Egypt has denied the Israeli allegation. In addition to this, Mubarak wants to prevent an Islamic republic arising on its border.

The Gaza crisis poses a dilemma and creates an opportunity for Egypt. Sudarsan Raghavan notes in The Washington Post that rarely has an Arab leader been attacked for supporting Israel against the Palestinians as has Mubarak. Emotions have been fueled by the government's refusal to adhere to a court decision on Tuesday upholding an earlier ruling banning the sale of Egyptian gas to Israel. The government has appealed the decision. Raghavan describes demonstrators on Friday in Cairo as chanting:

"O Hamas, O Hamas, you are for all the people. We are behind you," the protesters chanted. Then they went after Mubarak.

"O Mubarak, Mubarak, make a decision. Open the crossing. Remove the siege," they chanted. "O Mubarak, Mubarak. Are you with us or against us?"

On the diplomatic and geopolitical front, Egypt's key role as a mediator between Israel, Hamas and the Palestine Authority allows it to reclaim to a degree its leadership in the Arab world, lost when former President Anwar Sadat visited Jerusalem in 1977 and subsequently signed the Arab world's first peace treaty with the Jewish state. It would also allow it to improve relations strained over human rights and other issues with US as a new administration takes office in Washington.

In a bid to counter the at times vicious criticism and position Egypt, the Arab world's most populous nation straddling its Asian and African constituent elements, this week launched a public relations counter-offensive. A 16- page document entitled, "Egypt's position on the situation in Gaza and the Rafah border", addresses Egypt's policy on Rafah and touts its recent efforts to broker a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.

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