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The Palestinian Issue in Perspective

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The Hamas-Israel war is a test of Israel’s power-projection and posture of deterrence, which directly impacts the national security of Jordan and other pro-US Arab countries. They rely on Israel’s posture of deterrence in their own battle against rogue Islamic regimes.

In addition, the Hamas-Israel war highlights the limited impact of the Palestinian issue – both the PLO and Hamas – on Middle East developments and intra-Arab relations.  The war underlines the gap between the Western perception of the Palestinian issue, on the one hand, and the Egyptian and overall Arab perception on the other hand.

Contrary to Western conventional wisdom, Egyptian President Sisi and all other Arab leaders do not consider the Palestinian issue a top priority, a strategic added-value, a core cause of Middle East turbulence or the crux of their conflict with Israel.  In contrast to US policy – as executed by President Obama since his June 2009 speech in Cairo, when he elevated the Muslim Brotherhood to unprecedented heights and dumped President Mubarak – Sisi outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood, the “parent company” of Hamas, branded it a terror organization and sentenced its leaders to death.     

The Arab World has not flexed political, financial or military muscles on behalf of the Palestinian Hamas during the current war, nor did they during the recent intensive Israeli military crackdown on Palestinian terrorism in areas controlled by Mahmoud Abbas (in the aftermath of the murder of three Israeli teens).  This low Arab regard toward the Palestinian issue was, similarly, displayed in reaction to Israel’s wars against Hamas terrorism in 2009 and 2012; Israel’s 2000-2004 comprehensive war on Palestinian Authority terrorism (2nd Intifada); Israel’s 1987-1991 military suppression of PLO  terrorism (1st Intifada); and Israel’s 1982-83 hot pursuit of PLO terrorists in Lebanon, all the way to Arafat’s and Abbas’ expulsion from Beirut.

Recently, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have extended a $20bn emergency financial assistance to Egypt; in 2006-7, the Saudis supported Lebanon with a $2.5bn package; during 1980-1988, Riyadh provided $1bn annually to the Muslim rebels in Afghanistan, compared to $100MN annually to the PLO; but, the Saudi financial aid to the Palestinian Authority has been limited to a total of $1bn-$1.5bn since 1994, reflecting the Saudi mistrust of Mahmoud Abbas and Arafat.  Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States do not forget and do not forgive Mahmoud Abbas’ participation in Saddam Hussein’s August, 1990 plunder of Kuwait, which provided home to some 300,000 of Abbas’ Palestinian relatives, friends and supporters.  They are aware of Abbas’ track record of subversion and terrorism since the 1950s in Egypt, 1966 in Syria, 1970 in Jordan, 1970-1982 in Lebanon and 1990 in Kuwait.

President Sisi’s attitude toward the Palestinian issue is consistent with President Sadat’s and President Mubarak’s distrust of the PLO/Palestinians.  For example, during 1977-79, President Sadat defied President Carter’s insistence upon placing the Palestinian issue at the center of the Egypt-Israel peace process.  Sadat did not trust the PLO and was convinced that a PLO-dominated state would undermine regional stability.  In 1994, during the signing of the Cairo Israel-PLO agreement, President Mubarak expressed his attitude toward the PLO, scolding Arafat in public: “sign, you dog.”  In recent months, the Egyptian military killed scores of Palestinian terrorists in Sinai, as they did in the aftermath of Israel’s 2005 “disengagement” from Gaza, killing scores of Palestinians in Rafah.  Moreover, Sisi’s fundamental position on the Palestinian issue was influenced by Abbas’ and Arafat’s key role in the Cairo cell of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1954, when the Muslim Brotherhood attempted to assassinate Egyptian President Nasser. Abbas and Arafat fled Egypt due to their involvement in subversion and terrorism.

The Arab League – just like all Arab countries – has been preoccupied with the Arab Tsunami, which is sweeping the Middle East independent of the Palestinian issue, highlighting the marginal role played by the Palestinian issue in shaping the Middle East. The Arab League persists in its historical attitude toward the Palestinian issue: showering Palestinians with rhetoric, but not with resources. Thus, in 1948, the Arab League formed the “All Palestine Government” as an Egyptian-molded phantom, which was reduced by 1952 to a department within the Arab League and officially dissolved, in 1959, by Egypt’s President Nasser.  In 1948/49, The Arab countries did not fight Israel for the Palestinians, did not share the spoils of the war with the Palestinians (Hama, Jerusalem, Samaria, Judea and Gaza) and were not interested in establishing a Palestinian state.

While Hamas urges the Arabs to rise in support of the Palestinians, the Egyptian media features unprecedented criticism of Hamas, reminding Egyptians that Hamas murdered 16 Egyptian soldiers in Sinai in August, 2012, supported the Muslim Brotherhood in toppling Mubarak, broke into Egyptian prisons and released Muslim Brotherhood terrorists, supported the Muslim Brotherhood’s attempts to oust the Sisi regime, and undermined the stability of Arab countries.

Putting the Palestinian issue in its proper intra-Arab perspective is a prerequisite for a realistic Middle East policy (focusing on “smothering sandstorms,” not on “tumbleweeds”), for any progress in the “peace process,” and for the survival of Jordan and other pro-US Arab regimes, which face clear and present Islamic terrorist danger.  They realize that the outcome of the Hamas-Israel war may either embolden or deter their mortal enemies.

About the Author: Ambassador (ret.) Yoram Ettinger is consultant to Israel’s Cabinet members and Israeli legislators, and lecturer in the U.S., Canada and Israel on Israel’s unique contributions to American interests, the foundations of U.S.-Israel relations, the Iranian threat, and Jewish-Arab issues.


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