Palestine in the Gulf Crisis

Against the Current, No. 30, January/February 1991

Salim Tamari

A MAIN Consequence of the Gulf crisis is that it compels us to rethink our basic premises about conflicts in the Middle East It calls into question the character and future of Arab nationalism, the legitimacy of post-colonial Arab states, the utility of regional alliances in the Arab world, and the future of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Above all, it compels us to reconsider the predicament of the Arab states and their peoples in the era of realignments after the Cold War.

What are the general features of this new period? Firstly, the division of the Middle East into pro-Western conservative states and anti-imperialist radical states is no longer useful.

An Obsolete Division

This division was premised on two factors that have become obsolete. One was geopolitical considerations, in which the strategic location of states in the Arab East—Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Jordan—was crucial, allowing these states to manipulate (as well as be manipulated by) great-power rivalry. The second was a perspective on development strategies, which identified a radical divergence between industrializing, redistributive and populist regimes such as those of Algeria, Libya, Syria and Iraq versus hierarchical, consumption-based and (some would say) parasitic regimes in the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia.

The geopolitical advantage (bargaining power) of the Middle East region has substantially diminished with the demise of the USSR as a superpower, and the decreasing ability of the Western powers, the United States in particular, to patronize and mobilize the “conservative” states against the “radical” ones. And the radical/parasitic dichotomy had lost its potency with the exposure, since the early 1980s, of the corrupt and repressive character of the Iraqi, Syrian and Algerian regimes, the very forerunners of “progressivism.”

Paradoxically, this was the same period when the conservative pro-Western regimes (such as Jordan and Morocco) adopted a development perspective previously associated with the “progressive” regimes. Not surprisingly, the range of democratic freedoms (press, public assembly and space for organized opposition) is more substantial in those two states than in all the “radical” ones combined.

Today, this former dichotomy has been replaced by the struggle for democracy—in both the social-secular and political domains. The issue of democracy became paramount when the radical rhetoric, posturing as anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist stances, became a cover for the internal suppression and brutal abuse of the Arab masses by their rulers, regardless of ideological cover.

Special Relationship Shaken

Secondly, the utility of Israel as a strategic asset to the United States has become a questionable. Both as a pro-Western “stabilizing” factor in a sea of radical nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism, and as a strike force acting on behalf of Washington and the West when their interests are threatened, Israel’s functions have been shaken by the Gulf crisis and preceding events. Being pro-Western has lost its former ideological meaning in the Gorbachev era, while the collusion of the United States and Soviet Union in the Gulf intervention (not to mention participation by Syrian and Egyptian forces) has robbed the Israelis of their presumed logistic role.

The image of Israel as a democratic oasis in the Middle East had already been eroded by the ascendancy of nationalist Revisionism (the politics of Begin and Shamir—ed.), Jewish Khomeinism (religious fundamentalism), the invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and Israel’s militarization in response to the Intifada. While the apartheid regime in South Africa is moving in the direction of internal and external dismantling, Israelis adopting apartheid’s colors both in deed and in self-definition.

Wealth Versus Poverty

What remains is the naked division of the Middle East between haves and have-nots, with oil—cheap oil—as the bone of contention in the combined attempt of the Western powers to control its resources. That this issue has been temporarily camouflaged by Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait should not blind us to the new alignments. In the Arab League vote for sanctions against Iraq last September, twenty-two states and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) were evenly divided, with most of the poorer ones abstaining.

Even if Saddam were overthrown tomorrow, and Kuwaiti sovereignty in some form restored, the burning issues behind Iraq’s occupation would persist:

* The bleeding indebtedness of poorer Arab states to the West and the Gulf states.

• The need for radical reorganization of the agrarian order in the Arab East, including Sudan and Egypt, in order to achieve self-sufficiency in food production and reduce the debilitating impact of food imports.

* The wasteful squandering of oil revenues in parasitic pursuits and non-returnable investments in Western markets in the midst of unspeakable poverty.

* The paradox of wealth generated by the toil of millions of Arab, Indian, Sri Lankan and other Third World workers who have relieved the indigenous population of the Gulf states from the tasks of raising their own children, driving their cars, sweeping their streets and tending to their everyday needs—but who are nevertheless denied the basic right of citizenship or even secure residency.

Palestinian Survival At Stake

Aside from these structural issues, however, the Gulf crisis is also likely to re-shape our vision of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Almost three years after the Intifada arose in December 1987, and having seemingly reached the threshold of wresting their sovereignty from a ferocious enemy, the Palestinians are pushed again to fight for their survival, accused by the Western media of all the misdeeds associated with the aftermath of Iraq’s adventure in Kuwait international terrorism, expensive oil and the current mobilization of the Middle East.

Both the retreat in the tempo of street warfare of the Uprising and the temporary suspension of the Palestinian issue from the international agenda during the Gulf crisis call for some original thinking about the future. (This article was completed prior to the October 8 massacre at Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem—ed.)

Writing recently in the Manchester Guardian, Alex Brummer refers to the crisis as ushering a completely new definition of power relations in the Middle East. The investments by the State of Kuwait in Europe and North America amounted in 1988 alone to some 50 billion dollars. Last year, the interest on the investments in the West exceeded, for the first time in modern history, the yields generated by the oil revenues for that year! (Guardian Weekly, September 2, 1990) Brummer poses the question:

“Could Kuwait become the first non-territorial state in the modem world? A kind of Euro-market nation which exists on paper but belongs to no single territory? Such a concept is entirely possible in an age of facsimile machines, electronic transfers and other instant communication. The ‘Future Generations Fund’ established in 1976 could ensure that a!-Sabahs (Kuwaiti ruling family—ed.) and their subjects be kept in the manner to which they are accustomed to as far as the time horizon stretches.”

For those with malicious thoughts, I am not about to suggest “a state without a people” to accommodate “a people without a state” as a solution to the Palestinian problem. What the new situation does suggest is a new assessment of the relationship between the Palestinians and the Arab world.

Palestinians have gone through a period of extreme narrow nationalism in the last two decades that set them apart from the Arab nation. This was to be expected in response to their experiences of betrayal and manipulation, beginning with the investment of false hopes in the radical regimes of Syria and Egypt in the 1960s; the civil war in Jordan (1970-71) and the entanglement in the interfactional struggles in Lebanon (since 1975).

While Palestinian nationalism has been a boon to the growth of a self-reliant strategy and to the dramatic events leading to the Intifada and the political resolutions of the Algiers Palestine National Council (PNC) in November 1988 (the declaration of the independent State of Palestine and recognition of Israel’s right to exist—ed.), it created unrealistic expectations that the Palestinians could make it on their own.

What was and is needed is to strike a proper balance: between creating a social and ideological base for independent political action and forging alliances in the Arab world that would assure that the Palestinians not become the sacrificial lambs for Arab failures.

This is my understanding of the Palestinian strategy adopted since the war in Lebanon in 1982, and which successfully led to the Algiers PNC resolution in 1988. But this strategy—aiming at a peaceful resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict through negotiation—has been sabotaged, both by Israeli intransigence and by a more general and pernicious offensive by the West.

The target of this offensive is any Arab attempt to secure a common development direction in which the oil wealth would be invested in a strategy for real economic interdependence and growth, rather than in displays of extravagance and charity aimed at satisfying the oil sheikhdoms’ guilt feelings about Palestine and their contempt for their own people.

The Burning Contradictions

If Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait has helped both the Israelis and the West to relegate the Palestinian problem to the back burner, it has also highlighted the social contradictions that have emerged in the Middle East and can no longer be postponed.

This highlighting is the only explanation for the enthusiastic reception that Iraqi actions received in the streets of San’a (Yemen), Algiers, Amman (Jordan) and (Arab) Jerusalem. To the Arab masses it represents the bold rejection of decades of deprivation in a sea of plenty, where untold wealth is flaunted in their faces while their children go hungry.

To the Palestinians it represented a breakthrough in a political world where empty promises of the U.S. government for a just peace have been exposed in the unspeakable hypocrisy of an administration that calls for sanctioning and boycotting Iraq, while extending unlimited military aid and housing loans for Israeli expansionism.

More directly and immediately, the Gulf crisis opens horizons for an overall Middle East peace settlement This perspective, now slowly being adopted by the Europeans, primarily France, Italy and the Soviets (all cognizant of their economic interests in the Middle East), is generating a crisis in the initial consensus supporting the U.S. policy of occupying Saudi Arabia and forcing a military showdown with Iraq.

January-February 1991, ATC 30