In his November 16, 2008 column in the Saudi-owned London Arab daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, Saudi liberal columnist Turki Al-Hamad argued that the Arabs had been in thrall to the Palestinian issue for too long, and that they should view both Arab politics and U.S. policy towards the region through a broader prism. The next day, 'Abd Al-Bari 'Atwan, editor-in-chief of another London Arab daily, Al-Quds Al-'Arabi, took issue with Al-Hamad's premise in his column, warning also that the publication of articles like these in the Saudi media was a harbinger of Saudi-Israeli rapprochement.
Following are excerpts from the articles by Turki Al-Hamad and 'Abd Al-Bari 'Atwan:
Turki Al-Hamad: The Issue of Israel Has Been Used to Justify Every Failure in Arab Life
"Israel has been, and to a great extent still is, the cornerstone of modern Arab political culture and the primary measure of politics in the region. Despite the fact that the Palestinians themselves, whose cause this is first and foremost, have in effect lost consciousness of their cause, and have entered a stage of political infantility and childish quarrels over trivial matters – despite this fact, the status of the 'cause' in political culture and modern Arab political behavior has not changed much in many respects.
"This is similar to those 'revolutionary' regimes that come in the name of the people and for the benefit of the people, and then kill off the people and the people's interests – yet continue to speak in the name of the people and about the people. In this case, 'the people' becomes a political myth justifying anything and everything – even though it does not exist outside of the mind, [and remains in the mind] even when what is in the mind contradicts what is in the real world.
"Israel and Zionism have always been the axis around which the other components of modern Arab political culture revolved, and the measure against which the compass of Arab politics was largely set. This is in addition to the fact that [this axis] has been the primary 'justification' for every failure and disaster in modern Arab life: from the failure of the project of the great Arab renaissance and of the great Arab unity, to a child's death by starvation in Basra in Shatt Al-'Arab and an emigrant's drowning in the Mediterranean or the Atlantic, to a woman's death from poverty on the banks of the Nile in the Nile river valley.
"For were it not for Israel and Zionism, and the colonialism, imperialism, and occupation they brought in their wake, there would not have been any division, backwardness, ignorance, illness, or wretchedness, and thus no one would have died of starvation, drowning, illness, or poverty. Israel was always sought out [for blame], to the point where one can't imagine that the Arabs are really serious in their hostility to Israel, since if the real, earthly Israel were to disappear, how could they preserve the Israel of the mind and the imagination, without which Arab political life would be choked off, as it would have lost its justification and there would be no longer any direction towards which the Arab compass would point.
"In modern Arab political life, Israel and Zionism have become the be-all and end-all, just as the past, and the glorification of it, became the unquestioned givens of 'modern' Arab culture.
Arab Political Analysis Is an Exercise in "Look for the Jews"
"For instance, after Barack Obama's overwhelming, historic victory in the U.S. presidential elections, the only thing that attracted the attention of some – many, in fact – about it was his intention to appoint Rahm Emanuel, the U.S. representative from Illinois and son of an Israeli, Binyamin Emanuel, to be White House Chief of Staff. This is an important position, due to the closeness of the relation with the president and the extent of his potential influence on the direction the president takes his policies.
"[In the mind of these people,] Emanuel, although he is an American citizen, cannot be other than an Israeli, heart and soul. Thus it is to be expected that the term in office of Obama, the Kenyan-American, will not be to the Arab world's good – with good being measured here, naturally, by his policies towards the 'cause' and his stance on Israel. This, despite the optimism surrounding his appearance [on the political scene] and his 'Islamic' African background.
"The truth is that this way of looking at Obama and his term in office through the prism of the [Palestinian] cause – in other words, the search for the Israeli, Zionist, or Jewish connection – is easily understood when one takes into account modern Arab political culture. Thus, in any Arab political analysis of American policy, the first thing the Arab 'analyst' always looks for is the extent of the Jewish presence in the American ruling institution, and especially in the institution of the presidency, in order to gauge the extent of Jewish influence, and in consequence the extent of Israeli penetration. In other words, one of the fixed principles of political analysis for many Arab analysts is to start with the assertion of Jewish influence in American policy; what remains is only to determine the extent of this influence – and not whether it exists or not.
"While analysts in the world analyze American policy by looking at its institutions and how they operate, and the decision-making process, and study the personalities of American decision-makers – and, naturally, of the president first and foremost... the Arabs, or [at least] many Arab analysts, look for the Jews everywhere, and attempt to analyze the extent of the 'Zionization' of the American mind... America, no matter how it changes, remains the custodian of Zionism and the guardian of Israel, and nothing can be expected of it…
If Israel Disappeared, the Arabs Would Look for a New One
"In my opinion, the Arabs... have reduced everything to one sole issue – the Palestinian issue... They have become prisoners of it, and in reality have put it to death...
"Palestine is, without a doubt, an Arab issue, but it is not, and must not be, the only issue. In the name of this issue, everything in the Arab world has gone to ruin – and the issue itself has not been resolved, and the Arabs did not attain the well-being [made possible by] the opportunities that were available.
"What is needed is not to give up on the issue, because it is still one of many issues; rather, what is needed is to bring it down from [the level of] mythical exaggeration to facts on the ground, such that it will no longer be a compass, an axis of culture, or a measure of politics.
"Let Obama – or anyone else – be a Zionist; let America – or anyone else – be the custodian of Israeli interests in the region; nonetheless, Israel should not be our greatest concern, nor should Palestine be our be-all and end-all. For even if Israel disappeared entirely, and we had a new Palestinian state from the [Jordan] river to the [Mediterranean] sea to add to the list of Arab states, the situation would still remain the same....
"Israel, and behind it the West and America, has not prevented us, and cannot prevent us, from building good schools if we want to, and putting in place forward-looking curricula. Israel will not prevent us, and cannot prevent us, from respecting humans and human rights in our countries, if we really wanted that. Israel will not prevent us, and cannot prevent us, from eradicating illiteracy in our countries or rooting out corruption.
"By the same token, it could be said that the resolution of the Palestinian issue... does not mean that this should come at the expense of development in our countries. It was not Israel that came up with the slogan 'no voice should rise above the din of battle'... Rather, it was we who came up with it and it was we who put it into practice…
"Of course, one could say that if Israel had never existed then there never would have been this kind of slogan [i.e. 'no voice should rise above the din of battle'] with its consequences, but since it exists, [the slogan] exists [as well]. Here the mythological mind begins its work anew, and we return to the same cycle.
"There is no deliverance for the entire Arab world if we cannot free [ourselves] from this [mythological] mind, as other nations have done, and then set out and became successful. Are we going to do [the same]?"[i]
'Abd Al-Bari' 'Atwan: Demotion of the Palestinian Issue Is Part of the Saudi Plan For Rapprochement with Israel
In response, to Turki Al-Hamad's article, Al-Quds Al-'Arabi editor-in-chief 'Abd Al-Bari' 'Atwan wrote:
"It would appear that the new strategy of the scholars of the 'normalization school' in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is not merely to push to accelerate the rapprochement between their country's government and Israel, but also to launch concerted and carefully planned media campaigns to negate the Palestinian issue and eliminate it from the Arab mind as a central issue and as the heart of the Islamic-Israeli conflict. These campaigns aim to transform it into a secondary, low-priority issue, in comparison with issues that they consider more important, such as education, development, human rights, eradicating illiteracy, and corruption.
"This new strategy has begun to be reflected in force in a series of articles by a number of Saudi writers that have been published recently, in coordination with the [successive] sessions of the dialogue of religions conference. The heart of this conference is focused on the necessity of undoing the Arab connection to the Palestinian issue, on the grounds that this has worn out the Arab nation, impeded development, and delayed educational progress – in other words, on the grounds that it has been the cause of all the nation's misfortunes."
The Saudi Media Strategy Is Reminiscent of Sadat's When He Spoke at the Knesset
"The paradox is that this new and escalating campaign, which is led by noted Saudi intellectuals considered 'neo-liberals' – like Dr. Turki Al-Hamad – reminds me of its counterpart, which dominated the Egyptian press before, during, and after the visit by the late president Muhammad Anwar Al-Sadat to occupied Jerusalem. Back then, a group of writers launched ferocious campaigns against the Arabs and the Palestinians. These campaigns went so far as [constituting] abuse, and incitement of the Egyptian people against the Arabs and stirring up animosity against them, [on the grounds that the Arabs] enjoy wealth and abundance, while the Egyptian people drown in poverty and deprivation.
"This studiously planned Egyptian campaign, the inspiration for which came from the government, led to the Camp David accords, the Arab boycott of Egypt – both the official boycott and the popular one – and also led to the first exchange of ambassadors and establishment of embassies... [between Egypt and Israel].
"We don't know where the current Saudi media campaign will lead, and what the hidden goal behind it is. The Saudi method in political activity is entirely different than its 'Sadatist' counterpart, though they both belong to the same American school, in one way or another. Sadat employed the shock method and the element of surprise, and turned his plane to Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv as a guest of the Israeli government, and spoke at the Knesset about his peace plan.
"As for his counterpart, the Saudi method tends toward incrementalism and temporization – small steps on the way to larger ones. This is due to the sensitivity of the holy sites being in Mecca and Medina, and [is also] due to the fact that there are no occupied Saudi lands, the desire for whose return could be a justification for initiating talks and normalization, as was the case with Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and, of course, the official Palestinian side."
Recent Steps in Saudi-Israeli Rapprochement
"The Saudi-Israeli meetings began in secret, at the level of prominent military commanders, in Arab and foreign capitals, in conspicuous parallel with public meetings with Jewish spiritual leaders in the U.S. These produced an invitation to some of them to visit the [Saudi] Kingdom, in various frameworks – among them the dialogue of religions.
"But the first 'unofficial' public meeting took place in Oxford, in the framework of a meeting organized by the Oxford [Research] Group. The meeting was chaired by the British activist Gabrielle Rifkind, who is [known to be] close to Tel Aviv, and took place under the title 'Activating the Arab Peace Initiative.' Among the participants were Prince Turki Al-Faisal, former head of Saudi intelligence and former ambassador to Washington and London; and Gen. Danny Rothschild, former coordinator of settlement in the Israeli government, as well as Arab former ambassadors and security officials.[ii]
"The latest round of the Interfaith Dialogue Conference, that was held in New York at the invitation of the Saudi king, and with the participation of Israeli President Shimon Peres at the head of a large delegation, which included Foreign Minister Tsipi Livni and a large number of Arab and foreign leaders, was perhaps the latest link in the [chain of] Saudi-Israeli rapprochement, though there was no handshake between the Saudi King and his Israeli counterpart in front of the TV cameras, as was anticipated."
Why Are Some Saudi Writers Turning the Palestinian Issue into a Scapegoat?
"If we are to say that there is an official Saudi desire to establish relations with the Israelis – whether under the aegis of activating the Saudi-originated peace plan, or [under the aegis of] the dialogue of religions – and this for reasons that have to do with transformations in the strategic balance in the region, due to the emergence of Iran as a great power and the ebbing of Iraq as a factor balancing [against Iran] following the American invasion and occupation – the question is: What is driving some Saudi writers to place on the Palestinian issue more than it can bear and to make it a scapegoat to justify this new and unprecedented orientation?
"When Dr. Turki Al-Hamad and others intimate that interest in the Palestinian issue and the placing of it as the foremost and central issue came at the expense of development, human rights, education, and other important and vital issues – this is a great falsehood that cannot be allowed to go without refutation and rebuttal.
"The last war the Arabs entered under the [slogan of] liberation of Palestine was 35 years ago. Years later, and in particular since the signing of the Camp David accords, the military option was removed completely, and we saw Arab states take advantage of the interim Oslo agreements – which came after the siege and fatal isolation of the PLO – to sign peace accords with the Hebrew state. So why didn't violations of human rights stop and these countries become full of justice, democracy, equality, and [an independent] judiciary?"
When the Arabs Were Fighting Israel, Education Was Better and the Economy Was Stronger
"Perhaps it would behoove Dr. [Turki Al-Hamad] to know that when the Arab governments were dedicated to the Palestinian cause and defended Arab rights against the Israeli usurpation, education was better, the economy was stronger, the hospitals were cleaner, the levels of unemployment and illiteracy were lower, and corruption was at a low. In order to be scientific about this, let us take the situation in Egypt as an example: In the early 1970s, a few months after President Al-Sadat assumed office, replacing the late Gamal 'Abd Al-Nasser, the press used to joke about the shortage of poultry at the cooperatives and published cartoons about the [long] lines. Today, 30 years after the peace and the Camp David accords, the same press publishes satirical cartoons about the bread lines…
"The crises in education and health services, the rise in unemployment rates, the acute water shortage, the absence of a sewage system in a large city like Jedda, and the expanding cordon of shanty towns around Riyadh – all these crises were not because of the Palestinian issue and the Saudi government's being preoccupied by it and giving it priority over local issues. They were caused rather by corruption, mismanagement, and writers being silent and not speaking courageously about the true issues in the country.
"I do not deny others' right to express their views in absolute freedom – to the contrary, I welcome this and respect it, even when dealing with issues that enjoy an Arab consensus like the centrality of the Palestinian issue. But what I see it as my duty to refute is falsehood and distortion of the facts in a manner that lacks scientific objectivity."
The Saudi Neo-Liberals Are Turning Their Backs on Our Martyrs and Making Friends with Israel, All in Order to Confront the Iranian "Enemy"
"If some of the scholars of the neo-liberal school of thought want normalization and want to wash their hands of the issue, then let them do so. This is their hour. But let them do this without attacking the Palestinians and without working to marginalize the cause of an Arab and Islamic nation, Arab and Islamic values, and things that are sacrosanct to the Arabs and to Islam, in the defense of which thousands of Arab and Muslim martyrs have fallen, and continue to fall, as we see these days.
"Some of these new reasonings, which adopt and promote American plans in the region, and the propagators of which employ any and all forms of intellectual terrorism against those who disagree with them, have led to Iraq's shameful situation and all it has caused: the death of a million and a half Iraqis, and the creation of a disastrous strategic vacuum that works to the benefit of the rising Iranian power. And this is the power they want to fight now, through the forming of an alliance with Israel.
"The gravest thing we are seeing at present in Arab thought is the attempt by some to turn Iran into an enemy, and to transfer Israel from the side of the enemies to the side of the friends, and to plunge the Arab region – rather, the entire Islamic world – into a bloody sectarian war that could last for decades, if not centuries, to come – [all] because of the fear of Iran's growing nuclear and military power.
"What [really] breaks one's heart is that these voices are being raised at a time when a million and a half people in the Gaza Strip are being subjected to siege, starvation, and death by Israeli missiles – these people who set an example of resistance and the raising of the banner of the Islamic creed in the face of the new friends of some of the Arab liberals.
"Foreign activists sail the sea to break through the siege and to express solidarity with these besieged people, yet some Arab writers maltreat these steadfast people and charge them and their cause with responsibility for the actions of corrupt and tyrannical governments."[iii]
[i] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 16, 2008.
[ii] Cf. the Oxford Research Group press release, October 21, 2008: http://www.oxfordresearchgroup.org.uk/about_us/pressrelease211008.pdf.
[iii] Al-Quds Al-'Arabi (London), November 17, 2008.