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Does the US really know the Arab world at all?

Does the US really know the Arab world at all?

The role of Washington is in danger of being tested at a critical moment when the Middle East will no longer be what it was.

Middle East

U.S. President Joe Biden’s brief trip to the Middle East, comprising just a few hours in Tel Aviv, will be remembered in this tragic chapter in the recent history of the Middle East for two main reasons. Firstly, because of the almost exaggerated reaffirmation of the alliance with Israel, and secondly, because of the metaphorical slap he received for the abrupt cancellation of a summit in Amman that was organized and canceled within just a few hours, due to the heightened tension after the Ahli Hospital massacre in Gaza. (A rearranged conference was held in Cairo last Saturday; 31 countries were represented, as was the UN.) The cancellation was a humiliation for the president and American diplomacy, but also a sign of a change of direction, and the beginning of a new order in the power equation in the Middle East.

Let’s start with the reasons behind the American request to meet at short notice with Jordanian King Abdullah, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The purpose of the summit revolved around the idea of getting as many Palestinians out of the Gaza Strip as possible.

This idea — which, in short, involves emptying the enclave to aid the military goal of eliminating Hamas and its infrastructure — came from Israel, but won the Biden administration’s support in Washington. To begin carrying this out, Israeli authorities ordered more than a million Palestinians from Gaza’s north to move to the south — primarily toward the cities of Khan Younis and Rafah, Gaza’s gateway to Egypt, which the authorities in Cairo have kept shut.

Danny Ayalon, a former Israeli deputy foreign minister, made the following remarks in an interview with Marc Lamont Hill on Al Jazeera in English on Oct. 15: “[We’re not telling Gazans to] go to the beaches, go drown yourselves, God forbid … There is a huge expanse, almost endless space in the Sinai desert, just on the other side of Gaza. The idea is … for them to leave over to [sic] the open areas where we, and the international community, will prepare the infrastructure … Tent cities, with food and with water … just like for the refugees of Syria that fled the butchering of [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad a few years ago to Turkey.” To be refugees or fugitives: that is what Ayalon, and indeed Israel, is offering to 2 million Palestinians.

The majority of Gaza’s population is, in fact, composed of descendants of Palestinians who took refuge on the southern coast of Mandate Palestine, in the area of Gaza’s commercial port, forced out of their homes in places like Jaffa, Majdal, and present-day Ashkelon. Even then, waiting for them — like nearly all the refugees of 1948 — were tents and tent cities. Anyone familiar with the name given to the Nakba’s refugees, the “people of the tents,” knows that to propose a tent city in Sinai is to remind them, as if necessary, of what they were forced to become.”

This proposal cannot be accepted, and not only by the Palestinians. It dives into the most significant change in the Middle East in the last century, the birth of the State of Israel and the Nakba. This change is etched in the history of neighboring countries, first and foremost Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. The uprooting of Palestinians to Sinai would be a burden on the Arab countries’ shoulders — a burden they cannot bear, as was declared loud and clear in the statements issued by all the Arab leaders after Blinken’s visit. They all focused on the Palestinian refugee issue, rejecting any possibility of a new population transfer from Palestine.

Hypothetically, even if Blinken had received suggestions from Israel to propose, during his diplomatic tour of the region, a transfer of the Palestinian population to Sinai, the firm stance of all Arab interlocutors would have convinced the U.S. administration that it could go no further. Blinken made clear in an interview with Randa Abul Azm of Al-Arabiya that the United States would not support a transfer. “We’ve heard, and I’ve heard directly from Palestinian Authority President Abbas and from virtually every other leader that I’ve talked to in the region, that that idea is a nonstarter, and so we do not support it. We believe that people should be able to stay in Gaza, their home.”

King Abdullah expounded on the reason for the refusal on Tuesday at a press conference in Berlin with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, where he referred to refugees as “a red line.” The next day, the Egyptian president said the same to Scholz at a journalists’ gathering in Cairo. Finally, after his quick return from Amman to Ramallah after the attack on Al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza, Abbas clarified that Palestinians will not leave their country. Abbas, a veteran refugee from Safed, has all the experience to determine that, for the Palestinians, Nakba 2.0 is the fear that has been hovering over them in recent months and years, and is a chapter in their history that they refuse to live again at all costs.

Blinken’s diplomatic whirlwind tour of major Arab capitals, from Cairo to Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Amman, in which he attempted to formulate an exit strategy for the Israelis from Gaza, effectively failed even before the mass killings at Al-Ahli Hospital. From the very moment Al Jazeera began broadcasting the horrific images of the dead in the hospital compound, another element entered the game: the emotional and political reaction of the Arab street, of the people and societies looking at a story that is already etched in their personal biographies and national history.

There were immediate, spontaneous demonstrations in the streets of Amman, Tunisia, Beirut, and Cairo. Governments were careful not to prohibit the protests, instead settling for restricting them, because they know very well that everything is different since the Arab Spring of 2011. Through the history of rebellions and revolutions, anyone who has gone out into the streets has internalized the following: a regime can fall. Everyone knows this, including the rulers.

The surprising momentum of the events following the hospital bombing led to the hasty cancellation of the summit. For the Arab players, it was impossible to meet with the United States about the issue of refugees while the Americans are increasingly perceived as clinging to their alliance with Israel. On the other hand, the events shifted the discussion from the refugee question to an immediate demand for a ceasefire — not humanitarian corridors, but an immediate cessation of hostilities. The Arab states are demanding an end to the war, as is the UN.

As has already happened in the region’s history, the wind rising from Gaza blows beyond the narrow boundaries of the enclave, with all the dangers involved. For example, Sisi does not want to go down as the first president in the history of the Egyptian republic to allow Nakba 2.0, and certainly not before the Egyptian elections this December, which are supposed to consolidate his rule. King Abdullah heads a state with a significant Palestinian presence, not only numerically but also in terms of economic weight. And above all, relations between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Hashemite Kingdom have always been chilly and at times very complicated. The question of preserving the holy sites of Islam and Christianity in the Old City of Jerusalem is, among other things, at the heart of a fierce diplomatic clash between Jordan and the Netanyahu-led extreme right-wing coalition that has unfolded in recent years.

Even Saudi Arabia, although it has begun the process of normalizing its relations with Israel, is no longer the same country that offered a peace plan 20 years ago in exchange for security, out of sensitivity to its alliance with the United States. The deepening presence of China in the Middle East, which during the COVID-19 pandemic consolidated its economic ties with many of the Persian Gulf coastal countries, is one of the main factors in the game today, first and foremost because China has managed to mediate a surprising reconciliation between the two biggest competitors in the region, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

In other words, the United States’ leeway for action is shrinking. The role of Washington, which clings so closely to Israel, is in danger of being tested at a critical moment when the Middle East will no longer be what it was. It seems that the United States does not have a sufficient understanding of the region, just as the $100 million offered by Biden as aid to the Palestinians at the end of his visit to Israel certainly does not suffice: each of Gaza’s reconstruction plans, after five Israeli military operations in the past 15 years, is estimated at billions of dollars.

This article was republished with permission from +972 Magazine.

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Palestinians wait in front of bakeries to get bread, Rafah camp, south of the Gaza Strip, on October 15 2023. (Anas-Mohammed/Shutterstock)

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