2023 Yearender: An old new Arab order in making

Salah Nasrawi , Tuesday 19 Dec 2023

The conflict in Gaza will likely give rise to a new regional landscape that could provide a powerful new jolt to the Arab world, writes Salah Nasrawi

Arab order in making
Arab order in making


Before the Gaza conflict started on 7 October with the bold attack inside Israel by the Palestinian group Hamas, many Arabs reckoned that their countries were entering a new era when a dysfunctional old regional order was dying and a new one was being born.

The Arabs were living in a century of conflicts and discontent, a period that followed the birth of their first modern states after World War One and the upheavals that followed the Arab Spring in 2011.

They were trying times, and the Arab world was shaping an identity and rebuilding a future for these states in a challenging regional and global context.

For the best part of the century, the region lacked sustained stability and grappled with wars, regional rivalries, foreign ambitions, political instability, social turmoil, and economic failure.

The century started distinctively with the challenge of the Zionist Movement and attempts to establish a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine as enshrined in the British Balfour Declaration of 1917.

The impact of the creation of a Jewish state in 1948 over as large an area as possible in Palestine with as few Arabs inside its borders as possible has been one of the most bloody and drawn-out of modern times.

The persistent conflict has continued to shape the Middle East, which has fallen into an anarchic regional order. It has also become entangled in global geostrategic rivalries as foreign policymakers wanted to exploit it to dominate the region.

Even after three peace agreements were concluded by Egypt, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), and Jordan with Israel, the latter still did not abandon its policy of occupation and annexation and accept the Palestinians’ right to statehood.

Israel maintained its preconditions for a settlement, which included “no withdrawal to the 1967 borders,” and it continued its military control of the West Bank and Gaza under any peace agreement.

The Camp David Accords that Egypt signed with Israel in 1978, along with the Oslo Autonomy Agreement with the Palestinians in 1991, which was followed by the Peace Treaty with Jordan a year later, consigned the region to a climate of confusion, vulnerability, and fragmentation.

The current Israeli war on Gaza should be viewed in this historical context. It has sent shockwaves across the region, and it is expected to change the entire regional landscape.

Even though the outcome of the war is unknown, the bottom line is that the unresolved Palestinian question poses a fearsome threat to regional peace, security, and stability.

A REGION UNPREPARED: Today’s conflict in Gaza comes against the backdrop of intensifying efforts by regional powerhouses for de-escalation, which many have hoped would bring lasting peace to the Middle East.

The disruptive events of the Arab Spring in 2011 plunged the region into disorder, unseating four heads of state, driving their countries into chaos, and even causing some countries to descend into gruesome civil wars.

The Arab “revolutions” of 2011 were first and foremost aimed at domestic political and social change, yet their regional repercussions were wide-ranging and soon proved to reinforce the larger Middle Eastern crisis.

The protracted conflict in the Middle East has been held to be responsible for the region’s persistent political stagnation and lack of opportunities. It has led to corruption, a crippling lack of political freedoms, and despotism.

Unsurprisingly, the defeat of the popular uprisings in 2011 helped the Arab regimes to regain confidence and to increase their room for manoeuvre, including by building new partnerships with Israel.

The decade that followed the Arab Spring witnessed the rise of prosperous, ambitious, and counterrevolutionary protagonists who became new centres of power in a region exhausted by the Arab-Israeli conflict.

While they focused on economic growth, the wealthy Arab Gulf nations, in particular Saudi Arabia and the UAE, also sought to play down enmity with Israel under the new regional order they aspired to forge.

Even Qatar, which has not finalised a deal with Israel to normalise ties, has established close communications ties with Israel, though it has kept these informal.

Whether for political or practical reasons, the emerging powers in the Gulf have attempted to reshape the region in order to secure their dominance. That required undercutting the re-emergence of Political Islam, which had slowed down its movement following its failure to take over the Arab uprisings.

In the post-revolution era, the rising Arab states will have to review the region’s dynamics with a view to managing the rapid changes that led them to prioritise regional and local threats over that coming from Israel.

With their eyes on Iran, seen as seeking to be a regional leader, a rapprochement with Israel was seen as a way of helping the Gulf countries to contain the Islamic Republic and make its leadership quest impossible.

What motivated the Gulf states was also the unabating danger coming from extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) group, which have large constituencies across the Middle East and North Africa.

The first normalisation with Israel came in 2020, when the UAE and Bahrain signed what were then heralded as the “Abraham Agreements” with the country. Soon Sudan and Morocco followed suit.

Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has been engaging in talks with the US Biden administration with a view to bringing about a “better” normalisation deal with Israel that would also facilitate a defence pact with the United States.

Under US tutelage, the process would have widened the circle of normalisation among the Arab states and Israel. It seemed as if Israel’s vision of the Middle East was finally coming to fruition.

However, a closer look at the deals shows that their primary goal was not peace, but rather the promotion of economic and security interests.

The aim of the Arab states was to cope better with a changing Middle East, especially by making far-reaching gains in terms of geopolitical opportunities and regional leadership.

In this view, the rapprochement deals with Israel were the kiss of death for the Middle East Peace Process, which sought to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict through establishing a Palestinian state.

Israel had rejected the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which sought to establish on the territory Israel had occupied in 1967 a Palestinian state with full sovereignty.

But with the normalisation train now on track, the illusion that Israel would end its occupation of the West Bank and its siege to Gaza and give up land for peace finally came to an end.

That mantra was cast aside in favour of a more down-to-earth approach that would integrate Israel into the regional order, even as the normalisation deals would have triggered challenges that would have made a more stable Middle East order unpredictable.

The normalisation deals with Israel, which were accompanied by a series of détentes between regional foes, did not inspire a new secure, stable, and peaceful Middle East, as was widely hoped, and instead created a new status quo.

Other than failing to return the region to normality, the reality of the Middle East today is depressingly different from what it was just a few months ago. The brutal Israeli war on Gaza has changed the diplomatic and military landscape into one that has left the dream of a newly peaceful and prosperous Middle East in tatters.

Almost from the moment Hamas launched its attacks on 7 October, efforts towards Arab-Israeli normalisation have been derailed and prospects for a peaceful solution to the Palestinian issue shattered. The Arab world’s prospects of stability remain cloudy, leaving most stakeholders in the dust.

More importantly, another Middle East could now emerge, one which could be even more chaotic and dangerous in an ironic reversal of the alleged objectives of the Abraham Accords.

A REGION SHATTERED: As Israel’s war of aggression rumbles into southern Gaza, sparking fear of a mass exodus, the day after the conflict presents daunting new challenges for regional policymakers and strategists.

Israel’s declared goal is to destroy Hamas completely and to fully root out its strongholds in the Gaza Strip. It is ostensibly part of its efforts to continue its military control of Gaza under any circumstances.

In order to achieve these goals, Israel will continue its brutal military campaign despite the massive destruction in Gaza and the mounting Palestinian death toll that is creating a horrific humanitarian catastrophe.

The scale of the Israeli invasion of Gaza is creating an apocalyptic situation that will not only send the Peace Process to the graveyard but will also make the concept itself redundant.

In the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Israel’s policy of annexation, deprivation, and crackdown, which amounts to a policy of apartheid over 50 years, has left nothing to negotiate with the Palestinians.

Despite renewed calls for the two-state solution as a political route to end the Israel-Palestine conflict, it is highly unlikely that Israel will return to the negotiation table after the war.

A more realistic expectation is that there will be no drastic change in the Israeli establishment and its attitude towards the Palestinians and their right to self-determination. Israel wants all the land, and none of Palestinian people, and it will stop at nothing to get it.

Unless Israel abandons its policy of looking at the Palestinians as a security threat, it is unlikely that it will accept a Palestinian state or that the Middle East will see an end to the cycles of violence in the future.

It is far from certain that the present war will weaken the Palestinian resolve, particularly after their bravery that has stunned the world. Their resistance to the Israeli occupation will continue, and it will continue to be unwaveringly supported by people across the Arab world.

It is also widely accepted that the war on Gaza is unlikely to spell the end of Hamas, as Israel and its supporters wish. Neither will the end of Hamas make Israel any safer.

Hamas has a close-knit membership and a large network of supporters in Gaza, the West Bank, the Palestinian diaspora, and even the Arab population of Israel. Wiping it off the face of the Earth, as the Israeli leaders wish, is a remote possibility if not impossible.

Even if Hamas is defeated, the conflict itself will not be frozen and will issue into a new generation of Palestinian militant groups that will emerge from the ashes.

It is widely anticipated that the present war will eventually end in a political stalemate, and there have been hints at how its bloody outcome could transform the regional order, probably not in a way set out in the ambitious and far-reaching diplomatic bargains at work before the Gaza crisis.

The current Middle East order is unlikely to be able to accommodate the wishes of the stakeholders in the war on Gaza. And when the war eventually ends, the regional order will look different than it did before Israel’s invasion.

As the old order is dying, the new one will force these stakeholders to lay the groundwork for an escape from the risks they face from the consequences of the Israeli war on Gaza.

The Middle East is expected to face increasing challenges while fending off the downstream ripple effects of the Israeli genocide in Gaza.

It now appears inevitable that the military impact of the war and the attendant humanitarian and social crisis and political scenarios will have broader consequences for the entire region.

Like the creation of Israel in 1948 and the Arab defeat in the 1967 War, the war in Gaza is a seminal event in the modern history of both the Palestinians and the Arabs.

This new Nakba, or catastrophe, will reshape the contours of the region in myriad ways, including by resetting the geopolitical balance. This could see the Arab world entering unchartered territory and probably unprepared to do so.

KEY CHALLENGES: Israel’s genocidal atrocities in Gaza are taking a terrible toll, and there is no question among policymakers that the longer they go on, the deeper will be the political and diplomatic void that makes it impossible to reach a peace settlement.

As long as the Israeli war of subjugation against the Palestinians persists and becomes further and further institutionalised, the promotion or even talk of a two-state solution becomes irrelevant.

This view suggests that whatever the outcome of the war, Israel will continue with its “master plan” of forcibly transferring the Palestinian people in order to establish a “pure” Jewish state “from the river to the sea.”

Israel has always sought to drive the Palestinians out of their homes and to take control of their land. Its policy of erasing the presence of the Palestinians is well documented, and its expulsion drive in Gaza comes straight out of its classic playbook of land grabs and ethnic cleansing and depopulation.

A new Palestinian exodus will be a watershed moment for the Arab world and will trigger a massive shock to the regional system. A new refugee problem that bears a close resemblance to the 1948 Nakba and its aftermath will be politically, economically, and socially devastating to neighbouring countries and beyond.

As the US seems to be mobilising political and financial support for Israel’s transfer schemes, its complicity will also fuel anger across the Arab world against alliances with Washington, risking further internal destabilisation.

A second key challenge is the possibility that a spillover of the conflict may turn the region into a boiling cauldron of extremism. There are increasing concerns about the re-emergence of terror groups such as the Islamic State (IS) and Al-Qaeda or even the emergence of new ones.

More importantly, deep concerns are also being raised over the resurgence of Political Islam after a decade of dormancy following the turbulent events of the Arab Spring. Frustration and outrage over the war in Gaza could provide fertile ground for the Islamist groups to make a comeback.

The re-emergence of Political Islam on the regional scene poses a direct security challenge to countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, which have been combating the Islamist movements and their ideologies across the Middle East.

These countries have invested heavily in political, social, and cultural programmes to deprive Political Islam movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood of their ideological credentials and organisational capacity, and their efforts will be undermined by any Islamist revival.

How these challenges will play out to reshape the geopolitical landscape after the Israeli military onslaught on southern Gaza depends largely on the performance of the major players in the Arab regional order in the gravest security crisis the region has faced for decades.

For the moment, the regional Arab powers seem paralysed and unable to think more than just a step ahead. If they keep going in this state, the new regional Arab order will be too chaotic to fit into a post-Gaza straitjacket.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 21 December, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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