Arabs Closing Ranks
Arab reports suggest that Egyptian mediation is close to producing a Hamas-Fatah reconciliation (with a unity government to be chosen within 60 days) and a truce with Israel. Meanwhile, a high-level Saudi envoy (King Abdullah's head of intelligence Prince Muqrin) recently appeared in Damascus -- followed by Arab League head Amr Moussa -- while Egypt's Foreign Minister and intelligence chief showed up in Riyadh for consultations. The signs are adding up that the major Arab actors are trying seriously to overcome the intense divisions of the last few months and unify their ranks.
While it's hard tell at this point how serious these efforts are, or what they will produce -- the divides were deep, and the wounds remain fresh -- this suggests that the "couch diplomacy" in Kuwait last month may have more legs than most observers expected at the time. Al-Quds al-Arabi (a leading voice of the "rejection/resistance camp") dates the turnaround to the Kuwait meeting, where the Saudi King spoke harshly about Israel and called for the unification of Arab ranks in response. Most people (including, reportedly, the Syrians) thought that this was just for show and wouldn't matter... but developments since then may suggest otherwise.
Why? With divisions intensifying, Arab leaders may have recognized the dangers of a complete collapse of the existing order. There has been a lot of talk over the last few weeks in the Arab media about the destructiveness and pointlessness of the media wars and political divisions, the failures of the Arab order over Gaza, and the need to regroup. While good sense does not as a rule prevail in these situations, this time perhaps it did. Here are a few suggestions as to why:
Reading Obama's signals.
Riyadh and Cairo (and Damascus) may have been responding to the perception that the Obama administration would look favorably on the rehabilitation of Syria and an Arab formula for bringing Hamas back in to the game. At the least, their consultations reflect their uncertainty about Obama's intentions. Public signals have been mixed -- Mitchell's first visit including only representatives of the so-called "moderate" camp, Clinton's hawkish comments on Hamas, and so forth. But I suspect that different private messages from Mitchell may have reconfigured Saudi and Egyptian calculations. Arab leaders and publics are still trying to figure Obama's Middle East policy out -- who isn't? – and signals such as Senator John Kerry's mission to Damascus certainly factor into that. Obama's team should encourage this.
Many understand the need to overcome the stalemate between Hamas's control of Gaza and rising popularity elsewhere on the one hand, and the general international refusal to work with anyone other than Fatah on the other. While animosity towards Hamas runs high in many official Arab circles, at some point reality and pragmatism sets in. Sure, they may prefer to see Fatah regain power and to see Israel and the U.S. actually help it by taking concrete steps to strengthen Mahmoud Abbas's hand (freezing settlements, removing barriers, and so forth) -- but they recognize that it isn't likely to happen.
Israel's elections. I don't think that many Arabs really think that the Israeli elections changed very much. They generally seem to see it as a choice between the right and the far right, with no real peace partner on the horizon. But that itself may have increased the urgency for putting forward a common Arab position to present to the Obama administration and to put the new Israeli government on the spot. And it also increases the urgency to find some workable stopgap to help the people of Gaza and defuse the intensity of the intra-Palestinian conflict in the meantime.
Denying Iran greater gains. For Saudis, in particular, the Iran factor always weighs heavily. The idea that Iran is benefiting from Arab division has been one of the main themes in recent op-eds in al-Sharq al-Awsat (which is often a useful guide to the thinking of the Saudi regime). There is considerable uncertainty about Obama's intentions towards Iran, and what the promised dialogue might entail. So the move to get the Arab house in (relative) order might be prompted in part by anticipation of such changes.
Saudi and Egyptian internal politics. Some sources suggest that the outreach to Syria is part and parcel of the major governmental shuffle carried out by King Abdullah the other day. Given the portfolios in question I'm not sure about this -- but with any luck, friendly Saudi experts might weigh in on the question soon (y'all know my email address and you know who you are). Egyptian domestic politics may have played a role, as well. The government's mediation efforts with Hamas can not help but interact with its high-tension relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, and this may have taken the heat off of government struggling with public dissatisfaction with a whole range of issues. A move to rebuild Arab consensus would also help out King Abdullah of Jordan for similar reasons.
I'm sure that people will disagree over the relative significance of these five factors. One point to make here, though. There's been a raging debate in the Arab press over which should come first -- Palestinian reconciliation or Arab reconciliation. This was always a false choice, though. Hamas and Fatah couldn't hope to reach agreement if their regional patrons were urging them towards conflict, while the Arab states could hardly close ranks if Hamas and Fatah remained at loggerheads. The simultaneous outreach to Syria and seeming moves towards a Hamas-Fatah deal (and truce with Israel) demonstrate the inter-connected nature of these tracks. That should have lessons for the American approach.
The moves towards Arab reconciliation is a positive sign, which the Obama administration should encourage and build upon. The sharp polarization between "moderate" and "rejection" camps is a baleful legacy of the Bush foreign policy and of the Gaza war. It may have been unrealistic to have expected it to fade overnight after years of shaping Arab foreign policy discourse and alliances. But it's high time to jettison that approach, and to attempt to bridge Arab differences rather than exacerbate them... whether that's led by the U.S. or by the Arab regimes themselves without an American veto.