24 Jun The Pathology of Arab State Silence on Palestine: How Rapprochement with Israel Reveals Complicity in the Conflict and Could Cause Further Unrest in the Region
[Dr. Mishana Hosseinioun is a lecturer in International Relations at the University of Oxford and a visiting fellow at the Centre for International Studies at the LSE. She is the president of the international justice consultancy MH Group, which submitted to the ICC an Article 15 Communication integral in opening the formal investigation into the situation in Palestine.]
This May, the ongoing conflict in the Occupied Palestinian Territory intensified yet again, as 11 days of fighting and constant bombardment killed over 250 Palestinians and 13 Israelis. The attacks left at least 68 children dead and displaced more than 70,000 civilians in the Gaza Strip.
Although the vast majority of Hamas projectiles targeting civilian centers were intercepted by the Israeli Defence Forces’ well-known Iron Dome defense system, precision airstrikes carried out by the IDF targeted critical infrastructure and medical facilities, including the area’s only Covid testing lab and an office building housing both Al Jazeera and the Associated Press journalists.
Arab states in the region, meanwhile, responded with a deafening silence.
The tepid reactions from Arab leaders and officials came just months after several states (the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan) normalized relations with Israel, including through the Abraham Accords mediated by the U.S. in late 2020. This initiative was portrayed by many as a bellwether moment for the region, and the increased economic cooperation, according to former UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash, was meant to “foster peace and prosperity” in relations with Israel.
Pundits saw the Accords as a potentially strong incentive for Israel to curtail overt forms of violence against Palestinians, shifting to a focus on trade and economic development. Clearly, that argument has been proven patently false.
During the May attacks, Arab states consistently failed to speak out strongly in support of the Palestinian cause or to firmly denounce Israeli violence. Media in several Arab states avoided even covering news about the attacks. Emirati citizens were instructed to report any pro-Palestinian public statements that strayed from the official state response as anti-Semitism, and state officials in the UAE, Kuwait, and Bahrain circulated the hashtag #PalestineIsNotMyCause despite tremendous popular support for Palestine.
This open reversal of prior commitments to Palestinian statehood and ending Israeli occupation reflects the abandonment of an earlier era of firm Arab opposition to Zionist expansionism. More shockingly, Arab leaders over those perilous 11 days showcased a callous lack of empathy. In the face of a level of violence and destruction unseen by Palestinians since ‘Operation Protective Edge’ in 2014, deemed illegal under international law and subject to an open investigation by the International Criminal Court, several Arab states displayed a form of state psychopathy in their willingness to ignore, downplay, and outright deny the reality of conditions on the ground.
The concept of state psychopathy, a novel research topic not yet found in the prevailing political science or psychology literature, entails framing state behavior through the lens of the clinical symptoms of individual psychopathy. While tremendous in-depth scholarship has been done broadening individual psychological phenomena to collective group dynamics, no scholars have yet applied diagnostic criteria to the state, though these criteria have been applied to the multinational corporation.
According to the fifth edition of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, psychopaths (now called those with Antisocial Personality Disorder) exhibit behaviors such as disregarding safety (callous disregard), wantonly pursuing self-interest (self-centered impulsivity), regularly engaging in lies and deception (glibness/superficial charm), lacking remorse, and acting aggressively (gross negligence). These behaviors are elaborated upon in the psychopathic personality inventory (PPI-R), and in Robert Hare’s revised psychopathy checklist (PCL-R) used by psychiatrists to diagnose psychopathic behavior in clinical settings. Parallels to many of the actions Hare and the DSM identify can be observed in state actions, and each of the aforementioned characteristics will be explored further in this article in the context of maladaptive state behavior.
Crucially, individual psychopaths are highly rational and calculating, keenly aware of but apathetic to the immoral or illegal nature of their behavior, while disguising that apathy to the public. The states with a stake in the Israel-Palestine conflict often act out this sort of manipulation, and they have in recent weeks by paying lip service to the Palestinian cause while doubling down on normalization with Israel and suppression of domestic dissent.
The notion of a strong Arab front against Israeli aggression has dissipated; the concept of the Arab-Israeli conflict no longer holds water, as Arab states are increasingly pursuing close economic relations with Israel and becoming complicit in Palestinian suffering. In their quest for trade deals and acceptance by leading Western powers, many Arab states are mirroring the “Israel First” foreign policy that Western nations have long embraced.
The normalization efforts undertaken by Arab states, and facilitated by the US, since the autumn of 2020 have frequently resembled quid pro quo agreements designed to confer upon these states greater international legitimacy and open the door to economic cooperation with Israel’s robust, hi-tech economy.
In North Africa, Morocco’s rapprochement was conditional upon American recognition of Morrocan sovereignty over disputed territory in Western Sahara. The legitimacy bestowed by this recognition offers King Mohammed VI an opportunity to further assert his control over the region where a tenuous UN-brokered ceasefire between the Polisario Front and Rabat has been in place since 1991, and that chance serves as a formidable motivator for Morocco to preserve its newfound standing by avoiding confrontation over Israeli actions. Similarly, the United States removed Sudan from its ‘state sponsors of terror’ list in exchange for Khartoum opening economic and diplomatic relations with Israel. The removal of that designation made it possible for Sudan’s embattled economy to receive debt relief and loans from intergovernmental financial institutions, again demonstrating the quid pro quo nature of the peace agreements organized by the Trump administration.
In the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, the rapid proliferation of economic ties with Israel in the months following normalization lays bare the extensive planning and coordination that had taken place even before cooperation was made transparent. In September 2020, financial institutions in the UAE and Israel formed a funding platform called Phoenix Capital, designed to facilitate investments in technology between the two countries. The same month, energy ministers from both states discussed the possibility of linking power grids and collaborating on natural gas exports. As these linkages multiply, the UAE’s intransigence over speaking out on Palestine is bound to grow.
Bahrain, too, received guarantees of economic rewards through normalization. The country signed a memorandum of understanding relating to the tourism sector with Israel in December 2020, and the Israeli government announced that it expected $220 billion in non-defense trade with Bahrain in 2021. These economic ties illustrate the benefits that Arab states aim to gain from greater cooperation with Israel, and increasing interdependence will continue to fly in the face of popular sentiment and discourage criticisms of Israel.
Glibness & Superficial Charm
Saudi Arabia, yet to officially formalize relations with Israel and not a signatory to the Abraham Accords, is expected to be next on the list to pursue normalization. Crown Prince Mohammed Bin
Salman’s recent actions have made clear his desires for the Kingdom to strengthen economic and political ties to the state, even as he rhetorically defends the Palestinian cause.
This contradictory approach was illuminated in a November meeting between Bin Salman, Benjamin Netanyahu, and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a rendezvous which was lauded by Israeli officials but emphatically denied by the Saudis. During the most recent escalation, Saudi Arabia decried Israeli aggression while at the same time partnering closely with Israel on both political and military matters.
Furthermore, Saudi forces detained dozens of Palestinian and Jordanian activists and academics on vague accusations of supporting terrorism for over two years, allegedly subjecting them to torture and arbitrary detention, according to a report by Human Rights Watch.
This asymmetry of rhetoric and action extends to the domestic Israeli political sphere as well. The recent exit of Benjamin Netanyahu and the emergence of a fragile coalition dependent upon power-sharing between ultra-nationalists, secular centrists, and Israel’s small Ra’am Arab party may seem to signal a promising political transition. In reality, though, the administration is unlikely to alter the status quo or address the root causes of the conflict.
The new government’s declared intention to focus on economic reform and infrastructure improvements is likely to make economic normalization with Arab states more palatable. Even if Naftali Bennett’s fresh technocratic leadership results in less overt violence than Netanyahu’s government, it will likely continue to disenfranchise and peripheralize Palestinian aspirations through the continued exercise of structural violence. This absence of a meaningful transformation has been demonstrated by the new coalition’s willingness to endorse an ultra-nationalist march that served as a key ignitor of the May conflict, and to respond to Hamas’ release of incendiary balloons into Israeli settlements with air-strikes within the first week of its tenure.
Lack of Remorse
Arab states have sidelined the will of their people. The leaders’ policies and priorities are misaligned with the views of their populaces, who mostly see the Palestinian cause as a concern for all Arabs. That dissonance sets the stage for domestic unrest and upheaval in the region to re-emerge at scale as the social contract between state and society is broken. Arab leaders’ conspicuous silence on Palestine illustrates their inability or unwillingness to learn important lessons from the Arab Spring.
Suppression of dissent and recent crackdowns on those who have spoken out on Palestine have triggered large protests in Bahrain, Lebanon, Tunisia, Iraq, Morocco, Jordan, and Sudan, as Arab citizens feel betrayed by the hypocrisy and impotence of their leaders at a time when Arab access to the third holiest city in Islam is gravely threatened.
Popular sentiment in Arab states is also turning toward more extreme approaches to countering Israeli aggression. The fact that normalization efforts failed to deter Israeli violence has, to many, put on display the abject ineffectiveness of engaging with Israel economically and diplomatically as a way to pursue peace, let alone reverse occupation. Due to this perceived failure, extreme groups like Hamas and Hezbollah have gained political popularity as tempered, traditional diplomatic strategies flounder.
As popular demands for Arab states to provide staunch, unequivocal backing for Palestine against Israeli occupation come up against leaders who are newly reticent to jeopardize their normalization efforts, fertile ground is created for increasingly unruly protests. Importantly, just as during the Arab Spring, there will be a threshold beyond which populations transform their calls for reform into calls for a change in leadership or even revolution. The current imbalance between state policy and public opinion is not sustainable, and the growth of extremist groups will necessitate further state-led repression that will continue the spiral toward large-scale unrest.
If more violent groups in the region continue to become increasingly attractive as citizens feel political officials do not represent them and favor the status quo, the possibility for an Arab Spring sequel will skyrocket. Arab state leaders are leaving a vacuum in leadership and initiative that extremist groups will happily fill.
Arab states have acted disingenuously in reneging on their commitments, namely to defend Jerusalem at all costs, create conditions for Palestinian statehood, and hold Israeli officials to account for their excessive use of violence and possible commission of war crimes.
Without a substantive response from Arab leaders, the primary mechanism being utilized to pursue accountability lies in international law and the notoriously politicized International Criminal Court. Its Pretrial Chamber decided in February that the Hague has jurisdiction to formally investigate war crimes committed in Palestine, the court’s first such ruling applied outside of Africa or Afghanistan.
While investigations like this will provide avenues to gather concrete evidence of injustice against Palestinians and could punish several high-ranking officials, Arab state complacency and complicity remain a significant impediment to the peace process. This pattern of gross negligence cannot persist without profoundly destabilizing effects regionwide. If the relevant leaders continue to pursue superficial means of peacemaking while putting their own interests above those of their people, an Arab Spring 2.0 may soon be at their doorstep.