Academic journal article Arab Studies Quarterly

Unity on Palestine without Arab Unity? Us Policy and the Post-Maksoud Arab World

Academic journal article Arab Studies Quarterly

Unity on Palestine without Arab Unity? Us Policy and the Post-Maksoud Arab World

Article excerpt

Introduction and Background: The Conscience of Crisis

CIovís Maksoud was one of the best-known voices of Arab-especially Palestinian-aspirations and sensible US policies toward them. Throughout his life, the celebrated American diplomat worked for justice in Palestine, which he believed was simultaneously the bedrock of the pan-Arab project for unifying the Arab natíon-states and the American interest in their stability. But with the Arab regimes fraying, some collapsing outright in the aftermath of the so-called Arab Winter, that belief is facing its most considerable challenges to date. First, Arabs are more splintered than ever before along political, economic, ethnic, national, sectarian, and ideological lines. Those claiming to act on behalf of unity have only exaggerated the differences. The Islamists, in particular, harbor a violent disdain for pan-Arabism, the Arab governments, and US meddling equally. Second, Palestinian independence is nearly impossible given Israel's expanding settlements as well as its regional military superiority vis-a-vis the Arabs. And while, as Maksoud once put it, "Arab nationalism, which remains the rational and viable expression of a valid identity, has been associated with coercive and authoritarian regimes on the one hand and with the failure to defend Palestinian rights effectively," the sleuth of Islamist alternatives has not fared much.1 Hence, this article traces out the history of that outcome through the political actors vying for power, their ideologies for achieving it, and interactions with American foreign policy.

Arab Un-Unity and Unity on Palestine

Concern for the Palestinians is widely shared throughout the Arab world. But there is a lot of discord about what ought to be done and who should be entrusted to carry it out. For pan-Arabists, the singular choice was that the Palestinians would have their own state with help from a united front among the existing Arab states. The idea, however, never materialized and the Palestinians had to endure what Ghada Hashem Talhami referred to as "the unending diaspora."2 A free Palestine as the beginning and the end of Arab unity has fallen out of fashion not because of a lack of support for the Palestinians as much as a major deficit in Arab politics. This move away from that position and pan-Arabism in general started in developments preceding the Arab uprisings, including Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and the American-led Persian Gulf War pitting the Arab states against one another, the end of the Cold War and Gamal Abdel-Nasser's nonalignment as a rallying force of a united Arab bloc globally, and the collapse of Ba'athism as an alternative to capitalism and communism after the execution of Saddam Hussein by the US-backed Shiite government in Baghdad.

Arab politics became increasingly divided with each monumental event and ultimately ruptured during the Arab Winter. According to Maksoud, the resulting crises for Arab solidarity-the violent death of Arab secularism and socialism in Iraq and later Syria, the endless variations of Sunni vs. Shia militancy, regime vs. people, Islamist vs. secular, one Arab state vs. another, Muslim vs. non-Muslim, etc.-were parts of a bigger failure to be overcome: imagining an inclusive, participatory public sphere in the Arab countries, where the Palestinians have always enjoyed a universal appeal among the masses. Both a free Palestine and Arab unity, Maksoud argued, were casualties of that failure particularly because the Arab regimes privileged their self-interest and preservation over anything else. He further noted that the Palestinian Authority (PA) has not acted any differently, ignoring the will of its people and their suffering under Israeli occupation in favor of holding on to power. Maksoud pointed to the resulting tug of war over the PA between the secular and Islamist Palestinian factions as a microcosm of the disunity afflicting the surrounding region. Indeed, the very notion of unity in the Occupied Territories and the larger Arab-Muslim world is at the center of political contestation: Who is united? …

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