Six months before the end of the Second World War, seven independent Arab countries established an alliance.
Six months before the end of the Second World War, seven independent Arab countries established an alliance. Egypt, Iraq, Transjordan (now Jordan), Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Yemen met in Cairo on March 22, 1945, and formed the Arab League, a new regional organization to promote closer political, economic, cultural, and social relations between its member states. Since then,
the League’s consistent failure to address the challenges and disputes that its 22 members have faced over the years has caused many to question its efficacy
Perhaps the pan-Arab organization’s most significant failure has been its inability to help the Palestinian people achieve their dream of an independent state. The Pact of the League of Arab States, the organization’s founding document, declared that the country’s existence and independence could “no more be questioned de jure” than the independence of any other Arab state. Nevertheless, over the past 40 years, the Arab League’s rhetoric about the imperative of establishing a Palestinian state has become increasingly vague.
The Beginning and End of Arab League Unity
During the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Israel attacked Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, and succeeded in occupying what remained of historic Palestine. Moreover, it also seized the Egyptian Sinai desert and the Golan Heights from Syria. Just three months after Israel’s swift victory, the fourth Arab League Summit, also known as “The Three No’s Summit,” convened in Khartoum to emphasize the need for Arab solidarity to regain the territories they lost during the war. The historic gathering asserted that there would be “no peace, no negotiations, and no recognition of Israel.”
In the years that followed, Arab nations worked together to rebuild their military might and on October 6, 1973, Egyptian and Syrian forces launched a surprise attack on Israel on Yom Kippur—an important Jewish religious holiday—which marked the beginning of the fourth Arab-Israeli War. The Arab forces hoped that the new offensive would reverse the “humiliating defeats” of their previous war with Israel.
Initially, Israel suffered major losses during the two-front Arab offensive. However, less than 24 hours later, the Israelis mobilized two armored divisions, which advanced deep into Syrian territory. Israeli forces subsequently penetrated Egyptian and Syrian lines of defense on October 16 and changed the tide of the war in Tel Aviv’s favor, which provoked the Arabs to use a different pressure tactic.
In response to Israel’s counterattack, the Arab members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) announced that they were going to reduce their oil production by five percent on October 17. They also banned the sale of oil to the U.S. and the Netherlands to pressure Western countries to force Israel to withdraw from the lands it seized in 1967.
Nonetheless, the Arab countries’ coordinated military offensive and oil embargo ultimately failed.
Nonetheless, the Arab countries’ coordinated military offensive and oil embargo ultimately failed. Eventually, the Arabs and Israelis signed disengagement agreements and OPEC lifted its oil ban in March of 1974. The dream of Arab unity died on the battlefields of the 1973 war and paved the way for a new chapter in Arab relations with Israel and Palestine.
The Middle East’s “Lost” Cause
Egyptian President Anwar Sadat visited Jerusalem in 1977, where he gave a speech about peace to the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. A year later, then U.S. President Jimmy Carter invited both Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to Camp David—a remote presidential country retreat outside of Washington, D.C. After 13 days of secret discussions, Sadat and Begin signed the Camp David Accords, which laid out the conditions for an Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty and established a framework for Israeli-Palestinian peace on September 17, 1978.
Six months later, Egypt signed a peace agreement with Israel on March 26, 1979. This unprecedented move led to a break in diplomatic relations between Cairo and the rest of the Arab world, as well as the suspension of Egypt from the Arab League and the relocation of the organization’s headquarters from the Egyptian capital to Tunisia’s capital, Tunis. Just ten years later in 1989, Egypt was readmitted, and the League’s headquarters returned to Cairo soon thereafter.
The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) signed the Oslo Accords on September 13, 1993. The Accords stipulated that Israel accept the PLO as the representative of the Palestinians in exchange for the PLO’s renunciation of terrorism and formal recognition of Israel’s right to exist in peace. Jordan followed suit and signed a peace treaty normalizing relations with Israel on October 16, 1994.
Fast forward to 2002, Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia announced the Arab Peace Initiative (API) during the twentieth Arab League Summit in Beirut. This proposal called for Israel to withdraw from occupied territories to the June 4, 1967, territorial boundaries to allow for the “establishment of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.”
The initiative also advocated “a just and agreed solution over the issue of Palestinian refugees.” In return, the Arab world would recognize the State of Israel and establish diplomatic ties with Tel Aviv to ensure its security. Surprisingly, both the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference adopted the API, reversing decades of Arab and Muslim policy.
In recent years, the Trump administration has also dealt successive deadly blows to the Palestinian dream of statehood. These blows include its recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017, its defunding of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East in 2018, and, just recently, its recognition of Tel Aviv’s annexation of the Golan Heights
An Echo Chamber of Pro-Palestinian Rhetoric
At the thirtieth Arab League Summit hosted in Tunis on March 31, Arab leaders rejected Washington’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights and renewed their call for the establishment of an independent Palestine.
At the thirtieth Arab League Summit hosted in Tunis on March 31, Arab leaders rejected Washington’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights and renewed their call for the establishment of an independent Palestine. During his address to the League, Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi said that the “Palestinian issue should be a priority.” He also stressed that regional and international security and stability must be achieved through a just settlement of the Arab-Israeli issue and “the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital on the borders of 1967 and based on international legitimacy resolutions, the Arab peace initiative, and the two-state solution.”
After denouncing Washington’s latest pro-Israel move at the Tunis summit, Arab leaders pledged that they would “seek a U.N. Security Council resolution against the U.S. decision.” But will the Arab League states actually resume their vociferous pursuit of the Palestinian cause as they proclaimed in Tunis or will they revert to the same old empty rhetoric echoing through the League? And if the former, will they deter Washington from further undermining Palestinian aspirations in the future?
In reality, the Arab League states are unlikely to wholeheartedly reprise the cause. “Many of today’s Arab governments are effectively beholden to foreign powers” such as the U.S., Mouin Rabbani, co-editor of Jadaliyya, an Arab studies magazine told Al Jazeera. This, along with the Arab League’s unimpressive track record in dealing with regional conflicts, is more likely to leave the Palestinians in the same precarious situation that they have been in since before the League was created.