Arab Honour and Dignity are the Obstacles to Peace


Once again, Bibi has recently met with Obama in Washington, only to find this time around Obama has a slightly changed attitude towards Israel, and is being less demanding, amidst his deteriorating popularity particularly amongst a growing number of Jewish Americans for his remaining silent during a period of widespread criticism of Israel, particularly during the Flotilla crisis which has cost Israel dearly in its already bad image in the international community.

In their meeting Bibi’s position was accepted that he wishes to engage in direct talks without pre-conditions. It is rare that I will agree with Bibi, but he is 100% correct, that if the international community expects Israel to have to talk to the Palestinians without them abandoning some of their demands such as the demand for the right of return of the Palestinian refugees to Israel’s pre 1967 border, then the Palestinians should have to also talk to Israel even if it continues settlement construction. Both sides if they are willing to talk should stop stalling and start negotiating.

When it comes to the negotiations for a two-state settlement it is not so much what the end result will look like being the real obstacle, through various previous attempts at Oslo, Camp David, Taba, the Geneva accords, the Clinton parameters, the Road Map, Annapolis, or even the Saudi Peace initiative, we are not so far from agreement on the solution to resolving the main issues; borders, the refugees and Jerusalem, but more on the affective means of getting there.

We can explain past failures by the fact that neither side had the leaders who were bold and brave enough to sign and keep to an agreement, or on extremists attempting to sabotage the peace process.

But there is another component that is worth paying attention to, and considering when negotiating peace with the Palestinians and Syria.

The greatest obstacle to peace in the Middle East is the Western worlds lack of understanding of the importance of ones Honour in the Arab psyche.

The widespread Arab rejectionist stance comes as a result of an obsession to preserve their honour and dignity. This has been the case even before Israel was established, from the opposition of the acceptance of a Jewish state on territory which at the time Pan Arabists believed belonged to them, that the Jews had no right to sovereignty nor self determination in Palestine. At best King Abdullah of Jordan in some meetings on the Israeli-Jordanian border proposed to Golda Meir the creation of an autonomous Jewish canton within a Hashemite kingdom. This was the most accommodating offer from any Arab leader prior to the 1948 war.

It is not only this fixation with their honour; it is also coupled with a feeling of shame and embarrassment that the Arab states were defeated by Jews on the battlefield. This minority group that dwelled in its midst, who have always been dependent on the goodwill and protection of their Muslim or Christian rulers, regarded as second class citizens, should acquire independence, equal rights, and whilst inferior in number and holding less territory should defeat the Arab states not once but multiple times, and to conquer more Arab territory in the process and rule over Muslims on what they believe to be Muslim land.

The Israeli side has adopted a similar line of thinking to some extent, in more recent years since the Second Lebanon war, but not out of rejection of the idea of a negotiated peace but more in an attempt to regain its deterrent capability. Israel had never lost a war; the nation was infused with romantic stories of the might of the Israeli army that miraculously defeated its hostile Arab neighbours seeking to destroy it, of the small strong nation who only asked to be accepted and nothing more.

Israel’s resolve was coming into question after the defeat in Lebanon, which left Hezbullah still operating on Lebanese soil, the north of Israel shattered by rockets and the kidnapped Israeli soldiers still in captivity. Not to mention the international community’s outrage at the damage caused to the civilian infrastructure of South Lebanon.

To Hezbullah it was seen as a huge victory, and an increased optimism to continue the physical fight against Israel began to revive itself, coupled with the support from Iran. Israel and her supporters started to ask serious questions about the IDF, the “best trained army in the world,” it was suggested that perhaps the IDF was not used to fighting a conventional war anymore. Its victories were mostly against armies of foreign states, but Israel has not fought a war like that since 1973. It has become used to policing a mostly civilian population in the West bank and Gaza, fighting terrorism, through building borders, checkpoints, targeted assassinations and various military operations to root out terrorists in Palestinian cities and refugee camps but the army has not really known war of this kind for quite some time. Even Israel’s involvement in Lebanon in 1982 did not end particularly well.

Many, blamed Israel’s leaders for poor organisation holding the prime minister Ehud Olmert, the defence minister Amir Peretz and chief of staff Dan Halutz responsible. Operation Cast Lead was the attempt by Israel to regain its deterrent credibility, to some extent it did achieve that objective but has suffered gravely diplomatically.

Whilst there are Arab leaders who are willing to compromise and progress has been made in the Arabs making concessions to accepting Israel’s existence, it has not come without taking into account addressing the value that the Arab league has for victory and loathing for the idea of compromise, viewing it as a sign of weakness on the part of those who are proposing it.

The Yom Kippur war in 1973 was an attempt by the Egyptians and the Syrians to regain the territory that they had shamefully lost in 1967. When Sadat came to power in 1970, high on his agenda was regaining the Sinai, he put out feelers for peace to Israel, to the appeal of Britain and France over reopening the Suez canal which Nasser had caused friction during the 1956 Suez crisis when Egypt sought nationalization of the canal. The Americans were not interested in his offers for peace for he was perceived to be a Soviet client state and the promises he was making were not credible and that he would not be able to survive alone without Moscow, the Israelis too as a result of 1967 had realized that they did not need to make concessions to Egypt and that they could not defeat Israel militarily after having defeated Egypt in two wars.

Even if Sadat was willing to go to even greater lengths diplomatically to make peace with Israel, for example had he gone to Jerusalem to address the Knesset before the Yom Kippur war in an attempt to regain the territories, from Israel’s perspective this would have demonstrated that Sadat was serious about peace and not trying to lure Israel into making concessions only to later renege on her obligations. One might ask, why didn’t this occur if Sadat really wanted to make peace, why did Israel and Egypt have to have another war? It is because the Arab world held such a rejectionist position towards Israel, which had been the unified Arab league policy made in Khartoum with the ‘three no’s’ that the Arab world were hungry for a victory, and certainly would not be willing to make any concessions  to Israel without at least attempting to win the territories back first through war.

Sadat went to war with Israel in 1973 so that he could make peace with Israel. He was very clever in how he deceived the rest of the Arab world into thinking that this attack along with Syria was more than just regaining control of the Sinai but also about the destruction of Israel, when in fact he led the country to war, to restore Arab honour, to regain the Sinai, to open the Suez canal, to make peace with Israel and to be removed from dependency on the Soviet Union through becoming a US client state instead.

It was only the fact that he waged war in such a way that both sides were able to return to their countries claiming victory. From this point both sides feeling themselves victorious could on an equal footing start to negotiate a peace.

One might argue that this cost Sadat his life, as he was later assassinated for making peace with Israel by extremists, and Egypt was expelled from the Arab League, making Sadaam Hussein’s Iraq the Leagues new leader. But Egypt now the first Arab state to enter what we call the “moderate” camp would prosper from the aid that America would give them as agreed at camp David, and in spite of Sadat’s assassination his successor Mubarak who has remained Egypt’s leader until today, has not reneged on the agreement made between Israel and Egypt.

This paved the way for peace with another Arab nation which Israel had wanted to make peace with for many years, Jordan, where King Abdullah had many secret encounters with Israeli leaders, where private diplomacy was extremely common between these two nations, and Israel always knew that Jordan was the least hostile Arab nation and was more reluctant than the other Arab states when going to war with Israel, but again would join in out of pressure and not to be ostracized by the Arab league. The taboo of recognizing Israel had been broken by Egypt and Jordan too could emerge as the second “moderate” Arab state. Were it not for the rejectionist position of the Arab League it is possible that Israel and Jordan may have reached a peace agreement many years earlier.

Abdullah too was concerned about Arab honour with his proposal he made to the Zionists before 1947 as to where they would fit into his imperial ambition of creating an empire comprising Syria, Lebanon and even Saudi Arabia:

“ Any clash between us will be to our mutual detriment. We are speaking about partition. I would agree to a partition that will not disgrace me before the Arab world when I come out to defend it.”[1]

But years later Jordan would find herself in conflict with the Palestinians, particularly in 1970 when King Hussein launched Black September as a month long attack against the P.L.O who were undermining the Hashemite rule over his country, which resulted in the expulsion of the P.L.O to Lebanon. In response to this Syrian forces invaded Jordan threatening to further destabilize the country, the Israeli Air Force flew over the Syrian positions signalling them to retreat back to Jordan. It is alleged that the Mossad informed Hussein of an attempted assassination attempt against him.

A non-official alliance grew stronger between the two countries, and more so amongst growing divisions between the Arab states. As the Arab states began slowly to moderate their positions publicly on the issue of recognizing Israel’s right to exist, as is the case today and evident in proposals such as the Saudi Peace proposal, offering all Arab states full recognition and normalized relations with Israel provided that it withdraw to the pre ’67 borders and the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West bank and Gaza.

Egypt paved the path for other Arab leaders to recognize Israel, through addressing the obstacle of the Arab need to restore their honour in regaining the Sinai but today the obstacle of honour has not disappeared, it has been marginalized to fringe groups who are gaining more and more influence in the region, undermining almost all Arab governments, whether or not they have formal peace agreements with Israel or not. The rejectionist position has now been left in the hands of religious fundamentalist groups such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Al Aqsa Martyrs brigade, Hezbullah, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Taliban and of course Al Quaeda. All given strength and hope and support by the one true rejectionist state, Iran. Whilst Iran is not an Arab country, and its political goals are not the same as that of the Arab states vision of a Pan Arab empire, it is an expansionist regime and is Islamist, which will undermine the secular rule of the Hashemites in Jordan, in spite of their alliance Assad’s Alawite regime in Syria, Mubarak’s pro western regime in Egypt, the hopefully ‘moderate’ Iraqi government to be, is already causing further strife in Lebanon through Hezbullah, as is the case with Hamas, will threaten the Palestinian Authority led by Mahmud Abbas and will seek regional domination and inevitably threaten western interest in Saudi oil.

The American led invasion of Iraq and the rise of the Ayatollahs in Iran with progress in their nuclear ambitions were major changing points in the attitudes of the leaders of the Arab states towards Israel. They speak more moderately than in the past, they claim to accept Israel’s right to exist but just demand that she return to the pre June 1967 borders.

The New York Times foreign affair correspondent Thomas Freidman had an interesting illustration; of  how hypothetically US secretary of state, Warren Christopher, in a conversation may have attempted to explain globalization to Syrian president Hafez Al Assad, where whilst hypothetical he puts forth generally the current Syrian attitude towards Israel:

“No, Chris, I can afford to be patient. I will make peace with the Jews only in a way that establishes m as the one Arab leader who knows how to make peace with dignity – who does not grovel the way those lackeys Arafat and Sadat did. I won’t be another Sadat. I intend to be better than Sadat. I intend to give the Israelis less and get more. That is the only way I can protect myself from my own fundamentalists and domestic opponents and maintain the Arab leadership status that will always bring Syria money from someone. And if this means I have to use my proxies in Lebanon to make the Israelis bleed, no problem. It’s a bad neighbourhood, Chris, and the Israelis have gone soft. Too many of those kosher Big Macs, Chris. All these Israeli boys who come to fight in Lebanon carry their cell phones with them so they can call their Jewish mothers every night. Such good little boys. Do you think we don’t notice?[2]

In spite of the moderation in the language of Arab leaders the issue of preserving or restoring their honour still persists, in spite of the fact that from time to time they have found themselves divided in their stances on Israel or in positions of extreme weakness, particularly since the fall of the Soviet Union, they still would rather suffer than agree to a deal that is more on Israel’s terms considering their lack of anything left to bargain with, it is just too difficult for them to deal psychologically with the fact that they have been defeated, or to swallow their pride and come to terms with it and make peace.

The return of the refugees is possibly the one closed issue in dispute for Israel, she simply will not under any circumstances agree to the Palestinian demand for the refugees to return to Israel’s pre 1967 borders. But at the same time Israel must realize from the lessons learned from making peace with Sadat over the Sinai, that Mahmoud Abbas too will have to face a Palestinian population which may not accept the empty package on this issue that he may bring back to his people. The same formula must apply too to the Palestinians, the illusion or symbolism of the Palestinians achieving a victory or how they would perceive it as justice being served must present itself to them, Israel will have to agree to a symbolic number of refugees to return if only to address this obstacle, and the rest will have to receive compensation and be resettled within the borders of the Palestinian state.

The honour obstacle is less of an issue today amongst Israel’s old enemies, the Arab states and the P.L.O, but I very much doubt that the same rule will apply or be successful with the fundamentalist Islamist groups who Israel does not consider partners for peace. What is even more alarming is the thought that if they are then how many more wars of honour must Israel fight in order to make peace. As Israel’s past two wars have shown that as tank did not fight tank, plane did not fight plane, the enemy today possesses the advantage of surprise and disguise, its arsenal is mediocre and operates from densely populated areas, this severely restricts Israel’s military options in spite of her capabilities.

Israel’s current enemies have adopted the Salami tactic, to slice away at her slowly, with rockets coming from Gaza and South Lebanon, which eventually Israel puts her foot down and attempts to confiscate the knife, she succeeds and then in time they obtain a new knife, and perhaps a better knife. Israel cannot claim that she faces an existential threat from these attacks, nor can she use proportionate force to remove the threat. She realizes all along that she will eventually need to deal with this threat by chopping off the arm of the Butcher; the Butcher being Iran, Iran is the biggest existential threat Israel has ever faced. It is unlikely that Iran will become pragmatic to accepting Israel on any conditions and make peace. Iran under Ahmedinijad has set itself the goal of restoring honour to the whole Muslim world, by achieving the goal of destroying Israel which the Arabs abandoned, and to then claim the role of the regional superpower.

Iran has made significant progress in perusing this objective in defiance of widespread international condemnation, with her tentacles exporting this revolution to Lebanon, Gaza and more recently Turkey. This movement is the movement of honour that would rather rot and die heroically than entertain the notion of compromise or pragmatism.


[1] Ezra Danin, “Conversation with Abdullah, 17.11.47,” S25/4004 Sasson to Shertok, Nov. 20, 1947, S25/1969; Golda Meyerson’s verbal report to the Provisional State Council on May 12, 1948 Israel State Archives, Provisional State Council: Protocols, 18 April – 13 May 1948 (Jerusalem: Israel publishing house, 1978), pp.40 – 41.

[2] Friedman, T (2000) The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Harper Collins: London pp. 274

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