Palestine splits Arab street and state

An important but unclear aspect of the ongoing Arab uprisings has been how more democratic and legitimate Arab governments would impact on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Several incidents in Egypt indicate how government and popular street sentiment are likely to behave differently on Israel-Palestine than did the previous Mubarak regime. Now Jordan vividly captures the complexities and nuances of the consequences of more representative Arab governance systems.

The newly elected lower house of the Jordanian parliament last week asked the government to expel Israeli Ambassador Daniel Nevo, and to recall Jordan’s ambassador to Israel, Walid Obeidat. Neither of those things is going to happen, but the political dynamics of the process are intriguing, and highlight an issue that other Arabs must also address in due course: What do Arab governments do when they prefer to maintain peaceful relations with Israel and satisfy American government dictates, but their citizens are angry with Israeli policies and want to take political-diplomatic action to express their discontent?

The Jordanian parliament’s vote was non-binding, and will not result in any changes because its decisions must be ratified by a majority of the upper house of parliament, which is appointed by the king. This vote was especially intriguing because the lower house that was elected last November, in a vote boycotted by the Muslim Brotherhood’s party, was thought to be dominated by pro-government tribal interests, and thus would be little more than a rubber stamp body.

Well, that may be true for most issues, but I guess we are learning now the important political science principle that rubber stamps and human hearts do not always coincide – for Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, and especially the Islamic holy places in occupied East Jerusalem, clearly touches the hearts of all Jordanians, Arabs and Muslims.

Parliament expressed itself in response to several Israeli measures early last week, including Israel’s preventing most Muslims from entering the holy compound (Haram el-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary, in Arabic, and Temple Mount to Israelis) while allowing Jews to visit the area on the day they commemorate Israel’s conquest of the entire city in 1967. Israeli police clashed with a small number of Palestinian demonstrators at the entrance to the Old City. Israeli police detained the mufti of Jerusalem, Sheikh Mohammad Hussein, accusing him of supporting anti-Israeli protests there, before releasing him six hours later.

The Jordanian lower house did not mince its words, saying it “strongly condemns such racist action and affirms that these daily and continuing activities by the Israeli authorities and settlers are systemized and preplanned schemes that reflect the ugly and evil face of extremist Zionists.”

Wow, that is slightly stronger than the usual American-Canadian (now a fused pro-Zionist unit, sadly) response of “tsk, tsk, naughty, naughty” in the face of Israeli actions that are criminal, because the world sees them as illegal (such as settlements or annexing occupied Arab land). So how does an Arab government that is committed to a peace agreement with Israel reconcile this with the sentiments of its democratizing citizens on what they see as “racist, preplanned, and continuing schemes that reflect the ugly and evil face of extremist Zionists”?

The old formula of Arab governments issuing statements condemning Israeli actions, writing to the United Nations, or asking the Arab League sub-committee on agricultural exports to meet in emergency session is unlikely to suffice in emerging new conditions where Arab citizens expect their views to shape government policies. So, as expected, the Jordanian prime minister said the government had discussed what had happened in Jerusalem, the Jordanian Embassy in Tel Aviv would respond with appropriate diplomatic action, and the government was willing to take the issue to the U.N. Security Council.

I believe that the Jordanian government is sincere about its concerns and willingness to act, but such an approach by all Arab states in the past 65 years has had zero impact on Israel’s behavior. This is why newly empowered Arab citizens are demanding more effective measures, at least at the symbolic level of sending ambassadors on car rides home that expresses Arab popular outrage.

Such tensions between the Arab state and its citizens will expand in the years ahead, as the fundamental contradictions of Arab state-building, national identity, regional relations, the Arabism-Zionism confrontation, and international alliances all clash visibly. Jordan and Egypt provide the clearest examples because of their peace treaties with Israel, but they are not unique. Most other Arab states, especially those in the Levant and Gulf, suffer similar stresses by satisfying American-Israeli demands that contradict the sentiments of their own citizens.

Two and a half years after the Arab uprisings erupted, we are starting to witness the first small signs of the regional implications of the birth of Arab citizens and a public political sphere defined by populist legitimacy.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. He can be followed on Twitter @RamiKhouri.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 18, 2013, on page 7.




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