By James M. Dorsey
A little noticed subtext to furious protests across the Middle East and North Africa against US President Donald J. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is simmering anger at Arab governments.
The subtext demarcates a delicate balance between Arab youth frustrated with governments that are seemingly unwilling and unable to stand up for Arab rights and Arab leaders whose survival instincts persuade them to maintain failed policies
The anger is driven by a continued display of Arab inability to reverse Israeli occupation of territories occupied during the 1967 Middle East war, a readiness to overtly or covertly cooperate with Israel in the absence of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, and, even worse, reports that Gulf states were willing to support a US peace plan that failed to meet minimal Palestinian demands for an independent state.
Underlying the anger is frustration that Arab regimes, six years after the 2011 popular Arab revolts and amid years of a brutal and violent United Arab Emirates and Saudi-led counterrevolution that has rolled back the achievements of the uprisings everywhere except for in Tunisia, still fail to deliver public services and goods.
The potentially explosive mix is highlighted by the Arab and Muslim world’s response to Mr. Trump’s move that amounts to little more than toothless statements and a glaring lack of diplomatic action.
Virtually no Arab government has summoned a US ambassador or charge d’affaires to protest the decision. Nor have Arab leaders sought to pin Mr. Trump down on what his statement. that is riddled with apparent internal contradictions and vague assertions, means. Only Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas drew a line by announcing that he would not meet with US Vice President Mike Pence when he visits the Middle East later this month.
The strategy of Arab leaders appears one designed to verbally condemn Mr. Trump’s move and hope that pro-longed protests will prove unsustainable. Arab leaders have good reason to believe that maintaining the degree of mobilization on the streets of Jerusalem, Palestinian cities and Arab capitals will prove difficult.
Their repressive policies and the Middle East’s dissent into chaos and violence as a result of the counterrevolution has dampened appetite for renewed mass anti-government protest despite calls for a third intifada or anti-Israeli uprising by groups like Hamas, the Islamist group in Gaza, and Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite militia in Lebanon.
That may be a risky calculation in the medium rather than the short term. If the Arab revolts and the escalation of extremism proved anything, it is that Arab leaders ignore frustration and anger at their peril. Explosions of public anger are more often spontaneous than planned.
Gulf leaders are not wholly oblivious to the threat. Forced by lower oil prices, they have announced reform plans that aim to diversify and rationalize their rentier state economies, loosen social restrictions, and unilaterally rewrite social contracts while tightening political control. Yet, leaders like Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, have yet to deliver jobs and greater economic opportunity.
The question also is to what degree Gulf leaders have their ear to the ground. Bahrain, a Saudi ally that seldom moves without consulting Riyadh, allowed a 25-member interfaith group to make a rare visit to Israel despite Mr. Trump’s move.
The timing of Bahrain’s decision to violate a 2002 Saudi-driven Arab peace plan adopted by the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) that calls for normalization of relations with Israel only when the Jewish state withdraws from territories conquered during the 1967 Middle East war, could not have been worse.
It reinforced a belief among protesters that Arab leaders attributed greater importance to strengthening informal ties with Israel, whom they view as an ally in their efforts to counter Iran, than to protecting Arab and Muslim rights.
While unwilling to risk their relationship with Washington despite deep-seated passions evoked by the controversy over Islam’s third most holy city, Arab leaders, paradoxically, have so far failed to exploit the wiggle room offered by Mr. Trump’s statement.
A careful reading of Mr. Trump’s statement leaves room for interpretation even if there is little doubt that the president intended to bolster Israel’s position. US officials, including United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley, have struggled to explain how the statement furthers the peace process without alienating Mr. Trump’s domestic base that endorses the Israeli claim to all of Jerusalem.
Mr. Trump catered to his base by refraining from qualifying his recognition of Jerusalem with a reference to Palestinian claims. Yet, he asserted that he was not prejudging the outcome of peace negotiations.
The president insisted that the United States “continues to take no position on any final status issues. The specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem are subject to final status negotiations between the parties. The United States is not taking a position on boundaries or borders.”
Arab leaders could project themselves as getting in front of the cart by seeking clarification from Mr. Trump on whether and what limitations he may put on recognition of Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem in terms of what that means for the status of the city’s Palestinian population and Israeli settlement activity in East Jerusalem.
Former Saudi intelligence chief and ex-ambassador to London and Washington Prince Turki al-Faisal appeared to allude to that when he warned in an open letter to Mr. Trump that “”your action has emboldened the most extreme elements in the Israeli society … because they take your action as a license to evict the Palestinians from their lands and subject them to an apartheid state.”
Amid the raw emotions, Arab leaders and protesters are both walking a fine line. Protesters’ anger is about more than fury with Mr. Trump. It is about their leaders’ multiple policy failures. Arab leaders need to be seen as being on the right side of public opinion while not rocking the boat.
If there is a silver lining in Mr. Trump’s move, it may be Arab leaders’ need to bridge the gap between public perception and their survival instinct. Leading the charge in pressuring the president to clarify his statement is an opportunity, Arab leaders have so far failed to capitalize on.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa.