Path to Mideast Peace Never a Straight Line
Updated: Oct 21, 2020
A new poll shows that 59 per cent of Jordanians and Saudis, along with 58 per cent of Egyptians and 56 per cent of U.A.E. residents support normalization with Israel Avi Abraham Benlolo, National Post Oct 16, 2020 • Last Updated 3 hours ago • 4 minute
As a child, I was enchanted by the folklore tales of the Arabian Nights. These were magical stories embedded in chronicles interwoven with hidden motivations, smoke and mirrors. In the modern Middle East, the art of the illusion, like a mirage, is part of the daily façade.
Qatar, as an example, seems to have honed in on a self-image that makes one wonder about those tales from One Thousand and One Nights. Fiction can become reality and my interest piqued when a press release landed in my inbox from the Doha-based Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies. It called attention to a new poll that found “huge appetite for democracy among Arab citizens.”
I was pleasantly intrigued because a democratic Qatar would be wonderful. How reassuring and affirmative to read that “there is near unanimous support for democracy … 76 per cent of Arabs support a democratic system.” Well, that’s great news because just the other day, I read a report published by Freedom House that labelled Qatar as “Not Free,” giving it a score of 25 out of 100 for poor political rights and civil liberties. In comparison, for example, Canada’s score is a modest 98.
Freedom House says that “Qatar’s hereditary emir holds all executive and legislative authority, and ultimately controls the judiciary as well. Political parties are not permitted, and … the vast majority of its population are non citizens with no political rights, few civil liberties, and limited access to economic opportunity.” Well, thankfully, this new opinion poll taken from 13 Arab countries will force substantive democratic change and encourage peace with Israel. Right?
Wrong, says my friend and peace activist Imam Muhammed Tawhidi. “Qatar is a country that is striving hard to undo the peace efforts between the U.A.E., Israel and Bahrain because they do not recognize the Jewish State,” he told me in a recent interview. “And they do not want anyone else to recognize Israel.” Tawhidi may have a point: the Doha survey also reported that “88 per cent of citizens refuse to recognize the State of Israel, citing political reasons as opposed to religious or cultural ones.”
This is hard to digest for an optimist given the incredible progress the Middle East has made. Sudan’s high council, for example, just announced its intention to normalize relations with Israel, according to i24 News. There is a long way to go to break down barriers and build bridges of trust and friendship. Could there be something else is at play here? Why else would the Doha press release point out that “the majority of Saudi citizens reject recognition of Israel, in spite of a high rate of nonresponse in the Saudi context given current conditions of repression”?
Consider as well that in 2017, the U.A.E., Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt all severed relations with Qatar. They suspended trade and closed their airspace to the country, accusing it of supporting terrorism, among other matters. Since the Saudis may be warming to ties with Israel, while Egypt has a long standing peace agreement with it, Qatar may be feeling isolated.
To highlight the unfortunate friction between these countries, an editorial published this week in Egypt Today was scathing in its rebuke of Qatar: “the government of Qatar has created a sea of lies and used it to jeopardize the stability and security of many nations under the pretext of defending and propagating freedom of opinion and expression.”
Despite the fact that Jared Kushner made a personal appeal for Qatar to join the Abraham Accords Declaration by meeting with its emir on Sept. 4th, its ambassador to the U.S. recently said, “we believe in a two-state solution for the Palestinians and in securing Israel’s borders, and if these conditions are fulfilled, then we don’t see any reason for Qatar to not normalize relations with Israel.” Sadly for its people, the Palestinian leadership refuses to normalize ties with Israel.
The truth of course is that there is a story within a story here — Israel and Qatar have been co-operating for many years; Israel even kept a trade office in Doha. In 2019 an Israeli athlete was feted with Israel’s flag and anthem after winning gold in Doha. Both countries have been working together around humanitarian aid to Gaza and, most importantly, Doha was involved in negotiating a truce between Israel and Hamas this summer after a round of rocket attacks by the terror group.
Disappointingly, Doha’s poll points out that the majority of Arabs (89 per cent) believe Israel poses a threat to security and stability (81 per cent said the same of America), despite the fact Israel is a democracy and there is overwhelming support in the survey results for democratization. But more positive results from another new survey, this one by U.S.-based Zogby Analytics, found that 59 per cent of Jordanians and Saudis, along with 58 per cent of Egyptians and 56 per cent of the residents of the U.A.E., support normalization with Israel.
Nothing that happens in the Middle East ever happens in a straight line. Mostly, what happens is the exact opposite of what has been unfolding in public. It’s possible that Doha will make a surprise move and normalize ties with Israel, while re-establishing ties with its neighbours. The moment for peace in the Middle East has arrived. It’s time for everyone to put aside the surveys, the fables and the pretences and join the peace of the brave.
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