Normalization Debate: End of Pan-Arabism or Birth of Arab Multipolarism?


Rabat – The Palestinian leadership’s resignation from its role as chair of the Arab League is set to recenter the ongoing normalization debate around the relevance or demise of pan-Arabism. 

Palestinians expected a thumping statement of intent from any Arab state deciding to normalize ties with Israel. They expected and needed the type of statement that sums up the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. That, while peace with Israel remains a possibility, it comes with a stiff price. That there should be no normalization while the West Bank is still under occupation. 

Instead, the Trump-sponsored “Abraham Accords” have brought to the fore the notion that pan-Arabism has run its course. 

On this, Israeli and Palestinian officials agree—albeit for different motives. Statements of the few who rushed to comment on the meaning and broader ramifications of Trump’s “peace deal” signaled a belief that recent normalizations are a deadly blow to pan-Arabism. But that is where their agreement ended.

For Israelis, the recent normalization agreement was more than they hoped for. While the country’s founders and successive regimes maintained a goal to “normalize” ties with the Arab world, there was an implicit understanding of a heavy price to pay. 

As the Jewish Telegraphic Agency pertinently noted after the announcement of the UAE-Israel deal, the agreement constituted “a major blow” to a decades-old consensus. “Liberal Zionists” had long maintained that “without sacrifices on the Palestinian issue, peace with other Arab countries is impossible.” 

The Emirates and Bahrain’ brazen willingness to normalize with Israel, without requiring any concessions on Palestine, surely surprised many of Israel’s finest policy analysts. 

The ‘new Middle East’

But it was, ultimately, a good kind of surprise. Within hours of the UAE-Israel accord, former IDF Intelligence Director Amos Yadlin was already in a chest-bumping mood. As he saw it, the development proved those who still believed normalization would come with a price disastrously wrong. 

“Win, win, win, win, win. Peace again. Diplomacy again. I hardly find any[thing] negative in this move,” Yadlin told the Jerusalem Post. But there was more. The deal was not only a resounding victory for the Trump-assisted Israeli diplomacy. 

More to the point, it was the latest — and perhaps most critical — entry into the seemingly enlarging lexicon of the pan-Arab failures. Moving from mere contentment to militant bombast, Yadlin beamed: “The Arab Peace Initiative principle of having the veto on normalization between Israel and the Arabs, this is gone.” 

On that evidence and the palpable demise of pan-Arab consensus on Palestine, the former IDF intelligence chief noted the excitement around Trump’s “New Middle East” should be a clarion call for the Palestinian leaders. They ought to understand, after an initial period of shock, “that they have to recalibrate their expectations and understand that they no longer have…leverage against Israel.” 

In other words, welcome to the brand new normalization world. It is a world where, even as it hungers for Arab normalization, Israel pays (almost) nothing for it. This is mainly because its good friend in the White House has made it plain that those who do not embrace normalization will not be part of his vision for “peace and stability” in the “New Middle East.”

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For Palestinians, meanwhile, this new world of normalization was the realization of their biggest fear: That others could negotiate their fate without them, or in spite of them. That ultimately, many “friends” have grown tired of supporting their cause and are now only after their own “national interests.” 

“The Arab League has become the symbol of Arab inaction,” Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Ishtayeh has since said. He has also called the Abraham Accords “a stab in the back of the Palestinain cause and Palestinian people” and described the signing of the UAE-Israel agreement as a “dark day in the history of the Arab nations.” 

On Twitter, meanwhile, veteran Palestinian diplomat and scholar Hanan Ashrawi went nuclear, her bottomless anger and frutration immediately visible in her eloquent mourning of uncounted losses and betrayal. 

“May you never experience the agony of having your country stolen; may you never feel the pain of living in captivity under occupation; may you never witness the demolition of your home or murder of your loved ones. May you never be sold out by your ‘friends’,” she tweeted on August 13. 

As it turned out, however, the UAE-Israel agreement was but a prelude to a much longer, crueller symphony. In what has become the Trump-Netanyahu exhibition in ruthless agenda-setting, a  concatenation of news stories from US and Israeli media have centered the news cycle on speculation of further normalization deals. 

Here, it is no longer a question of if, but rather when other “Arab nations” will abandon the concept of pan-Arabism and join the Middle East’s new order.

The unrelenting normalization sirens

After Bahrain joined the normalization fray, also requiring no concessions from Israel, attention is quickly and unremittingly turning to the next normalizers. Almost every day now, there is news about which countries have already implicitly normalized, are seriously thinking about normalizing, or may soon normalize.

Morocco has vehemently denied any intention to take the plunge, but that is no assurance that the normalization sirens will leave Rabat alone. For now, Morocco can breathe, because Oman, Comoros, Djibouti, Mauritania, and Sudan are the ones presented as the next or potential normalizers. 

But chief in the normalization intrigue is Saudi Arabia’s stance. Riyadh has to date opted for ambiguity, excoriating neither the UAE or Bahrain for normalizing Israel and yet officially standing by the increasingly in-question Arab Peace Initiative.

According to recent reports, however, Saudi ambiguity has very little to do with a cunning, calculating regional giant considering the pros and cons before making up its mind. It stems, rather, from deep ideological divides within the royal court. 

King Salman, “a long time supporter of the Arab boycott of Israel,” is at odds with his son, 35-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. MBS “wants to move past” the pan-Arab position on Palestine and “join with Israel” to do business and fight Iran’s influence in the region, Wall Street Journal reported last week. 

The report speaks of a generational divide, MBS as the flag-bearer of “Saudi Arabia’s overwhelmingly young population who feels less connected to the plight of Palestinians than their parents did.”

Palestine and ‘Arab nationalism’

Such reports dovetail with a suggestion regarding the Palestinian leadership’s expected and justified decision to quit its Arab League role. Some observers argue the move comes from a realizationization that pan-Arabism is no longer a relevant force in world politics. 

Central in this view is the sense that the preeminence of national interest in states’ behaviors in global affairs was bound to kill sweeping ideals like pan-Arabism. But this is hardly a novel idea. 

Pan-Arabism, after all, had its very own Francis Fukuyama, albeit one that was “avant la lettre” and perhaps even more perspicacious. A decade before the American-political scientist exuberantly announced the “end of history,” Fouad Ajami, a celebrated Middle East specialist, was already sounding alarm bells about the increasing irrelevance of pan-Arabism.

In a magisterial article titled “The End of Pan-Arabism,” published in Foreign Affairs’ 1978-79 winter issue, Ajami seemed to mourn the deliquescence of pan-Arab ideals in the face of the assault of “raison d’Etat” on Arab political thinking. “An idea that has dominated the political consciousness of the modern Arabs is nearing its end, if it is not already a thing of the past,” he wrote. “It is the myth of pan-Arabism… of the ‘one Arab nation with an immortal mission’.”

Ajami chronicled a time when commitment to Palestine and a united or unified sense of Arabness trumped nation-state-inspired nationalism in the Arab world. “At the height of its power,” he explains, “pan-Arabism could make regimes look small and petty.” 

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This was the time when “the sweeping Arab mission” and commitment to Palestine — real or performative — was the only game in town for most Arab leaders. Those who had the audacity to publicly elevate their individual countries’ “national interest” over a unified Arab nationalism were quickly reminded of the preeminence of Arab unity. Being an Arab was not a mere identity. It was a supreme, overlapping feeling—of destiny and mission. 

Palestine prevailed in Arab regimes’ geopolitical calculations. Nominally at least, “the Arab umma” was the alpha and omega of Arab countries’ projection in world affairs. As Ajami put it, Arab leaders who deviated from the path of pan-Arabism were to “be overthrown and replaced by others more committed to the transcendental goal.”  

The triumph of national interest

This, again, was a time when the Arab League spoke in symphony, far from its current cacophony of conflicting and diverging national interests. The League had a fairly significant say in how Arab countries behaved on a number of sensitive geopolitical issues, chiefly the “just Palestinian cause.” Its decisions were relatively binding, guiding and dictating hopes of Arab unity, of a second “Nahda” (or Arab renaissance).

Of paramount importance to such a unified Arab projection in world politics was the “transcendental,” deeply-rooted belief that Arabness was not whole until Palestinians regained legitimacy over historic Palestine. 

To be or feel Arab was to immediately, if unfathomably, be tethered, wedded to Palestinian liberation. Fighting for, committing to Palestians’ freedom was more than an aspiration or a wish for justice and equality, although it was both of those things. It was, fundamentally, the very essence of Arabness. 

It was key to Arab dignity and wholeness, one of the few issues on which Arab masses and their mostly autocratic leaders saw eye to eye. An overwhelming number of Arabs still feel this way about Palestine and other pan-Arab aspirations. 

If anything, however, the triumph of “raison d’Etat” in the shifting, muddy waters of Middle East geopolitics have made it clear that their leaders have other ideas. Perhaps, as many others have contended, the new crop of leaders, while as autocratic and self-absorbed as their predecessors, are just more interested in cementing their own power than in genuinely advancing economic and human prosperity at home and across the region. 

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Perhaps, too, it bears recalling that Ajami’s elegiac reflections on pan-Arabism came on the heels of the Camp David Accords that saw Egypt normalize ties with Israel in 1978. For years, Egypt had led the Arab world against Israel, making its President Gamal Abdel Nasser the most towering figure of pan-Arabism. 

That such a military and ideological bellwether could forgo the “transcendental” pan-Arab goal and normalize Israel was the loudest proclamation of the coming irrelevance of pan-Arabism. The “Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty” stood as the ultimate consecration of the triumph of raison d’Etat over Arab consensus. 

In the ensuing years, mainly in the first half of the 90s, the quick succession of two events validated the thesis of the (clinical) death of pan-Arabism: The First Gulf War and the Jordan-Israel Peace Treaty. For, what hope remained for pan-Arabism if its spiritual home could forgo a consensus it helped initiate and nurture; if two of the Arab world’s most powerful countries could go to war, killing thousands of each other’s soldiers and citizens?

Unlike Fukuyama, however, Ajami was neither prophetic nor triumphalist. He merely noticed what was unfolding before his eyes, and confined himself to an informed analysis of what he saw as the deathbed of pan-Arabism: The appeal and perils of national interest.

The success of the Trump-sponsored normalization charm offensive boiled down to two elements: Fanning the flames in the region’s Sunni-Shia divide and presenting an “appealing package of economic” and strategic incentives for those normalizing Israel. For Saudi Arabia and the UAE, incentives include intelligence and technological cooperation with Israel. But the icing on the cake is the prospect of F-35 fighter jet deliveries.

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For less rich and less strategically important countries such as Sudan, Bahrain, and Oman, there are talks of economic aid and expertise sharing — or rather US and Israeli financial and technical assistance — in a wide range of strategic fields. At the heart of this seduction campaign is the realization by Washington and Israel that they could use Arab countries’ increasingly diverging — and sometimes hostile — national interests in their favor. 

It is little wonder, then, that both Trump and Netanyahu have repeatedly sold the normalization of Israel as the safest bet against the so-called Turkey-Iran-Qatar axis. The hope is that, as they find themselves on the horns of a tragic dilemma between normalizing Israel or watching Turkish and Iranian influence grow, Arab countries at odds with Tehran and increasingly with Ankara will choose the former. 

“The UAE and Israel both recognize Iran as this great threat, so they have now found a way to build out… a consensus to ultimately make sure that this threat never reaches American shores or harms anyone in the Middle East,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said of the UAE-Israel deal. 

Some observers have seen compelling suggestions of a conciliatory cowardice or a discernible erosion of an indelible Arab sensibility. These suggestions explain the ease with which Israel and the US are selling normalization to some Arab leaders. Beyond this, their presentation of normalization as a citadel against the Iranian evil is a well-desinged ploy to exploit what appears to be, as I suggested elsewhere, “a kind of Islamic or Muslim multi-polarization.” 

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As the Muslim world grapples with the centripetal forces of 21st century geopolitics, normalization’s spin doctors will not merely take advantage of this emerging Arab multipolarism. They are intent on creating new polarizations and exacerbating existing ones. There are already signs that the next phase in the normalization campaign will consist of exporting Cold War or post-9/11 paradigms to Middle East affairs. 

Such was the origin of the “Arab NATO” initiative. It is a harbinger of a Middle East order with Iran, and maybe Turkey, as the “axis of evil,” and Israel, and its “Arab friends,” as the “circle of peace” and prosperity. 

In this skewed, Trump-shaped geopolitics, peace and stability-loving Arabs would and should rush to embrace Israel, while the rest get to appear as perennial agents of regional chaos. All of which makes sense if, like Trump, you have a cartoonish view of Middle East affairs.