The End of Arab Nationalism

How the Abraham Accords put the final nail in the coffin of a bad idea.

When last summer the Trump administration brokered the Abraham Accords—a peace agreement between Israel and the two Gulf states of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates—much commentary focused on their immediate causes, particularly the signatories’ shared fear of Iran. Reports of a recent face-to-face meeting in Saudi Arabia between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will only reaffirm that explanation.

Yet the historic character of the accords lies elsewhere. The accords recognize the Jewish and Arab people’s common ancestry in the region, accepting that Jews as a people and their faith are indigenous to the Middle East and have a legitimate right to be there. This affirmation discards two central tenets of Arab nationalism: the inherent rejection of a Jewish state as an alien, colonialist presence in the region and the idea that Arab-Israeli peace must defer to Palestinian grievances. The affirmation thus marks the end of Arab nationalism. Henceforth, the Arab countries that join the accords signal that they intend to pursue their national interest and seek alliances with the Jewish state, each on their own terms and without the need of a pan-Arab strategy.

Proximate causes, to be sure, matter. After all, it was President Jimmy Carter’s misguided foreign policy in the Middle East—alongside Israeli intelligence’s tipping off of Egypt’s president, Anwar Sadat, of a Libyan assassination plot against him—that propitiated Sadat’s historic visit to Jerusalem in November 1977. His trip set off direct bilateral peace talks that would culminate in the 1978 Camp David Accords and the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty. But those events simply flicked a switch. Peace ensued not only because strategic interests suddenly aligned, but because worldviews turned upside down.

The same can be said of the Abraham Accords. Common cause against an ascendant Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood, and radical Islam have driven Gulf countries closer to Israel. So has the desire to leverage full peace against Israel’s avowed intention to annex portions of the West Bank earlier this year. And no doubt, the election of Joe Biden as the next U.S. president raises the possibility that the United States will rejoin the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, a move both Arab countries and Israel firmly oppose. Both enthusiasts and detractors of the accords have mostly focused on these catalysts of historical change rather than recognize that a paradigm shift has emerged as a result of long-term trends. 

The recognition that the Arab and Jewish peoples share the common ancestry of the biblical patriarch Abraham and that as such they are both indigenous to the region represents an epochal change, the polar opposite of what Arab nationalism posited. The late George Antonius, the author of a seminal 1939 study of Arab nationalism, The Arab Awakening, clearly defined Arabs as “any citizen of that extensive Arab world—not any inhabitant of it, but that great majority whose racial descent, even when it was not of pure Arab lineage, had become submerged in the tide of arabisation; whose manners and traditions had been shaped in an Arab mould; and most decisive of all, whose mother tongue is Arabic. The term applies to Christians as well as to Moslems, the criterion being not islamisation but the degree of arabisation.” (Emphasis mine.) There were no Jews inside this space.

Arab nationalism, from its inception, engaged both Christian and Muslim intellectuals. It sought to transcend Islam as the basis for political allegiance to and membership in the nation. But it never seriously entertained the possibility that Jews, of which there were many across Arab lands, had any part in the project. Antonius was writing at the time of the Great Arab Revolt, which pitched the Arab national movement against the Jews, convulsing the British Mandate in Palestine between 1936 and 1939. These developments aligned Arab nationalists with European fascism and its ideological lure, which included a paranoid, conspiracy-minded hatred for Jews. The exclusion of Jews from the Arab nationalist project was final and absolute. They were a foreign implant that did not belong in the region.

Such venomous rejection is evident in the period’s writings of Arab nationalist ideologues, like Michel Aflaq, one of the founders of the Baath party, the champion of Arab nationalism in the Levant and Mesopotamia. Thundering against Zionism in 1946, Aflaq called it an economic invasion motivated by material greed and a religious invasion comparable to the crusades. For Aflaq, Zionism, much like Nazism’s view of the Jews, was a tool of Western imperialism and plutocracy—a dagger planted in the heart of the Arab world, designed to divide and weaken it. Unsurprisingly, Jews fled Arab countries almost overnight. Communities that for centuries had lived under Arab rule lost everything and became refugees—their safety under the yoke of Arab nationalism even more precarious than when it was subjected to the Sultan’s caprices.

The rejection of Jews as indigenous inhabitants of the region was also central to Palestinian nationalism. The Palestinian Liberation Organization charter stipulated that Zionism was a colonialist implant and its beneficiaries had no right to remain once victorious armies restored Arab control over the land. The Jews just did not belong. And the rhetoric denying the Jewish national project any legitimacy has continued unabated to this day in some quarters of Palestinian nationalism and among the relics of Arab nationalism in Damascus. Such rhetoric has constituted an article of faith for all Islamists, from the Muslim Brotherhood to the Salafist movements.

To be sure, Arab nationalism ebbed and flowed, without ever defeating Israel, let alone uniting the lands it claimed as its own. It was almost as if Palestine had become the only matter Arab leaders could agree on, and then not always. Discord in the 1950s led to the Arab Cold War. Egypt’s pan-Arab ambitions under Gamal Abdel Nasser won acolytes but failed to make inroads as a political project, as the short-lived Syrian-Egyptian union of 1958-1961 shows. Nasser’s efforts to undermine other rulers invariably backfired.

War in Yemen and Israel’s devastating 1967 victory over Arab armies further undermined Arab nationalism as a mobilizing force, as much as the Suez crisis and the Algerian war offered pride and hope. The 1967 war marked an inflection point for Arab nationalism, with Jordan’s King Hussein pointing his guns on Palestinian fighters merely three years later, and Egypt and Syria pursuing limited territorial gains, rather than a genocidal war of annihilation against Israel, in 1973 (which Jordan sat out). The 1967 war also marked the beginning of the ascendance of Islamism, a force first born out of the desire to countenance the secular appeal of Arab nationalism in the 1920s but hardly more inclusive. Yet the cause of Palestine, which rallied nationalists from the start, continued to hold regional governments to ransom, forcing them to prioritize the struggle against Israel or delay normalization, even when these actions clearly ran counter to their interests.

Even as Arab consensus began to crack when Egypt broke ranks and chose to negotiate a separate peace with Israel in 1977, the pull of Palestine as a pan-Arab cause remained ascendant. The Arab boycott of Israel’s economy continued. Even Egypt, now a pariah in the Arab world, made it clear that its peace would be cold. When Arab countries rallied behind Kuwait and against Saddam Hussein in 1990, they made their support for U.S. military intervention to restore Kuwaiti sovereignty conditional upon a Western commitment to solve the Palestinian cause once Saddam had been cut to size. 

The peace process that emerged from the Gulf War was predicated by the same old adage. The Palestinian cause was the region’s Gordian knot—not other ailments such as authoritarianism, oppression of women and minorities, dysfunctional economies, and an exploding demography of a discontented youth. Israel could aspire to normalization with the Arab world only after the Jewish state restored Palestinian rights. 

Solving the Palestine question became the magic wand that would make all problems go away. Besides, the begrudging acceptance of Israel’s presence in the region did not hold a promise of full legitimacy. When the Oslo accords were announced in 1993 and Jordan rushed to sign its own peace agreement with Israel, only a handful of countries followed—Qatar, Oman, and Tunisia—and only by opening commercial offices and low-level representations without full diplomatic ties established, all to be rolled back when Oslo collapsed and the Second Intifada began.

For a time, even 9/11 seemed not to have made a dent. No doubt under pressure from its nationals’ involvement in the atrocity, Saudi Arabia sought to interject itself in the peace process by launching the Arab Peace Initiative. The proposal was a world apart from the post-1967 Arab League Khartoum summit, where Arab countries had unanimously rejected any recognition of Israel and recommitted to an uncompromising struggle. Regardless, it still held on to the idea that normalization could follow only the establishment of a Palestinian state and was ambiguous on the terms of recognition. The full acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state was still a long way away. What changed then?

The Arab world changed. While local rulers, even after 9/11, kept telling their Western counterparts that the Palestinian issue had to be solved, they also began to whisper that they were the only bulwark against an Islamist takeover. Beneath the surface, an earthquake was brewing.

Eventually, it erupted in an orgy of mass violence that swept the Arab order away. The thin veneer of rhetoric spewed by authoritarian regimes donning the mantle of Palestinian grievances, for decades, hid a growing array of challenges that divided the Arab world, leading it to near implosion.

The toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003 may have been a poorly enacted plan—resulting from a fantasy of exporting democracy to a region where lifting the lid of authoritarianism would only create a vacuum filled by even darker forces and in the process unleash sectarianism. But it also exposed the futility of clinging to the myth of unity that Arab nationalist rhetoric espoused.

Historians will eventually determine how much the Iraq war of 2003 and the removal of an Arab tyrant influenced, nearly eight years later, the sudden eruption of popular anger that, from Tunisia in November 2010, quickly swept across the region. They will also have to figure out how, in the greater scheme of things, the mild authoritarianism of the royal rulers in Jordan and Morocco weathered the storm so much better than the secular, much more oppressive dictatorships of countries such as Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen. What is clear is this: Seventy years of unrelenting and bitter conflict over Palestine resulted in a mere      fraction of the casualties and refugees generated by less than 20 years of Arab internecine strife in Iraq and, later on, across the region.

Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad takes pride of place in the ferocity he unleashed against his fellow Arabs. The demise of Libya’s dictator, Moammar Qadafi, has left a vacuum filled with violence and sectarianism. Egypt survived its winter of discontent only by reinstituting the military dictatorship. Suddenly, the horrors of Lebanon’s civil war—a ferocious sectarian war where all the region’s powers chose a faction to support as their proxies—became the norm.

There were other long-term trends. A population explosion has meant, even for oil-rich countries, that they cannot keep their peoples docile with handouts alone. The digital revolution has considerably weakened the ability of state propaganda machines to keep the lid on their countries’ narratives. The world is laid bare through means they can neither control nor deny their subjects access to.

And then there is the miracle of the smaller Arab principalities—chiefly the United Arab Emirates. Their rulers chose to open their countries to the world long ago by diversifying their economy and turning their tiny kingdoms into hubs for global travel, a booming service industry, tourism, and trade—much of it manned by expatriates. That meant choosing national interests over nationalist rhetoric.

There is no doubt that the regional threat presented by Iran played a part in making the Abraham Accords possible—much like how Carter’s insistence on a Middle East peace conference where the Soviet Union played a role alarmed Sadat so much that he boarded a plane and flew to Jerusalem. Yet many of these conditions that are being mentioned today to explain away détente in the region miss the broader point.

History has happened. Not the rise of a new threat, which existed before and will continue to beckon on the horizon. But a historic change of perceptions, where the notion that Israel is a foreign implant has forever lost credence.

It is a new day in the Middle East. And no amount of nostalgia for the old order among Western establishment bureaucrats and fiery intellectuals will change that.

Emanuele Ottolenghi is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.