A Saudi perspective on the Palestinian/Israeli Problem

from Modernity and Tradition: The Saudi Equation by Fouad Al-Farsi, Knight Communications, Guernsey, Channel Islands, 1994

We have looked, albeit briefly, at how the West (primarily Britain and the United States of America) sees the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the “Arab world”, and how the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the “Arab world” react to Western perceptions.

It is clear that there are major cultural differences and it is entirely legitimate that such differences should generate some cultural friction and entirely predictable but the western media should reflect this friction. But the cultural differences are not, in our view, sufficient to account for the consistently hostile attitude of much of western media to the Arabs, certainly not when areas of common interest and mutual benefit in political and economic terms are taken into account.

This conclusion leads us inevitably to consider the effect which the Palestinian/Israeli problem has had on Arab/western relations and, in particular, and Western perceptions of Arabs over the last few decades.

All readers of this book will be familiar with how the state of Israel was formed. Zionist agitation throughout the early decades of the 20th century, given renewed impetus by the Nazi persecution of the Jews in Europe in the 1930s then throughout the Second World War, eventually led in 1948 to Ben Gurion’s declaration of a new state – the state of Israel, thus fulfilling Jewish aspirations for their own homeland.

What is seen in the West is a truly epic story, as the legitimate aspiration of a people to find a home, was and is seen in the Arab world as the ruthless and systematic persecution and disposition of the Palestinians by an immigrant, if not a colonial, power. The land where Israel was founded was not a vacuum, waiting to be filled; it was Palestine, a land peopled by Palestinians for centuries.  Thus, as one people found, or perhaps more accurately occupied, a home, another lost theirs. Throughout the Jewish agitation for state in Palestine, the Zionists’ plans were opposed by the Palestinians in particular and the Arab world in general. When the founder of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the late King Abdul Aziz bin Sa’ud met President Roosevelt on the cruiser USS Quincy in February 1945, President Roosevelt gave a promise – or rather two promises – to the Saudi King;

— he would never do anything which may prove hostile to the Arabs

— the US Government would make no change in its basic policy on Palestine without full and proper consultation with both Jews and Arabs

Immediately after Roosevelt’s death, President Truman ignored these promises and, perhaps more concerned with popularity at home then justice abroad, work tirelessly for the formation and recognition of the state of Israel – and thus for the disposition of the Palestinians.

Whatever the reasons for President Truman’s decision to ignore the undertakings of his predecessor, this much is certain. When the state of Israel was declared, the Arab world felt betrayed. And the seeds of civil wars, the sufferings of millions of refugees and grim situation we still face today were sown.

Well, some said, that is all history. Israel and those who support her hoped that, with time, the Palestinian problem with fade away; that the Palestinians would be absorbed by other countries; and that their aspirations for nationhood and for the land of their fathers would somehow have disappear.  This has proved an irrational and extremely dangerous notion. The Palestinians can scarcely forget that they have been dispossessed.  Those who remain under Israeli rule are deeply resentful. The Intifada, the Palestinian up-rising in the occupied territories, starting in 1988/89, in which hundreds of Palestinians, armed only with sticks or stones, have been shot dead by Israeli troops, gives some indication of how deep that resentment runs. And the Palestinian refugees living in camps and other Arab countries have not forgotten the homes and the land which belonged to them.

To the Arabs, it is always seemed (as indeed King Abdul Aziz bin Sa’ud explained to President Roosevelt) that with a twisted logic, in some way, the Palestinians are being made to expiate the crimes of the Nazis. And that, because of those Nazi crimes, the Israelis are somehow excused for whatever action they take against those whom they have dispossessed.  If this is the case, it is time the West acknowledged that the crimes of one society cannot be expiated by allowing the victims of those crimes to perpetrate crimes against another.

For obvious historical reasons, the West has great sympathy for Israel.  The persecution of the Jews by the Nazis led, understandably, to feelings of guilt both in the country of the erstwhile persecutors and amongst other Western countries who could have done more to save the Jews from that persecution.  (An indication of how deep that guilt runs is to be found in the frequency with which television programs and films in Britain and the United States of America still feature the Nazi persecution of the Jews.)  But Arabs have never understood how justifiable sympathy for one persecuted people can somehow excuse the persecution of another.  If it was wrong for the Nazis to deny the rights of citizenship to the Jews, it must surely be wrong for Israel to deny the rights of citizenship to the Palestinians; if it was wrong for the Nazis to use the military power of the state to oppress a people, it must be wrong for the Israelis to oppress the Palestinians.  If it was wrong for the Nazis to arrest Jews without due process of law, it must be wrong for the Israelis to carry out mass arrests of Palestinians without due legal process.

Of course the parallel is not exact. But it is sufficiently close for any reasonable person to realize that similar issues of moral principle are involved.  And yet the media retain their sympathy for Israel, even when Israel’s conduct clearly offends against basic human rights.  In 1989, as the Palestinian death toll in the Intifada rose inexorably, the Red Cross, after many months of fruitless remonstration with the Israeli authorities, condemned Israel in the strongest terms for the brutal treatment of the Palestinians in occupied territories.  Yet there were no front-page leader headlines in the British press publicizing this condemnation and still the main tenor of press editorial comment in Britain and the United States of America argued for sympathy and understanding for Israel is it continued to obstruct attempts to find a peaceful means of according the Palestinians the right to self-determination in a land of their own.

What has all this to do with Arab/Western relations and with the image of the Arabs in the Western media?  The answer is, or so it seems to Arabs, obvious.  The only “satisfactory” way to deny human rights to a people is to deny that people’s humanity.  If the Palestinians are viewed as decent human beings, to deny them basic human rights is clearly morally unacceptable.  But if it can be shown that they and their supporters have forfeited their claim to belong to the world community of decent humanity— because they are, for example, extravagant, greedy, hostile, hypocritical, intolerant, puritanical, ruthless, uncivilized, undemocratic, unstable and violent— the moral dilemma is, at least, diminished.

In other words, to some (and probably to a large) extent, media hostility to the Arabs in the last few decades has ensued from a Western commitment to Israel’s cause, and the consequent need to de-humanize those who oppose Israeli, in order to justify Israel’s inhumane behaviour.  The mechanism whereby this process is accomplished is a continuing emphasis on those aspects of Arab society which differ from Western culture—and, of course, an equally persistent emphasis on those aspects of Israeli society which Israel shares with the West. 

Thus, Israel, which has effectively disenfranchised its Palestinian population, is nevertheless routinely described by the Western media as “democratic”, in contrast with the “un-democratic” Arabs.  Israel’s judiciary, despite the random arrest and imprisonment of Palestinians, is characterized as based on Western principles of justice, in contrast with the “barbarity” of the Islamic penal system.  Even Israel’s ruthless suppression of the Intifada is often presented as the response of the forces of law and order to the violence of dissidents and terrorists, despite the fact that the Intifada is taking place in land which Israel has occupied as a foreign army.

It is generally recognized that in the United States of America (and, to a lesser extent, in Britain) politicians and the media alienate the Zionist lobby at their peril.  It has even been said that no-one becomes the President of the United States without the support of the pro-Israeli pressure groups.  Aware of the need to sustain support for Israel, the Zionists, through the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and its British counterpart (BIPAC) and through other pro-Israeli pressure groups, use their influence to maintain the image of Israel as part of the Western community and draw attention to any cultural difference which divides the West and the Arab world.  They have their clearly defined objectives and they work effectively to fulfil them.

Thus two great communities, the Western industrialized societies and the “Arab world”, despite mutual self-interest, have been kept apart.

We live in times of great change, when seemingly immutable features of the political scene can be erased almost overnight. The Berlin wall has gone. A divided Germany is unified. The erstwhile Soviet Union has abandoned communism in favour of a mixed economy and democracy. In South Africa, apartheid has been swept away. And Israel, in 1993, at least talked directly to the Palestine Liberation Organization.

In all these cases, the suddenness of the change may well prove deceptive. Such upheavals invariably turn out to be more complex than they appear. The unification of Germany is posing serious economic problems which, in turn, have led to an as yet modest but nonetheless disturbing resurgence of fascism.  The parlous state of the Russian economy has led to political instability in which the extremes of the left or right may emerge as dominant. In South Africa, the political reforms may lead not to a brave new world but to Civil War, between whites and blacks, or between blacks themselves. And the Arab/Israeli peace process may well falter and fail, with Israel so determined to take no risks for peace that it condemns the region to the certainty of future conflict.

And yet, in all these instances, there’s a chance for common sense to prevail over stupidity, for understanding to prevail over prejudice and, if you like, for good to prevail over evil. The greatest hope lies in the increasing interdependence of all states and all peoples in the world, in the realization that, in the long run, the well-being of each of us depends upon the well-being of all of us. We are all too well aware that pollution and disease know no boundaries but we also know that compassion is equally unconstrained by political or geographical frontiers.

We are confident that, if the hopes for a just peace in the Palestinian/Israeli conflict are fulfilled, the friendship and trust that should exist between the West and the Arabs will flourish once again, unhindered by distortion, to strengthen the political and economic ties which naturally bind us together. 

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