Arab leaders’ ‘normalisation’ fuels Israel’s genocide

28 May 2024
Jerome Small
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman

By July 1989, a little over eighteen months into the heroic uprising against Israel known as the First Intifada, Israel’s brutal response had killed 600 Palestinians. Since October 2023, Israel has killed an average of 600 Palestinian people every four days.

How can we explain this colossal increase in Israel’s ability to murder Palestinians with impunity?

Israel has always been a brutal apartheid regime, intent on creating a Jewish supremacist state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. However, there have been some limits to how far and how fast Zionist forces have judged this project can be rolled out.

In the war that gave birth to Israel in 1948, Zionist forces went beyond the land allocated for their new state by a mandate from the United Nations, seizing 30 percent more land than the UN had assigned. To achieve this, they killed 15,000 Palestinians and expelled more than three-quarters of a million through a campaign of murder and terror.

Yet notably, they didn’t grab the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Why not? It’s not hard to find modern-day Zionists ranting at David Ben-Gurion, the commander of the main Zionist militia and Israel’s first president, for leaving this bloody work of seizure and erasure to later generations.

In part this reflected the location of pre-existing Zionist settlements (which in turn was reflected in the areas allocated to the Zionists by the UN mandate). Most of these settlements were in the coastal lowlands, places where Palestinian merchants had enriched themselves selling tracts of land to Zionist settlers in preceding decades.

In the more mountainous terrain of the West Bank of the Jordan river, Palestinian landholding patterns were both more collective and more dispersed, and therefore more resistant to large tracts of land being sold off by a wealthy few. And Gaza, lacking the sites important to Zionist myth-making, had only one significant Zionist settlement.

Nevertheless, there was a debate in the Israeli cabinet about seizing the West Bank in late 1948. The decision not to attempt this conquest was taken in large part because of concern that expanding even further beyond the UN-mandated boundaries would endanger international support for the newly established Zionist regime.

Since its beginning, the architects of the Zionist project been clear that creating and maintaining a Jewish supremacist state would depend on the backing of one or more major imperialist power. The consequence of this was that Israel’s actions could on occasion be shaped in quite important ways by what various imperialist powers found acceptable.

One famous example occurred in 1956, when Israel invaded Egypt, in alliance with British and French imperialism. Israel seized Gaza, where it carried out an infamous massacre, and the Sinai Peninsula. Both the US and the USSR insisted Israel withdraw, however—not out of concern for the Palestinians, but because neither of the world’s two dominant superpowers wanted to see the “old” empires of Europe reassert themselves in the region. Israel complied and withdrew.

1967 was a turning point for Israel. In the “Six Day War” Israel again seized Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, and also grabbed the West Bank from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria. This time Israel acted on its own behalf, in the process humiliating Arab neighbours seen as uncooperative with US interests.

The US was delighted. A State Department memorandum celebrated: “Israel has probably done more for the US in the Middle East in relation to money and effort invested than any of our so-called allies and friends elsewhere around the world since the Second World War”.

From 1967 onwards, the US state went all in on its support for Israel. But even so, both Israel and its backers had to take account of the potential for real world consequences of this support. In retaliation for Israel’s occupation of Sinai, Egypt closed the crucial Suez Canal in 1967 and didn’t reopen it until 1975, adding many millions of dollars to freight costs worldwide.

Following the US wholesale backing of Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur war, Saudi Arabia and several other Arab states shut off oil supplies to the US and its allies (including Japan and much of Europe) for five months, producing a sharp spike in prices. Historians still debate the significance of the oil embargo, but the potential for tangible and expensive consequences of support for Israel could not be doubted.

Popular and working-class revolt was another factor that the US had to keep a wary eye on. In 1979 the shah of Iran, the US’s most loyal ally in the region apart from Israel, was toppled by a revolution. In Lebanon there was a real prospect of left-wing forces winning the civil war that started in 1975, until the US and Israel invited Syria’s brutal Assad dictatorship to invade Lebanon and crush the left.

Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, in an attempt to eliminate the Palestine Liberation Organisation. But when Israel allowed its allies to slaughter thousands of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in southern Beirut, the US worried the whole powder keg might explode. So US President Reagan threatened to withhold weapons from Israel unless it pulled its forces back. Israel complied.

All of this was recent history when the Palestinians rose up against Israel in 1987. The elements of Israel’s response were described by British Marxist Phil Marshall in his 1989 book Intifada:

“Israel’s leaders tried a new tactic: they would starve the Palestinians of Gaza into submission. From mid-January [1988] long curfews were imposed on the eight Gaza [refugee] camps. Soldiers were stationed at the entrances and patrolled the camps at night; no-one was allowed outside. Food and water became scarce ... When injured Palestinians were taken to hospital they were often pursued by troops and dragged from their beds. Thousands of Palestinians were taken into detention. The death toll mounted.”

Israel’s methods will be all too familiar to the reader of today—but their scale today is dramatically greater: the destruction of the entire health system; a catastrophic level of thirst and starvation imposed on the entire population; a scale of death and horror that’s hard to comprehend.

What has changed to enable this grotesque level of slaughter, maintained for eight months and counting?

The “normalisation” of trade and diplomatic relations between Israel and the surrounding Arab states has gone a long way to freeing both Israel and the US from any fear of significant real-world consequences for Israel’s wholesale slaughter.

The 2020 “Abraham Accords” are the most visible recent sign of this process of normalisation.

Adam Hanieh has spent years documenting how the states that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council—Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman—are the motor of capital accumulation in the region. These states have used their vast oil profits to diversify, creating corporations that dominate key industries including construction, food, logistics and communications around the region (especially in Egypt) and to some extent around the world (think DP World in sea freight and Emirates in air transport).

Just as capitalists in Europe benefit from the European Union and capitalists in North America benefit from the North American Free Trade Agreement, Hanieh argues that Gulf capitalists crave regional integration of trade and investment. And they want Israel in.

The work of Toufic Haddad traces how normalisation between the Arab states and Israel was built into the so-called peace process that followed the Oslo Accords of 1993. Haddad describes the supposed peace of the Oslo negotiations as involving not only a pathetically weak Palestinian “Authority” to administer the occupied Palestinian territories on Israel’s behalf, but also a regional economic integration along the lines of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

There’s a lot at stake. Since the UAE signing on to the Abraham Accords, Israel’s exports to the United Arab Emirates have ballooned from almost nothing in 2018 to US$637 million in 2022; imports have risen from actually zero in 2018 to US$1,890 million over the same period. Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan are following in the UAE’s footsteps.

But this is just chicken feed. The real prize is normalisation between Saudi Arabia and Israel. For Israel, this would mean easier access to the wealth and capital of the Gulf states for its booming tech and weapons industries. For the Saudi regime, the aim is a formal defence pact with the US, access to sophisticated Israeli military and surveillance technology and the establishment of a nuclear program on Saudi soil using Israeli expertise. For both powers (and for the United States) the free flow of weapons, cash and tech around the region would bolster their position against regional rival Iran.

Haggling continues between all the parties. The UAE, for instance, was expecting that signing on to the Abraham Accords would get it access to the F-35 attack aircraft—the most sophisticated aerial death-dealing machine ever created. However, the UAE’s reliance on Chinese technology is proving an obstacle to the US handing over the goods.

Egypt’s military regime haggles with the UAE over regional influence—a negotiation played out in part via a brutal proxy war in Sudan. The US haggles with Saudi Arabia over normalisation with Israel, reportedly hoping that the prospects of a deal will nudge Israel into slowing the rate of slaughter in Gaza a little while Genocide Joe attempts to get himself re-elected.

The semipublic US negotiations with Israel seem designed to serve the same purpose. This includes Biden’s high-profile suspension of a single consignment of 2,000-pound bombs for Israel in early May. Even if this somewhat slows the pace of direct slaughter—or even if it were to lead to a temporary pause until after the US elections—the regional imperialist set-up of the 2020s has allowed Israel to take the greatest strides in its genocidal project since 1948.

There are other factors enabling the Arab regimes to collaborate. The crushing of the Arab Spring revolts of 2011, and the brutal ongoing repression that has followed, have been largely effective in stifling protests even as Israel wreaks its devastation on Gaza. By repressing the Arab working class—the one force in the region that has both an interest in shaking the Zionist regime and the power to do so—the Arab regimes have given themselves more room to cosy up with Israel.

These authoritarian states were never interested in the liberation of Palestine, any more than they were interested in the liberation of their own populations. The lives and land of the Palestinians were seen a bargaining chip, as each regime tried to muscle its way up the regional imperial order. With the threat of revolt seemingly reduced, the regimes can conduct their booming business in collaboration with even less constraint.

In March 2022, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid attended the “Negev summit” in Egypt, alongside foreign ministers from the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt and Morocco. As socialist historian Joel Beinin observed in Jacobin magazine, this meeting represented “public Arab acknowledgement of Israel’s full partnership in an axis of reactionary powers” that includes the UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

It’s a marriage made in heaven for the regional capitalists, monarchies and dictatorships. And it’s a relationship that, by removing almost any constraint on Israel’s backers and therefore on Israel, has sentenced the Palestinian people to eight months—so far—of hell on Earth.

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