Today marks the release of Palestinian prisoner Ahed Tamimi who served eight months in an Israeli jail after slapping a soldier during protests against the expansion of illegal Israeli settlements near Nabi Salih. Ahed Tamimi’s plight became symbolic of a Palestinian people struggling against a militarily superior occupier force without any tangible results. The truth is that while Tamimi has garnered sympathy for the Palestinian cause, her personal suffering and also her activism have objectively done nothing to change the condition of the Palestinian people. This is the sad reality that underscores the political lethargy of the wider Arab world in the 21st century.
The fact that Tamimi’s suffering has largely been in vain is through no fault of her own. Those in desperate situations will resort to desperate measures even knowing that little will come of such measures. The fact of the matter is that due to a widespread leadership vacuum in the Arab world, the cause of Palestine is ultimately a lost cause until and unless the mentality, organisation and creative capacity of the current leaders of major Arab states changes and changes drastically.
When one looks at successfully united global regions, one can see that ethnic and religious differences are not barriers to cooperation whether in security, trade or diplomatic unity. The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), the European Union (EU) and Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) prove that one needn’t be culturally or religiously similar to work together in shared geographic spaces towards common material and security goals on a basis of mutual respect.
Even individual nations with multicultura/multiracial/religious diverse histories including Singapore and Malaysia are able to live in peace and prosperity in spite of having all the ingredients for political discord sown into the fabric of society. Compared to all of the aforementioned examples, the Arab world is remarkably unified in terms of ethnicity, language, religion and culture. And yet while foreigners with material and strategic interests in dividing the Arab world have emphasised divides between Arabs for their own benefit – many Arab politicians themselves have now adopted the language of supreme division and in so doing have surrendered the aim of unity without having properly attempted it.
Why is it that Han Chinese, Malays and Tamil Indians in Singapore do not kill each other, insult each other and refuse to cooperate with each other in the year 2018? Why is it that in the EU, Protestants and Catholics no longer slaughter one another? Why is it that throughout the Russian Federation, Muslim Tatars and Orthodox Christian ethnic Russians share common aspirations for the future?
The answer to these questions is a matter of political leadership and it is strong, modern, unifying leadership which is totally lacking in an Arab world that has reduced itself to comical levels of infighting which produces tragic results not just for Ahed Tamimi but for all of Palestine and beyond.
How pathetic must one’s political system be when the cause of Palestinian justice must fall upon the shoulders of a 17 year old girl rather than a class of professional politicians who do little for their own populations and virtually nothing for Palestine?
The fact of the matter is that it is only legitimate Arab nations and governments who are in any position to do anything about justice for Palestine. US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley of all people actually spoke the truth (even if by accident) at a recent UN Security Council meeting about Palestine when she said,
“Palestinian needs are not an American problem anymore than a Russian problem or a French problem and they are certainly not more of an American problem than an Egyptian, Saudi, Emirati or Turkish problem”.
While it remains curious that she lumped an avidly pro-Palestinian Republic of Turkey in with the lethargic leaders of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the larger point remains that the international superpowers can lead asses to water but they cannot make them drink. Previous generations of Arab leaders beginning with Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser realised this, but in today’s Arab world Nasser’s name is hardly mentioned while by contrast in Pakistan, the incoming Prime Minister Imran Khan invoked the spirit of post-colonial national father Muhammad Ali Jinnah and during his recent inauguration ceremony, Turkish President Erdogan invoked the legacy of modern Turkey’s founder Ataturk. In Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew’s modern legacy has gone from the newspapers into the research papers of scholarship while in China the thought of all modern Chinese leaders is studied closely by the current generation of policy makers.
Yet the wider Arab world has abandoned all of their greatest modern political thinkers whether Nasser, Michel Aflaq, Zaki al-Arsuzi or Muammar Gaddafi. Against this background, a political and cultural malaise has set in among Arab leaders that rejects optimism, creativity and political foresight and instead embraces, innate cynicism, political childishness and the political mentality of an ostrich with its head in the sand.
The situation in Palestine will never change so long as Arab leaders remain divided by petty conflicts and morose distrust for one another. If the Arab world were to unite, such a federation would be the third largest country in the world in terms of population, behind China and India and ahead of the US and Indonesia. Such a united federal state would have serious economic, military and geopolitical leverage when it comes to the question of Palestinian justice.
Instead, the Arabs not only refuse to unite around one another, but they refuse to unite for Palestine in any meaningful way in spite of speaking a single Arabic language, sharing a common history within a single geographical space and in spite of sharing the same religious and cultural traditions.
While the race riots of 1969 did not end the Singaporean or Malaysian dream and while current troubles within Europe have not ended the dream of a united European space – the Arabs appear to have given up on unity without a fight, let alone a second thought. For this reason, a 17 year old girl is in fact more powerful than most Arab leaders. This does not make Ahed Tamimi capable of fixing the problems of the Arab world, but her plight does help to illustrate just how pathetic the modern Arab leaders with very few exceptions have become. The Arab world should focus less on producing martyrs who are ultimately lambs marching off to their own slaughter and instead focus on seeking true political leadership that embrace unity in the name of justice and shared prosperity.