In 1977, shortly after Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s address to the Knesset in Jerusalem outlining his proposals for peace with Israel, the PLO and five Arab countries formed a bloc whose sole purpose was to reject any compromise with the Jewish state.
Grandiosely calling themselves the “Steadfastness and Confrontation Front,” the rejectionist states were organized around a six-point program. Their major goals were “to oppose all confrontationist solutions planned by imperialism, Zionism and their Arab tools” and to create an “independent Palestinian national state on any part of Palestinian land, without reconciliation, recognition or negotiations, as an interim aim of the Palestinian revolution.”
Four decades later, as Israel and the United Arab Emirates announce a peace deal of even greater political and commercial significance, we should recall the respective fates of each member of the “Steadfastness and Confrontation Front.”
One of them no longer exists: the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, a Soviet satellite, was wiped from the map following the reunification of North and South Yemen in 1990. In two others—Iraq and Libya—the brutal regimes that were in power at the time have since been overthrown. The two remaining Arab states—Algeria and Syria—have both faced the internal crises of Islamist terrorism, civil war, economic breakdown and the crushing of domestic protest movements, while the PLO has seen its power and political clout progressively eroded since the Gulf War of 1990.
Israel, meanwhile, is in strategic terms far stronger and confident than was the case in the late 1970s.
Indeed, even at that time, the main aim of conservative Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan was to mitigate the impact of the rejectionists in their quest to punish Egypt for extending a hand to Israel. And while Egypt certainly faced ostracism in the political structures of the Arab world, the unwavering economic and political boycott of Cairo advocated by the rejectionists was rebuffed. Within a decade, Egypt had restored its diplomatic relations with nearly all of the Arab countries who severed ties in protest at Sadat’s initiative.
None of that augurs well for the newest incarnation of the “Steadfastness and Confrontation Front” that has hastily crystallized in opposition to peace between Israel and the UAE. To begin with, it has a membership of just three, only one of which—the Palestinian Authority—is a legitimate part of the Arab world. The other two, Iran and Turkey, are non-Arab states who aggressively seek to remake the Middle East in their own image. For the millions of Arabs, Kurds, Christians, Jews and others who compose the array of nationalities and religions in that region, such an outcome would amount to a new form of hell.
The language used by all three rejectionists in slamming the Israel-UAE announcement was redolent of 1977. “[T]he oppressed nation of Palestine as well as other freedom-seeking peoples worldwide will never forgive the sin of normalization of the ties with the occupier and bloodthirsty regime of Israel and also the act of those who approve and cooperate with its crimes,” the Iranian foreign ministry thundered. “The Islamic Republic of Iran considers as dangerous Abu Dhabi’s act of normalizing ties with the fabricated, illegitimate and anti-human regime of Israel, and warns the Zionist regime against any kind of meddling in the Persian Gulf region’s equations.”
For the Turkish dictator Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, “the move against Palestine is not a step that can be stomached.” Speaking to reporters last Friday, he warned that Turkey “may also take a step in the direction of suspending diplomatic ties with the Abu Dhabi leadership or pulling back our ambassador.” As for Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, his response was to do what he invariably does; Cry out “conspiracy!” His spokesman, Nabil Abu Rdeneh, called the deal “treason,” saying “the Palestinian leadership rejects and denounces the UAE, Israeli and U.S. trilateral, surprising, announcement.”
Amid all this denunciation, however, what is most striking is the sense of impotence that it communicates. Iran knows that it is not in a position to take serious economic measures against a global powerhouse such as the UAE. Nor is it in a position to lean on Arab states to sever their links with the UAE, much less persuade them to join a war of elimination against Israel.
Much the same applies to Turkey, whose Ottoman revivalism is widely reviled in the Arab world. As for the Palestinians, they are arguably weaker now than they have ever been; in the 1970s, for Arabs to consider Palestine as anything other than a political question would have been unthinkable. But in 2020, they are now recasting that same question as equally an economic and humanitarian concern. If the PLO leadership wants to retain whatever Arab political will remains for the eventual creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, it should realize that following Iran and Turkey down the rejectionist hole is a tad counterintuitive.
In a year that all of us will remember for its unmitigated misery, the accord between Israel and the UAE is a reminder that human beings have the capacity to resolve conflicts, not just initiate them. Sustaining peace is never easy, but we have now reached a stage in relations between Israel and the Arab world in which—for all the noise they are still making—the rejectionists have been rejected.
Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.