The Arab League began its annual summit in Kuwait this week and seeks to address the ongoing crises in Palestine, Syria, and Egypt. There were several points of contention before the meetings even began, highlighting the many differences among members of the group. Members of the Syrian opposition lobbied heavily for formal representation in the Arab League in an effort to further challenge the legitimacy of the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. Syria’s membership in the League was suspended in 2011 due to the ongoing civil war and last year the opposition was granted Syria’s seat at the annual conference. They were unsuccessful in obtaining that seat again this year however with primary opposition coming from Iraq and Lebanon. Due to the previous suspension, Syria will have no voice at this year’s Arab League summit. This was only one of the issues that deeply divided Arab League members ahead of the conference.
Another controversial issue is the ongoing political crisis in Egypt and the status of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood was recently declared a terrorist organization by the provisional military government in Egypt. This follows similar declarations by the government of Saudi Arabia which views the Brotherhood as a disruptive influence in the region. The Brotherhood’s activities are not restricted to Egypt. The Gulf state of Qatar is one of the Brotherhood’s strongest supporters and has resisted efforts to constrain their activities. Several Arab League states have withdrawn their diplomatic presence from Qatar in protest of their support of the Brotherhood. This diplomatic isolation of Qatar threatens the legitimacy of the activities of groups like the Arab League that seek to represent the concerns and needs of all the Arab states.
These ongoing crises highlight a concern that is developing throughout the Arab world. Observers argue that Arabs as a whole, across the Middle East, are growing frustrated with their governments and the overall political situation. They are losing confidence in groups like the Arab League as well as their individual governments. They see a failure to resolve ongoing issues and a failure to improve conditions within their countries. The effectiveness and legitimacy of the Arab League is being questioned as crises such as the Syrian Civil War rage on for year after year and the status of the Palestinians still remains unresolved after decades of fighting, several wars, and dead end negotiations. That is why the Arab League summit in Kuwait seeks to address the crises in Syria, Palestine, and Egypt.
The question of Palestine has been the one issue that seems to be able to unite the members of the Arab League despite their other differences. That has proven true again this year as the League unanimously rejected Israel’s demand that Israel be formally recognized as a “Jewish state.” This may seem like only a question of semantics to outside observers but it is a critical issue to Israelis and Palestinians alike. The Palestinians retain their demand for the so-called “right of return,” that is the ability of Palestinians to return to lands within the current state of Israel that were taken over during the subsequent wars in the region. If that were to occur, it would significantly alter the demographics of Israel itself, potentially creating an Arab-Muslim majority in the state. Israel does not want this to occur and wants the Jewish nature of the state protected institutionally and recognized by the international community.
Unity on the Palestinian issue is vital to the Arab League in the face of the many other regional problems the group faces. It is the one issue that continues to unite its members. It is also the one issue that most citizens in the individual member states can agree on as well. The rejection of Israel’s demand leaves little room for negotiation at the next series of talks on the issue despite growing international interest in seeing a Palestinian state established and this long term issue finally resolved. Regional observers argue however that in order for the Arab League to maintain its legitimacy, some progress on these many regional issues must be made, otherwise the political discontent already present in the region will continue to spread. This is why the Arab League summit in Kuwait seeks to address the crises in Syria, Palestine, and Egypt.
By Christopher V. Spencer