Najla al-Mangoush foreign minister of Libya. Najla al-Mangoush foreign minister of Libya. Source: Wikicommons / PublicDomainPictures/ cropped from original / shared under license CC BY 2.0, CC0 1.0

US efforts to force client-states in the Arab world to open formal relations with an increasingly far-right Israel, risks a major popular backlash, argues John Clarke

If Libyan foreign minister Najla al-Mangoush had expected a low-key chat with a representative of the Israeli government, she badly miscalculated. When ‘her Israeli counterpart announced he had held talks with her last week in Rome, despite the countries not having formal relations,’ the reaction was one of outrage on the streets.

As the Guardian reports, on ‘the streets of Tripoli and its suburbs, protests erupted on Sunday evening in a sign of refusal of normalisation with Israel. The protests spread to other cities where young people blocked roads, burned tyres and waved the Palestinian flag.’

Israeli foreign minister Eli Cohen clearly miscalculated when he publicly crowed about the meeting, glowingly presenting it as another step towards ‘normalisation’ with Arab states. Faced with an explosively angry reaction and a political scandal, the Libyan foreign ministry weakly insisted that what ‘happened in Rome was a chance and unofficial encounter, during a meeting with his Italian counterpart, which did not involve any discussion, agreement or consultation.’

On 27 August, Libyan prime minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah announced that Mangoush had been ‘temporarily suspended’ and that she would face an ‘administrative investigation’ overseen by the justice minister. This damage control, however, may not be enough to calm the situation, and Dbeibah’s own role in the whole normalisation initiative has been brought out.

While, since 1957, it has been illegal in Libya ‘to have formal relations with Israel’, it is clear that US pressure has created an opening for efforts to work around this prohibition. An article in Al Jazeera suggests that ‘Dbeibah, his rival military strongman Khalifa Haftar and the eastern-based parliament that backs him “have used Libya’s first female foreign minister as the fall person for decisions they all partook in.”’

It is further suggested that Dbeibah had previously met with ‘CIA director William Burns in Tripoli to discuss normalising relations with Israel.’ His attempt to have his foreign minister take the fall seems to be coming apart and ‘Dbeibah needs to go and he knows that he’s been under pressure in the last couple of weeks.’

Abraham Accords

There is dismay in Israeli circles over the way in which this all blew up and, according to the Washington Post, ‘Cohen has been slammed for fumbling Israel’s diplomatic outreach to its Arab neighbours at a critical time.’ Netanyahu himself ‘is eager to build on the U.S.-brokered Abraham Accords, under which Israel has established formal diplomatic relations with a number of Arab countries in recent years, including the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco’ and Cohen’s clumsy lack of discretion has created a setback.

The Libyan initiative was, indeed, only one part of a whole effort to convince Arab governments to abandon the Palestinians openly and reach an accommodation with a settler-colonial project that was created through their dispossession. The events in Libya, however, show that governments throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) must contend with a deeply rooted sense of solidarity with the Palestinian struggle that exists within their populations. As the Post circumspectly puts it, ‘public sentiment remains staunchly supportive of the Palestinian cause.’

The Arab Centre in Washington DC points out that during ‘the presidency of Donald Trump, the previous Netanyahu-led government received many political gifts from Washington …  perhaps the biggest gift of all was US assistance in helping Israel forge diplomatic ties with several Arab states … without any mention of ending the occupation or respecting Palestinian human rights.’

Whatever differences Biden had with Trump, the furthering of normalisation is an objective both have had in common. Biden’s administration has ‘worked to strengthen the existing Abraham Accords, and we are working quietly but quite assiduously to expand the Abraham Accords.’ The unfolding Libyan debacle emerges from this drive and expresses some of the contradictions that it inevitably encounters.

The present Biden-led push to encourage diplomatic ties and ‘normal’ relations with Israel is an attempt to build upon earlier forms of disgraceful collaboration. In this regard, Egyptian governments have played a particularly shameful role. Full diplomatic relations between Egypt and Israel were forged in 1980 and today, though opinion polls show great hostility to Israel within the Egyptian population, ‘the most pro-Israel president Egypt has ever had,’ Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, is in power. In this situation, ‘Egypt has been a partner with Israel in maintaining the blockade on the Gaza Strip.’

For the US and its other imperialist allies, the Zionist project’s main service has been to create a garrison state in the Middle East that furthers the objective of regional domination. The other key mechanism to advance this aim has been to promote and preserve repressive client-state regimes in as many Arab countries as possible. Such rulers, by definition, keep a nervous eye out for signs of discontent within their populations and open support for Israel is a risky proposition in this regard, as recent events confirm.

Washington may want its client regimes to embrace Israel openly, but the present dangerous political trajectory of the Zionist state is making a hard task even more difficult. As I argued in a previous article for Counterfire, the ‘Netanyahu government expresses the rightward political trajectory that the Zionist state is on. The polite fictions of liberal democracy and the pursuit of peace are tiresome encumbrances for the people that sit around its cabinet table.’

No figure within the Israeli government personifies the determination to complete the colonial project without any pretensions than National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir. He recently outdid himself when it comes to the racist language of dispossession when he declared that ‘my right, the right of my wife and my children to move around Judea and Samaria [the biblical name for the occupied territories] is more important than freedom of movement for the Arabs.’

The provocative language of Ben-Gvir is accompanied by waves of settler violence against Palestinian communities and the use of state forces to try and crush resistance. The recent assault on Jenin expresses that repressive power but also shows that the willingness and ability of the Palestinians to resist remains strong and determined. This is not lost on the masses of people throughout the MENA region.

Threat of resistance

The Biden administration is forging ahead with its normalisation initiative at a time when the situation in the Arab countries makes such a move particularly dangerous. Along with the reckless and provocative course that Israel’s political leaders are on, it is also necessary to appreciate that social and economic conditions throughout the entire MENA region are exceptionally explosive.

Recently, the repressive government of Tunisia balked at a ‘comprehensive economic reform programme’ that the IMF was demanding in return for one of its loans. President Kais Saied refused to accept harsh austerity measures and ‘foreign diktats that will lead to more poverty’. Saied was only too aware that such an approach, in the midst of the present cost-of-living crisis, would risk massive social resistance on the streets in the country that gave birth to the Arab Spring.

Earlier this year, the World Bank acknowledged that economies in the MENA region ‘are expected to grow at a slower pace in 2023, as double-digit food inflation adds pressure on poorer households and the impact of food insecurity can span generations.’ It reported that ‘close to one out of every five people living in developing countries in MENA is likely to be food insecure this year and that almost 8 million children under 5 years of age are among those who will be hungry.’

As millions of people throughout MENA experience these conditions, Washington prods and cajoles repressive and hated political leaders throughout the region to embrace shamefully a regime that is taking its attack on the Palestinians to new levels and provoking Palestinian resistance in the process. It is a risky game to say the least.

With open racists like Ben-Gvir at the helm in Israel, adding the insult of normalisation to the injury of the cost-of-living crisis, brings a dangerous new element of discontent to an already deep-seated sense of grievance. Israel, the enforcer of Western interests in MENA, might ironically provide the spark for a regional uprising against the Washington Consensus and US domination.

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John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.

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