If there was anything to beat in mediocrity the childish and delinquent declaration by Donald Trump that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital, it was the pathetic response from Muslim states. For there in Istanbul this week were all the tired old men to whom we have listened for so many years, none sadder or more woebegone than the ageing and useless “President” of Palestine, Mahmoud Abbas.
There were supposed to be 57 heads of state of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation in the Turkish capital, but some were simply too old and senile – the comatose Bouteflika of Algeria, for example – or too busy shouting abuse at other Arabs states or bombing Yemen. Oh yes, of course, they demanded that the “international community” accept east Jerusalem as Palestine’s “capital” – a capital for a state that doesn’t exist and, at this rate, never will. It was just more claptrap from an organisation (that’s already changed its name twice) which offers no hope, no initiative, no justice and no future to the people of its collective autocracies.
Faced with American failure in the Middle East, some of these gentlemen thought that perhaps the UN can be a new mediator in the region. Heavens above. The old UN donkey has been brought clip-clopping to Jerusalem and the West Bank and to countless other locations (Lebanon included, of course) that surely by now you don’t even have to suggest its presence. The donkey will just turn up of its own accord.
Donald Trump officially recognises Jerusalem as Israel’s capital
The “world” – an interesting concept in Middle East terms – and America will only become worried if these tired men have courage. Or what we used to call the courage of their convictions. If America has hurled itself out of peace-making – which it supposedly has, although I wouldn’t count on Abbas keeping his phone off the hook if the White House calls – then these potentates should be considering a diplomatic boycott of the United States, or the breaking off of relations or even a mild but increasingly severe oil boycott. There was a time when they did this sort of thing.
But that’s not going to happen. The Saudis are bombing Yemen and boycotting not America but Qatar, and the Iranians – at least Rouhani approaches the status of a statesman – are waiting to see what mischief the Saudis will yet do to Lebanon. Oddly, it was Lebanon’s own President, Michel Aoun, who talked of conspiracies, silence and impotence and the danger of ethnic cleansing. No philosopher – he’s another ex-general – but he got it about right. It was the only serious speech in Istanbul. It might have been wise if Abbas had contested the Trump decision at the international court, but the Palestinian leadership is so uninspiring (and corrupt) that I doubt if it even dreamed of such a move.
And that’s the problem. If you have a delinquent American president, you need serious young people – international lawyers, negotiators, experienced diplomats – to defend the peoples of the Middle East. There are UN resolutions enough to apply to Jerusalem and the occupied territories. But no, not a word did we hear of these. It was as if apathy and hopelessness guide these figures. Turkish President Erdogan at least declared that Washington could no longer be a negotiator. But so what? He’s not an Arab and he’s stitched up his own country into a semi-dictatorship.
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For the truth is that these Muslim leaders are no longer valid. They do not represent anyone. They may glance towards Moscow in the coming weeks but they are about as relevant as Tsarist Russia or the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They represent failed states with neither morality nor courage to show for their presence at the Istanbul summit. They should speak for the Muslim world. They believe they represent Muslims. They are the second largest international community after the UN.
Perhaps it is to the academics of the Middle East, the professors of law and history, that the region should turn (not the pseudo-Salafists from the Gulf). Perhaps it is the teachers and philanthropists who can break this hideous impasse in “Palestine”. They do discuss this in their own universities – just such a conference is taking place in Beirut at the moment – but there is something missing. They do not have power. There are no Edward Saids left – and how much we miss Said today. His excoriating language would have blistered Washington’s conceit.
And so we are left with only tragedy. I suspect the roots to this lie back in the Great War of 1914-1918, not just in the Balfour Declaration whose mournful hundredth anniversary we mark this year but in the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the failure of the Arabs to seize control of their own lands in those days. There is a fine history of the Middle East in the Great War (A Land of Aching Hearts by Leila Tarazi Fawaz, published three years ago by Harvard University Press) which shows the extent of the suffering of the region, the mass hunger, the starvations, the plagues of locusts. And then Edmund Allenby reached Jerusalem – using gas on his journey there, by the way – and the die was cast.