By Yazan al-Saadi
Over the course of the week, the UN’s Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia’s (ESCWA) report, titled “Arab Integration: A 21st Century Imperative,” has been overshadowed in the media by Israeli complaints regarding the report’s brief mentions to its occupation and discriminatory policies towards Palestinians. The report has more ambitious aims beyond highlighting Israeli crimes. It calls for Arab unity along political, economic, and cultural lines, as a means for the region to overcome the numerous challenges it is facing internally and externally.
It involved members of ESCWA coordinating with an array of Arab intellectuals from different schools of thought and backgrounds, unified by a common belief that integration between Arab countries is imperative to tackling the vast tapestry of turmoil afflicting the region.
As noted in foreword of the 32-page Executive Summary:
This group believes that a history of fragmentation, actively encouraged by outside forces, combined with some flawed policy choices by Arab countries, have left the region vulnerable to oppression, foreign intervention and stifled development. A disruptive legacy that has affected every Arab country’s prospects will not be overcome through further discord. Rather, it requires a consolidated response from all: nothing less than the comprehensive integration and renewal of the region in all dimensions of its political, economic, cultural and educational life.
From the lack of scientific innovation to economic and political marginalization of Arab citizens, the report provides an analysis that take incorporates historical and contemporary forces at work – whether local or foreign. It is one of the first reports by a United Nations body about the Arab region that was written in Arabic, by Arabs, and translated into other languages. Despite all of these points and the potentially important ramifications, much of the coverage of the report has been consumed by Israel and its supporters, attacking the report with claims that it is discriminatory and anti-Semitic.
On Monday, April 14, the Israeli Ambassador to the UN Ron Prosor called on UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to suspend Under-Sectary General and ESCWA’s Executive Secretary Rima Khalaf, who oversaw the report. The diplomat took offence to Khalaf’s mention of “Israel’s adamant position that it is a Jewish state, which violates the rights of both the Muslim and Christian indigenous populations and revives the concept of state ethnic and religious purity, which caused egregious human suffering during the 20th century.”
Prior to his latest outburst, Prosor had sent two letters to Ki-moon in regards to Khalaf, on March 5 and April 7, demanding her resignation.In his second letter, he wrote:
“Ms. Khalaf may have a PhD in Systems Science, but she deserves a PhD in science fiction for her for her 200-page report filled with conspiracy theories. Ms. Khalaf also preposterously claims that Hitler, who was responsible for the murder of six million Jews, sought to create a safe haven for the Jewish people in the Middle East.”
Prosor’s latter point is a complete fabrication – there is no evidence of Khalaf saying this – while the former is a common, tedious, and crude rebuttal unleashed by Israeli politicians at individuals they seek to discredit, capped by charging their critics with “anti-semitism.” There is enough documentation, by Israel’s opponents and even by their allies, that highlight the limitless level of violations of charters, resolutions, treaties, and basic human rights conventions by Israel since the Zionist forces ethnically cleansed the indigenous Palestinian population in 1947-48.
Furthermore, the question of recognizing Israel as a “Jewish state” has emerged in recent years, presented by Israeli’s ultra right-wing government in an effort to stall negotiations as much as they can, and ensure that the inalienable right of return of Palestinian refugees would never occur. Ironically, even the Israelis themselves are unsure of what the structures, frameworks, and norms of a “Jewish state” would be, as Vijay Prashad, an academic, noted in an article for Electronic Intifada on April 16 in regards to the topic.
Nevertheless, in his recent demand for Khalaf’s suspension Prosor said, “It is unacceptable that inflammatory anti-Israel messages continue to be produced under the banner of the United Nations and using U.N. resources. By demonizing Israel, Ms. Khalaf is advancing a personal agenda rather than furthering the cause of peace or advancing regional Arab development. Senior U.N. officials should lead by example and demonstrate tolerance rather than prejudice.”
While Khalaf herself is a highly respected professional within ESCWA and the UN organization, and has had a long history working on development projects in the region, the report was composed by a number of intellectuals, backed by an entire institution, and was written within the framework of the UN Charter. In fact, as reported by the Arab media, Khalaf had sent in her resignation to the UN secretary-general because she was not ready to retract any part of the report. Her resignation was immediately rejected and a UN spokesperson said on April 16 that the UN had “full confidence in her and her ability to do her work.”
Despite the fact that Khalaf was merely recounting what the authors of the report had written, sharing a sentiment that is viewed by the public-at-large in the region and elsewhere, Israel’s attempt to center in on her personally is likely aimed to distract from what the report was really about. It begs the question: Were the Israelis simply uncomfortable by a poignant critique of its discriminatory policies as an ethno-national colonial enterprise or was it driven by larger concerns in regards to a report that sought to encourage pan-Arab cooperation, which inherently would be a great threat to Zionist aspirations and dominance?
Integration: A threat to the status quo
It is quite clear that Prosor has not read the report, since Israel is mentioned in less than ten out of the 328 pages. The bulk of the report is directed with a critical eye towards Arab society, seeking to challenge certain taboos and generate discussion within the Arab public sphere.
All three pillars are aimed to ensure that the Arab region can tackle the current crisis it is facing. It is a region which has been stagnating economically in comparison to others. It is struck with strife and growing fragmentation that has ensured that refugees from Arab countries amount to nearly 53 percent of the total global refugee population, and is tightly controlled by repressive, totalitarian monarchies and regimes that have allowed external forces to determine the fates of over 350 million people. The ambitious aim of the report, and the general arguments it took, have drawn conflicting criticisms from different quarters within the Arab sphere. The report has either been charged for being too Islamic due to the reliance on terminologies such as “Arab-Islamic civilization” or for being too secularized in its call on a particular type of governance.
Yet the criticisms, as valid as they are, signify that the key aim of the report has been reached: to generate thought and discussion on what Arab integration is, what it could look like, and how can it be implemented.
As Khalaf noted in her introduction of the report:
These are the messages of the report, which makes no claim to be perfect or infallible. Its main objective is to start a frank dialogue among Arabs on the status quo, the best strategy for moving beyond it and how comprehensive Arab integration could fulfill the aspirations of the peoples.
Tunisia was symbolically and aptly chosen as the place to launch the report due to it being the first country in which the Arab uprisings sprung forth, and where the most change is occurring. According to officials in ESCWA, promotion of the report through discussions and events will occur in Lebanon, Jordan, and perhaps Egypt and elsewhere.
The report is an important milestone, occurring at an interesting era in which the larger public is more adamant about having a voice about the course of their destiny.
While ESCWA’s report has certain imperfections, and not ones that Israel would desperately like others to believe, it presents a golden opportunity for politicians, intellectuals, civilians, and the rest to rekindle their imagination of a unified region.
Ultimately, if integration does happen it would be a force to be reckoned with in the international arena, challenging and restructuring the status quo that has been dominating the region for decades and benefiting the interests of a few. It is a pathway that Zionists and others are surely dreading, especially when they are faced with an unified front committed to the interests of those who matter most in the region – the people – and not the many foreign interests and local elites.
The authors of the report seemed to be well aware of this. In the final paragraph of the executive summary they wrote:
“Arab integration, as set out in this report, would mean the progressive and voluntary unification of the people in the region into an independent entity capable of achieving human development and competing effectively with other regional groups. The road to that destination would be marked out by successive forms of regional integration, which would pave the way. It would undoubtedly be built on the ruins of the current path, which has left the Arab people disillusioned, alienated and angry. Completing that historic shift will enable Arabs to say, with assurance and pride, that they have regained their rightful place in the world, and know how to hold it; that no task of development is too great for a community of empowered regional citizens; and that future generations will be all the stronger for inheriting Arab unity.”