New York Times
October 5, 2005
Kuwaitis Quietly Breach a Taboo: Easing Hostility Toward Israel
By HASSAN M. FATTAH
KUWAIT, Sept. 30 - Kuwaiti newspapers in recent days have floated the idea that the country could take steps to reduce hostility toward Israel as a means of helping the Palestinians, prompting a quiet debate about Kuwait’s decades-old strategy of isolating Israel.
The discussion breaks long-held taboos and brushes at an emotionally explosive subject for Kuwaitis, who had long considered themselves among the standard-bearers for the Palestinian cause. But experts emphasize that it remains no more than a discussion at this point.
"After a long time, we have finally decided to leave the Palestinian cause to Palestinians, because it is they who are really concerned with this issue," Ahmed al-Jarallah, editor in chief of the English-language Arab Times, wrote in an editorial on Sept. 22.
In order to prove that Arabs are seeking peace, he contended, the Arab world must no longer use Palestinians as a tool of its policies. Referring to recent decisions by Bahrain, Qatar and Tunisia to ease their policies toward Israel, he said, "We Arabs have also reached a unanimous agreement to make peace with Israel as our strategic choice, before conducting negotiations with that country."
A day later, the prominent Kuwaiti daily Al Seyassa, published by the same company as The Arab Times, published an op-ed column calling for lifting the country’s longstanding trade embargo on Israel. "The Israeli withdrawal and a positive Arab response at this particular time would provide a peaceful political process with major momentum that could lead to a historic reconciliation in the Middle East," wrote Yusuf Nasir al-Suwaydan, a Saudi, referring to Israel’s recent withdrawal from Gaza. "Normalizing ties with Israel is an important event, and its positive effect will permeate every aspect of the Arab political, economic, cultural and social life."
The mere talk of normalization, a quiet but growing discussion largely conducted among businessmen and academics, goes to the core of Kuwait’s identity and history.
"This country was the cashier of the pan-Arab movement and of many Islamist movements," Saad Bin Tefla, a columnist and linguistics professor at Kuwait University, said in an interview, referring to Kuwait’s prominent role in financing the Palestinian movement. "There’s a long history here of resistance to Israel."
But, he said, referring to the recent easing of embargoes on Israel by other Arab countries, "The debate between some people now is this: If it’s good for our allies, maybe it’s good for us."
Pakistan, another Muslim country, has taken a very tentative step toward Israel since its pullout from Gaza and under prodding by the United States. Bahrain agreed to lift its trade sanctions on Israel as part of its recent signing of a free trade agreement with the United States. Qatar, which has long had trade relations with Israel, agreed to expand the relationship.
In August, the foreign ministers of Pakistan and Israel held a highly publicized meeting in Istanbul. At the United Nations summit meeting at the General Assembly in New York, President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan met with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel, while the Israeli foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, held talks with his Qatari and Tunisian counterparts.
But any reduction in hostility toward Israel by Kuwait, with its economic strength and Arab nationalist roots, would be especially symbolic. Such talk would have been considered heresy here just a few years ago.
In the 1950’s, Kuwait was the home in exile to Yasir Arafat, the Palestinian leader, and to hundreds of thousands of other Palestinians, who helped build the country. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, Kuwait was a leading supporter of Arab nationalism and of Palestinian claims to a homeland.
The invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein’s army in 1990 cast a pall over relations between Kuwait and the Palestinians, who sided with Iraq. Thousands of Palestinians left Kuwait and were not allowed to return. But Kuwait said it remained committed to the Palestinian cause, and the country’s religious and Arab nationalist politicians, who make up a majority of Parliament, continue to be flag bearers against efforts to normalize relations.
"This is not about Israel; it is about the holy sites in Palestine and the blood of Palestinians being shed every day," said Mansour al-Khuzam, deputy secretary of the new Islamist-dominated Ummah Party, which is officially banned because Kuwait does not allow political parties. "I don’t think any Islamic country could tolerate this. It can only be based on foreign pressure."
But the liberation of Kuwait in 1991 by American-led forces changed many Kuwaitis’ view of the nature of the struggle with Israel. Most have abandoned advocating a military solution. Some now even credit Israel’s decision not to retaliate against Iraqi missiles during the first Persian Gulf war as a benefit for Kuwait. Retaliation might have caused other Arab nations to support Iraq in that struggle, their thinking goes.
"Despite what people say, we are not at war with Israel," Ahmed al-Sarraf, a prominent Kuwaiti banker and commentator, said in an interview this week. "On the contrary, we owe Israel a lot." Had the Israelis retaliated for the Iraqi missiles, he insisted, "it would have affected our cause significantly."
Supporters of engagement insist they are not seeking to abandon the Palestinian cause but in fact hoping to enhance it.
"How can you exert any pressure on someone by not recognizing them?" Mr. Sarraf said. "It hasn’t worked for the past 50 years, and it’s time to change the thinking."
He added: "But supposing instead that Israel becomes dependent on Kuwait for 30 percent of its oil? Then we have greater influence and say in these issues."
Reports have circulated that Kuwait will lift its embargo on Israel, but they remain unconfirmed. The Kuwaiti daily Al Qabas noted that Kuwait had not yet signed a free-trade agreement with the United States. Such an agreement would not permit a trade embargo on Israel.
But many Kuwaitis read more into the fact that senior members of the government have not denied the assertions about the possibility of lifting the embargo.
"There’s no point in denying the existence of Israel anymore, so there should be nothing wrong with normalizing relations," Mr. Sarraf said. "The Palestinians themselves are speaking to Israel, so why shouldn’t we?"
Even if the government were to propose such a measure, however, the powerful but hostile National Assembly would put up a big fight.
"We cannot make relations with Israel," Muhammad al-Saqer, chairman of the National Assembly’s foreign affairs committee, told the English-language Kuwait Times this week. "If Arab countries want to do so, then Kuwait will be the last state to have relations with Israel, and I hope that this will never happen."
But the mere debate may in itself be a milestone, some commentators have said. "I don’t know if anything will come of this," said Nabil al-Fathil, a columnist with the daily Al Watan and a proponent of normalization. "I just hope we will be freed from the old language and dialogue."