‘Dialogue of the deaf’: Failed Cairo summit exposes deep rift between Arabs and West

Saturday’s meeting on ongoing Israel-Hamas war ended without a final statement, with Western states refusing to slam Israel and Arab states unwilling to blame Hamas for violence

Seen on a large screen, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is greeted by Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi (right) prior to the start of the International 'Summit for Peace,' in the New Administrative Capital (NAC), east of Cairo, on October 21, 2023. (Khaled DESOUKI/ AFP)
Seen on a large screen, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is greeted by Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi (right) prior to the start of the International 'Summit for Peace,' in the New Administrative Capital (NAC), east of Cairo, on October 21, 2023. (Khaled DESOUKI/ AFP)

Cairo’s “Summit for Peace” was meant to be a diplomatic breakthrough towards a ceasefire in Gaza, but its failure revealed what one analyst called the “fault lines” between Arab and Western states on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In their opening addresses Saturday, Arab leaders and Western delegates agreed on the need for aid to reach Palestinians in Gaza, besieged and under Israeli bombardment after the Hamas terror group’s devastating onslaught in southern communities on October 7.

But after hours of discussion, they found common ground on little else, with the meeting ending without a concluding statement.

“The disagreement was over condemning Israel, which Western states refused to do,” an Arab official told AFP, requesting anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media.

Instead, they sought a statement that placed “responsibility for the escalation on Hamas,” which Arab states refused, according to a different Arab diplomat.

War erupted after Hamas’s massacre, which saw some 2,500 terrorists break through the border into Israel from the Gaza Strip by land, air, and sea, killing some 1,400 people and seizing some 212 hostages of all ages under the cover of a deluge of thousands of rockets fired at Israeli towns and cities.

Among the remains of Kibbutz Be’eri, destroyed in Hamas’s devastating onslaught on October 7, photographed on October 20, 2023. (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)

The vast majority of those killed as gunmen seized border communities were civilians — men, women, children and the elderly. Entire families were executed in their homes, and over 260 were slaughtered at an outdoor festival, many amid horrific acts of brutality by the terrorists.

‘Dialogue of the deaf’

Though a number of Arab leaders condemned the loss of Israeli civilian life, they refused to place the onus on Hamas for the bloodshed.

Arab states — some involved in the hostage negotiations with Hamas — would have been “in uncomfortable positions with their people” if they had signed on to the condemnation, the Arab official said.

Another point of contention, diplomats said, was Western diplomats wanting to call for the release of hostages abducted by Hamas.

Arab countries, with Qatar in the lead, have been negotiating their release in talks that could have been jeopardized if they signed alongside countries who have supported “Israel’s right to defend itself,” diplomats said.

File: People wave the Palestinian flag during a protest following Friday Noon prayers outside the al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo on October 20, 2023. (Khaled DESOUKI / AFP)

With nothing left on the table, the meeting amounted to little more than a “dialogue of the deaf,” according to regional expert Karim Bitar, and ended quietly.

The sole statement released was one from the Egyptian presidency — drafted with the approval of Arab attendees, diplomats said — that said decades of band-aid diplomacy had failed to find “a just and lasting solution to the Palestinian issue.”

Israel has launched an offensive it says is aimed at destroying Hamas’s infrastructure and has vowed to eliminate the entire terror group, which rules the Strip. It says it is targeting all areas where Hamas operates while seeking to minimize civilian casualties.

The campaign in Gaza has killed more than 4,600 Palestinians, according to the Hamas-run health ministry, and reduced swaths of the densely populated territory to ruins. The Hamas-stated toll cannot be independently verified and is believed to include its own terrorists and gunmen, as well as victims of misfired Palestinian rockets that landed in the Strip.

In addition, Israel has said its forces killed about 1,500 Palestinian terrorists in its own territory following the October 7 invasion.

‘No to normalization’

The summit, Bitar told AFP, “perfectly illustrates the deepening fault lines between the West and the Arab world, and the Global South more broadly,” as decades have not dulled “the persistence of the Palestinian question.”

Though the list of Arab states with ties to Israel has grown in recent years, popular anti-Israel sentiment has remained strong.

Mass protests in support of the Palestinians have erupted in the region and beyond, with Egyptians taking to Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square on Friday for the first time in years after protests in the country were banned.

In Morocco — which along with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain signed the 2020 US-brokered Abraham Accords, establishing diplomatic relations with Israel — tens of thousands of protesters chanted, “No to normalization.”

On what was dubbed the “Friday of Rage,” crowds in Bahrain chanted “Death to Israel!”

Across the Arab world, solidarity with Palestinians is still one of the few causes capable of rallying consensus and mobilizing political action.

“Many have pushed against this centrality,” according to Bitar.

“For 20 years, we’ve been told to ‘move along, there is nothing to see here, it has become a minor, low-intensity conflict,'” he said.

‘Fall apart in our hands’

But the idea of “drowning out the Israeli-Palestinian question in an economic mega-deal between the Gulf and Israel” turned out to be a “pipe dream,” he continued.

Since hostilities began, Iraqi Prime Minister Mohamed Shia al-Sudani — whose government is supported by Iran-backed factions — has condemned the “genocide” undertaken by “the Zionist occupier” on Palestinians.

Seen on a large screen, Jordan’s King Abdullah II attends the International Peace Summit hosted by Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, during the ongoing Israel-Hamas war, Cairo, Egypt, on October 21, 2023. (Khaled DESOUKI/AFP)

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi meanwhile sounded the alarm, warning that the region’s most fundamental peace deal — the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel — could “fall apart in our hands.”

King Abdullah II of Jordan — which became the second Arab state to recognize Israel in 1994 and hosts more than two million Palestinian refugees and their descendants — said on Saturday the war had revealed a culture of “global silence” on Palestinian death and suffering.

“The message the Arab world is hearing is loud and clear: Palestinian lives matter less than Israeli ones.”

After the abortive end to the Cairo summit, French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna said world leaders “must work to put the Palestinian question at the center of concerns.”

Briefing reporters after the meeting, she said, “See you in six months” for the next “Summit for Peace.”

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