Wikileaks, the Israeli embassy takeover, and the US normalization project

Egyptians tore down the walls around the Israeli embassy on 9 September 2011.

Mohamed Abd El-Ghany Reuters

The US project for normalization with the the Israeli colonizing and apartheid regime was dealt a severe blow last Friday when protesters battered down the walls of the Israeli embassy in Cairo and even managed to break into the embassy’s offices. The walls were erected around the embassy last week after a protester scaled the more than twenty-story building and replaced the Israeli flag at the top with Egyptian one during a previous demonstration.

Within 24 hours of last Friday’s embassy takeover, the Israeli ambassador and most of the embassy staff had evacuated from Cairo.

The embassy protests followed a mass rally earlier in the day at Tahrir Square calling for reform of the military regime.

According to Al Jazeera English:

The protesters were rallying in the heart of Cairo against the slow pace of reforms by the current military council since the toppling of Hosni Mubarak, the former president.

They had also been angered by Israel’s killing of the Egyptian border guards last month, during an operation targeting gunmen suspected of deadly attacks in southern Israel.

The protesters were demanding the closure of the Israeli embassy, an end to gas exports to Israel and nullification of the 1978 Camp David peace agreement between the two countries.

The embassy takeover is not just a blow to the 1978 Camp David accords which normalized relations between Egypt and Israel. It is also a direct challenge to the US project of normalization and neoliberalism in the Arab world. The importance of this project is made clear in diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks, which show how the US government prioritized undermining the Arab League boycott of Israel in its dealing with Arab governments in order to normalize relations with Israel and benefit free trade agreements — and ultimately US corporations.

Wikileaks cables show US policy to undermine the Arab League Boycott in action

It’s hardly a secret that the US government has long worked to undermine the Arab League Boycott of Israel, imposed after the 1947-48 ethnic cleansing of Palestine. The primary boycott aspect prohibits the importing of Israeli goods and services. The secondary aspect of the boycott prohibits companies from conducting business with US and other foreign firms that contribute to Israel’s military or economic development. The tertiary aspect forbids contracts with foreign firms that do business with companies on the boycott list maintained by the Damascus-based Central Boycott Office.

The US Department of Commerce has an Office of Antiboycott Compliance which acts to enforce a prohibition of the secondary and tertiary aspects of the boycott. A 2005 cable neatly summarizes the US’ position on the Arab League Boycott:

The United States continues to oppose the boycott, and US government officials have urged Arab League members to end its enforcement. Toward that goal, US embassies and government officials raise the boycott with host country officials, noting the persistence of illegal boycott requests and the impact on both US firms and on the countries’ ability to expand trade and investment. Under U.S. antiboycott legislation enacted in 1978, US firms are prohibited from responding to any request for information that is designed to determine compliance with the boycott, and are required to report receipt of any such request to the US Department of Commerce’s Office of Antiboycott Compliance (OAC).

While the same memo notes that “While it remains a serious barrier for US firms attempting to export to some countries in the region from Israel, the boycott has virtually no effect on US trade and investment in many other countries in the region.” However, undermining the boycott has remained a high priority for US diplomats in the Arab world.

This has been partly achieved through neoliberal economic agreements. As the 2005 cable mentions, the primary boycott “conflicts with the obligation of Arab League member states that are also members of the World Trade Organization to treat Israeli imports on a Most Favored Nation (MFN) basis.”

The cable adds: “In September 1994, the GCC [Gulf Coordination Council] countries announced an end to the secondary and tertiary aspects of the Arab League Boycott of Israel, eliminating a significant trade barrier to US firms. In December 1996, the GCC countries recognized the total dismantling of the Boycott as a necessary step to advance peace and promote regional cooperation in the Middle East and North Africa.”

Iraq open for business

The neoliberal, normalization agenda is made clear in diplomatic cables dealing with Iraq and the Arab League Boycott.

A confidential 2008 cable from the US Embassy in Baghdad titled “Arab League Boycott: Strategy for Iraq” describes “Iraq’s status as a ‘boycotting country’ ” as “ ‘under review’ since the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003.”

While a 2005 cable shows that the Iraqi government lacked the political capital to repeal the boycott — the Iraqi minister of the trade at the time called it politically “impossible” — the US government worked with the Iraqi leadership to find ways around the boycott to open trade with US companies, despite Iraqi public opinion.

A secret 2007 cable from the US Embassy in Baghdad titled “Arab League Boycott Action Plan” details “an aggressive action plan with mission-wide support and input from [the US Departments of] State, Commerce and Treasury” to remove boycott language from the books.

The cable adds:

“Embassy Baghdad has repeatedly raised concerns about the Arab League Boycott at all levels for the government Our engagement is constrained, however, by the lack of attention from high-level USG [US government] officials during visits to Iraq. … Given the importance of engagement on ALB as described in ref A, such visitors may want to focus more on ALB during their visits in-country. We would appreciate Washington support in briefing principals on ALB engagement prior to their visits to Iraq.

The US government’s action plan summarized in the same cable describes interventions to be taken by the US government to end Iraqi participation in Arab League Boycott meetings and to disband its Arab League Boycott office at the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The cable adds:

Fair trade practices remain a core US policy priority, and Iraq’s steps towards accession to the WTO indicate that the leadership understands the need for open trade.

This and other cables detail how the US government pressured the Iraqi government to drop the Arab League Boycott provisions through high-level engagement with Iraqi officials such as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to press the issue.

This was made explicit in the 2008 cable:

Where feasible, we will engage specific GOI [Government of Iraq] ministries to provide alternatives to proscribed language and insist on its immediate use. And we will make clear at the highest levels of the GOI that continued reports of ALB implementation in contracting will result in Iraq’s listing as a boycotting country, to the detriment of Iraq’s reputation in the US Congress and in international trade and investment circles.

The US Embassy in Baghdad provided talking points to diplomats for such high-level meetings that include economic threats, such as:

We do not believe it is in the interest of Iraq to be specifically listed as a boycotting country. US firms and investors will have to take this into account when making decisions as to whether to do business with Iraq. They are prohibited by US law from complying with your contracting requirements. The U.S. Congress will take an extremely negative view of such a determination; our ability to obtain continued funding from the Congress for our engagement with you will certainly be jeopardized.

A more recent cable from 2009 shows that the pressure in Iraq was effective in encouraging the Government of Iraq to be de facto non-compliant with the Arab League Boycott:

Senior GOI [Government of Iraq] officials repeatedly tell us that Iraq is not pursuing the boycott, but a tangled web of conflicting laws, regulations and CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority] orders — applied differently by each Ministry — has, in the past, resulted in reports of ALB [Arab League Boycott] compliance requests prohibited under U.S. law. While the GOI’s slow review of ALB-specific regulations continues, the changing business environment and pressure by Post consistent with our ALB action plan (ref C) have resulted in a significant drop in prohibited requests. In fact, there have been no reports of prohibited requests in 2009 …

Motorola allowed to open Lebanon office

A cursory search of “Arab League Boycott” in the Wikileaks archive finds numerous other examples of the US exerting pressure on Arab governments to ease their observance and enforcement of the boycott.

Corrective action is taken in Yemen whenever the US brings up “violations” related to the secondary and tertiary aspects of the boycott, and while Yemen refuses to renounce the primary boycott without Arab League consensus on the issue, it admits boycotted “products still get into Yemen.”

A 2008 memo summarizes how the US intervened with the United Arab Emirates Ministry of Economy to send letters to institutions and companies in the country to revise “relevant commercial documents” to the US’ liking.

Meanwhile, in Saudi Arabia, a 2010 memo titled “Saudi Commerce Ministry Welcomes Antiboycott Compliance Office Visit” states that “Saudi Arabia’s compliance record has improved dramatically from 350 prohibited requests in 1994 to five prohibited requests in 2009.” The cable adds that Deputy Minister for Foreign Trade Abdullah Al-Hamoudi told a delegation from the US’ Office of Anti-Boycott compliance that “Saudi Arabia only imposes the primary aspect of the boycott, he said, and anecdotally explained that the small Israeli-made fuel filters in General Motors vehicles are acceptable as long as they are not shipped directly as spare parts.”

In Qatar, there are no boycott laws on the books and no enforcement off the boycott. A 2007 confidential cable from the US Embassy in Doha titled “Qatar-Israel commerce continues quietly” describes that there is “about 2 million USD in annual trade between Israel and Qatar,” but that “Real trade, however, may be as much as four times higher (i.e., up to about 5 million USD) via third countries, and includes Israeli exports of agricultural goods which are sometimes labeled in stores as coming from Egypt or Jordan.”

In Oman, not only does the government reject invitations for Arab League Boycott meetings, Omani officials met with US diplomats to denounce “a Jerusalem Post article alleging the application of the Arab League boycott in Oman” to assert the non-applicability of the boycott in Oman.

Morocco does not enforce the Arab League boycott and is Israel’s fourth-largest Arab export market.

And in Bahrain:

[The] US Government has received assurances from the Government of Bahrain that it is committed to ending the boycott. Bahrain is fully committed to complying with WTO [World Trade Organization] requirements on trade relations with other WTO members and Bahrain has no restrictions whatsoever on American companies trading with Bahrain or doing business in Bahrain, regardless of its ownership or relations with Israeli companies. Bahrain did not attend the November 2005 Arab League Boycott meeting in Damascus. Israeli-labeled products are reported to be found occasionally in the Bahraini market. There are no entities present in Bahrain for the purpose of promoting trade with Israel.

And a cable from 2009 shows that despite being put on the Arab League Boycott list more than ten years ago, Motorola opened an office in Lebanon, “as a result of the Embassy’s advocacy efforts”:

Given the growing demand for Motorola products in Lebanon, Motorola decided it was crucial that it open an office in Lebanon. Its senior management (based in Dubai) came to the Embassy and asked for our advocacy with the Lebanese PM and Minister of Economy to remove Motorola from the boycott list.

The people are rising up when governments do not

A brief review of the Wikileaks cables dealing with the Arab League Boycott shows that the US government doesn’t have to press governments all that hard to do whatever they can afford politically to ignore the boycott.

Even in Syria — described by the US as the “strictest adherent” of the boycott, and host of the Arab League Boycott central office — “Anecdotal reports indicate the SARG [Syrian government] has occasionally waived its requirement for boycott compliance certification in order to facilitate business with large US companies. As of September 2009, the Syrian Trademark Office is no longer asking foreign companies to fill out an application declaring their compliance with the Arab League boycott of Israel.”

A 2006 confidential memo describes the Arab League boycott as mainly symbolic:

Contacts at Arab embassies felt the ALBO [Arab League Boycott Office] was an organization in the sunset of its life, especially given the global nature of business today. Uniformly, their countries attend the meetings but do not implement the secondary and tertiary elements of the boycott. In the end, the ALBO remains relegated to being a forum that allows a few die-hard countries to let off steam, yet permitting some Arab confreres to maintain business ties with Israel without losing face.

We can interpret this to mean that the Arab League Boycott has become a mostly ineffectual gesture to satisfy the popular opinion amongst the Arab masses which oppose normalization with Israel. However, Arab states are more concerned with strengthening economic ties with US companies and assuring their good standing with the World Trade Organization.

But while change will not come from the top, and certainly not from the Arab League, it is already coming from the bottom.

Egypt normalized relations with Israel in 1978 and like Jordan, which also has a peace treaty with Israel, therefore does not observe any aspect of the Arab boycott. But nowhere is it more apparent than in Cairo that the government’s normalization with Israel is totally contrary to the desires of the masses, who are no longer satisfied with symbolic gestures to “let off steam.”

Jordan is also worried that its masses will take their cue from Cairo, and are increasing security around the Israeli embassy in Amman, the Israeli business publication Globes reported today, adding:

Top Egyptian officials said today that the security wall built around the Israeli Embassy, which the demonstrators broke down, would not be rebuilt. Egyptian authorities apparently fear that rebuilding the wall would reignite public anger and cause renewed demonstrations.

Last week’s events in Cairo show that no matter how much Arab states cozy up to the US and Israel, the masses have not been bought off.

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I don't think it's really accurate or helpful to characterize the embassy incident as a "blow" to Oslo. This gives the impression that Israel has been upholding her obligations under the agreement and that the embassy storming was an attack on that contract. Let's be clear, Israel has barely complied with even the minimum requirements of Oslo, even since the 1990s. Israel has repeatedly violated the aspects of sovereignty which were supposed to be given to the PA - agreements about governance have been ignored totally - and the agreement was given to endorsing legislation in Israel, which would insure its enforcement. Don't play into the MSM view that this incident was an attack on an Oslo infrastructure that existed.

Maureen Clare Murphy

Maureen Clare Murphy's picture

Maureen Clare Murphy is the managing editor of The Electronic Intifada and lives in Chicago.