Winning Arab hearts and minds
Dina KhalibAljazeeraAugust 18, 2006Billions of dollars spent, tens of thousands of lives lost, hundreds of hours of televised speeches and press conferences, extensive diplomatic efforts, political and military plans, years in Iraq, and much more. None of this helped the US to achieve its president's announced goal of "winning the hearts and minds of the Arab people". Instead, George Bush seems to have lost the hearts and minds of many who had been supportive of US plans for the Middle East.Someone else in the Americas seems to have the secret formula for achieving that goal; much more quickly and cheaply. Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president, found himself at the centre of Middle Eastern politics when he announced that he was withdrawing his most senior diplomat from Israel, the Venezuelan charge d'affaires in Tel Aviv. Not for something Israel did to his country, but for what it does to Palestinians and Lebanese thousands of miles away.The action was preceded by Chavez's repeated condemnation of what he describes as Israel's "aggression" against Lebanese land and its "genocide" against the Lebanese people. He was the first head of state to say such harsh words towards Israel after violence broke out on the Israeli Lebanese border last month, even before that of any Arab or Muslim country.Today on many Arabic internet sites one can read comments such as: "I am Palestinian but my president is Chavez, not Abu Mazen." Or: "I don't want to be an Arab. From now on I shall be Venezuelan."In Gaza and Ramallah in the Palestinian Territories I am told that next to Arafat's and Che Guevara's posters, a new poster of Chavez is being added.On world television channels one could even see Venezuelan flags in demonstrations in Beirut, next to Lebanese and Palestinian flags, and in many prominent newspapers across the Arab World, columnists wondered: why can't Arab leaders do what a Latin American non-Arab non-Muslim leader dared do?Naturally, some anti-Chavez Venezuelans would rush to warn their president's Arab fans of what they say is the real Chavez: an authoritarian who is ruining their country. But that would still not change much for his Middle Eastern supporters. When one internet user wrote saying that Chavez was a "dictator like Fidel Castro", the replies flooded the website one after the other defending Chavez and insulting the person who had criticised him.Chavez's opponents see his position as a mere political manoeuvre to support his ally, Iran, and to attack his traditional enemy: the US, or the "empire" as he calls it. They also think that he wants to increase his popularity worldwide. That could be true. But what is undoubtedly true is that Chavez's affinity with Arabs is nothing new. He often mentions them in his speeches and tells stories of his adventures with Arab leaders in their faraway lands. He admires the desert. He says he is a Nasserite (referring to the late nationalist president of Egypt, Gamal Abdul Nasser). He mentions Iraq more than Arab leaders do and never misses an opportunity to "salute the Iraqi resistance against imperialist forces". This solidarity with Arab causes is widely shared by most Venezuelans, and also by most Latin Americans, especially the poor. Many marched in the streets of Caracas and other cities in Venezuela - as well as in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Colombia and elsewhere - to show solidarity with the Lebanese and Palestinians in their plight. Israel reacted slowly and rather indifferently to Chavez's decision to withdraw his diplomat, as though it was of little importance. Only after several days did it call its ambassador to Caracas for consultation. Then Chavez went further, to say that he was probably going to break diplomatic relations altogether with Israel, a state with which he is not interested in sharing any business, offices or anything else.The state of relations between the two countries at the moment is unclear. Nobody knows how long the Venezuelan charge d'affaires will stay away from Tel Aviv. Nor does anyone really know whether or when the Israeli ambassador is due back in Venezuela. The Israeli embassy still operates normally in Caracas.But none of those details matters any more. What has been said and done will not be forgotten by any of the parties involved. AccusationsJewish people in Venezuela say they have received threats and feel uneasy about the whole thing. Security was tightened around all Jewish facilities in Caracas and nobody there was willing to give a comment to Al Jazeera. Some prominent Jewish figures spoke on local media and accused Chavez of being an anti-Semite. At the same time, Chavez may well be accused of harbouring Hezbollah units. Last week there was talk on Western and Israeli media about such units abroad.Whatever the consequence of Chavez's uncompromising position with Israel, it is evident that it embarrassed Arab leaders, as none of them cut or even downgraded ties with Israel despite all the massacres its army has committed in Lebanon and Palestine.Those leaders whom he always praised and considered as his "brothers" might not like him as much as they did when he summoned them in Caracas in 2000 to put the oil prices up within Opec. They surely do not like his closeness to Iran, which is seen by many as trying to spread its influence over the Middle East. And they probably feel that his continuous, provocative anti-Bush statements are too compromising.Chavez probably realises all of that. For years he strove to forge alliances with Arab governments and share projects to break the current world economic order in which, as he sees it, third-world countries are all tied to the big powers and not to each other.But he has seemingly given up on his Arab counterparts, or most of them at least, now that he has come to realise that they are not anti-imperialist - not even anti-Israeli - and that some strongly dislike his ally, Iran. He and the whole world saw how close and obedient Arab leaders are to the US and how far and detached from their people they have grown. If what happened in Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon is not enough to make them speak out and stand up to defend Arab dignity, then nothing will.That is where Chavez's talent to communicate with the man on the street comes in to fill the gap and make him more popular than Arab leaders in their own countries.One internet user writes: "I wish there were elections to elect the leader of the Arab Umma [Islamic Nation] and I am sure 100 per cent that Chavez will win the elections although he is Venezuelan."LegendaryIt will be interesting to see what course official Venezuelan-Arab relations will take.The sure thing is that in the mind of millions of Arabs, Chavez is now in the same league as Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, and other "heroic" Arab figures. At a time when nationalism in the Arab world is linked to Islamic movements such as Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon, both branded as terrorist movements by Washington, Chavez represents a very different trend. He does not belong to or lead a religious movement; he is not - yet - classified by Washington as terrorist; he is, unlike Arab leaders, a democratically elected president and an anti-imperialist socialist who has no equal at the moment in the Arab world. No wonder some Arab internet users call for cloning him to make sure they get a copy to replace their own leader. Would there be a "Chavez of Arabia" just like the legendary "Lawrence of Arabia", the Englishman who won the trust and sympathy of Arabs in the desert when they were under English mandate? History will decide. But for now, to many Arabs online he is "an honourable man in a world of few men" that many declare they are "ready to die for".