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Mideast Peace?: An Arab-Israeli Pact Must Come First

By Shibley Telhami
New York Times

April 12, 2003

The relevance of the Arab-Israeli conflict in American policy toward the Middle East will once again be highly debated as Saddam Hussein's regime falls. This very subject has itself become a political issue. Arab publics fear that if the conflict is deemed unimportant, it means that the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, has a green light to dictate his terms, while Arab governments worry that attention could shift to their own authoritarian political structures. Israelis, meanwhile, fear that if the issue is deemed too important, it means that the United States would pressure Israel and impose a solution not to their liking.

These fears further intensify Israel's profound sense of insecurity and the Arabs' pervasive sense of weakness, the psychological states that are almost as central to understanding the conflict as the objective differences. They also blur the debate about United States policy in the Middle East.

The reality should be stated at the outset: the United States cannot impose a solution on either side. Only a negotiated settlement that addresses both sides' vital interests, based on mutual concessions, has a chance of achieving an enduring peace. The fact remains, however, that only the United States can help the parties come to the negotiating table and provide the conditions that enable their possible success. Unless the Bush administration makes the Arab-Israeli conflict a priority and works to put it on a path of de-escalation and resolution, broader American policies in the region will be troubled.

The Arab-Israeli issue remains the prism through which most Arabs see the United States. To be sure, it is not the only issue driving resentment of American policy in the Arab world. Even outside the Middle East, from Latin America to Western Europe, resentment of the United States is strong today in areas where the Arab-Israeli issue is marginal. It is unreasonable, thus, to suppose that Arab-Israeli peace will eliminate America's challenges in the region. But this issue provides the distorting vision that makes it harder to address other issues. It also explains the level of passionate public anger with American policy, even if it is not the only basis for this anger.

It would be puzzling if the conflict were not central in the minds of the Arab public: since the creation of Israel in 1948, five major Arab-Israeli wars, mostly losing and devastating, have shaped the collective psychology of several generations. Their impact has been real in the lives of Palestinians and many in Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and beyond. To this day, the unsettled Palestinian issue and the continuing bloodshed--now graphically relayed on television to homes in every corner of the Arab world--are daily reminders of the widespread sense of weakness and humiliation in the Arab world, both in relation to authoritarian governments and to the outside world. The Palestinian issue in particular has become an issue of identity for most Arabs. Although its role is far from identical, it has some similarities to the role that Israel has come to play in contemporary Jewish identity: one can disagree with the government of Israel and oppose Ariel Sharon, but if Israeli survival seems to hang in the balance and innocent Israelis are being killed, it is hard not to rally behind Israel. And if any party seems to be aiding Israel's enemies, especially in war, it is hard not to pass judgment accordingly.

Many Arab governments and others have exploited the Palestinian issue to their advantage over the years, including to distract from real problems at home. Even Osama bin Laden, who initially ignored the Palestine issue, elevated it to the top as he sought to rally support for his cause after the horror of 9/11. Similarly, Saddam Hussein declared, as American troops surrounded Baghdad, “Long live Iraq, long live Palestine.” That these are acts of deliberate manipulation is clear enough. But these acts employ the Palestinian issue precisely because no other issue resonates more with people in the region, providing the shortest cut to their sense of collective identity.

In democratic politics we fully understand that some politicians often appeal to public passions and interest group politics to advance their interests. While it is legitimate to suggest that this appeal reinforces and often strengthens interest groups, it would be wrong to suggest that the issues of these groups are themselves artifacts of political manipulation in democracies. In the authoritarian systems of the Arab world, public opinion is at least in part the product of what the government says or does. But it is a mistake to assume that most of the public's outlook on the Arab-Israeli conflict is a product of government control.

States that have had peace with Israel and close relations with the United States, and that are dependent on them, like Egypt and Jordan, have become the objects of their publics' anger by virtue of the escalating passions on the Arab-Israeli issue. Despite the government's best efforts, public opinion in Jordan has remained strongly moved by events in the West Bank and Gaza, often posing serious challenges to the monarchy. And despite attempts by the Egyptian government in recent months to reduce public anger toward the United States (because it understood that this anger could ultimately be aimed at President Hosni Mubarak himself), the fury has remained.

Certainly, authoritarian governments have been able to ignore their citizens in the formation of policy, which explains why many Arab governments supported the war on Iraq, even as many European democracies opposed it. But even for a government like Jordan's, which knows that political reform is in its long-term interest, this comes at a cost: more repression. To pre-empt public anger from turning into a real threat, governments turn to repression, which in turn perpetuates conditions for militancy.

Although democracy in the long term is good for the region, two problems remain in the short term. First, transitions to democracy are usually long, volatile and unpredictable. In that sense, issues that are close to the hearts of the public are even more exploitable by competing politicians. Second, even if democracy is attained, it is not clear how this could translate into stronger American-Arab relations if differences on core issues remain. The case of Turkey's democracy blocking the launching of United States troops from its soil in the Iraq war is a telling example.

The Arab-Israeli issue is also critical to the United States in ways that we sometimes ignore: the American commitment to Israel means that parties who pose a potential threat to Israel will become a target of American policy; that when Israel needs support, the United States will be there, including the exercise of its veto power in the Security Council. But it also means that when Israel has the upper hand and Arabs are on the losing side, the United States will inevitably be the subject of regional anger for empowering Israel. Mediating peace is a moral obligation that would reduce this anger and benefit Israelis and Arabs alike.

There will always be many in the Arab world who will oppose the United States for ideological and other reasons. The real challenge is to marginalize these groups. The region faces its own potential battle between the forces of intolerance and militancy, and those who seek tolerance, reform and peaceful settlement of disputes. The responsibility for this battle lies largely with forces in the region, as does the ultimate responsibility for ending the Arab-Israeli conflict. But the continuing visible pain of this conflict plays into the hands of those forces the United States wants to see defeated.

As we reflect on the future of American policy in the region after the Iraq war, one thing remains the same: any strategy to reduce militancy, anti-Americanism and repression in the Middle East cannot succeed unless a robust effort to mediate a fair Arab-Israeli peace is a priority.


Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland  and senior fellow at the Saban Center st the Brookings Institution. He is Author of "The Stakes: America and the Middle East: The Consequences of Power and the Choice for Peace."


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