Al-Ahram Weekly Online   17 - 23 July 2003
Issue No. 647
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'Middle East surprises for America'

Can stability be achieved in the Middle East despite the failure of the post-Iraq "domino effect" to materialise, asks John V Whitbeck*


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A Palestinian child in a demonstration calling for the release of Palestinian prisoners being held in Israeli jails
For those formulating American foreign policy and dreaming of remaking the Middle East in their own image, the region appears to be full of surprises. The determined resistance of some Iraqis to the Western occupation of their country seems to have been genuinely unanticipated. It should not have been. If the United States were conquered and occupied by Arab armies which announced their intention to stay for years and to restructure the country's government and economy along Islamic lines, would no Americans resist, not even "hardcore Bush loyalists" or "Republican Party remnants"?

The legislative elections in Kuwait on 5 July, if noticed in America, should have constituted an even more stunning surprise. Before and after the conquest of Iraq, proponents of the war evoked the vision of a virtuous "domino effect" toppling authoritarian regimes in the region and replacing them with modernising, Western-oriented "democratic" ones. As a genuine reason for war, such a democratic mission always lacked credibility with those who actually live in the region, who recognise that, so long as America and Israel act like Siamese twins joined at the brain, any government in the Arab world which actually reflected the will of its people would be fervently anti-American.

Of course, Americans do like elections -- provided that they produce the "right" result. (Donald Rumsfeld has made clear that an Islamic government will not be permitted in Iraq even if most of Iraq's people were to favour one.) However, few believe that the United States would really prefer a democratically elected government which is anti-American to an authoritarian regime which is pro-American.

So, what happened in the elections in Kuwait, the most pro-American country in the Arab world, with the most reason (by far) to be pro-American? The "liberals", who seek a more open and modern society and had hoped to make significant gains, were almost wiped out, retaining only three seats (down from eight) in the 50-seat parliament. The remaining 47 seats went to conservatives and Islamists, including radical fundamentalists. The "domino effect" has not worked out -- at least not falling in the "right" direction -- next door to Iraq. What would genuinely fair elections produce in other Arab countries, whose people are far less pro-American? A quiet burial for the "democratic mission" can be anticipated.

Another illusion destined to be dispelled soon is that the current "roadmap" for Israel/Palestine will win the United States friends and gratitude in the Arab world. While the "roadmap" is widely described as a "peace plan", in Arab eyes, "peace" in Israel/Palestine requires ending the occupation, not crushing all resistance to it, while, in most of the world, true "peace" is recognised to require some measure of "justice", a word rigorously avoided by successive American governments in connection with their successive "peace plans".

If one reads the "roadmap", it is readily apparent that it builds on a false premise to reach an unbelievable conclusion. The premise is that the problem in Israel/Palestine is Palestinian resistance to the 36-year-long occupation, not the occupation itself. The conclusion is that, if the Palestinian leadership will first suppress completely all forms of resistance to the occupation and eliminate all capabilities for ever resisting again, thereby making the occupation totally cost-free for Israelis, then (and only then) Israel will choose, of its own free will, to end the occupation, withdrawing to (essentially) its internationally recognised pre-1967 borders, vacating the settlements, sharing Jerusalem and agreeing to a just settlement of the refugee issue.

The Holy Land may, in theory, be a land of miracles, but, even if the "if" were possible at the start of the road (which is most unlikely), it is difficult to believe that anyone in a state of sobriety could genuinely believe that the "then" would follow. (By contrast, if such a destination, fully consistent with international law, were announced and guaranteed at the start of the road, as it would be in any peace plan devised with a sincere intention to achieve peace, there would no longer be any need for resistance.)

Arabs are not fools. Even if they have not read the "roadmap", when they see both George W Bush and Colin Powell insisting that a total cessation of Palestinian violence is not good enough and that the Palestinian leadership must also eliminate any capability for resuming violent resistance in the future, they can recognise that the true American objective is not "peace", as they understand the word, but, at best, simply "quiet" -- Palestinian acquiescence in the occupation and acceptance of whatever terms Israel may wish to impose on a defeated and demoralised people -- and, at worst, provoking a Palestinian civil war.

Such a "peace plan" will win the United States no more friends and gratitude in the Arab world than American efforts to repress resistance to its own occupation of a proud Arab country by ever-escalating force, which is condemned to produce ever-intensifying resistance, which will be met by yet more brutal force in an infernal cycle which Israelis and Palestinians know all too well.

Is there any way to prevent an already ugly situation in the Middle East from degenerating into a long-term war of civilisations? Actually, there is. In March 2002, the Arab League, in its Beirut Declaration, dramatically offered full peace and normal diplomatic and economic relations between Israel and all Arab states in return for a total end to the occupation of all Arab lands occupied in 1967. The Arab League should formally reaffirm this offer, while also making clear the "other side of the coin" -- that there will never be peace or normal relations until the occupation ends.

Then, the United States should make clear that what must end -- and soon -- is the occupation, not the resistance to it. Of course, for America to do so would require a virtual "second American declaration of independence". American politicians would have to put the interests of their own country and people ahead of the desires of extreme right-wing elements in Israel and their vocal, intimidating and well-funded supporters in the United States. Most observers would consider such a revolution inconceivable, but, at least in theory, it is possible -- and it is urgent.

The true "roadmap" confronting Iraq, Palestine and the region as a whole is not one of steady progress towards peace, prosperity, Western-style democracy and increasingly pro- American sentiments. Unless the world focusses soon on the real problem and its only real solution, and insists on the prompt implementation of that solution, we are all risking a rapid descent into hell.

* The writer is an international lawyer who writes frequently on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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