The Arab scene
explores the likely fall-out of regional developments
The Arab world appears to have entered a new chapter in the trials and tribulations that have beset it over recent decades as it faces a sudden onslaught of regional and international developments -- the election of a Republican administration in the US to a second term of office, the new phase in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the formation of a new government in Iraq raising question marks over the future of that country and the repercussions it will have throughout the region. Add to these the political rhetoric issuing from Cairo, Damascus and Ramallah and we realise that a number of realities are now locked in place.
There is not a shadow of doubt that Iran will be next on the current US administration's hit list -- Washington's threats against it are too similar to the buildup to the war against Iraq. There are some differences, however. US relations with Iran are qualitatively different to its relations with Saddam Hussein's Iraq. And Washington has learned some bitter lessons from its experience in Iraq, among them the realisation that you cannot eat two meals at the same time. The most likely scenario, therefore, is that Israel will act as Washington's proxy and launch a surprise attack against Iran's nuclear reactors and long-range missile factories. Not that there is anything new in this. Israel has a long history of foreign exploits of this kind, among them its strike against Iraq's nuclear reactor in 1981. It also has the incentive. Iran, with its long-range missiles and potential nuclear capacity, comes second only to Hizbullah as a thorn in Israel's side.
Any attempts to identify the contours of what lies in store for the Arab world must take into account a number of other factors. Bush, in his second term, faces the test of meeting the pledges he made in his first term but never got around to fulfilling. We have to acknowledge that his was the first US administration in American history to officially acknowledge the need to create an independent Palestinian state, as well as the first to have openly referred to Israel's presence in the West Bank and Gaza as an "occupation". The US was also a member of the Quartet, alongside the EU, Russia and the UN, which formulated the roadmap, intended to revive the Palestinian- Israeli negotiating process. If this gives ground for optimism, such optimism must be tempered. The second Bush administration has more hawks than the first, and less doves.
Balanced against this is Syria's new openness. President Bashir Al-Assad's highly successful visits to a number of other Arab countries have been accompanied by a more measured Syrian rhetoric that nonetheless adheres to Damascus's fixed principles. This, in conjunction with Syria's declaration of its willingness to resume negotiations without preconditions, adds a hopeful dimension to the current Arab scene.
A similarly positive development can be seen in the progress made in Egyptian-Israeli communications in the months that followed the shooting of three Egyptian soldiers on its border with Israel. Not only did talks between the two sides result in an upgrading of the Egyptian military presence in Area 3 of the Sinai, they also strengthened the hand of Egyptian mediation between the Palestinians and Israelis. The intensive communications between Egyptian officials, notably Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman, and both the Palestinians and the Israelis, were undoubtedly the most constructive preparation for the Sharm El-Sheikh summit. Regardless of one's opinion about the substance of that summit, there is no refuting that it kick-started a political process the stagnation of which was a major cause of the deteriorating situation in the region.
There is no denying, too, the impact the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has had on the unfolding of regional events. Above all, it has halted Israeli and US claims that Arafat was the main obstacle to peace through his incitement to violence and support of the militarisation of the Intifada. Following the death of a man they branded as a terrorist for the simple reason he led a national liberation movement that refused to bow to Israel's dictates, no one knew how the new Palestinian leadership would handle the post-Arafat phase. Upon assuming the helm of the PA Abu Mazen, a moderate who had called for a halt to the militarisation of the Intifada while Arafat was still alive, moved rapidly to restore order inside Palestine, to halt the firing of Qassem missiles against Israel and to work out an understanding over a truce with the various Palestinian factions. In other words, there has been a significant qualitative shift in the Palestinian approach to, and handling of, its conflict with Israel.
Any improvement in an issue as central as the Palestinian cause must inevitably have a positive spin-off effect in Iraq. If the Americans realised this, they would give the Palestinian question the time and effort it merits as such a pivotal issue. Certainly, it is impossible to escape the fact that the plight of the Palestinian people is the one that has been invariably seized upon by leaders as ideologically poles apart as Saddam Hussein and Bin Laden. The outrage Arab and Muslim people feel in response to the daily crimes and human rights violations perpetrated against the Palestinians is behind the almost automatic rejection of American policies. Nor do I imagine that what the Americans term terrorism will subside in this part of the world until there is a just and comprehensive settlement to the confrontation in the Palestinian occupied territories and to the Arab- Israeli conflict as a whole.
Any portrait of the current state of the Arab world must, of course, include an analysis of Washington's stand on Arab issues, so great is the influence of the world's sole superpower over regional relationships. The two most recent documents to have emerged from Washington -- Bush's inaugural address followed a few days later by his State of the Union address -- are the clearest indicators of what lies in store for the region. If the first document restricted itself to vague generalisations, the second went into extensive detail over the American mission to spread freedom and democracy in the world and how it planned to go about it. The State of the Union address, in particular, conveyed an implicit threat to Syria and an explicit one to Iran as well as a couple of messages to the two countries in the region closest to the US -- Saudi Arabia, with its religious and economic leverage, and Egypt with its political and cultural clout. Several phrases in the State of the Union address of 2 February 2005 indicate just how confident the current administration is in its ability to effect change. Bush vaunted the success of the Iraqi elections without dwelling, of course, on voter turnout figures. And he issued a flagrant threat against Iran, in deference to longstanding Israeli demands and as a reminder of the American mission in the region, though at least some people in the White House must realise that Iran will never be the "picnic" that Iraq was.
We will, of course, continue to condemn the intervention of foreign powers in the region, a phenomenon that has been the direct and indirect cause of so much bloodshed and the loss of so many of its leaders. The recent assassination of Rafiq Al-Hariri by agents of powers that seek to destabilise Lebanon and plunge it back into civil war, serves as a potent reminder of the fragility of a region where the people are always first to suffer, whatever their hopes for justice, stability and peace.
* The writer is chairman of the foreign affairs committee at the People's Assembly.