Thursday,25 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1334, (2 - 8 March 2017)
Thursday,25 April, 2019
Issue 1334, (2 - 8 March 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Hammering out a new Middle East

Talk has shifted from a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a new regional security arrangement. In reality, there is no either/or

The search for peace in the Middle East will never end. The region that once was moving towards some sort of Arab independence (during the rise of Arab nationalism) is now falling apart. Non-Arab players, non-state actors, old and new Arab regimes and major international powers are all crowding the scene, jockeying for power. The most recent development in the search for peace is some vague ideas scattered around a “regional solution” for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The talk about such a “regional solution” is all over the place and seen by many as news and current affairs. But we should see far beyond and ask: Can such a “regional solution” open a new chapter in the history of the Middle East?

The Arab world has been the most vulnerable region in the world for decades. The regional order that was established after World War II has mostly collapsed and now has probably come the time to get things straight and move from a state of “disorder” to a “new order”. Arabs should understand that they, this time, will have to pay a historic price for lagging behind and continuing to decay as failing political systems remain in place for a long time. Resistance to positive change has made the Arab countries the least integrated in the global system. The Arab world is seen by many around the world as the main exporter of terrorists and refugees and one of the most corrupt regions in the world. Whether this image is true or false, it is the responsibility of Arabs to change it. But make no mistake, the new order should not inherit the characteristics of the old and crumbling one.

From “failed states” to “regime change”, now comes the time for “border change” and “security pact” strategies. The four will work together simultaneously. Since the beginning of the 21st century, the Arab world has been going through a painful and lengthy transformation process. Dramatic events led to redrawing borders, as in Sudan, or changing old regimes, as in Iraq, Syria, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya. The current situation does not provide the region with the necessary fundamentals for peace and prosperity as conflicts are still weighing down on stability. The most pressing issue is the Palestinian one. The talk now is about solving this issue within a regional framework. That simply means inviting other parties in the region (Arabs and non-Arab) and perhaps from outside to help solve the Palestinian issue.

In order to be clear, talk about a “regional framework” implies three important broad issues that may help transform the region historically. These issues are security, borders and economic cooperation. And within this framework the new order will become a “Middle Eastern” one, not “Arab”, or name it any other acceptable term for its members. From what we know until now, there are four countries that hold the keys to the new order: Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Israel. Though Israel has its own strategy, it is not clear how its Arab neighbours view the future of the region. A strategy is sorely needed. In Washington, the political machinery of Cairo, Amman, Riyadh and Tel Aviv (and perhaps Abu Dhabi) is spinning and engines are being prepared to move forward.

It was obvious at the Munich Security Conference (February 2017) that Arab governments and Israel are forming a united front against Iran, viewing the Islamic republic as the number one enemy. Turkey is also watching pleasantly, hoping that this will encourage its aspirations in Syria and Iraq. Politicians around the world are in no doubt that unofficial Israeli-Arab cooperation has reached its highest point since the rise of Israel. Two Arab states are already in peace and official relations with Israel and the rest of the so-called “Arab-Sunni” states are not reluctant to forge new warm relations with the Hebrew state. But this Arab-Israeli cooperation will soon touch upon the most sensitive issue in the region: security.

Although Israel enjoys good regular security cooperation with Palestinian, Jordanian and Egyptian authorities, the new idea of a “regional framework” for conflict resolution implies that partners in future peace arrangements will come to agree on a “regional security pact” on the Israeli assumption that there is no peace without security.

The region already lacks and has stubbornly resisted any real collective security arrangements since the end of World War II. The departure of the British military from East Suez bases in early 1970s was equalled by expelling the Soviets from Egypt about one year later. Now, as the Cold War is over, the region is open to another race for a new permanent security arrangement that most probably will include non-Arab military participation.

In April 2015, I wrote here under the title “Curing the sick man of our time”: “We may see at any time a dramatic twist of events where an old foe can become a friend. Look around and you will see events moving in that direction for Arab regimes and Israel. Iran is now a common enemy to both,” and I emphasised the point by concluding, “In short, the nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict will come under review. New realities emerging every day support a dramatic twist in Arab-Israeli relations.”

Israel is very keen on discussing security issues before anything else. Saudi Arabia and some other Arab Gulf states are deadly worried because of Iran’s expanding influence in the region, from Iraq to Yemen. These two parties are trying hard to push on developing a mutual understanding of a regional security order. However, Egypt and Jordan are in no hurry. Egypt is fighting terrorism and is longing for victory, and Jordan is more concerned about the stability of the country that is home to a huge number of originally Palestinian populations. The two countries, neither of which needs to do anything that may stir internal trouble, reaffirmed their position on the issue of “two-state solution” in a statement issued following a three-hour visit to Cairo by the Jordanian king (21 February 2017) demanding no less than an independent Palestinian state on the occupied West Bank and Gaza with East Jerusalem as its recognised capital. On the Palestinian front, the Palestinian leadership is lost in confusion as Israel is actively annexing Zone C of the West Bank without considerable resistance. It is only the Europeans who see the danger there and they are trying to help Palestinians through international diplomacy.

But some regional and international figures don’t want peace talks in the Middle East stalled for a long time, so why not do something, to keep the world busy and the region spinning around a new form of negotiation? In the end, negotiation is the best time-wasting tactic, allowing opponents to talk to each other while each of them is doing other things to consolidate their own positions. History proved that Israel has been the master of the game and Arab rulers have been more interested in the safety of their regimes. Ask Dennis Ross and he will frankly tell you the story. (See his book, Doomed to Succeed: The US-Israel Relationship from Truman to Obama)

However, the march towards any arrangement to establish a Middle East security or defence order is not easy and will prove more complicated than a lot of politicians and strategists think. Israel is not the dominant power in the region, nor is the United States. Some other newcomers to the scene have proved credible and more active in reshaping the region in the last decade. Terrorism is destined for defeat, but Russia and Iran will have to be considered and their regional interests can’t be ignored. The scene in the Middle East has changed dramatically since Russia in 2016 put her mighty military power behind Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad, the most loathed Arab leader by Riyadh and most of the Arab Gulf states.

As Donald Trump hopes to score a victory for American foreign policy in the Middle East, his administration will keep chasing the idea of a regional solution to the Palestinian question as the main gateway to achieving that victory. The international community is also desperate to see something moving forward in the Middle East. EU countries are suffering from a huge influx of refugees from and through the Arab world that weighed hard on national and inter-European politics. But despite all these circumstances, the Middle East is not yet ripe for a real breakthrough. There will be no security arrangement without just solution to the Palestinian question, and there will be no solution to the Palestinian question without a security arrangement. Catch-22!

The writer is former senior political affairs officer at the UNDPA.

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