The Middle East, plagued by new and shocking levels of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, a vicious act of terror on a US military vessel in the Yemeni port of Aden and a hijacked Saudi airline bound for London which ended up in Iraq, may be facing a new era of instability. Frustration and rage expressed in the Arab street has many root causes which need to be understood in a regional context.
A demographic explosion in the Arab world has produced a population where 70% are under the age of 25. With a lack of economic structural reform and poor education, there are few economic opportunities for these youngsters and virtually no avenues for freedom of expression. They direct their anger at the United States and Israel, but most of their discontent is homegrown. Arab regimes have not addressed the aspirations of their own population for political liberalization, press freedom and employment.
Since the Oslo peace process began, Israelis and Palestinians have focused on each other, learning how to negotiate, understanding the limitations and fears of the other, and using negotiations to resolve their problems. This positive new atmosphere gave many Arab countries the confidence to begin to have contacts with Israel directly or indirectly. It was the beginning of normalization in the region with a high expectation that a difficult negotiating process would lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state.
The violent clashes between the Israelis and the Palestinians shattered not only their own faith in the peace process, but also that of the Arabs. The result has been to bring back into focus the Palestinian issue at the center of Arab concerns. Arab regimes are worried at the depth and breadth of the rage surrounding recent clashes within their own societies. The issue now is whether these regimes will respond with repressive measures cracking down on the press and the right of assembly or will they open their own societies to allow the youthful population appropriate avenues to express their frustration.
For Israelis and Palestinians, they may have scared themselves into understanding that political and security cooperation must be maintained between them to prevent the situation from getting out of control again. Both parties know there is no military solution to their conflict and that negotiations is the only way either can satisfy their demands and provide security for their people.
While Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority President Yassir Arafat made a vague agreement to end the violence in Sharm al Sheikh, each side is still blaming the other and trust has broken down.
A period of calm is necessary to re-establish security cooperation and to begin the recovery process. During this period, the United States as the only mediator they turn to in making peace, has a special responsibility to make sure that both Israelis and Palestinians do exactly what they promised President Clinton they would do to end the violence.
They are going to live together whether they can live in coexistence and peace or in conflict will be determined by Israelis and Palestinians themselves. A Palestinian intellectual remarked during this crisis that, Israel cannot fight a peoples aspirations with military force and Israels Deputy Minister of Defense, Dr. Ephraim Sneh publicly admitted that when Palestinians throw stones at us, they turn our strength (military) into our weakness. Both use what they have, but neither stones nor military force will solve their conflict. Though both societies are suffering, perhaps, when the pain becomes unbearable they will finally put an end to the violence and truly commit to coexistence.
Judith Kipper is the Director of the Middle East Forum, Council on Foreign Relations and Director, Middle East Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D.C.