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Which First Things First?

Author: Steven A. Cook, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
January 14, 2004
Ha'aretz

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You could not help but feel for Colin Powell and other U.S. government officials during the inaugural meeting of the Group of Eight's "Forum for the Future" in Rabat on December 11. Instead of discussing how the United States and its partners can provide technical and diplomatic support for political, economic and social change in the Arab world as he had intended, the U.S. secretary of state spent much of his time responding to withering Arab criticism of U.S. Middle East policy, particularly Washington's support for Jerusalem.

Although Powell and his host, Moroccan Foreign Minister Mohamed Benaissa, did their best to portray the meeting as a success, the forum's meager results reflected the Arab effort to shift responsibility for reform in the region to the U.S. and Israel.

Since President Bush and members of his administration began publicly endorsing reform in the Arab world shortly after the attacks of September 11, Arab officials, spokesmen and editorialists have consciously linked progressive change in their societies to a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For example, in an address to the gathered delegates in Rabat, Arab League secretary general Amr Moussa seemed to question the premise of the U.S. reform policy when asked, "How can this partnership [between the Arab world and the West to promote reform] be achieved without settling the Palestinian issue?"

From their perspective, the quality of governance in the Arab world has not generated anti-Americanism and spawned terrorist groups. Instead, Arab leaders argue, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Washington's overwhelming support for Jerusalem is directly responsible for America's poor image in the region as well as the rise of extremism. Thus the first order of business for the U.S. in the Middle East is not to pressure the Arab world to reform its political systems and economies, but to work toward a just and final resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

There are, of course, differences of opinion within inter-Arab councils. Typically, the emir of Qatar has broken away from the Arab consensus. While harshly critical of Israeli policies, the Qatari leader has consistently argued that reform should not be used as a condition for more active U.S. diplomatic engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Somewhat of an outcast within the Arab world, Doha's position has failed to influence anyone in the Arab world outside the emir's own court.

The Bush administration rejects the Arab consensus, invoking its predecessors' eight long years of shepherding Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that brought no peace and spurred precious little political and economic development in the Arab world. In fact, the White House has sought to turn the Arab position on its head, arguing that just and lasting peace in the region is a function of reform, not the other way around.

Coincidentally, this was a theme that then-Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu emphasized in his landmark speech to a joint session of Congress in July 1996. The underlying assumption of Netanyahu's speech and the Bush administration's overarching strategy is based on what political scientists call the "democratic peace" theory, which posits that democracies do not fight each other. The historical record seems to provide support for the democratic peace, but there are significant risks of promoting democratic change in the Middle East. In a more open political environment, forces hostile to both Washington and Jerusalem could conceivably come to power in the region. This is precisely the result Arab leaders warn will occur if the U.S. pushes for reform in the Arab world, but does not pursue a more active and balanced approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In fact, Egyptian officials are explicit on this point. There is no doubt in their minds that the Muslim Brotherhood would tear up the Egypt-Israel peace treaty upon assuming power.

Islamist hostility to Israel and the U.S. over the continued suffering of Palestinians and the ongoing occupation is cause for considerable concern, but the warnings of Arab leaders need to be treated with some skepticism. Arab governments have become adept at using Washington's unhappy experience with the Iranian revolution or the chaos of Algeria after that country's aborted elections in 1992 to deflect U.S. pressure on reform. At the same time, it would be remiss to reject the widely held view in the Arab world that there is a link between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and reform.

Like it or not, both U.S. and Israeli policymakers must understand that the Arab world sees much of what Washington does in the Middle East through the prism of Israel's occupation. As long as Jerusalem continues building settlements, restricting the movement of Palestinians and engaging in collective punishment with Washington's perceived blessing, the U.S. will be seen in the Arab world as the purveyor of insidious double standards. Whether justified or not in the face of security threats, when the Israel Defense Forces razes homes, closes the West Bank and Gaza, and engages in massive detentions of Palestinians, it damages Washington's progressive message to the Arab world about the benefits of more democratic polities, expanded economic opportunities and social reform.

Given the interdependence of relations between the Palestinians and Israelis, changes on the ground in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are not solely Jerusalem's responsibility, but making life easier on the Palestinian population and progress at the negotiating table would do much to undermine the ability of Arab leaders to deflect Washington's call for progressive political and economic development.


Steven A. Cook is a Next Generation Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

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