RONXVILLE, N.Y. —
As expected, Vice President Dick Cheney's mission to the Middle East
has been drawn into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Bush
administration appears to have seen this coming and has reacted with
speed and skill. President Bush rebuked Israel on Wednesday for its
invasion of Palestinian territory. The administration also authored
a Security Council resolution, which passed, calling for a
cease-fire and "affirming a vision of a region where two states,
Israel and Palestine, live side by side." The State Department
called for a "complete withdrawal" of Israeli forces from
Palestinian areas, and the president's envoy, Gen. Anthony Zinni,
arrived last night to help broker a cease-fire.
These developments do not mean the Iraq focus is lost, only that
any major American policy initiative in the region must pass through
Israel and Palestine if it is to get anywhere else. Egypt, Saudi
Arabia and other pro-American powers fear that the Palestinian
predicament, televised every day, will rally the Islamist opposition
and other alienated people within their societies — and will
exacerbate their crises of authority, exposing their many flaws as
well as their subservience to the United States.
Time and again, Palestine has been used and abused by Arab rulers
and their opponents as a political tool to garner public support. It
is one of the most important identity issues in Arab politics, which
is why competing social forces in Egypt or Saudi Arabia, for
example, often distinguish themselves from each other by how they
talk about Israel. Genuine local concerns in these countries —
problems of modernization, relations with the West, the appropriate
social roles of religion, the balance between national and Arab
identities — are often defined in relation to Palestine and Israel,
as if the problems were really there and not in Cairo or Riyadh.
This is without question a dysfunctional way of practicing politics.
But it is real enough and cannot be ignored, certainly not if the
American goal is to change an Arab regime in Baghdad.
The actual conflict between Israel and Palestine may or may not
be at a turning point. But the ability of Arab states to deal
domestically with the intensification of that conflict may indeed be
at such a point. Arab League members are now speaking very seriously
of normalizing relations with Israel. For the first time in this
hundred-year struggle between Arabs and the Jewish state, a
consensus exists in the Arab world regarding peace with Israel,
based not on the previous land-for-peace formula but on full
normalization of cultural, economic and political relations between
Today the Arab establishment, even former hard-liners like Syria
and Libya, accepts a settlement that recognizes the existence of
Israel and its integration into the regional landscape. The Saudi
Arabian peace initiative, anchored within this new vision, has been
embraced by pivotal Arab states, including Syria. Although the
Syrian regime kept silent at first, President Bashar Assad has since
fully endorsed the proposal. Neither the pariah Iraqi regime nor
Iran, both of which oppose the current peace process, has criticized
the Saudi plan. It is more than likely that the Arab League will
ratify this consensus at its meeting later this month.
Arab leaders recognize the need to offer full peace for full
withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders. Arab officials are also reported
to entertain accepting the Jewish state's sovereignty over the
Wailing Wall and Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. The right
of return for Palestinian refugees and the precise frontiers of the
state of Palestine would be worked out directly by Palestinian and
While success is not assured, this shift in the Arab position
lays the foundation for a breakthrough. Previously, the Arab
consensus was that peace with Israel did not require full
normalization. It was claimed that Arabs would be unable to bear
seeing the Israeli flag above embassies in Damascus, Riyadh, Beirut
and Algiers. This belief no longer holds.
The new Arab approach provides Palestinian leaders with crucial
political and cultural support to help them accept and sell
compromises on the painful question of refugees and on adjustment of
borders, and to help them parry opposition from Hamas, Islamic Jihad
and other Islamists. The new stance should also reassure Israelis of
the pacific intentions of their neighbors and prepare them to make
concessions like the recognition of East Jerusalem as capital of
Palestine and the removal of most West Bank settlements.
Even if the present Israeli and Palestinian leadership is unable
to seize the new momentum, the Saudi initiative, if developed
further, would dramatically shift political dynamics in both
societies. Neither Ariel Sharon nor Yasir Arafat could survive
politically if he were to oppose a sweeping settlement firmly backed
by the United States and the Arab nations. Despite the terrible
recent bloodshed, a great many people in both societies still
support the peace process.
Capitalizing on this momentum will serve American vital
interests. Helping to resolve this prolonged conflict will remove
one of Muslims' major grievances against the United States — and,
over time, ease the security obsessions of many Arab nations and
Israel as well. It might even gain Arab support for a change of
regime in Iraq, should that seem necessary. By taking risks on
Mideast peace, this administration's war on terrorism could be made
more effective and less costly.
Fawaz A. Gerges, a professor at Sarah Lawrence College, is
author of "The Islamists and the West."