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March 15, 2002

What's Behind the New Arab Momentum

By FAWAZ A. GERGES

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BRONXVILLE, 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 the protagonists.

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 Israeli negotiators.

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."



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