Why Pressure Only Israel?
Since its founding, Israel has been considered by the majority of Arabs to be a temporary and disturbing neighbor that needs to be gotten rid of. As Israel has gained strength and the support of the United States, Arabs are slowly accepting the idea that Israel is here to stay. Nevertheless, the Arab-Israeli general state of distrust has had profound implications not only for the Middle East, but also for the West.
For decades, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been labeled the main reason for the region's poor human rights record as well as a barrier to political and economic reform. Arabs often use Israel as an excuse to delay the pursuit of bold reforms. The Arab oil lobby wants Israel to conform to its policies and seeks to convince the US to place pressure on Israel to achieve this goal. What exactly is their policy regarding Israel? We have the discourse of Muslim terrorists and that of the Wahhabis, who would like to see Israel erased from the face of the earth. In addition, there are Western assumptions about what Arab policy might be without really knowing what it actually is.
What if regional instability, the growing threat of terrorism and anti-Semitism are not exclusively produced by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? What if regional instability and democracy not only serve as a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but also would provide the necessary socio-political reform that would jumpstart economic development?
While the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a piece of the puzzle, the US and Europe should also concentrate on local conflicts in Arab and Muslim regions. One conflict influences the other and the sum of them all together sets up major obstacles for any stability or reform project, imported or not.
As odd as it may seem, Arabs, Muslims, non-Muslims and Israelis have something in common: They all need the support of the US, especially when it comes to terrorism. It in doubt, ask the Saudis! Thus, instead of concentrating all Western efforts on pressing Israel, maybe it is time to push the Arabs to change their attitude towards democracy. After all, both sides in the Middle East dispute need the United States as a partner.
Arab leaders would greatly help the Palestinians achieve the goal of acquiring their own state through recognizing Israel's presence in the region as legitimate. With a new PLO leadership and strong American and European support, peace may be attained between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Nevertheless, the issue of Palestinian refugees remains unsolved and sensitive. The Arab countries that took these refugees in at the beginning of the conflict are not willing to accept them on a permanent basis. In practical terms, the right to return is either an idealistic aim or it was meant to be an obstacle in any possible peace proposal between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Now, it looks more like an obstacle than anything else. If all refugees were to return to Israel, where should the Israelis go? For such a small country, it is virtually impossible to absorb all the refugees. On the other hand, Prime Minister Sharon's government together with the Palestinian leadership and the international community has agreed on a two-state solution. Therefore, accepting the Palestinians inside Israel is not a viable or logical option. Through accommodating international law with Israel's security requirements, a compromise solution can be found. Some Palestinians should receive financial compensation, while others would be able to exercise their right to return to the West Bank and Gaza Strip. How can they help their own people if they refuse to live side by side with them in the Gaza Strip and West Bank?
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Syria lost an important ally. Its economy deteriorated and political power was divided between those who want to modernize the country and those who enjoy things just as they are. In Iraq, Syria hoped to gain a strategic partner, or to transform it into a protectorate - something to hold on to, just like Lebanon. However, Syria did not win this game and its relations with the United States have become problematic to the point of constituting a threat to President Assad's autocratic regime. In order to improve the tense relations with the US, Syria agreed openly to withdraw its army from Lebanon, expressed interest in entering peace negotiations with Israel and to decrease (but not stop) support for Palestinian terrorist organizations. President Assad's promises look good, but none of them have been fulfilled to the point of saying that Syria is on the right track.
As for Syrian-Israeli relations - President Assad is determined to demonstrate that Syria is not Libya, thus his policy will change only through negotiations on one the hand with the US, and on the other with Israel over the Golan Heights. It may be favorable for Israel to open negotiations with both Syria and the PLO at the same time. The developments from one process will probably affect developments of the other. Simultaneous negotiations may broadcast the right image and bring a general acceptance of a peace process with Israel in the region.
Israel has always been open to concluding peace agreements with Arab and Muslim countries, as long as its existence and security is endangered. In the Arab world, many believe that the road to Washington runs via Jerusalem. Even if this is not the case, this belief served everyone's interest; Jordan and Egypt gained better relations to the US as well as considerable financial aid, and Israel attained peace with two Arab nations.
The current American and Israeli policies are still seen as a prolongation of colonial policy: The US, a foreign imperial power that is eager to exercise its rule over an oil-rich region while supporting the ambitious plans of Zionists.
King Abdullah of Jordan and President Mubarak of Egypt strongly believe that the Arab and Muslim effort to reform will fail, if seen as being imposed from the outside. The reform process and the peace process with Israel must emerge from within - ownership of the process of change is vital for its success, as initiatives seen as imported can only hurt the efforts of genuine reformers in the region and will be seen as an attempt to destroy Islam.
However, the negotiations between Israel, Arab and Muslim states will not result from any sudden decisions of Arabs and Muslims to accept Israel's de facto existence as a pre-condition to a stable political environment in the region, but rather by being persuaded by the United States and the European Union that direct negotiations with Israel will better serve their own economic and political agendas.
If the Arab world wishes to adapt to the requisites of the 21st century, then it will have to adopt a wiser policy towards Israel. Bridging Arab, American and Israeli differences is critical in order to bring security, prosperity and someday peace to the region.