Old Middle East

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 25-May-04 | Source: Ha'aretz

The Arab summit, which finished its deliberations on Sunday, was the first since the end of the war against Iraq - thus it was supposed to reflect changes that have taken place in the Middle East since the start of the war. The summit's decisions show that the optimistically anticipated changes in the region remain far from being fulfilled. There were no new tidings on the two most important issues - the peace process between the Arabs and Palestinians and Israel, and democratic reform in the Arab states.

The Arab leaders are sticking to the Saudi Arabian peace initiative as it was presented at the 2002 Beirut summit, an initiative that proposed an overall solution to the conflict and a flexible formula for the right of return. But they avoided proposing any mechanism to implement the initiative. Israel, as expected, was roundly condemned for house demolitions and killings in Rafah, yet the Arab leaders also condemned the killing of civilians, whoever and wherever they might be, meaning Israeli civilians.

The declarations could have carried much more weight if it was apparent that the Arab League was also capable of producing practical solutions, that would oblige all the members of the league. Without them, the Palestinians and Israelis can only express deep disappointment that for generations, the most important Arab umbrella organization has contributed to deepening the conflict, rather than trying to resolve it.

Efforts to find the lowest common denominator with which to address the Israeli-Arab conflict carried over into debates on the demands for liberal democratic in Arab societies. Such demands are mainly regarded as an American assault on Arab and Islamic society and values and most Arab leaders regard it as a direct threat to the familiar old order and the survival of their regimes.

It is impossible to ignore the amazement expressed by Arab leaders who wondered how it was possible for a country like the United States, which has become an occupation power and whose soldiers have tortured prisoners in Iraq, can also demand that other countries adopt its democratic model. However, many Arab leaders understand the need for internal reforms irrespective of American behavior and public discourse in some Arab countries is evidence of that.

The understanding achieved at the summit was that each country would reform at its own pace and in its own way, without using a uniform criterion set by the League. That understanding conveniently frees Arab states from the need to deliver any achievements in reform, but it could provoke a very valuable internal debate in their countries.

Israel has a role in that discourse. Those who want to regard peace with the Palestinians as a lever to end the historic conflict with the Arab countries cannot ignore the debate. Even if it alone will not be enough to create political change, it could prepare Arab hearts for the desired change.