Why Is the Middle East a Conflict Area?
Why Is the Middle East a Conflict Area?
Over the last hundred years, the Middle East has been one of the most troubled regions in the world. According to the Economist, "With barely an exception, [the Arab world's] autocratic rulers, whether presidents or kings, give up their authority only when they die; its elections are a sick joke; half its people are treated as lesser legal and economic beings, and more than half its young, burdened by joblessness and stifled by conservative religious tradition, are said to want to get out of the place as soon as they can." However, at one time, the Middle East eclipsed the West in intellectual, scientific, and literary achievements. To examine what factors contribute to the Middle East's present circumstances, a team of scholars, headed by Egyptian sociologist Nader Fergany, published the Arab Human Development Report 2002, an analysis of the Arab world's strengths and weaknesses. The study found three key attributes for success in the modern world that the Arab community lacks: freedom, knowledge, and womanpower.
According to the study, the absence of freedom is most visible in the region's absolute autocracies, sham elections, and restrictions on the media and on civil society. The authors contend that "the [global] wave of democracy that transformed governance . . . in the 1980s and early 1990s has barely reached the Arab states." Most Arab countries have the trappings of democracy--elections are held--but, more often than not, they are riddled with corruption. According to the study, people are given jobs because of whom they know, not what they know. Consequently, Arab states are plagued with an unmoving, unresponsive central authority and an incompetent public administration. As stated by Haidar Abdel-Shafi, former member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, "In some Arab countries, the absence of democracy-based participation . . . and free and honest periodic elections has formed an obstacle to the development process." Moreover, freedom of expression is sharply limited; according to a study by Freedom House, an American-based monitor of political and civil rights, not one Arab country had a completely free media in 2001.
Another obstacle to development in the Middle East, according to the study, is the shameful state of the education system. The authors allege that illiteracy rates in the Middle East are higher than the international average and even higher than the average in developing countries. Sixty-five million adult Arabs are illiterate, and nearly two-thirds of them are women. Approximately 10 million Arab children receive no schooling at all, and those who do demonstrate high failure and repetition rates. The most important consequence of this crisis in education is the system's inability to provide students with the skills necessary to participate in the development of Arab societies. According to the study, the quality of education is so poor that students emerge from school unprepared for the rapidly accelerating change produced by the world's increasing reliance on technology and the emergence of a global economy. These generations of inadequately educated Arabs harm the Middle East as a whole because young people are unable to compete in the international market.
The Arab world is also harmed, according to the study, by the systematic repression of half of its population--women. According to the authors, Arab women live under the control of a patriarchal society that relegates women to maternal figures without a place in the political or economic arena. Women's participation in the region's political and economic life is the lowest in the world, evident in the low number of women in parliaments, cabinets, and the workforce. Moreover, one in two Arab women can neither read nor write. In fact, the authors contend, Arab countries place a much lower premium on female education than they place on male education. The result of this inequality is that "society as a whole suffers when a huge proportion of its productive potential is stifled, resulting in lower family incomes and standards of living," as stated by the study.
According to the Economist, it is unclear how the Middle East reached such a troubling state. However, the Arab Human Development Report does offer solutions to reverse the deficits of freedom, knowledge, and womanpower, such as drastic improvements in elections, schools, and the treatment of women. However, these improvements require years of social, political, and economic change and the cooperation of the Arab world. Only time will tell whether the study's suggestions will be implemented successfully. The authors in the following chapter debate what other factors contribute to conflict in the Middle East.
Islam Causes Conflict in the Middle East
In the early morning hours of January 22, 1997, in Cairo, Egypt's crowded capital, security forces conducted a series of house-to-house raids, detaining at least seventy-eight young Egyptians. Such mass arrests are not uncommon in that country of 60 million, where the state's war on Islamic fundamentalism has resulted in the arrest of hundreds--if not thousands--since 1981, most from villages in the Egyptian hinterland or from Cairo's slums, where angry young men with little hope and few prospects often turn to Islam for comfort. Police routinely arrest individuals on the mere suspicion of Islamist activity. It is often said that a beard--the universal sign of Islamic zealotry--is all it takes to arouse such suspicion.
But the men arrested on that January morning were not typical of Islamic fundamentalists. They were not poor, bearded slum dwellers but the well-groomed children of some of Egypt's most prosperous families. In fact, they were not Islamic fundamentalists at all. Their crime was "Satan worship" and "contempt" for Islam, the state religion. The evidence against them, though not an abundance of facial hair, was equally flimsy: a taste for black clothing and heavy- metal music. Their case caused a major stir in Cairo. Egypt's state-appointed mufti, Sheikh Nasr Farid Wassil, urged the "Satanics," as they were called, to repent or face the death penalty for "apostasy" in Egypt's Islamic courts. The president of al-Azhar university--the country's top Islamic institution--declared Satan worship part of a Zionist conspiracy to corrupt Egypt's youth, and an Egyptian author published a study linking Satanism to the popular dance, the Macarena: "I noticed that each time they played the Macarena columns of smoke filled the discos and that the movements of the dance were part of Satanic rites." In the end, the suspects repented, declared their faith in Allah and His prophet, and were released.
To the casual observer, this is both tragic and comic. One would think a state that arrests people for listening to rock music must be having some difficulty coming to terms with things Western. But if we dig deeper, a glaring contradiction becomes evident: Islam is both avowed enemy and jealously defended state religion. Police routinely arrest Muslim radicals who would overturn the political order and establish a state based on their faith; but they also arrest those who would offend that faith. This is not merely a case of the Egyptian government throwing its Islamist opponents a few bones in an attempt to quiet them down. It is part of a repressive state's attempt to make up for what it lacks in democratic legitimacy by wrapping itself in the mantle of Islamic legitimacy. The result is the strengthening of radical Islam, its anti-Western agenda given credence by the very government that is trying to eradicate it. By setting itself up as the guardian of the faith, the government invites itself to be judged by its fidelity to it. But the Egyptian state, like all states, is a classic accumulator of power; it acts in its interests, and to do so, it must be flexible, free from the shackles of religious certainty. Invariably it must act in a way that affronts the faith—making peace with Israel, aiding the United States against Iraq— and when it does, the faithful protest furiously. University students take to the streets, and groups like the New Jihad and the Gama'a Islamiya wage a terrorist war that today threatens to rend asunder Egypt's social fabric.
This disturbing phenomenon is replicated throughout the Arab world: in Saudi Arabia and Jordan, in Libya and Iraq. All these regimes seek Islamic justification for their rule. Some, like Egypt, Libya, and even Iraq and Syria, do this by seeking Islamic cover for their policies. Others, like the monarchies in Jordan and Morocco, pursue a more direct relationship to the creed, ruling by dint of their claim of descent from Islam's prophet, Muhammed. In all of them, a battle is fought between the faith and the state on two fronts: on the one hand, the state tries to force Islamic radicals to respect its power and recognize its sovereignty; on the other, it contends with them to prove itself religiously purer, more Islamic--and thus more deserving of public fealty. But when the game of politics is played by the rules of Islam, governments, which by necessity must make bargains that offend the morally consistent, are ill-equipped to win.
As Francis Fukuyama has most recently noted, "All regimes capable of effective action must be based on some principle of legitimacy." This legitimacy can take many forms. In revolutionary Egypt, for example, Gamal Abdel Nasser, the fiery exponent of Arab nationalism, ruled by virtue of what author Max Weber called "charismatic legitimacy." Charismatic leaders "in times of spiritual, economic, ethical, religious or political emergency were neither appointed officials nor trained and salaried ‘professionals'. . . but those who possessed specific physical and spiritual gifts which were regarded as supernatural, in the sense of not being available to everyone." But this kind of legitimacy is obviously not sustainable for long periods of time; it is a purely personal phenomenon and cannot be passed from one leader to another. Weber suggests two additional and more durable forms of legitimacy: "rational-legal" and "traditional." Writer Milton Esman, in a recent restatement of these Weberian categories, argues that these include: a democratic mandate, usually a victory at the polls in a free and fair election; the ability to meet public expectations for individual safety and the security of property, and the ability to provide the public with goods like food, shelter, health care, education, and ample opportunities to earn a decent livelihood; and identification with the society's norms and values. The most legitimate governments score well on all of these measures; the least legitimate score poorly, and thus need to rely on coercion and force to maintain power.
Though we live in what author Fareed Zakaria has called the "democratic age," the first foundation of legitimacy--namely, democracy--seems to have eluded the Arab world. Of the twenty-one states of the Arab League, not one could be called democratic or liberal. In fact, in its annual survey of political rights and civil liberties entitled Freedom in the World, Freedom House ranks six Arab states (Iraq, Sudan, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, and Syria) as the world's worst in terms of political freedom. And unlike in China or Russia under communism, there is no great grassroots movement for democracy in the Arab world, largely because democracy does not resonate with the average Arab. It has no basis in the Arab past and is tainted by its association with the West. Though many Arab governments hold sham elections in which the leader is swept into office with 99.99 percent of the vote and 99.99 percent voter participation, such displays are done mostly for the outside world. When Iraq's "parliament" last winter passed a resolution refusing to respect the U.S. imposed no-fly zones over the northern and southern parts of the country, the move was recognized as a poor attempt by Saddam Hussein to paint his transgressions as a function of popular will, and thus as somehow more legitimate. One perceptive observer of the Middle East has noted that leaders like Hussein have no idea how real democracies work and do not realize that those accustomed to holding elections would find such shams offensive. Meanwhile, to the people of the region, they are an irrelevance.
Other Arab governments, such as the monarchies of the Persian Gulf, naturally find any traffic with democratic symbols distasteful, and thus try to build legitimacy by providing significant material benefits to their people. The Gulf states have been particularly successful in this regard, using their oil wealth to create massive cradle-to-grave welfare states. For example, Saudi Arabia spends billions of dollars to give its citizens free education and health care, as well as subsidized housing and utilities. But this kind of mass bribery can only go so far, and poorer states like Egypt understandably find it unfeasible. Thus Middle Eastern states turn to the third traditional measure of legitimacy--emphasizing shared values. And in the great proselytizing culture of the Arab world, the most overriding public value, that which can immediately claim sympathy from all segments of the population, is Islam.
Islam has served as the basis for political legitimacy in the Arab world ever since the death of the prophet Muhammed in the seventh century A.D. Until the early part of this century, the Islamic world was united under a series of successive caliphates, the leader of which, the caliph (or khalifah, in Arabic), was considered the prophet's temporal and spiritual successor. The first four caliphs, men who had known the prophet during his lifetime and who were each selected by learned men of the community, are referred to today as the Rightly Guided Caliphs. In the annals of Islamic history, they are considered the most legitimate of rulers, truest to the prophet's legacy, and their period is considered a kind of Islamic utopia to which the Muslim world still aspires. After these four men passed from the scene (three of them were murdered, perhaps indicative of what sort of utopia this was), the caliphate became a much more traditional monarchy, changing hands over the centuries between competing dynasties. The first of these monarchic caliphates, that of the Umayyads, was established some thirty years after Muhammed's death and was the first regime of the Arab world to face serious problems of legitimacy. According to the Islamic historian Shireen Hunter, the Umayyads "based their rule on the absolute divine will," declaring it "part of a predetermined godly plan." This justification of Umayyad legitimacy contributed to one of the most vigorous theological debates of the day in Islam, that of predeterminism versus free will. As Hunter points out, since the Umayyads argued that their reign was God's will, they came out in favor of the predeterminist school. In this way, Islamic theological speculation eventually devoted itself to explaining--or challenging--the legitimacy of the prevailing political order. The caliphate system was not a theocratic rule of the priests. The caliph acquired his religious credentials as "guardian of the faith" and "shadow of God on Earth"--qualities essential to his legitimacy as ruler--by virtue of assuming power, not the other way around. The full force of Islamic thought was put to the service of explaining the caliph's right to preside over the community of believers, which is why some of the most vigorous periods of Islamic judicial thought occurred when the caliphate shifted from one dynasty to another, as each one needed to explain itself anew. When the last of the great caliphates of the Islamic world, that of the Ottoman sultans, crumbled in 1918, the successor regimes of the modern Middle East inherited this notion of religion as ratifier of rulers. It was natural that they too would seek Islamic sanction for their power.
Even the leaders of the so-called secular Arab nationalist movements that arose in Syria, Egypt, and Iraq in the wake of the Ottoman collapse sought a place for Islam in their ideology, realizing that without it, the project would be unable to capture the Arab imagination. One of the founders of the Baath school of Arab nationalism, a Syrian intellectual named Michel Aflaq, though a Greek Orthodox Christian, declared Islam to be the most sublime expression of Arabism, born of the genius of Arab civilization and history. Absent Islam, being an Arab meant nothing. As the late scholar Hasan Enayat put it, "The Arabs cannot promote their identity without at the same time exalting Islam, which is the most abiding source of their pride.". . .
Nowhere are the costs of manipulating Islam to legitimize the state more evident than in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia's story involves a Faustian bargain struck by the monarchs of that country with a brand of fundamentalist Islam called Wahhabism. The bedrock of the royal family's legitimacy is a pact made over two hundred and fifty years ago by the founding father of the Saud family, Mohammed Ibn Saud, with the religious revivalist from which the sect takes its name, Mohammed bin Abdul Wahab.
Abdul Wahab was troubled by the un-Islamic practices--the veneration of saints and ancestors, and even of the prophet Muhammed--that had crept into the popular exercise of Islam over the centuries, and was determined that they be purged. In Mohammed Ibn Saud, a minor sheik in a small desert town, he saw just the man to take up his cause. A deal was struck: Saud undertook to fight all comers for the sake of God, and Abdul Wahab promised him God's help and bounty (and assured him that God would allow him to collect taxes in any lands he captured.) Regarding themselves as the only true believers and all others as apostates and infidels, Saud's hordes conquered much of the eastern half of the Arabian peninsula, then nominally under Ottoman control. His son and grandson continued the run and by 1814 reached the Iraqi and Syrian borders before being crushed by the Ottoman governor of Egypt.
In the years following, Saudi power in the peninsula ebbed and flowed, until by the beginning of this century the family had lost its lands and was living in exile in Kuwait. In 1902 a scion of the family, Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, began a campaign to recapture his family's glory. He took the city of Riyadh, the seat of the old Saudi kingdoms, and set his sights on the entire peninsula. To do this he manipulated things to marvelous effect. He assembled Bedouin tribesmen in camps he called hijra (migration, as in migration from ignorance to enlightenment) and schooled them in Wahhabism's radically unitarian doctrine. By 1927, the ikhwan (brothers, as they were now called) had helped Abdul Aziz capture most of Arabia and were poised to take their holy war to the rest of the Muslim world. But Abdul Aziz was a realist, and he knew his limits--if the British and French had looked the other way when he took the inconsequential oases of the Arabian peninsula, they would not be so lax in defending their interests in Syria and Iraq. He wisely concluded a treaty with the British recognizing his sovereignty over the lands he controlled but binding him to go no further. The ikhwan were outraged at this betrayal of their cause. There were more infidels to crush, more lands to bring under Islam's sway. Some eight thousand of them continued to lead raids on territories outside the Saudi domain. The contract with the faith could not hold up against the contract with British power, and by 1929 Abdul Aziz was forced to crush his former disciples.
The British political resident in Arabia at the time, Sir Percy Cox, later opined that Abdul Aziz had not made a single mistake in the process of setting up his kingdom. He was wrong. Abdul Aziz did not take away the central lesson of his clash with the ikhwan, that religion can only be manipulated for so long. Instead of abandoning Wahhabism, he went on to build a state that honored Wahabi sensibilities (in rhetoric, if not always in reality.) For example, when Wahabi leaders objected to his plan to introduce radio to the kingdom, on the grounds that it could carry the influences of Satan, Abdul Aziz arranged for them to hear a radio-transmitted recitation of the Koran, arguing that nothing that could propagate the word of God could be from Satan. Abdul Aziz based the king- dom's laws on interpretations of shariah (Islamic law); thus women are denied the right to drive automobiles, the theater is banned, Islamic education in schools is compulsory, and businesses are forced to close five times daily for prayer. All of this is enforced by the muttawas--old, bearded men employed by the government's Committee for Enjoining Virtue and Preventing Vice--who patrol the streets in search of violators of God's law: women whose ankles are exposed, men who avoid prayer, couples who show too much affection. . . .
The tragic story repeats itself throughout the Arab world. The bleak situation in Sudan offers a glimpse of what might come. Sudan's president from 1969 to 1985, Jaafar Nemeiri . . . began his fling with Islamist movements in order to counter the threat from the radical left. But in 1983 he went one step further, instituting shariah law with its harsh penal code mandating executions for adultery and amputation for theft. To further please the Islamists, Nemeiri relegated the country's Christians to second-class status and suspended the Christian south's limited autonomy. The civil war between the northern Arabs and the southern Christians, which Nemeiri had succeeded in ending in 1972, began anew. Moderates and Christians resigned from the government, and Nemeiri replaced them with Islamists. In 1985, with his country wracked by war, Nemeiri was overthrown by the military. But the Islamists had had their taste of power, and in 1989 they staged a coup of their own. Today Sudan is a so-called Islamic state, one that shows little remaining trace of the public euphoria that attended its founding. Islamic economics, which promised to repair the damage wrought by decades of statist economics, turned out to be nothing more than harsh "free market" reforms designed to concentrate wealth at the top. The Sudanese pound was sharply devalued, and price controls and subsidies were lifted almost overnight. This shock therapy, coupled with the civil war in the south, has caused a famine the severity of which is measured in terms of hundreds of thousands of lives. The country's human rights record is abysmal. In addition to the so-called Islamic punishments, political opposition is not tolerated, jails are filled with political detainees, and newspapers critical of the regime--even ones with Islamic coloration--are closed by the government. The answers that radical Islam offered to the woes of the Sudanese have only made them worse. The Islamic utopia was not to be, for it existed only in the rhetoric of leaders anxious to exploit the popular longing for a more ordered, prosperous society.
Unfortunately, there seem to be no forces opposing this trend toward radical Islamic ruin. There are, of course, educated, secular elements in the Arab world, but they are being squeezed from below, by Islamists with popular support and sympathy, and from above, by regimes eager to curry favor with the Islamists and equally suspicious of calls for more open government. In short, there is nowhere for these moderates to go. There would be hope for the Arabs if the lessons of Sudan would register; but the unifying motif of the Arab world's encounters with Islam seems to be lessons not learned. . . .
What, then, is to be done? Some have suggested that the regimes of the Middle East should institute democratic reforms, that once given the right to vote, people will elect those who can deliver a better life. More likely, they will just elect fundamentalists who can woo them with their rhetoric. But even if Islamists come to power this way, it is argued, they will be forced by the necessities of democratic consensus building to moderate their stances in the hope of winning the next election. It is more likely that they will ensure that there will never be another one. The "Islamic State," as it is conceived by leading Islamists, is incompatible with democracy. After all, the Islamic utopia strives to recreate the reign of the prophet and the caliphs--and they were never elected, never had to contend with a free press, and were unfamiliar with the need for religious freedom.
And so perhaps the only solution to the Arab world's political dysfunctions, the only way to free the Arab mind of the shackles of radical Islam and cause it finally to look elsewhere for the answers to its dilemmas, is to allow the Islamists their day. Consider Iran's Islamic Revolution of 1979. That was the Thirty Years' War turned on its head: the faith won, and the princes were sent into ignominious exile. But the reign of God on Earth is coming undone, having proven itself unable to provide for the needs of its people. Unemployment and inflation are uncontrollable, and Iran's isolation from the West has cost it countless billions of dollars. The country's youthful electorate sounded a note of protest in May of 1997, when it swept the perceived moderate, Mohammed Khatami, into power. Debates have raged about whether Khatami is indeed a moderate (this writer has argued that the reputation is largely undeserved), but there is no question that Iran's people are fed up with theocratic politics. Lay intellectuals, like the scholar Hosein Dabbagh (known by his pen name, Abdol Karim Soroush), argue that theocracy contradicts Islam's basic tenets by investing power in a clerical elite, and truly moderate clerics call for the religious establishment to rescue itself from political life before the people rise up against it and force it from society altogether. This, coupled with Iranians' unmistakable desire for more traffic with the West, indicate a drift toward a post-Islamic era in that country.
The idea of the Islamic state, the dream of the pious polity, will be proven bankrupt only after it has had its day in the sun. This is not altogether surprising. Arab nationalism, too, had to reign before it was discredited. It is already happening in Sudan, and as the Islamist challenge grows stronger in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, perhaps it can be expected to happen there too. Arab countries learn not to touch the fire only by getting burned--and, as we have seen, sometimes even that is not enough to drive the message home. It is not enough that Islam is not working in Iran or Sudan; Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other Arab countries must also have their flings with it. It is too late to pull back from the brink. Radical Islam has already been set loose and legitimated by governments that manipulated it to give them legitimacy of their own. If the Egyptian government ceases arresting heavy-metal fans and branding them Satan worshippers, the Islamists will not be diminished; they will merely have a new platform on which to attack the regime. And so it seems Islam will not be denied the halls of power. But, just as certainly, it will not be allowed to dwell there forever.
Islam Does Not Cause Conflict in the Middle East
Dr. Keith Suter's article 'Is Islam a Threat to International Peace and Security?' in Contemporary Review, December 1996, is based on an interpretation of Samuel Huntington's well-known article, 'The Clash of Civilisations' (Foreign Affairs, summer 1993), in which Huntington argues that Islam must inevitably clash with a western liberal civilisation bent on exporting its values and that Islam may overwhelm the West. However, Dr. Suter is not clear about the Islamic revivalism and renaissance in the post–Cold War era. He irrationally blames all Islamic groups as threats to world peace and he also confuses Muslim societies and Islamic values. In this regard, Islam as a religion is no more and no less a source of conflict or threat to the world than any other religion whether Christianity, Judaism, or Hinduism. Many of its values are applicable to all human beings, not only Muslims. So Keith Suter should actually discuss the current Islamic activities in some Muslim countries by placing them in their proper socio-political context, not in the broader concept of Islam.
My comments seek only to offer some thoughts provoked by Dr. Suter and to clarify certain aspects of the arguments which are the major sources of conflict. It needs to be recognised that the current Islamic movements are fuelled not by absolute economic disparities but by socio-political 'relative deprivation'. Islamic revivalism is in many ways the successor to failed nationalist programmes and offers an Islamic alternative or solution, a third way distinct from capitalism and communism. Islamists argue that Islam is not just a collection of beliefs and ritual actions but a comprehensive ideology embracing public as well as personal life. It is important to understand that Islamic activism is a cause of concern but not for alarm and challenge to any civilisation. Like radicals throughout history, Islamic radicals become moderate, once accommodated and incorporated in the socio-political mainstream. If they do not, they perish or become sociologically irrelevant cults. Therefore, extremism can best be reduced through gradual democratisation, a process and a system of governance which the West is deliberately not encouraging in the Muslim world, particularly in the Middle East.
In the early 1980s, Islamic resurgence became synonymous in the Western world with political extremism, terrorism, hostage crises and suicide bombings. As the decade came to a close, Islamic resurgence began a new phase; Islamic movements began to participate in the political system instead of opposing it. However, the two momentous events of 1991--the Gulf war and the break-up of the Soviet Union--are casting their shadow over relations between the West and the arc of predominantly Muslim countries ranging from Central Asia in the east to North Africa in the West. Until recently the Muslim countries were divided between the US and Soviet Union but the collapse of the Soviet Union has made the West, led by the United States, into the principal external enemy of pan-Islamism. It is interesting to note that at the time of the Cold War, most of the Muslim states were loyal allies of the West against the 'Evil Empire' of the Soviet Union. This was a time when the West was using religion as a weapon and even financed many of the fundamentalist groups to contain and to stop the flood of communism.
So far, however, the reality is that Islamic revivalism is neither a product of the Iranian revolution nor a result of Libyan extremist policies. The depth of frustration and anger is a reaction against European colonial rule, support for unpopular regimes and the internal weaknesses of the Muslim governments. Although some scholars argue that the present awakening in the Muslim world is a response to the decline of power and the loss of divine favour, in fact, the current revolt is a product of the weak economies of the Muslim countries, illiteracy and high unemployment, especially among the younger generation. The lack of political institutions and absence of democracies in the Muslim world is also an immediate cause of extremism. In this context, the Muslim demands for change are no different from the demands in Eastern Europe. In many Muslim countries the secular nationalists and Islamists are united in the common cause of popular democracy. They are demanding the right to gain legitimate power with ballots rather than bullets. These forces are also cooperating with each other to topple monarchies, military dictators and authoritarian governments. They blamed their governments for their countries' backwardness and failure to achieve economic self- sufficiency and development. In addition to these internal reasons, there are also some external factors which push the Islamists to struggle for the rights and protection of Muslims which are under the siege of oppressive rule. Muslims are worried about the people of Palestine and they cannot ignore the inhuman massacres of Muslims in Bosnia, Chechnya and Kashmir. Such experiences tend to make Muslims think that the West is against them.
The causes of the resurgence differ from country to country, but common catalysts and concerns are identifiable. The Arab world is under the grip of socio-political mobility and mass desertion. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Algeria are facing a great challenge from Islamists and [those] who have a strong hold over resources, people and organisations. They also recruit many followers and members in the army, intelligence and other governing institutions. In this context, Algeria is the best example where the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) won the 1992 election with a clear majority but the West publicly opposed the victory of FIS and encouraged the military to suppress the Islamists. The result is obvious; Algeria is under the shadow of bloodshed and the country is in a state of collapse.
In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood was born 64 years ago and it was the West, particularly the United States, who provided the blood and energy for Islamists to counter Nasser's policies and Soviet influence in Egypt. Now, Islamists have taken deep root and they are demanding a true democratic system and Islamic laws in the country. Thousands of people have been killed in clashes with government forces and the consequences are nothing except destruction. One expert, Martin Karamer, points out that every Arab ruler threatened by Islamic opposition has found a way to contain it or confront it. The Arab governments have responded in various ways to the Islamic knock at their door. Tunisia and Morocco prefer straight repression. Syria has resorted to slaughter. Saudi Arabia, which before the Gulf war financed many of the fundamentalist groups, now finds itself tormented by its own pure faction. The military regime in Sudan is also under the brutal thumb of a fundamentalist faction. In these circumstances, more repressive actions will be provoked. Muslim militancy could be rationalised if the militants were inside the system of government, as they are in Pakistan, Malaysia and Turkey. This is the way to handle the situation and by this method they can be circumscribed, whereas outside the system, they can only be spoilers.
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As regards the case of Salman Rushdie's novel, The Satanic Verses, the Ayatollah Khomeini's condemnation and fatwa in response to Rushdie's alleged blasphemy against Islam reinforce fears of cultural confrontation. The book- burning, the riots, the death threats and the deaths of protesters are seen as odd and irrational acts. But I would argue that much of the responsibility for this situation lies with Rushdie himself, in the sense that his writing hurt millions of people and created a gulf between Islam and Christianity.
Western analysts and experts have also created a fear that the rapidly growing Muslim population in Europe and the United States is a potential threat to Western culture and civilisation. Some view Islam as the only ideological alternative to the West that can cut across national boundaries and, perceiving it as politically and culturally at odds with Western society, fear it; others consider it a more basic demographic threat. By way of contrast, there has been agreement in the West that Muslim activism is against the interests of the Christian world and fear that the history of the Crusades may be repeated. However, although religion was one of the things that drove two major communities into battle with each other, it was never the whole explanation for such clashes. Past enmities and present bad temper need not lead us to conclude that suffering and destruction are inevitable.
Dr. Suter believes that the clash between Islam and Christianity will continue, due to their cultural differences. I disagree. My request to all Western intellectuals is that they should sympathetically study Islam and they will find that Islam is not a violent doctrine. Islam, like other world religions, is a faith of peace and social justice. In fact, Islam is as universalist as Christianity, and offers as generous a consolation when it comes to finding purpose, a guide for the soul, in a confusing world. It does not turn to fundamentalist militancy, because it has always been a tolerant religion and dislikes extremism and killing. Islam does not encourage terrorism and threatening behaviour. Wherever it comes from, it is not from Islam as a faith. Those groups who practice terror under the flag of Islam are a small minority, rejected by the great majority of Muslims. The West must realise that Iran, Algeria, Libya, Sudan, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia are not the sole representatives of the Muslim world and Islam. In relation to aggressive attitudes, the key message to Western scholars is to oppose the extremist Muslims but not blame all Islam. Islam has proved to be a dynamic and energetic force at a time when the world is awash with new political formulations, and it has become an increasingly important political idiom.
Pan-Arabism Causes Conflict in the Middle East
Since its formation in the wake of World War I, the contemporary Middle Eastern system based on territorial states has been under sustained assault. In past years, the foremost challenge to this system came from the doctrine of pan- Arabism (or qawmiya), which sought to "eliminate the traces of Western imperialism" and unify the "Arab nation," and the associated ideology of Greater Syria (or Suriya al-Kubra), which stresses the territorial and historical indivisibility of most of the Fertile Crescent. Today, the leading challenge comes from Islamist notions of a single Muslim community (the umma). Intellectuals and politicians, denouncing the current system as an artificial creation of Western imperialism at variance with yearnings for regional unity, have repeatedly urged its destruction. National leaders--from Gamal Abdel Nasser to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to Saddam Husayn [Hussein]--have justified their interference in the affairs of other states by claiming to pursue that unity. Yet the system of territorial states has proven extremely resilient.
That resilience raises questions. From what does it result? Does it suggest that the system of territorial states is more in line with Middle Eastern realities than the vision of a unified regional order? We review the role of pan-Arabism, pan-Syrianism, and pan-Islam, then consider how the rejection of the territorial state system has affected that most intractable conflict, the disposition of the Palestinians.
Pan-Arabism gives short shrift to the notion of the territorial state, declaring it to be a temporary aberration destined to wither away before long. This doctrine also postulates the existence of "a single nation bound by the common ties of language, religion and history. . . . behind the facade of a multiplicity of sovereign states." The territorial expanse of this supposed nation has varied among the exponents of the ideology, ranging from merely the Fertile Crescent to the entire territory "from the Atlantic Ocean to the Persian Gulf." But the unity of the Arabic-speaking populations inhabiting these vast territories is never questioned.
This doctrine was first articulated by a number of pre–World War I intellectuals, most notably the Syrian political exiles 'Abd ar-Rahman al-Kawakibi (1854–1902) and Najib Azuri (1873–1916), as well as by some of the secret Arab societies operating in the Ottoman Empire before its collapse. Yet it is highly doubtful whether these early beginnings would have ever amounted to anything more than intellectual musings had it not been for the huge ambitions of the sharif of Mecca, Husayn [Hussein] ibn 'Ali of the Hashemite family, and his two prominent sons, 'Abdullah and Faysal. Together, they perpetrated the "Great Arab Revolt" against the Ottoman Empire.
When Husayn proposed to the British that he rise against his Ottoman master, he styled himself champion of "the whole of the Arab nation without any exception." Befitting that role, he demanded the creation of a vast empire on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, stretching from Asia Minor to the Indian Ocean and from Iraq to the Mediterranean. When this grandiose vision failed to materialize in its full scope, the Hashemites quickly complained of being "robbed" of the fruits of victory promised to them during the war. (They were, as it happens, generously rewarded in the form of vast territories several times the size of the British Isles.) Thus arose the standard grievance that Arab intellectuals and politicians leveled at the Western powers, Britain in particular, and thus emerged the "pan-" doctrine of Arab nationalism with the avowed aim of redressing this alleged grievance.
Likewise the imperial ambitions of Faysal and 'Abdullah placed the Greater Syria ideal on the Arab political agenda. Already during the revolt against the Ottoman Empire, Faysal began toying with the idea of winning his own Syrian empire independently of his father's prospective empire. He tried to gain great- power endorsement for this ambition by telling the Paris Peace Conference that "Syria claimed her unity and her independence" and that it was "sufficiently advanced politically to manage her own internal affairs" if given adequate foreign and technical assistance. When the conference planned to send a special commission of inquiry to the Middle East, Faysal quickly assembled (a highly unrepresentative) General Syrian Congress that would "make clear the wishes of the Syrian people." And by way of leaving nothing to chance, Faysal manipulated Syrian public opinion through extensive propaganda, orchestrated demonstrations, and intimidation of opponents.
When all these efforts came to naught, and his position in Syria was increasingly threatened by the French, Faysal allowed the General Syrian Congress to proclaim him the constitutional monarch of Syria "within its natural boundaries, including Palestine" and in political and economic union with Iraq. On March 8, 1920, he was crowned as King Faysal I at the Damascus City Hall, and France and Britain were asked to vacate the western (that is, Lebanese) and the southern (that is, Palestinian) parts of Syria. The seed of the Greater Syria ideal had been sown.
Neither did Faysal abandon the Greater Syrian dream after his expulsion from Damascus by the French in July 1920. Quite the reverse. Using his subsequent position as the first monarch of Iraq, Faysal toiled ceaselessly to bring about the unification of the Fertile Crescent under his rule. This policy was sustained, following his untimely death in September 1933, by successive Iraqi leaders. Nuri as-Sa'id, Faysal's comrade-in-arms and a perpetual prime minister, did so, as did 'Abdullah, Faysal's older brother, who articulated his own version of the Greater Syria ideal. While 'Abdullah had some success, with the occupation and annexation of some 6,000 square kilometers of western Palestine to his kingdom in the late 1940s (an area to be subsequently known as the West Bank), his coveted Syrian empire remained unattainable.
As Hashemite ambitions faded away, following 'Abdullah's assassination in 1951 and the overthrow of the Iraqi monarchy seven years later, the championship of "pan-" movements migrated to other leaders. Cairo became the standard bearer of a wider pan-Arab ideal. Egypt's sense of pan-Arabism had already manifested itself in the 1930s but it peaked in the 1950s with the rise to power of Gamal Abdel Nasser. For a while, Abdel Nasser's hegemonic aspirations seemed to be within reach. His subversive campaign against the pro-Western states drove the Lebanese and Jordanian regimes to the verge of collapse and pushed Saudi Arabia and Iran onto the defensive. An Egyptian-Syrian union in 1958 seemed to bring the ideal of pan-Arab unity to fruition. By the early 1960s, however, Abdel Nasser's dreams were in tatters. The pro-Western regimes were weathering the Egyptian onslaught; Syria acrimoniously seceded from the bilateral union; and the Egyptian army bogged down in an unwinnable civil war in Yemen. Abdel Nasser's inter-Arab standing took a steep plunge. Then came the 1967 Six Day War, dealing his ambitions--and the pan-Arab ideal as a whole--a mortal blow. While there would never be a shortage of contenders to Abdel Nasser's role as pan-Arabism's champion, notably Saddam Husayn, the dream of the "Arab nation" would not regain its earlier vibrancy or appeal. . . .
Why, for all the sustained intellectual and political efforts behind it, did pan Arabism make such little headway towards its goal of unifying the "Arab nation"? Because there is not and has never existed an "Arab nation." Rather, its invocation has been a clever ploy to harness popular support to the quest for regional mastery by successive Middle Eastern dynasties, rulers, and regimes.
If a nation is a group of people sharing such attributes as common descent, language, culture, tradition, and history, then nationalism is the desire of such a group for self-determination in a specific territory that they consider to be their patrimony. The only common denominators among the widely diverse Arabic- speaking populations of the Middle East—the broad sharing of language and religion—are remnants of the early imperial Islamic epoch. But these have generated no general sense of Arab solidarity, not to speak of deeply rooted sentiments of shared history, destiny, or attachment to an ancestral homeland, for both Islam and the Arabic language have far transcended their Arabian origins. The former has become a thriving universal religion boasting a worldwide community of believers of which Arabs are but a small minority. The latter, like other imperial languages such as English, Spanish, and French, has been widely assimilated by former subject populations, often superseding their native tongues. As T.E. Lawrence ("Lawrence of Arabia"), the foremost early champion of the pan-Arab cause, admitted in his later days: "Arab unity is a madman's notion--for this century or next, probably. English- speaking unity is a fair parallel.". . .
Neither had the Arabic-speaking provinces of the Ottoman Empire experienced the processes of secularization and modernization that preceded the development of nationalism in western Europe in the late 1700s. When the Ottoman Empire collapsed, its Arab populations still thought only in local or imperial terms. Their intricate webs of local loyalties (to one's clan, tribe, village, town, religious sect, or localized ethnic minority) were superseded only by submission to the Ottoman sultan-caliph in his capacity as the head of the Muslim community. They were wholly unfamiliar with the idea of national self- determination and so created no pressure for states.
Into this vacuum moved ambitious political leaders, speaking the Western rhetoric "Arab nationalism," but actually aiming to create new empires for themselves. The problem with this state of affairs was that the extreme diversity and fragmentation of the Arabic-speaking world had made its disparate societies better disposed to local patriotism than to a unified regional order. But then, rather than allow this disposition to run its natural course and develop into modern-day state nationalism (or wataniya), Arab rulers systematically convinced their peoples to think that the independent existence of their respective states was a temporary aberration that would be rectified before too long. The result was a dissonance that was to haunt the Middle East for most of the twentieth century, between the reality of state nationalism and the dream of an empire packaged as a unified "Arab nation."
This dissonance (speaking the language of nationalism while pursuing imperial aggrandizement) was introduced into the political discourse by the Hashemites. Though styling themselves representatives of the "Arab nation," Sharif Husayn and his sons were no champions of national liberation but rather imperialist aspirants anxious to exploit a unique window of opportunity to substitute their own empire for that of the Ottomans. Husayn had demonstrated no nationalist sentiments prior to the war when he had generally been considered a loyal Ottoman apparatchik; and neither he nor his sons changed in this respect during the revolt. They did not regard themselves as part of a wider Arab nation, bound together by a shared language, religion, history, or culture. Rather, they held themselves superior to those ignorant creatures whom they were "destined" to rule and educate. David Hogarth, director of the Cairo Arab Bureau, held several conversations with Husayn in January 1918 and reported his attitude as follows: "Arabs as a whole have not asked him to be their king; but seeing how ignorant and disunited they are, how can this be expected of them until he is called?" It was the "white man's burden," Hijaz-style. . . .
What the Hashemites demanded of the post-war peace conference, therefore, was not self-determination for the Arabic-speaking subjects of the defunct Ottoman Empire but the formation of a successor empire, extending well beyond the predominantly Arabic-speaking territories and comprising such diverse ethnic and national groups as Turks, Armenians, Kurds, Greeks, Assyrians, Chechens, Circassians, and Jews, among others, apart of course from the Arabs. As Husayn told T.E. Lawrence in the summer of 1917: "If advisable, we will pursue the Turks to Constantinople and Erzurum--so why talk about Beirut, Aleppo, and Hailo?" And 'Abdullah put it in similar terms when asking British officer Sir Mark Sykes (in April 1917) that Britain abide by the vast territorial promises made to Sharif Husayn: "it was . . . up to the British government to see that the Arab kingdom is such as will make it a substitute for the Ottoman Empire." This imperial mindset was vividly illustrated by the frequent Hashemite allusion to past Arab and Islamic imperial glory, rather than to national rights, as justification of their territorial claims.... The "Palestine question" is an issue that has constituted an integral part of inter-Arab politics since the mid-1930s, with anti-Zionism forming the main common denominator of pan-Arab solidarity and its most effective rallying cry. But the actual policies of the Arab states show they have been less motivated by concern for pan-Arabism, let alone for the protection of the Palestinians, than by their own interests. Indeed, nothing has done more to expose the hollowness of pan-Arabism than this, its most celebrated cause.
Consider, for instance, the pan-Arab invasion of the newly proclaimed State of Israel in mid-May 1948. This, on the face of it, was a shining demonstration of pan-Arab solidarity. But the invasion had less to do with concern for the Palestinian struggle to liberate a part of the Arab homeland than with 'Abdullah's desire to incorporate substantial parts of Mandatory Palestine into his kingdom--and the determination of other Arab players, notably Egypt, to prevent that eventuality. Had the Jewish state lost the war, its territory would have been divided among the invading forces.
During the decades of Palestinian dispersal following the 1948 war, the Arab states manipulated the Palestinian national cause to their own ends. Neither Egypt nor Jordan allowed Palestinian self-determination in the parts of Palestine they occupied during the 1948 war (respectively, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip). Palestinian refugees were kept in squalid camps for decades as a means for whipping Israel and stirring pan-Arab sentiments. Abdel Nasser cloaked his hegemonic goals by invoking the restoration of "the full rights of the Palestinian people." Likewise, Saddam Husayn disguised his predatory designs on Kuwait by linking the crisis caused by his invasion of that country with "the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Israel from the occupied Arab territories in Palestine."
Self-serving interventionism under the pretence of pan-Arab solidarity had the effect of transforming the bilateral Palestinian-Israeli dispute into a multilateral Arab-Israeli conflict, thereby prolonging its duration, increasing its intensity, and making its resolution far more complex and tortuous. By refusing to recognize Palestinian nationalism (or for that matter any other Arab state nationalism) and insisting on its incorporation into a wider Arab framework, Arab intellectuals, rulers, and regimes disrupted the natural national development of this community. They instilled unrealistic visions, hopes, and expectations in Palestinian political circles at key junctures. The consequence has been to deny Palestinians the right to determine their own fate. . . .
The other great challenge to state ideals was voiced by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, spiritual father of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which he created in 1979 on the ruins of the Pahlavi monarchy. Like pan-Arab ideologues, Khomeini viewed Western imperialism as the source of all evil. But while the former invoked Muslim past glory as the justification for the creation of a unified pan- Arab empire, Khomeini viewed it as a precedent for the unification of the world's Muslim community, the umma. In his understanding, having partitioned the umma into artificial separate states after World War I, the great powers did their best to keep Muslim communities in a permanent state of ignorance and fragmentation. "The imperialists, the oppressive and treacherous rulers, the Jews, Christians, and materialists are all attempting to distort the truth of Islam and lead the Muslims astray," he cautioned:
We see today that the Jews (may God curse them) have meddled with the text of the Qur'an . . . We must protest and make the people aware that the Jews and their foreign backers are opposed to the very foundations of Islam and wish to establish Jewish domination throughout the world. Since they are a cunning and resourceful group of people, I fear that--God forbid!--they may one day achieve their goal, and that the apathy shown by some of us may allow a Jew to rule over us one day.
This meant that Middle Eastern states--indeed, the entire contemporary international system--were totally illegitimate, for they perpetuated an unjust order imposed on "oppressed" Muslims by the "oppressive" great powers. Muslims were obliged to "overthrow the oppressive governments installed by the imperialists and bring into existence an Islamic government of justice that will be in the service of the people." An Islamic world order would see the state transcended by the territorial broader entity of the umma.
As the only country where the "government of God" had been established, ran Khomeini's line of reasoning, Iran had a sacred obligation to serve as the core of the umma and the springboard for worldwide dissemination of Islam's holy message:
The Iranian revolution is not exclusively that of Iran, because Islam does not belong to any particular people . . . We will export our revolution throughout the world because it is an Islamic revolution. The struggle will continue until the calls "there is no god but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God" are echoed all over the world.
Khomeini made good on his promise. In November 1979 and February 1980 widespread riots erupted in the Shi'i towns of the oil-rich Saudi province of Hasa, exacting many casualties. Similar disturbances occurred in Bahrain and Kuwait which became the target of a sustained terrorist and subversive campaign. Iraq suffered from a special subversive effort, whereby the Iranians sought to topple the ruling Ba'th regime, headed since July 1979 by Saddam Husayn at-Tikriti. They urged the Iraqi people to rise against their government; supported the Kurdish revolt in northern Iraq and underground Shi'i movements; and they launched terrorist attacks against prominent Iraqi officials. When these pressures eventually led to the Iraqi invasion of Iran in September 1980, Khomeini wholeheartedly embraced "the imposed war" as a means of consolidating his regime and furthering its influence throughout the region. The war would continue, he vowed, "until the downfall of the regime governing Baghdad.". . .
Despite these efforts, Iran's pan-Islamic doctrine has had no greater success than did pan-Arabism in denting the Middle Eastern territorial state system. Not only did most Sunnis reject it as a distinctly Shi'i doctrine, but even Iraq's majority Shi'i community found it unconvincing and gave more allegiance to the Iraqi territorial state instead. And Iran's only successful export of its revolution, namely [the terrorist organization] Hizbullah [Hezbollah] in Lebanon, had more to do with the struggle against Israel than with dreams of establishing a unified community of believers.
The Middle East's experience in the twentieth century has been marked by frustration, and much of it has resulted from a gap between delusions of grandeur and the grim realities of weakness and fragmentation. Just as the challenge to the continental order by the European "pan-" movements, notably pan- Germanism and pan-Slavism, led to mass suffering and dislocation, so the rejection of the contemporary Middle Eastern state system by pan-Arabs and pan-Islamists has triggered many wars among Arabs and Jews, Arabs and Arabs, Arabs and Kurds, Arabs and Iranians, and others. . . .
Only when the "pan-" factor is banished from the Middle East's political scene and replaced by general acceptance of the region's diversity will its inhabitants look forward to a better future. Any attempt to impose a national or religious unity on the region's individual states is not only bound to fail but it will perpetuate the violence and acrimony that have for too long plagued the Middle East. Only when the political elites reconcile themselves to the reality of state nationalism (wataniya) and forswear the imperial dream of a unified "Arab nation" will regional stability be attained.
The Arab-Israeli Dispute Causes Conflict in the Middle East
The conflict between those regularly referred to as the Jews and the Arabs has been well under way for nearly a century. While major military confrontation between Israel and its Arab neighbours has not occurred since the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the absence of meaningful peace and the maintenance of conflict continued to the end of the twentieth century. Within its confines the differences between these peoples, religions and attitudes has at times manifested itself in conventional wars, and led to the militarization of the entire region, where even aspiring democrats have only recently begun to discard their military uniforms. Inevitably under such a climate, economic relations, culture, history, literature, mass media and communications, international organizations, regional associations and interest groups have all been enlisted and manipulated to demonize the enemy. Rival nationalisms, the superpower conflict, the right to self-determination, anti-Semitism, control of oil, and the emergence of the Third World radicalism and anti-Western sentiment have all played their part, making up the cocktail of conflict described by Professor Emile Sahliyeh as 'the most lethal and volatile . . . and the most difficult to resolve'.
Although the essence of the conflict is the battle between two people over one land, the territory of the Holy Land including Jerusalem, the Arab-Israeli dimension has developed over time characteristics often far-removed from the original Palestinian issue and territorial focus. One example is the bitter dispute and battle that has raged from the late 1970s between Israel and the Lebanese Islamic resistance movements, and latterly the Shi'a Hizballah [also known as Hezbollah] organization. While Israel's original motives in invading and subsequently occupying Lebanon in 1978 and 1982 were to rout the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization], once the PLO had left the country, the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) remained as an occupying force and made themselves the principal enemies of the Lebanese Shi'a population. Hizballah was subsequently formed as a resistance movement to end Israel's illegal occupation of southern Lebanon and, until Israel's withdrawal in spring 2000, waged a major military campaign against its enemy and those perceived to be its supporters. While it may be true that there was little love lost between the PLO and Hizballah during the Lebanese civil war they ended up sharing a common antipathy to Israel as an occupying force on Arab lands. Certainly this is an instance where Israel's policies may have inadvertently created allies out of enemies, thus undermining the security of their own state.
The roots of this conflict lay in the resistance mounted by the Arabs and their leaders in the region against the initial attempt by settler Zionists, most of whom were immigrants from Europe, to build a state in Palestine. But it was the subsequent dispossession of the Palestinian Arab population, the creation of a Palestinian national identity and the emergence of new Arab nationalisms united in opposition to Zionism and to the close association it was perceived as having with the forces of imperialism and colonialism, which gave the conflict its wider dimension. The struggle to gain and retain Arab rights to self- determination over Palestine in the face of European dominance over the entire region had its roots in the First World War, when the British made contradictory commitments to the Arabs and to the Zionist Jews to enlist their support against Germany and its Ottoman (Turkish) allies. The Arab leadership was led to believe that Arabs would control much of the region following the defeat of the Ottomans. But at the same time the British and the French were planning to replace Istanbul as the dominant power in the region. The situation was complicated further by a British promise to the Zionists to support the establishment of a Jewish national home in Arab Palestine: the Balfour Declaration. The expediency of measures taken to further war aims was to be questioned in the decades that followed. It soon emerged that the British had promised more than they could deliver and had engaged in what later emerged as duplicitous behaviour described as a 'disgusting scramble for the Middle East'.
When the Ottoman Empire was dissolved at the end of the First World War most of the Middle East became subject to colonial rule or influence. European powers, principally Britain and France, re-drew the boundaries of the Middle East and many Arab areas came under their direct political control. This period of direct and indirect colonial control, short lived though it was, resulted in the invention and promotion of new Arab rulers and monarchs presiding over newly created states within artificial boundaries. It sowed the seeds of future conflicts--between Israel and the Arabs (involving the Iranians) and amongst the Arabs themselves--that for the most part remained unresolved throughout the last century. The incipient conflict between the Jews and Arabs in the region took shape during the first three decades of the twentieth century and culminated in the first direct war in 1948 as Britain ended its mandate in Palestine, which had lasted from 1919 to 1948. During this period the British authorities were, according to the official remit of the mandate as agreed by the League of Nations, supposed to assist the mandated territory to self-government. But they were caught between conflicting pressures: Zionist attempts to establish their own state (something more than the 'National Home' envisaged in the Balfour Declaration, as incorporated into the mandate's provisions) and Arab efforts to oppose this in the pursuit of their own national aspirations. In these circumstances the British had little option but to pursue an often oppressive policy of control and public order.
The perceived grievances of the Palestinian community in Palestine at the time (particularly the large influx of Jewish immigrants) raised tension between the two communities and resulted in the 1929 riots when Jews in Jerusalem and Hebron were murdered. This event was followed by further conflict including the 1936 General Strike and the Palestinian revolt from 1936 to 1939. The British authorities, also under attack from militant Jewish organizations, appeared to be unable to develop policies or strategies to resolve the conflict, and the outbreak of the Second World War in Europe in 1939, and the Nazi- perpetrated Holocaust against 6 million Jews, had unforeseen consequences for the future of Palestine. After the Second World War Jewish immigration reached new heights, and pressure for a Jewish state in Palestine as a haven for the persecuted survivors of the Holocaust grew relentlessly. The British were increasingly unable to maintain law and order, and meanwhile the Palestinians and their national leadership demanded self-determination. Eventually the whole problem was turned over by the British to the newly established United Nations, who decided to resolve the competing claims for self-determination by promoting partition between the Jews and the Arabs, with Jerusalem falling under international authority. The Zionist movement accepted statehood as a much better deal than the 'national home' they had been offered under the Balfour Declaration. They already faced considerable hostility and incipient conflict from their Arab neighbours. There was a belief that securing statehood would promote the much-needed sense of security for the Jewish people and an end to their exile. The diaspora could be gathered in under the flag of Israel. However, the Palestinians and Arab states rejected the UN partition plan, arguing that it was inherently biased and ignored the legitimate rights of Palestinians. The Palestinians complained that their land was being given away as a means of appeasing European guilt over the Holocaust. When the British withdrew in May 1948 the battle for the land of Palestine broke out in earnest between the Israelis and the Arabs.
The war broke out shortly after the Israeli Declaration of Independence on 15 May 1948, as units from the Arab armies of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria (backed by forces from Lebanon and Iraq) attempted to win back the Palestinian soil that had been lost to the Israeli state. The Arab armies, poorly led and equipped, were ultimately unsuccessful and failed to defeat the small but well motivated and highly trained Israeli Defence Force. The armistice negotiations did not occur until January 1949, by which time between 700,000 and 800,000 Palestinians had fled their homes or been forced to flee. In some cases Palestinians, encouraged by their Arab leaders, left the battle-zones in the belief that after a swift Arab victory they would be able to return. In other cases Palestinians fled their villages after hearing news of the massacre by Israeli forces in the village of Deir Yassin. As author Maxime Rodinson notes, 'Many leading Jews were glad to see the departure of a population which by its very presence presented an obstacle to the realisation of the Jewish state projected by the Zionists'. The Palestinians who arrived as refugees in Lebanon, Transjordan, Syria, Egypt and the Gaza Strip quickly realized that they had lost their homes and would not be allowed to return to them. The only comfort that the leaders of the Arab world could offer was the promise that this first encounter was just one war in a major conflict that would continue on their behalf. The Palestinian community refers to this period in their history as 'alnakbah'--the catastrophe.
In terms of territory the end of the war meant the effective partition of Palestine as it was formerly known. The West Bank and East Jerusalem (including the old city) came under the control of Jordan and its monarch King Abdullah. The Egyptian government administered the Gaza Strip from Cairo. The rest of the country, which as a result of the armistice had enlarged from 14,000 to 21,000 square kilometres, came within the new Israeli state. The Arabs were thus left with one-fifth of the original territory of their land and their aspirations for an Arab Palestine battered and weakened by the war.
Thus, within hours of its birth the new Israeli state had been compelled into war with its Arab neighbours. The war lasted until armistice agreements secured in January 1949. Aware of their poor chances, the intertwined political and military leadership of Israel had no option but to engage in the fight against the six Arab armies ranged against them. One advantage that the Israelis believed they had over their enemy was referred to by Israeli Chief of Operations Yigael Yadin in May 1948 when he remarked, 'the problem is to what extent our men will be able to overcome enemy forces by virtue of their fighting spirit, of our planning and our tactics'. The new state, forged in war, emerged from that experience with a unique character and an emphasis on institutions such as the military which might not, under more peaceful circumstances of statehood, have been necessary.
The repercussions of the conflict were widespread and enduring. Amongst them was an initial period of instability in the Arab countries as they came to terms with their defeat, and a backlash against British and Western influence in the region. This was most noticeable in increasing popular opposition to the British-supported Hashemite monarchies in Iraq and in Jordan. In 1951 Jordan's King Abdullah was assassinated and the new King Hussein--bowing to popular pressure--dismissed General Glubb Pasha, the British commander of the Arab Legion. The upsurge of popular nationalism elsewhere across the region in response to the Arab defeat signalled the end of the corrupt royalist regime in Egypt, where, in 1952, the Free Officer Movement led by Gamal Ab- del Nasser mounted a coup, trumpeting the rhetoric of Arab nationalism and unity in the face of the Zionist enemy across the region. In the eyes of Arab nationalist radicals in Cairo, Beirut, Baghdad and Damascus, Israel was an enemy not just because of the injustice against their brethren in Palestine, but also because of its close association with what they perceived as Western imperialist aspirations towards the region, and in particular its recently exploited massive oil reserves. Thus, radical Arab nationalism and pan-Arab pretensions created a new dimension in the conflict with Israel, as was strikingly demonstrated during the 1956 Suez war.
The Suez conflict, which erupted over the decision by Nasser to nationalize the Suez Canal Company in July 1956, was a major escalation of anticolonialist and, by association, anti-Zionist sentiment in the Arab world. The Suez Canal was built in the 1860s and by the late 1880s came under British and other foreign control (via a number of shareholders), maintained by British occupation of Egypt. The British saw the canal as an essential element in their control of the main sea route to India. In the 4-year period leading up to the nationalization of the Suez Canal, Nasser embarked on a programme of pan-Arab cohesion and made military pacts with Syria, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Nasser's goal was the restoration of the Arab nation under Egyptian leadership and an end to foreign influence in the area. The nationalization of Suez was the first time that a Third World country had successfully regained one of its major foreign-owned assets.
Both the French and the British were outraged at Nasser's decision. A highly secret tripartite operation in collusion with the Israelis was organized. They hatched a plot to regain control over the Suez Canal. On 29 October 1956 the Israeli army launched Operation Kadesch; their forces crossed the border and entered the Sinai desert. Over a period of five days they routed the Egyptian army and approached the canal. In accordance with a pre-arranged plan--'Operation Musketeer'--the British and French bombed Egyptian targets and sent their troops to occupy Port Said and Port Fuad on the pretext of protecting it from hostile action, whether from Israel or Egypt. The Israelis had accepted a cease- fire as part of the secret pre-arrangement with the British and French, but the Egyptians refused to pull their troops back from the canal. Despite the military successes, the British and French were forced to accept a ceasefire and withdraw their forces as a result of US economic pressure on Britain and international public opinion as expressed through the UN. Nasser had held on to the canal and Arab nationalist feelings and anti-imperialist sentiment reached an all-time high.
The dispute between the Arabs and Israelis was exacerbated by the Arab perception of the Israeli role in the conflict as nothing more than defender of Western interests in the region. As a result tensions remained high and the deep animosity between the nations worsened. By siding with France and Britain and continuing to occupy the Gaza Strip between 1956 and 1957, the Israelis managed not only to further deepen the rift with Egypt but also to anger the USA, bringing a close relationship under severe pressure. Within Israel the involvement of their armed forces in the 1956 crisis was perceived quite differently. The Israeli political and military establishment were concerned by persistent Arab attacks on Israel mounted from Gaza and the Sinai and by the Egyptian blockade of the Red Sea; consequently, the Israeli port of Eilat took defensive steps against Egyptian belligerence. While it is true that the Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai in March 1957 was prompted by US and UN pressure, Israeli involvement in Suez, secret agreements apart, would have been considered part of the domestic security strategy and sold as such to the Israeli people. In many respects the legacy of 1956 would not be visited upon the Israelis for some ten years or more. There can be little doubt, however, that Nasser's motives in 1967 were, at least partially, rooted in the 1956 encounter and his memories of military humiliation.
The war of 1967 was inevitable; the disputes between the Arabs and the Israelis had remained unresolved and the era of fervent and self-confident Arab nationalism was at its peak. On the eve of the war the combined Arab troop numbers were more than double those of the Israelis. The Arabs also had three times as many tanks and aircraft, yet within 6 days they were totally routed by the Israeli army. The build up to the war on the Arab side had been fraught with reckless rhetoric and strident propaganda about the military prowess of the 'Arab people' and their ability to defeat the Israelis, to sweep them into the sea and win back Palestine. Egypt was the most eager of the combatants and was in a sense a victim of its own propaganda, which grossly exaggerated its potential as a military power. The Syrians and Jordanians, with territory at stake, were somewhat less hawkish but came under pressure from Nasser and the weight of their own public opinion intoxicated by the prospect of victory. Nasser, determined to earn his place in the history books as the undisputed leader of the Arab world, pursued the liberation of Palestine as if it were a Holy Grail. At the same time he oppressed the Egyptian-administered Palestinian population of the Gaza Strip and the refugee community in Egypt, imprisoning thousands of them throughout his presidency.
The war was over in a matter of five or six days between 5 and 11 June. The Jordanian army was defeated and its airforce destroyed; similar Israeli victories occurred over the Egyptians in the Gaza Strip and the Syrians in the Golan Heights. By Saturday 10 June 1967 the Israeli army occupied the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank (including East Jerusalem and the old city) and the Golan Heights. The acquisition of territory by the end of the war had increased Israel's size by six times (almost half that formerly administered by Jordan), and this had massive logistical, military and political implications for the Israeli government.
The role of the UN during the hostilities was minimal. However, on 22 November after five months of bargaining, the UN passed SCR 242 which required a withdrawal of Israeli forces from the territories occupied in exchange for the cessation of fighting, the recognition of all states in the region, freedom of navigation in the Suez Canal and in the Gulf of Aqaba, and the creation of demilitarized zones. Once again Israel was able to prevail militarily despite the odds stacked against it. Following the appointment of Moshe Dayan as Defence Minister just days before the war, the Israeli armed forces meticulously planned their daring campaign against a belligerent Nasser and his Egyptian forces. By seizing the initiative, launching the war before the Arabs got there first, the Israelis were able to dominate the rest of the military campaign, first by air and then by land. By the end of the war, Israel, a 'country that had felt embattled and threatened only days before was now the decisive military power in the Middle East . . . Equally Israel had changed in the process, for she was now an occupying power', as stated by author T. Fraser. The fourth conflict between Israel and the Arabs in twenty-five years since 1948 [it occurred in 1973] had a number of unique features. First, Egyptian and Syrian forces were able (albeit temporarily) to break through Israeli lines, an unprecedented military success for the Arabs. Second, although Israel was the ultimate victor, the perceived weakness of the army in initial stages of the hostilities affected national morale and self-confidence and led political leaders to re-think their position vis- à-vis their Arab neighbours. Third, the war was an Egyptian and Syrian attempt to recover their own territory, with the Palestinian issue coming a poor second in terms of strategy and objectives. Finally, it was during this war that the Gulf States started to use oil prices and boycott as major weapons against the West. For the first time the West was made aware of the significant leverage the Arab states held over the oil-dependent economies of the capitalist world. . . .
Throughout 1981 there was a noticeable rise in tension: a missile crisis with Syria in spring was followed on 7 June by the raid against the Iraqi nuclear centre of Tammuz. By December Israel had formally annexed the Golan Heights, which had been captured from the Syrians in the war of 1967. But, crucially, in June 1981 the IDF and PLO troops based in south Lebanon began shelling each other until the United States negotiated a ceasefire with the two parties. Against this background, it was inevitable that certain elements of the Israeli military would use their influence within government to take action against the PLO in Lebanon. Although there were splits within the military over this issue, the 'hawks' prevailed and steered Prime Minister Menachem Begin into a further course of invasion.
'Peace for Galilee' was the name given to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in June 1982. Officially the Israelis declared that their march across the border was only a question of affirming control of a 40 km strip, from which terrorists would no longer be able to shell the north of the country. Yet, despite these apparently limited aims, the IDF soon found itself in Beirut. The city was soon under Israeli imposed blockade. Thus began the siege of mainly Muslim and Palestinian West Beirut, where Palestinians and the Lebanese National Movement fought side by side, whilst the Christian Phalangists [Lebanese Christian political party and militia] lent support to the IDF as it attempted to eradicate the PLO. There seemed no end to the phosphorous, napalm, scatter, and imploding bombs that relentlessly poured down on the starving, parched west section of the city. Apart from 6,000 PLO guerrillas in the besieged city, there were some half a million Lebanese and Palestinian civilians, and every day of the bombardment about 200 or 300 of them were killed.
As the bombardment went on, day after day, the international community looked on impotently, seemingly mesmerized by the brutal nature of the Israeli action. The European Economic Community (EEC), the UN Security Council and other bodies issued condemnations, while the United States remonstrated ineffectually with its protégé and was brusquely snubbed. Yet, it is difficult to disagree with D. Gilmour's conclusion in Dispossessed: The Ordeal of the Palestinians that the most feeble reaction came from the Arab world which seemed petrified into silence and inaction. Beirut, the ideological birthplace of Arab nationalism and for long the intellectual and commercial capital of the Arab world, was being pulverised by a brutal foreign army while the Arab states did nothing.
In this respect Israel succeeded in its greatest victory in its conflict with the Arab world, and exposed the hollow posturing of the grand slogans of 'Arab unity' in the face of the Zionist threat. If the leaders of the Arab world could not rally to the defence of its brethren in Beirut as Israeli tanks rolled into its suburbs, what did unity mean?
On 30 August 1982 the PLO admitted defeat and the leadership and guerrillas left Lebanon in shame. Arafat moved on to Tunis and the PLO network went with him. The departure of the PLO, however, was not the end of Israel's battle against the Palestinians of Lebanon. On 16 and 17 September Israeli troops moved into West Beirut, and their Phalangist allies massacred at least 2,000 children, women and elderly men in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla. Israeli collusion in the massacres appalled the world.
Such was the tragic end of the first phase of the Lebanon war. A second phase now began: that of Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon, which came to a humiliating end for them in May 2000 when Hizballah resistance fighters hastened the retreat of the Israeli army, which by then had suffered heavy casualties and brought about the collapse of Israel's local ally, the South Lebanon Army (SLA). For eighteen years Israel remained in Lebanon and promoted its presence through its local ally, the Christian-led SLA. United Nations forces, mandated in 1978 to act as peacekeepers until Israel withdrew, found themselves embroiled in various battles between Lebanon's militias and the SLA and IDF. Israel's northern border remained vulnerable to attack and domestic pressure grew for an end to Israel's Lebanon experience. As Israeli casualty rates rose the country's political leaders responded. In 1999, following his election as Prime Minister, former Defence Chief Ehud Barak announced that Israeli troops would finally be withdrawn from Lebanon.
As this viewpoint has demonstrated, there are no outright winners and far too many losers in this brief balance sheet of the Arab-Israeli conflict. During the course of these hostilities national revenues have been squandered on the purchase of weapons. Some states have further impoverished themselves in seeking loans from Western arms manufacturers and governments to purchase a technology dedicated to regional domination rather than development. In as much as the Palestinian issue has closed Arab ranks in the quest for justice it has perhaps also done as much to divide the Arab world, ordinary citizens and leaders alike.
Progress towards resolving the dispute seems to have only been achieved under two significant conditions. The first is American pressure, influence and guarantees in winning concessions from Israel and rewarding the parties involved (financially) for taking risks on peace. The second is the Israeli- preferred route of negotiation via bilateral rather than multi-lateral or international forums such as the United Nations. Washington, generally speaking, has supported this tactic and facilitated such a process at Camp David in the negotiation of a separate peace between Israel and Egypt. For those who still believe that the only way a just and comprehensive peace can be forged in the Middle East is through the participation of the international community and the UN there can be little cause for comfort in achievements so far. But, however reached, a lasting and just peace depends not on treaties forged by outside parties able to cajole and pressure leaders, but in the quality of that peace and its sustainability through popular acceptance over present and future generations in both Israel and the Arab world.
Israeli Leadership Contributes to Conflict in the Middle East
Editor's note: At the time of publication, Ariel Sharon was the prime minister of Israel. Should Sharon be removed from office, the issues discussed in this viewpoint would still be timely. Sharon's causes are inextricably related to his office.
The ruling arrived like a letter from another era, written in strange script, waiting to be deciphered. In mid-February 2002, the Israeli supreme court upheld a lower-court decision, thereby dismissing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's libel suit against the Ha'aretz newspaper and its political commentator Uzi Benziman. At issue was a column Benziman wrote a decade ago on Sharon's record as defense minister during Israel's disastrous 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Benziman wrote that Prime Minister Menachem Begin--still alive at the time--knew "full well that Sharon deceived him" on the goals and conduct of that war.
Sharon has spent years trying to erase the stain of the Lebanon War. Still, the legal defeat would seem to be the least of his troubles. After he won the premiership by promising to bring peace and security to Israel's citizens, Sharon has produced neither. The conflict with the Palestinians continues to escalate. The day of the court ruling, four Israelis died in Palestinian attacks; the following day, six soldiers died in a strike against an army roadblock. Sharon responded with a rare speech to the nation--in which he disappointed all expectations that he would announce a new policy direction. Among voters, confidence that he has a strategy is bleeding away. In one Israeli public-opinion poll, 29 percent of respondents said that Sharon had a clear plan, while 58 percent said he was simply reacting to events.
Since his election, Sharon has stated two policy goals. The first is an unconditional cease-fire. "Violence and peacemaking are diametrically opposed. Therefore the position of the national-unity government is that Israel will not negotiate under fire," said Dore Gold, ex-ambassador to the United Nations and a member of Sharon's inner policy circle. After quiet is achieved, Gold added, "the diplomatic strategy is to get to a long-term interim agreement" with the Palestinians, rather than a final peace accord. Sharon has said he'd offer the Palestinians a state in 42 percent of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. That's the amount of land that Israel already turned over to Palestinian administration under the Oslo Accords, in the form of a collection of jagged enclaves. It's far less than former Prime Minister Ehud Barak's offer at the July 2000 Camp David summit, which Palestinian Authority Leader Yasir Arafat rejected. So it's tempting to conclude that Sharon's proposal isn't meant seriously--and that he lacks any vision of how to conclude the conflict.
February 2002's court ruling, however, is a timely reminder that Sharon has a long, troubling history that provides a basis for understanding his moves today. Rather than reacting erratically, he almost certainly has a detailed strategy. It's likely to be ambitious--and deeply flawed.
As a general and a politician, Sharon always has acted according to a strategic vision. It includes "battalion-level calculations regarding the value of territory," noted Yossi Alpher, a leading Israeli strategic analyst. To maintain overall military control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Sharon believes, Israel must "control every strategic hilltop and fragment the Palestinian population," Alpher said.
As an architect of Israeli settlement policy, Sharon implemented that approach. Alpher recalls a conversation with Sharon several years ago in which Sharon took out a map and pointed to a desolate corner of the southern West Bank. In one wadi, there was a Bedouin tribe, he said, and in the next wadi there was another. So, Sharon said, explaining his method, "I plant an Israeli settlement on the hilltop between them" to keep them from uniting. In an interview soon after he became prime minister in 2001, Sharon said that even the isolated Gaza Strip settlement of Netzarim, where a few dozen Israelis live between hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, "has strategic importance" because it divides the Palestinian cities of Gaza and Khan Younis. When Sharon offers the Palestinians enclaves divided by Israeli territory, that really is his map of a long-term solution.
Does he expect Palestinians to accept such a map? The answer lies in another aspect of Sharon's thinking, revealed during his tenure as defense minister under Menachem Begin from 1981 to 1983: He presumed that he could use force to manipulate Arab politics and produce leaders who would bend to Israel's needs. Under Sharon in those years, Israeli government in the West Bank gave funds and guns to fatal groups known as "village leagues." The goal was to create Israeli clients in place of the pro-Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leadership in the territories. It was a bid to "bypass the national movement," according to Menachem Klein of Bar-Ilan University, an expert on Palestinian politics, and in the end it "failed utterly."
Meanwhile, Sharon began preparing to invade Lebanon as soon as he became defense minister. His plan was to drive PLO forces out of southern Lebanon and Beirut and bring the Christian Phalange Party under Bashir Gemayel to power in the country. Sharon expected Gemayel to sign a peace treaty with Israel and, it seems, to remain under Israeli hegemony.
In early June 1982, the Israeli cabinet approved what Sharon described as a brief operation that would extend 25 miles into Lebanon. Within a week, Israeli troops were besieging the PLO in West Beirut. Antiwar protests grew at home; relations with the United States turned grim. But by August, the PLO evacuated Beirut and the Lebanese parliament elected Gemayel president.
Sharon was euphoric. On U.S. television, he told of meeting village- league leaders and argued that peace could now be negotiated with moderate Palestinians. In another interview, with Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, he said that "politically, [Arafat] is crashed." And he stressed one more piece of his vision: The Palestinians, he said, already "have a homeland. It is the Palestine that is called Jordan." Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, the West Bank, and elsewhere "could transfer themselves to Transjordan."
In the words of professor Arye Naor of Ben-Gurion University, who was cabinet secretary under Begin until the spring of 1982: "It's pretty clear his intent was . . . that the Palestinians in Lebanon would go to Jordan and overthrow the government, and [Israel] would help them create a Palestinian state in Jordan. It's belief in force: We'll make the process happen."
But Sharon's design quickly unraveled. Gemayel was assassinated. Sharon sent Phalange forces to take control of the Beirut refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, where they slaughtered hundreds of Palestinians. The Israeli inquiry commission into the massacre forced Sharon to resign as defense minister. The PLO didn't vanish. But it took Israel until 2000 to extricate its army from Lebanon.
In 2001's election campaign, Sharon tried to present himself as a mellowed statesman. But he also has insisted that the only change in his views is that he no longer regards Jordan as the Palestinian state. The lesson he has taken from the Lebanon War is to avoid a repeat of the 1982 crisis in U.S.-Israeli relations and to maintain wide support at home. That's why he brought the rival Labor Party into his coalition, and why he has sought to avoid any serious clash with the George W. Bush administration.
Sharon's strategic thinking, though, has not changed. The most reasonable reading of his actions [in 2001 and 2002] is that he still believes Israel can "exploit territorial control to manipulate the [Arab] leadership structure," as Alpher put it. Sharon wants the Palestinians to end the uprising--and then to accept his program for a "state" in enclaves broken up by Israeli settlements. Regarding Arafat as both the cause of the violent conflict and the roadblock to Palestinian acquiescence, he seeks to push him out of power. Sharon apparently thinks that Arafat's successor will be more willing to bend. Sharon, said Menachem Klein, expects "to get a Palestinian gas-station attendant who doesn't want a state, just better pay."
To achieve his goals, Sharon has used ever increasing military force while trying to maintain domestic and American backing. In April 2001, for instance, after Palestinians fired mortar shells from the Gaza Strip into Israel, Sharon ordered the army into Palestinian-controlled territory in the strip. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell immediately condemned the operation and the troops withdrew that day. But each successive operation makes the next one less startling. In October 2001, after Palestinian gunmen assassinated far-right Tourism Minister Rechavam Ze'evy, Israeli troops moved into Palestinian Authority territory in six West Bank cities. Several days passed before Labor Party politicians began protesting and the United States demanded a pullout. It was two weeks before the troops began withdrawing. For much of the winter of 2001, Israeli troops held pieces of Ramallah in what has become routine reoccupation.
Sharon has stopped short of deposing Arafat. Again, he's paying attention to domestic and U.S. pressure. "Israel has a national-unity government," observed Sharon's adviser Dore Gold, one "where perhaps [Labor's Foreign Minister Shimon] Peres believes you can give Arafat another chance to change, while the prime minister is very skeptical about that happening."
Instead, Sharon has sought to undercut Arafat's position. In mid-December 2001, following a Palestinian attack at the settlement of Immanuel, the Israeli security cabinet declared the Palestinian leader "no longer relevant to Israel." After that, Sharon announced that Arafat would not be allowed to leave his Ramallah headquarters until he arrested Ze'evy's killers. The point is to show that Arafat cannot function as leader and to encourage other Palestinians to remove him.
Palestinian terror attacks on Israeli civilians have played a central role in the escalation, and Arafat has done all he can to aid in his own delegitimation. But if Arafat's regime does crumble under Israeli pressure, Palestinian nationalism won't evaporate. If men now considered moderates replace Arafat, they will need to take hard-line positions to show that they are not Israel's lackeys. Klein says that it's more likely that a coalition of Islamic fundamentalists and radical nationalists would seize power. And if Sharon continues a slow-motion reconquest of Palestinian territory, guerrilla attacks on the Israeli army won't stop. Instead, the shifting battle without front lines will become more bitter.
It still remains possible, however, that further American pressure . . . or the drop in domestic support could put the brakes on Sharon. After a year and a half of violence, Israel still faces the dilemma of how to end the conflict and reach a livable compromise with the Palestinians. But the letter from Sharon's past deserves attention: His path has been disastrous before, and it remains dangerous today.
Palestinian Leadership Contributes to Conflict in the Middle East
In June 2002, the Bush Administration dispatched CIA Director George Tenet to the Middle East to assess how to reform Palestinian intelligence and security agencies in order to make them more effective in fighting terrorism, rather than in supporting terrorism. It also dispatched Assistant Secretary of State William Burns to the region to explore ways to create a more democratic Palestinian Authority. Both of these missions can be described as the triumph of hope over experience.
The problem is that as long as Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat holds the reins of power, no amount of tinkering with institutional reforms is likely to produce the desired results: creating a Palestinian government that is willing and able to negotiate a lasting and stable peace with Israel.
Arafat remains what he has always been: a radical leader of a revolutionary movement that uses terrorism as a fundamental instrument of power. Unfortunately, he has not made the transition to statesman, as the Israelis gambled he would when they signed the 1993 Oslo peace accord [efforts that failed to facilitate peace between Israel and Palestine]. They vainly hoped that Arafat not only would renounce terrorism, but also would crack down on the terrorist operations of HAMAS, Palestine Islamic Jihad, and other radical Palestinian movements that rejected peace with Israel.
Instead, Arafat merely paid lip service to his Oslo commitments to fight terrorism. Since 1993, he half-heartedly has gone through the motions of clamping down on terrorism. From time to time, under intense international pressure, the Palestinian Authority would "arrest the usual suspects," only to turn them loose once again when international attention waned. This revolving door policy, a direct violation of the Oslo accords, greatly undermined Israeli trust in its ostensible "partner for peace" and raised serious doubts about Arafat's long term intentions.
Rather than prepare his people for peace, he has indoctrinated them for war. He has praised suicide bombers as "martyrs" and repeatedly has called for a jihad (holy war) to liberate Jerusalem. Arafat, the veteran terrorist, has created an environment in which terrorists flourish. The Palestinian Authority continues to educate Palestinian children to hate Israelis. Ideas have consequences.
The sad truth is that as long as Arafat remains the leader of the Palestinians, there is little chance of a genuine peace. He has a long history of terrorism, which he has used to cement his control over the Palestinians, to attack Israel, and to attack other Arabs.
Arafat also has a long history of violating his commitments to other Arab states, as well as to Israel. In 1970 Arafat led a Palestinian uprising against King Hussein's government in Jordan, despite his previous pledges to respect Jordanian sovereignty. When the Jordanian Army crushed Arafat's forces during "Black September," the defeated Palestinian leader moved his base of operations to Lebanon. Despite repeated promises to avoid involvement in Lebanon's internal politics, Arafat formed a "state within a state" in southern Lebanon and allied himself with radical Lebanese movements that helped to precipitate the 1975–1976 Lebanese civil war. Chronic cross-border Palestinian terrorism against Israel provoked two Israeli military interventions in Lebanon and resulted in the expulsion of Arafat's forces from Beirut in 1982.
Arafat was rescued from irrelevance by the Israeli government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, which began the secret negotiations that evolved into the Oslo peace process in 1993. Rabin gambled that Arafat would be a dependable negotiating partner. But neither Rabin, nor his successors as Prime Minister, have been able to hold the slippery Arafat to make good on his commitments under the Oslo negotiating framework.
After Rabin was assassinated in 1995 and more than 60 Israelis were killed in a series of bloody bombings carried out by Palestinian Islamic militants in 1996, Benjamin Netanyahu was elected Prime Minister on a platform of "peace and security." Under U.S. pressure, Netanyahu signed several interim agreements with Arafat that the Palestinians promptly violated. By the end of his term, Netanyahu refused to sign new agreements with the Palestinians until Arafat lived up to his old agreements.
Netanyahu's successor, Ehud Barak, led one of the most dovish governments in Israeli history. Yet even Barak was unable to negotiate a final settlement with Arafat. At the Camp David summit in July 2000, Arafat walked away from a deal that offered the Palestinians over 90 percent of the disputed territories and control over the Temple Mount, located in the heart of Jerusalem.
Arafat then reverted to the "war process" when he could not get everything he wanted out of the "peace process." He gave a green light to the intifada (uprising) in September 2000 and used the Palestinian Authority's radio and television broadcasts to incite violence against Israelis. The Al Aqsa Martyrs brigade, an offshoot of Arafat's Fatah faction, increasingly carried out suicide bombings, which formerly had been a tactic employed by Palestinian Islamic militants.
Arafat's destruction of the Oslo accords and intensifying Palestinian terrorism led to the early 2002 election of Ariel Sharon as Prime Minister. Sharon has toughened Israel's policy toward the Palestinians, but he remains open to a deal with them. Although vilified widely in the western press as "the bulldozer," Sharon is a pragmatic leader that could deliver on any peace agreement that he is able to negotiate. It was Sharon, after all, who uprooted the Israeli settlement of Yamit in the Sinai after the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. Few doubt that Sharon could deliver on whatever concessions that he promised.
But Yasser Arafat is an extremely unreliable partner in peace negotiations. He has violated every agreement that he has negotiated with Israel. Arafat has never fulfilled his obligations under the 1993 Oslo Agreement to systematically and permanently clamp down on terrorism and the organizations that engage in it. In fact, members of Arafat's police force have been caught red-handed engaging in terrorist attacks against Israelis.
After a series of suicide bombings led Israel to raid Arafat's West Bank headquarters in operation "Defensive Shield," the Israeli Defense Forces discovered numerous documents that established that Arafat has been personally involved in the planning and execution of terrorist attacks. He encouraged them ideologically and ordered financial and logistical support for terrorist operations.
Arafat has lost all credibility as a negotiating partner for Israel. He has failed to make the transition from a terrorist leader to a statesman. The sad truth is that he wants a "peace process" but not peace.
The Oslo process has allowed him to consolidate his control over Palestinians and build a terrorist infrastructure in the "liberated" territories. Arafat is willing to go through the motions of negotiating but he is not willing to sign a final agreement, because that would force him to make hard concessions on the Palestinian "right of return" [Arafat maintains that Palestinian refugees of the Arab-Israeli 1967 war should have the right to return to Palestine] and other issues. Moreover, if Arafat did actually reach a final peace agreement he would be relegated to the status of the leader of the smallest Arab state and could no longer strut around the world stage as a self-appointed revolutionary and Arab champion.
Israel is settling in for a long period of conflict that will only end if a new generation of Palestinian leaders comes to the conclusion that terrorism can not gain them a Palestinian state or improve the lives of the Palestinian people. There is little that the United States can do to rescue the Palestinians from their flawed leaders as long as they continue down the road of violence.
Arafat has had ample time to prove himself as a true partner for peace, but he has failed to do so. Largely due to Arafat's cynical policies, more terrorism and violence engulf Palestinians and Israelis now than . . . in 1993 at the outset of the Oslo process. It should be clear that Arafat is part of the problem, not part of the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Lack of Democracy Contributes to Conflict in the Middle East
Since [the] September 11, 2001, [terrorist attacks on America] we have heard mostly slander and lies about the West from radical Islamic fundamentalists in their defense of the terrorists. But the Middle Eastern mainstream--diplomats, intellectuals, and journalists--has also bombarded the American public with an array of unflattering images and texts, suggesting that the extremists' anti- Americanism may not be an eccentricity of the ignorant but rather a representative slice of the views of millions. For example, Egyptian Nobel Prize–winning novelist Naguib Mahfouz reportedly announced from his Cairo home that America's bombing of the Taliban [in Afghanistan] was "just as despicable a crime" as the September 11 attacks--as if the terrorists' unprovoked mass murder of civilians were the moral equivalent of selected air strikes against enemy soldiers in wartime. Americans, reluctant to answer back their Middle Eastern critics for fear of charges of "Islamophobia" or "Arab smearing," have let such accusations go largely unchecked.
Two striking themes--one overt, one implied--characterize most Arab invective: first, there is some sort of equivalence--political, cultural, and military-- between the West and the Muslim world; and second, America has been exceptionally unkind toward the Middle East. Both premises are false and reveal that the temple of anti-Americanism is supported by pillars of utter ignorance. Few in the Middle East have a clue about the nature, origins, or history of democracy, a word that, along with its family ("constitution," "freedom," and "citizen"), has no history in the Arab vocabulary, or indeed any philological pedigree in any language other than Greek and Latin and their modern European offspring. Consensual government is not the norm of human politics but a rare and precious idea, not imposed or bequeathed but usually purchased with the blood of heroes and patriots, whether in classical Athens, revolutionary America, or more recently in Eastern Europe. Democracy's lifeblood is secularism and religious tolerance, coupled with free speech and economic liberty.
Afghan tribal councils, without written constitutions, are better than tyranny, surely; but they do not make consensual government. Nor do the Palestinian parliament and advisory bodies in Kuwait. None of these faux assemblies is elected by an unbound citizenry, free to criticize (much less recall, impeach, or depose) their heads of state by legal means, or even to speak openly to journalists about the failings of their own government. Plato remarked of such superficial government-by-deliberation that even thieves divvy up the loot by give- and-take, suggesting that the human tendency to parley is natural but is not the same as the formal machinery of democratic government.
Our own cultural elites, either out of timidity or sometimes ignorance of the uniqueness of our own political institutions, seldom make such distinctions. But the differences are critical, because they lie unnoticed at the heart of the crisis in the Muslim world, and they explain our own tenuous relations with the regimes in the Gulf and the Middle East. Israel does not really know to what degree the Palestinian authorities have a real constituency, because the people of the West Bank themselves do not know either--inasmuch as they cannot debate one another on domestic television or campaign on the streets for alternate policies. Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat assumed power by Western fiat; when he finally was allowed to hold real and periodic elections in his homeland, he simply perpetuated autocracy--as corrupt as it is brutal.
By the same token, we are surprised at the duplicity of the Gulf States in defusing internal dissent by redirecting it against Americans, forgetting that such is the way of all dictators, who, should they lose office, do not face the golden years of Jimmy Carter's busy house-building or Bill Clinton's self-absorbed angst. Either they dodge the mob's bullets or scurry to a fortified compound on the French coast a day ahead of the posse. The royal family of Saudi Arabia cannot act out of principle because no principle other than force put and keeps them in power. All the official jets, snazzy embassies, and expensive press agents cannot hide that these illegitimate rulers are not in the political sense Western at all.
How sad that intellectuals of the Arab world--themselves only given freedom when they emigrate to the United States or Europe--profess support for democratic reform from Berkeley or Cambridge but secretly fear that, back home, truly free elections would usher in folk like the Iranian imams, who, in the manner of the Nazis in 1933, would thereupon destroy the very machinery that elected them. The fact is that democracy does not spring fully formed from the head of Zeus but rather is an epiphenomenon--the formal icing on a preexisting cake of egalitarianism, economic opportunity, religious tolerance, and constant self-criticism. The former cannot appear in the Muslim world until gallant men and women insist upon the latter--and therein demolish the antidemocratic and medieval forces of tribalism, authoritarian traditionalism, and Islamic fundamentalism.
How much easier for non-voters of the Arab world to vent frustration at the West, as if, in some Machiavellian plot, a democratic America, Israel, and Europe have conspired to prevent Muslims from adopting the Western invention of democracy! Democracy is hardly a Western secret to be closely guarded and kept from the mujaheddin. Islam is welcome to it, with the blessing and subsidy of the West. Yes, we must promote democracy abroad in the Muslim world; but only they, not we, can ensure its success.
The catastrophe of the Muslim world is also explicable in its failure to grasp the nature of Western success, which springs neither from luck nor resources, genes nor geography. Like third-world Marxists of the 1960s, who put blame for their own self-inflicted misery upon corporations, colonialism, and racism--anything other than the absence of real markets and a free society-- the Islamic intelligentsia recognizes the Muslim world's inferiority vis-à-vis the West, but it then seeks to fault others for its own self-created fiasco. Government spokesmen in the Middle East should ignore the nonsense of the cultural relativists and discredited Marxists and have the courage to say that they are poor because their populations are nearly half illiterate, that their governments are not free, that their economies are not open, and that their fundamentalists impede scientific inquiry, unpopular expression, and cultural exchange.
Tragically, the immediate prospects for improvement are dismal, inasmuch as the war against terrorism has further isolated the Middle East. Travel, foreign education, and academic exchanges--the only sources of future hope for the Arab world--have screeched to a halt. All the conferences in Cairo about Western bias and media distortion cannot hide this self-inflicted catastrophe--and the growing ostracism and suspicion of Middle Easterners in the West.
But blaming the West, and Israel, for the unendurable reality is easier for millions of Muslims than admitting the truth. Billions of barrels of oil, large populations, the Suez Canal, the fertility of the Nile, Tigris, and Euphrates valleys, invaluable geopolitical locations, and a host of other natural advantages that helped create wealthy civilizations in the past now yield an excess of misery, rather than the riches of resource-poor Hong Kong or Switzerland. How could it be otherwise, when it takes bribes and decades to obtain a building permit in Cairo; when habeas corpus is a cruel joke in Baghdad; and when Saudi Arabia turns out more graduates in Islamic studies than in medicine or engineering?
To tackle illiteracy, gratuitous state-sanctioned killing, and the economic sclerosis that comes from corruption and state control would require the courage and self-examination of Eastern Europe, Russia, South America, even of China. Instead, wedded to the old bromides that the West causes their misery, that fundamentalist Islam and crackpot mullahs have had no role in their disasters, that the subjugation of women is a "different" rather than a foul (and economically foolish) custom, Muslim intellectuals have railed since the terrorist attacks of September 11 about the creation of Israel half a century ago, and they have sat either silent or amused while the mob in their streets chants in praise of a mass murderer. Meanwhile millions of Muslims tragically stay sick and hungry in silence.
Has the Muslim world gone mad in its threats and ultimatums? Throughout this war against terrorism, Muslims have saturated us with overt and with insidious warnings. If America retaliated to the mass murder of its citizens, the Arab world would turn on us; if we bombed during Ramadan, we would incur lasting hatred; if we continued in our mission to avenge our dead, not an American would be safe in the Middle East. More disturbing even than the screaming street demonstrations have been the polite admonitions of corrupt grandees like Crown Prince Abdallah of Saudi Arabia or editor Abdul Rahman al Rashed of Saudi Arabia's state-owned Al Sharq al Awsat. Don't they see the impotence and absurdity of their veiled threats, backed neither by military force nor cultural dynamism? Don't they realize that nothing is more fatal to the security of a state than the divide between what it threatens and what it can deliver?
There is an abyss between such rhetoric and the world we actually live in, an abyss called power. Out of politeness, we needn't crow over the relative military capability of 1 billion Muslims and 300 million Americans; but we should remember that the lethal, 2,500-year Western way of war is the reflection of very different ideas about personal freedom, civic militarism, individuality on the battlefield, military technology, logistics, decisive battle, group discipline, civilian audit, and the dissemination and proliferation of knowledge. . . .
We are militarily strong, and the Arab world abjectly weak, not because of greater courage, superior numbers, higher IQs, more ores, or better weather, but because of our culture. When it comes to war, 1 billion people and the world's oil are not nearly as valuable military assets as MIT, West Point, the U.S. House of Representatives, C-Span, Bill O'Reilly, and the G.I. Bill. Between Xerxes on his peacock throne overlooking Salamis and Saddam Hussein on his balcony reviewing his troops, between the Greeks arguing and debating before they rowed out with Themistocles and the Americans haranguing one another on the eve of the Gulf War, lies a 2,500-year cultural tradition that explains why the rest of the world copies its weapons, uniforms, and military organization from us, not vice versa.
Many Middle Easterners have performed a great media charade throughout this war. They publish newspapers and televise the news, and thereby give the appearance of being modern and Western. But their reporters and anchormen are by no means journalists by Western standards of free and truthful inquiry. Whereas CNN makes a point of talking to the victims of collateral damage in Kabul, al-Jazeera would never interview the mothers of Israeli teenagers blown apart by Palestinian bombs. Nor does any Egyptian or Syrian television station welcome freewheeling debates or Meet the Press–style talk shows permitting criticism of the government or the national religion. Instead, they quibble over their own degrees of anti-Americanism and obfuscate the internal contradictions of Islam. The chief dailies in Algiers, Teheran, and Kuwait City look like Pravda of old. The entire Islamic media is a simulacrum of the West, lacking the life-giving spirit of debate and self-criticism.
As a result, when Americans see a cavalcade of talking Middle Eastern heads nod and blurt out the party line--that Israel is evil, that the United States is naive and misled, that Muslims are victims, that the West may soon have to reckon with Islamic anger--they assume the talk is orchestrated and therefore worth listening to only for what it teaches about how authoritarian governments can coerce and corrupt journalists and intellectuals.
A novelist who writes whatever he pleases anywhere in the Muslim world is more likely to receive a fatwa and a mob at his courtyard than a prize for literary courage, as Naguib Mahfouz and Salman Rushdie have learned. No wonder a code of silence pervades the Islamic world. No wonder, too, that Islam is far more ignorant of us than we of it. And no wonder that the Muslims haven't a clue that, while their current furor is scripted, whipped up, and mercurial, ours is far deeper and more lasting.
Every Western intellectual knows journalist Edward Said's much-hyped theory of "Orientalism," a purely mythical construct of how Western bias has misunderstood and distorted the Eastern "Other." In truth, the real problem is "Westernism"--the fatally erroneous idea in the Middle East that its propaganda-spewing Potemkin television stations give it a genuine understanding of the nature of America, an understanding Middle Easterners believe is deepened by the presence in their midst of a few McDonald's franchises and hired U.S. public-relations firms. That error--which mistakes ignorance for insight--helps explain why Usama bin Ladin so grossly miscalculated the devastating magnitude of our response to September 11. In reality, the most parochial American knows more about the repressive nature of the Gulf States than the most sophisticated and well-traveled sheikh understands about the cultural underpinnings of this country, including the freedom of speech and inquiry that is missing in the Islamic press.
Millions in the Middle East are obsessed with Israel, whether they live in sight of Tel Aviv or thousands of miles away. Their fury doesn't spring solely from genuine dismay over the hundreds of Muslims Israel has killed on the West Bank; after all, Saddam Hussein butchered hundreds of thousands of Shiites, Kurds, and Iranians, while few in Cairo or Damascus said a word. Syria's Assad liquidated perhaps 20,000 in sight of Israel, without a single demonstration in any Arab capital. The murder of some 100,000 Muslims in Algeria and 40,000 in Chechnya in the last decade provoked few intellectuals in the Middle East to call for a pan-Islamic protest. Clearly, the anger derives not from the tragic tally of the fallen but from Islamic rage that Israelis have defeated Muslims on the battlefield repeatedly, decisively, at will, and without modesty.
If Israel were not so successful, free, and haughty--if it were beleaguered and tottering on the verge of ruin--perhaps it would be tolerated. But in a sea of totalitarianism and government-induced poverty, a relatively successful economy and a stable culture arising out of scrub and desert clearly irks its less successful neighbors. Envy, as the historian Thucydides reminds us, is a powerful emotion and has caused not a few wars.
If Israel did not exist, the Arab world, in its current fit of denial, would have to invent something like it to vent its frustrations. That is not to say there may not be legitimate concerns in the struggle over Palestine, but merely that for millions of Muslims the fight over such small real estate stems from a deep psychological wound. It isn't about lebensraum or some actual physical threat. Israel is a constant reminder that it is a nation's culture--not its geography or size or magnitude of its oil reserves--that determines its wealth or freedom. For the Middle East to make peace with Israel would be to declare war on itself, to admit that its own fundamental way of doing business--not the Jews--makes it poor, sick, and weak.
Throughout the Muslim world, myth and ignorance surround U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East. Yes, we give Israel aid, but less than the combined billions that go to the Palestinians and to Egypt, Jordan, and other Muslim countries. And it is one thing to subsidize a democratic and constitutional (if cantankerous) ally but quite another to pay for slander from theocratic or autocratic enemies. Though Israel has its fair share of fundamentalists and fanatics, the country is not the creation of clerics or strongmen but of European emigres, who committed Israel from the start to democracy, free speech, and abundant self-critique.
Far from egging on Israel, the United States actually restrains the Israeli military, whose organization and discipline, along with the sophisticated Israeli arms industry, make it quite capable of annihilating nearly all its bellicose neighbors without American aid. Should the United States withdraw from active participation in the Middle East and let the contestants settle their differences on the battlefield, Israel, not the Arab world, would win. The military record of four previous conflicts does not lie. Arafat should remember who saved him in Lebanon; it was no power in the Middle East that brokered his exodus and parted the waves of Israeli planes and tanks for his safe passage to the desert.
The Muslim world suffers from political amnesia, we now have learned, and so has forgotten not only Arafat's resurrection but also American help to beleaguered Afghanis, terrified Kuwaitis, helpless Kurds and Shiites, starving Somalis, and defenseless Bosnians—direct intervention that has cost the United States much more treasure and lives than mere economic aid for Israel ever did. They forget; but we remember the Palestinians cheering in Nablus hours after thousands of our innocents were incinerated in New York, the hagiographic posters of a mass murderer in the streets of Muslim capitals, and the smug remonstrations of Saudi prince Alwaleed to Mayor Giuliani at Ground Zero.
Saudi Arabian and Kuwaiti Westernized elites find psychological comfort in their people's anti-American rhetoric, not out of real grievance but perhaps as reassurance that their own appetite for all things Western doesn't constitute rejection of their medieval religion or their thirteenth-century caliphate. Their apologists in the United States dissemble when they argue that these Gulf sheikhs are forced to master a doublespeak for foreign consumption, or that they are better than the frightening alternative, or that they are victims of unfair American anger that is ignorant of Wahhabi custom. In their present relationship with the terrorists, these old-fashioned autocrats are neutrals only in the sense that they now play the cagier role of Franco's Spain to Hitler's Germany. They aid and abet our enemies, but never overtly. If the United States prevails, the Saudis can proclaim that they were always with us; should we lose a shooting war with the terrorists, the princes can swear that their prior neutrality really constituted allegiance to radical Islam all along.
In matters of East-West relations, immigration has always been a one-way phenomenon. Thousands flocked to Athens and Rome; few left for Parthia or Numidia unless to colonize or exploit. People sneak into South, not North, Korea--in the same manner that few from Hong Kong once braved gunfire to reach Peking (unless to invest and profit). Few Israeli laborers are going to the West Bank to seek construction jobs. In this vein is the Muslim world's longing for the very soil of America. Even in the crucible of war, we have discovered that our worst critics love us in the concrete as much as they hate us in the abstract.
For all the frothing, it seems that millions of our purported enemies wish to visit, study, or (better yet) live in the United States--and this is true not just of Westernized professors or globe-trotting tycoons but of hijackers, terrorists, the children of the Taliban, the offspring of Iranian mullahs, and the spoiled teenage brats of our Gulf critics. The terrorists visited lap dancers, took out frequent-flier miles, spent hours on the Internet, had cell phones strapped to their hips, and hobnobbed in Las Vegas--parasitic on a culture not their own, fascinated with toys they could not make, and always ashamed that their lusts grew more than they could be satisfied. Until September 11, their ilk had been like fleas on a lazy, plump dog, gnashing their tiny proboscises to gain bloody nourishment or inflict small welts on a distracted host who found them not worth the scratch.
This dual loathing and attraction for things Western is characteristic of the highest echelon of the terrorists themselves, often Western-educated, English-speaking, and hardly poor. Emblematic is the evil genius of [the terrorist network] al-Qaida, the sinister Dr. al-Zawahiri: he grew up in Cairo affluence, his family enmeshed in all the Westernized institutions of Egypt.
Americans find this Middle Eastern cultural schizophrenia maddening, especially in its inability to fathom that all the things that Muslim visitors profess to hate--equality of the sexes, cultural freedom, religious tolerance, egalitarianism, free speech, and secular rationalism--are precisely what give us the material things that they want in the first place. CDs and sexy bare midriffs are the fruits of a society that values freedom, unchecked inquiry, and individual expression more than the dictates of state or church; wild freedom and wild materialism are part of the American character. So bewildered Americans now ask themselves: Why do so many of these anti-Americans, who profess hatred of the West and reverence for the purity of an energized Islam or a fiery Palestine, enroll in Chico State or UCLA instead of madrassas in Pakistan or military academies in Iraq?
The embarrassing answer would explain nearly everything, from [terrorist] bin Ladin to the intifada. Dads and moms who watch al-Jazeera and scream in the street at the Great Satan really would prefer that their children have dollars, an annual CAT scan, a good lawyer, air conditioning, and Levis in American hell than be without toilet paper, suffer from intestinal parasites, deal with the secret police, and squint with uncorrected vision in the Islamic paradise of Cairo, Teheran, and Gaza. Such a fundamental and intolerable paradox in the very core of a man's heart--multiplied millions of times over--is not a healthy thing either for them or for us, as we have learned since September 11.
Most Americans recognize and honor the past achievements of Islamic civilization and the contribution of Middle-Eastern immigrants to the United States and Europe, as well as the traditional hospitality shown visitors to the Muslim world. And so we have long shown patience with those who hate us, and more curiosity than real anger.
But that was then, and this is now. A two-kiloton explosion that incinerated thousands of our citizens--planned by Middle Easterners with the indirect financial support of purportedly allied governments, the applause of millions, and the snickering and smiles of millions more--has had an effect that grows not wanes.
So a neighborly bit of advice for our Islamic friends and their spokesmen abroad: topple your pillars of ignorance and the edifice of your anti-Americanism. Try to seek difficult answers from within to even more difficult questions without. Do not blame others for problems that are largely self-created or seek solutions over here when your answers are mostly at home. Please, think hard about what you are saying and writing about the deaths of thousands of Americans and your relationship with the United States. America has been a friend more often than not to you. But now you are on the verge of turning its people--who create, not follow, government--into an enemy: a very angry and powerful enemy that may be yours for a long, long time to come.
Oil Profits Cause Conflict in the Middle East
The Persian Gulf is a 600-mile-long arm of the Indian Ocean, which separates the Arabian peninsula from Iran. (Since the 1960s some Arab states have referred to the Persian Gulf as the Arabian Gulf, in an attempt to give it a new identity and belittle Iran.) The Gulf is surrounded by Iran, the predominant state in terms of population, and seven Arab countries: Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE and Oman. The Gulf is bounded by the Shatt al-Arab waterway in the north, which forms the frontier between Iran and Iraq, and the Strait of Hormuz in the south, which connects it to the Gulf of Oman and the Indian Ocean. The strait, which is 34 miles wide at its narrowest point, is the choke point of the Gulf: some 30,000 vessels, mostly oil tankers, pass through it each year. The possibility of its closure by Iran has long been a nightmare for Western oil importers and defense planners.
The Gulf states contain some 116 million people, representing many ethnic, religious, linguistic and political communities. A major cleavage pits Arab against Persian. Arabic, a Semitic language, is spoken in Iraq and the countries of the peninsula, whereas Iran has an Aryan heritage, and its main language, Persian (Farsi), is an Indo-European tongue. Persians regard their cultural legacy as richer than that of the Arabs, although their religion, Islam, was founded by an Arab, the Prophet Muhammad.
Muslims (followers of the Islamic religion) are split into two major sects, Sunni and Shiites. The two differ over who was legitimately entitled to lead the Islamic community after the death of Muhammad in A.D. 632. The Sunnis, who predominate, believe that the community should choose its own leader. Shiites, who are a majority in Iran, believe leadership is vested in the family of the Prophet. Sunni Islam has historically been associated with bestowing legitimacy on the power of rulers; Shiite Islam, with opposition, martyrdom and revolt.
The present importance of the Gulf stems from its energy deposits. Sixty-five percent of the world's known oil reserves are located in the Gulf countries, which produce over a third of the world's daily output. (By comparison, North America holds 8.5 percent of the world's reserves.) Saudi Arabia ranks first in reserves, with 259 billion barrels, followed by Iraq (112 billion), the UAE (98 billion), Kuwait (94 billion), and Iran (93 billion). The cost of oil production in the Gulf is the lowest in the world: it currently ranges from fifty cents a barrel in Saudi Arabia to $2 in offshore wells in the UAE. The Gulf is also rich in natural gas, with Iran and Qatar holding the world's second- and third-largest reserves, respectively. . . .
The modern strategic importance of the Gulf dates from the mid-nineteenth century, when three great empires confronted each other there: British India, czarist Russia and Ottoman Turkey. The British established political control over much of the Gulf in the early 1800s and kept it for 150 years. A tradition of outside involvement persists today.
After World War I, the political map of much of the Middle East was redrawn. The Ottoman Empire was replaced by modern nations, including Turkey, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. The small Arab shaikhdoms on the western shore of the Gulf were under British protection until 1971 (in the case of Kuwait, 1961). Iran was never a colony, and for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries Britain competed with Russia for influence there.
The oil revenues that began to accumulate after World War II enabled the Gulf states to modernize, and, by the 1960s and 1970s, to provide generous entitlement programs for their citizens. The state became what political scientists call a "rentier" one: the income from oil accrued directly to the ruler, who provided for his citizens' economic security in return for their political loyalty. This arrangement bought time for the tribal shaikhs who had been in power before the discovery of oil. It also led to the growth of a "rentier mentality" among the citizenry, who felt a sense of entitlement to riches, whether they worked or not.
All of the Gulf states must contend with rapidly rising populations. In 1950, their combined population was estimated to be some 24 million; today, it is around 116 million and is projected to rise to 209 million by the year 2025. In Iran, a population of 35 million at the time of the revolution in 1978 had swollen to 60 million by 1996. The rate of population growth, however, has not been accompanied by an equivalent rise in oil revenues, the main source of government income. Today, the oil monarchies can no longer afford the generous social programs they instituted in wealthier days. Unemployment is now a widespread problem, and millions of jobs must be created in the next 15 years. At the same time that countries cut benefits, they are confronted with demands for more say in government.
The holiday from reality is over in the Gulf monarchies, both politically and economically, according to oil economist Vahan Zanoyan. To survive, the governments must forge a new social contract that allows for greater political participation. The question is whether the rulers are willing to make the changes needed, especially if their monopoly of power is threatened. It is not clear that Gulf monarchies are ready to confront their problems: "Surprisingly little indigenous discussion takes place regarding the future of the area," according to scholar Anwar Gargash of the UAE. "No regionwide consensus or outlook is emerging, and no Gulf perspective is crystallizing regarding the future state of affairs.". . .
The story of the Persian Gulf in the twentieth century is the story of oil--the exploration, discovery and export of petroleum--and the effect this has had on traditional societies. The vast revenues that suddenly accrued to the fortunate Gulf states led to far-reaching economic changes, but on the Arabian peninsula, few political ones. Indeed, the oil revenues, coupled with British support, enabled monarchies, which were overthrown in most other Middle Eastern states after World War II, to survive and thrive in the Gulf.
Oil was first discovered in southwest Iran in 1908. In 1914, on the eve of World War I, the British government, which needed oil for its warships, assumed control of the producers, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. Oil was discovered in commercial quantities in Iraq in the Kurdish region in 1927, in Bahrain in 1932, and in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in 1938. Before World War II, Iran was the leading oil exporter in the Middle East, and its refinery at Abadan was the largest in the world.
Oil operations in a country were usually controlled exclusively by a single company, often a joint venture or partnership. Such an arrangement discouraged competition and prevented overproduction, which would lower prices. Britain initially tried to prevent the Gulf shaikhs from signing agreements with non-British companies, but eventually American firms won concessions in Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. The British refused the United States permission to open any consulates in the area, however, until 1950, when the first one opened in Kuwait.
The most famous petroleum partnership was the Arabian-American Oil Company, known as Aramco, which was granted a concession by King Ibn Saud in 1933. "If the first pillar of the Saudi state has been the Wahhabi religious movement," writes historian J.B. Kelly, "the second has been the Arabian-American Oil Company. . . . The company has served the house of Saud as guide, confidant, tutor, counselor, emissary, advocate, steward and factotum." Aramco aimed to be a model company, not only seeing to the training, health care and housing of its workers, but also building roads, hospitals and water pipelines for the surrounding community. Its expatriate workers were housed in enclaves that resembled suburban America.
After World War II, major changes took place in the oil industry. Iran had long complained that Britain was too stingy in the compensation it paid: in 1950, the oil company paid Iran £16 million in royalties and made £100 million in profits from its Iranian operations. When Aramco agreed in 1950 to share profits with Saudi Arabia on a 50-50 basis, Iran wanted a similar agreement. The (now renamed) Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, however, would not agree to profit sharing. Matters came to a head when Iran's prime minister, Mohammad Mossadeq (1951–53), nationalized the company. For Britain, this was a great humiliation and meant the loss of a key economic asset. Mossadeq's government was overthrown in August 1953 and the shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was restored to power in a countercoup that was organized by U.S. and British intelligence.
Thereafter, although Iran retained sovereignty over its oil, it struck a new agreement with a consortium of oil companies to operate the concession. The British share was reduced to 40 percent and American companies received an equal stake. (It was not until 1973 that Iran took full control of its oil operations.) A major consequence of the Iranian crisis was that companies across the Gulf, especially in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, stepped up production. At the same time new commercial quantities of oil were discovered--in Qatar and Abu Dhabi in 1960, in Oman in 1963, and in Dubai in 1969.
The development of the oil industry set in motion many changes. Between World Wars I and II, it began to open up the Gulf to the outside world at the expense of British control. For the first time, local rulers struck commercial deals with oil companies and gained a secure source of income independent of any British subsidy.
The Gulf area was also becoming more important as an international communications and transportation hub, with British airlines securing landing rights to stop over on the way to India. (Traditional ties with the subcontinent, though, were becoming less important than relations with the greater Arab world.) With increased oil exploration came more pressure to delineate boundaries. This led, after World War II, to the protracted Buraimi oasis dispute between Saudi Arabia (backed by the United States) and Oman and Abu Dhabi (backed by Britain) over boundaries in the southeastern part of the Arabian peninsula, which was believed to contain oil. In 1952, Saudi troops occupied part of the oasis. Arbitration failed, and in 1955 the Saudis were evicted by forces from Abu Dhabi and Oman under British command. Not until 1974 did Saudi Arabia relinquish its claim, in return for a strip of territory giving it access to the Gulf east of Qatar.
Oil proved to be a mixed blessing. It provided salvation to Bahrain in the 1930s, when the economy collapsed along with the pearl industry. In the postwar period, it paid for the rapid modernization of Iran and the Arab monarchies, some of which enjoyed very high per capita incomes. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Arab Gulf states began providing their people free education, health care and housing. But there was also a downside. Even the shah of Iran, in a 1973 interview with the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, was ambivalent about the value of Iran's great resource: "So much has been written about the curse we call oil, and believe me, when you have it, on the one hand it's a blessing but on the other it's a great inconvenience. Because it represents such a danger. The world could blow up on account of this damned oil."
The modernization process, which lasted for centuries in the West, has been compressed into decades in the Gulf countries, putting a great strain on traditional societies. Saudi Arabian novelist Abdelrahman Munif, in the first volume of a monumental trilogy in Arabic entitled Cities of Salt, describes a Bedouin village's tragic encounter with American oil prospectors. The author's theme is that the discovery of oil was a curse: the desire for material gain replaced old values of loyalty, honor and respect for tradition. "The tragedy is not in our having the oil," he said in an interview, "but in the way we use the wealth it has created and in the future awaiting us after it has run out." The availability of huge oil revenues, he believes, corrupted political leaders and turned Saudi Arabia into a repressive state.
Governments of the states created in the Gulf in the twentieth century--Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE--keenly feel the need to create a sense of national identity. Governments of Iraq, for example, have long promoted the idea that ethnic, religious and linguistic differences are irrelevant, since all its citizens are Iraqis. (Some fear that Iraq is now undergoing a process of "retribalization," in which people are returning to primordial loyalties of clan, family and religion.) In the Arabian peninsula, governments have tried to create a historical memory and national symbols to elicit loyalty and reinforce the legitimacy of the rulers. Governments have emphasized their cultural heritage (turath) by carrying out archaeological excavations and building new museums in places such as Doha (Qatar) and Dubai (UAE). The challenge in all the Gulf states has been to reconcile traditional forms of rule with modern forms of political expression.
On the Arabian side of the Gulf, Islam and tribalism have traditionally provided legitimacy to the ruling families. In Saudi Arabia, their close association with Wahhabi Islam has given the Al Saud rulers a status that other Gulf monarchs lack. However, Islam and tribalism, which had previously acted as a check on the rulers, now have been adapted to serve them, according to political scientist F. Gregory Gause III. The rulers have made the clerical establishment dependent upon the state by financing it, something that never happened in Shiite Iran. The tribes are now under effective state control, although the ruler makes a public display of his fidelity to tribal institutions, such as the majlis [a tradition that allows anyone to approach the ruler to seek redress of his problems] and shura [a consultative form of government]. "What most Westerners see as a 'traditional' political culture is in fact a construction of recent decades, in which rulers employ a political language redolent of Islamic and tribal overtones to convince their citizens of the legitimacy of their political system," notes Gause.
Over the past century, the traditional way of life in the Arab Gulf states has been irrevocably changed, due in large measure to the British intervention and the rise of the oil industry. External and internal forces have served to reinforce the power and wealth of one segment of the population, the ruling shaikhs. Because of the way in which the modern states were formed and boundaries arbitrarily delimited, tribal and family loyalties and religious, linguistic and ethnic identities in many cases are more important than country citizenship. These are at the root of many of the present tensions in the region.
Water Scarcity Could Cause Conflict in the Middle East
In the Middle East, water may be more important than either oil or politics. While the area's proven oil reserves are estimated to be sufficient for at least a hundred years, water supplies are already insufficient throughout the region, and competition for them is inevitably going to increase in the years ahead. Already there have been a number of clashes between countries over water, and several political leaders have suggested that future conflicts may well center on access to water, both surface and subsurface sources.
Water is, after all, the most basic of resources, critical to sustainable development in the Middle East and the well-being of the area's population. (The Middle East is defined here as the traditional Southwest Asian countries, including Turkey, Iran, and also Egypt but excluding the other North African countries and the former Soviet republics.)
At the root of the problem of limited water resources is the physical geography of the Middle East, for this region is one of the most arid in the world. Descending air (which can hold more moisture) and prevailing northeast trade winds that blow from a continental interior region to a warmer, more southerly location explain why almost all of the Middle East is dry.
Only Turkey, Iran, and Lebanon have adequate rainfall for their needs because of their more northern locations and/or mountainous topography, which intercept rain- and snow-bearing westerly winds in winter. Every other country has at least part of its territory vulnerable to water shortages or is dependent on an exogenous water source (one originating outside its boundaries).
About 35 percent of the Middle East's annual renewable water resources is provided by exogenous rivers. Certainly, the two major river systems that bring water into the region, the Nile to Sudan and Egypt, and the Tigris-Euphrates primarily to Syria and Iraq, both have sources outside the arid zone--the Nile in the heart of East Africa (the White Nile) and especially in Ethiopia (the Blue Nile), and the Tigris and Euphrates in Turkey (and to a limited extent in Iran). Other rivers, such as the Jordan, Yarmuk, Orontes, and Baniyas, are too small to be of much significance, yet in the case of the Jordan- Yarmuk are large enough to quarrel over.
Droughts are common and a natural part of the climate. In addition, rainfall is seasonal. Thus the problem concerns not only the total volume of water available but also its seasonality--the shortage of water in the dry, hot summers. In addition, most of the Middle East's rainfall is very irregular, localized, and unpredictable. Furthermore, the region suffers from high evaporation and evapotranspiration rates, a factor that diminishes the value of the water that is available.
In the past, people adapted to the seasonality of the rainfall and the periodic droughts and were able to produce enough food to meet local demand. They devised a variety of ingenious ways to store water and meet the needs of both rural and urban populations. But such measures have become inadequate since the middle of the twentieth century and a new balance has to be found among competing needs for water.
Escalation of the conflict over water issues in the Middle East results from the confluence of a number of factors, especially rapidly growing populations, economic development and increasing standards of living, technological developments, political fragmentation, and poor water management. The inadequacy and relative ineffectiveness of international water laws as a means of settling and regulating freshwater issues as well as the lack of any real enforcement mechanisms compound the problem.
Underlying and exacerbating the conflict over water resources is the enormous increase in population. From somewhere around 20 million in 1750, the Middle Eastern population tripled to around 60 million by 1950, then quintupled to 301 million by 1999. It is estimated that at present rates of growth, the population will double again in less than 35 years. As populations grow, per capita availability of water decreases.
Immigration has also been a significant part of the problem, particularly in the Jordan-Yarmuk watershed area, as hundreds of thousands of Jews from all over the world have moved to Israel since its establishment in 1948 and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have relocated to Jordan from Kuwait in the wake of the Gulf War. If an independent Palestinian state comes into being, water shortages could be compounded by up to 2.2 million Palestinians currently registered worldwide as refugees who could return and settle there.
Rapid economic development and rising standards of living, spurred on by the oil boom, have raised the demand for water both by industry and domestic users. Urbanization also adds to the strain: Over half the population of the Middle East now lives in urban areas where populations consume ten to twelve times as much water per capita as village dwellers.
Technological developments now enable people to alter their environments in unprecedented ways. People's direct dependence on the natural seasons and cyclical availability of water has been lessened by their ability to build huge dams and create vast reservoirs where increased evaporation occurs; to construct large irrigation schemes, where much water is wasted through inefficient watering methods; to extract large quantities of shallow groundwater, resulting in lowered water tables; and to damage or destroy rivers and aquifers by polluting them, often irrevocably.
Political fragmentation poses another problem. Whereas in times past empires covered the entire area and dampened conflict among the different peoples within them, the end of World War I saw the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, which had controlled much of the Middle East for over five hundred years. Similarly, British colonialism and administration of most of the Nile basin reduced friction over water until the 1950s. With the creation of independent states and increasing ethnic consciousness, growing disparities and rivalries have developed among the very diverse populations in the region: Arabs, Turks, Iranians, Kurds, Ethiopians, and Israelis, to name just the main protagonists. All have become more competitive and nationalistic.
Overuse and pollution of rivers and shared aquifers (underground water-bearing formations) are a source of growing tension. Water was one of the underlying causes of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and continues to be a stumbling block search for peace. Forty percent of Israel's water, for example, is obtained from aquifers beneath the WestBank and Gaza. Water was a major rallying cry both for the Palestinian Intifada in the occupied territories and for conservative parties in Israel.
Poor water management exacerbates the problems of both water quantity and quality. Great quantities of water are lost through inefficient irrigation systems such as flood irrigation of fields, unlined or uncovered canals, and evaporation from reservoirs behind dams. Pollution from agriculture, including fertilizer and pesticide runoff as well as increased salts, added to increasing amounts of industrial and toxic wastes and urban pollutants, combine to lower the quality of water for countries downstream (called downstream riparians), increase their costs, and provoke dissatisfaction and frustration, again creating irritations that can lead to conflict.
Existing international water laws are underdeveloped and inadequate and in some respects do not seem geared to the problems of arid developing countries, having been developed in the temperate and better watered areas of Europe and North America. Various legal principles exist, but there are no legally binding international obligations for countries to share water resources. Agreements must depend upon the mutual goodwill of co-riparians (the countries bordering a specific river) in any particular drainage basin. The likelihood of conflict or cooperation depends very much upon a number of geopolitical factors. These include the relative positions of the co-riparians within the drainage basin, the degree of their national interest in the problem, and the power available to them both externally and internally to pursue their policies.
Although there are many international rivers and several important shared aquifers in the Middle East, and all have potential for water disputes, the potential for the greatest conflicts occurs in the three major international river basins: the Tigris-Euphrates, the Nile, and the Jordan-Yarmuk.
In the case of the Tigris-Euphrates there are several fundamental issues. Turkey is the source area for more than 70 percent of the united Tigris- Euphrates flow and owns large portions of the drainage basins of the two rivers. It also has the upstream position and so the opportunity to use the waters of the Tigris-Euphrates as it pleases. Indeed, the creation of Turkey's Southeast Anatolia Development Project (GAP) is evidence of its felt rights. This very ambitious plan is to build twenty-two dams on the Euphrates to increase irrigation and electricity generation and to bring greater prosperity to a heretofore neglected Kurdish region of the country. Turkey argues that the GAP project will actually benefit all three riparian countries, Syria and Iraq as well as Turkey, as it will reduce damage from floods and even out the river's flow, storing excess water from the wet season and snowmelt so it can be used in the dry summer season and soften the impact of droughts.
Inevitably, however, as more of the Euphrates water is withdrawn and used in Turkey, less will be available for downstream riparians. Indeed, the GAP project, if completed, is expected to reduce the flow of the Euphrates by 30 to 50 percent within the next fifty years. Furthermore, the water will be of lower quality, as increased amounts of salts, fertilizers, pesticides, and other pollutants enter the river after having been used for irrigation in Turkey.
Syria depends on the Euphrates for over half its water supply and has a population growing at 2.8 percent a year, with almost no effort being made to reduce that high rate of growth. It also plans to expand its irrigation projects. Iraq is even more dependent than Syria on the waters of the Euphrates and Tigris and claims historic rights to the water, but its position as the lowest riparian state renders it vulnerable to decreased water supply from both Turkey and Syria. A 1987 protocol in which Turkey promised 500 cubic meters per second at its border with Syria has not been solidified into a firm agreement or treaty, nor has Syria's pledge to deliver 290 cubic meters per second to Iraq, an amount which is only about half of what Iraq claims (570 cubic meters per second) and is clearly far below its needs. Iraq's population is expected to grow from 22.5 million in 1999 to around 35 million in 2010. The only ameliorating fact here is that Iraq can compensate for lack of water in the Euphrates by taking water from the Tigris, which at present is underutilized.
A related problem is the current dispute over the actual size of the annual flow of the Euphrates. Data on average discharge vary enormously. In addition, Syria's claims that Turkey is deliberately reducing the flow of the Euphrates are countered by Turkey's claim that the region suffers from periodic droughts.
The Nile catchment is shared by ten countries, but the main disputes over water so far involve just the three giants of Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt. Of the three, Egypt faces the most obvious water crisis, and the situation is becoming more severe each year. Its population of about 67 million is growing annually by more than 1 million. Egypt is almost totally dependent on the Nile (while contributing virtually nothing to it) and also claims that prior usage entitles it to a disproportionate share of the river's waters. With over 95 percent of agricultural production from irrigated land, Egypt needs to expand its agricultural land and reduce the saltwater intrusion of the Mediterranean into the Nile delta, goals threatened by growing water shortages.
Since about 85 percent of the river's flow into Egypt originates on the Ethiopian plateau, Egypt is most concerned about its relationship with Ethiopia. It has repeatedly warned Ethiopia not to take any steps that would affect the Blue Nile discharges. On several occasions, however, Ethiopia has claimed that it reserves its sovereign right to use Blue Nile and Sobat River water for the benefit of its own population (increasing at 2.5 percent a year). Indeed, it has extensive plans to develop about fifty irrigation projects and expand its hydroelectric generation potential as well. Experts believe it is highly possible that Egypt may experience a modest reduction in the amount of Nile water available to it, as Ethiopia claims a larger share of the Nile headwaters in the future.
Egypt is also concerned about its immediate upstream neighbor, Sudan. Although Sudan is incapable of expanding its water use much at present, racked as it is by civil war, economic recession, and a shortage of foreign investment, that situation could well change. Sudan has the potential to become the breadbasket of the Middle East, but that would be possible only with increased use of Nile water. Since 1929 the two countries have had an agreement allocating the Nile waters. The 1929 allocation was adjusted, however, in 1959, by an agreement that gave Sudan more water, reducing Egypt's relative share from 12:1 to 3:1.
What will happen when Ethiopia and Sudan begin demanding more of the Nile's water? Will Egypt accept the Helsinki and International Law Commission rules that irrefutably entitle Ethiopia and Sudan to a larger portion of Nile water? Will Egypt try to change those rules to give greater weight to the principle of prior use? Or will it be tempted to use its position as the most powerful nation in the Nile basin to assure its present allocation, even if this means the use of military force and international conflict?
It is in the Jordan-Yarmuk basin that tensions have run the highest, and it is in the Jordan River basin, perhaps more than any other, that water has become "a highly symbolic, contagious, aggregated, intense, salient, complicated zero-sum power-and-prestige-packed crisis issue, highly prone to conflict and extremely difficult to resolve" [as stated by political scientists Frederick Frey and Thomas Naff]. All the countries and territories in and around the Jordan River watershed--Israel, Syria, Jordan, and the West Bank--are currently using between 95 percent and more than 100 percent of their annual renewable freshwater supply. Shortfalls have been made up through the overpumping of limited groundwater. Water tables are being lowered at alarming rates. It is obvious that all the surface water and groundwater resources are thus overstretched and overutilized. Jordan's situation is perhaps the most serious, with only 5 percent of its land area receiving sufficient rainfall to support cultivation. Although less than 10 percent of its agricultural land is irrigated at present, irrigation in the Jordan valley consumes about 65 percent of the country's total utilizable surface water.
Scarce water resources have either precipitated or exacerbated much of the recent political conflict in the Jordan River basin. Indeed, the Jordan basin has been described as "having witnessed more severe international conflict over water than any other river system in the Middle East . . . and [it] . . . remains by far the most likely flashpoint for the future."
For Syria, Jordan, and Israel, the proportion of water derived from international sources is very high. Over 90 percent of Syria's water resources are shared with its neighbors, Turkey, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, and Jordan. Jordan gets more than 36 percent of its water from sources shared with Syria, the West Bank, and Israel. And more than half of Israel's water resources are shared with Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and the Palestinians. The economies and societies of the countries in the basin of the Jordan-Yarmuk are very vulnerable to any restrictions in their water supplies; hence, the situation is highly volatile.
Water conflicts among the protagonists have been long-standing, although the situation has worsened in recent years. Both overt and covert conflict has occurred over the division of the Jordan-Yarmuk waters, as both Israel and the Arab countries have tried to divert water: Israel through its National Water Carrier to expand agriculture in the Negev; and the Arabs through their attempts to divert water from the Jordan basin to Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. Disagreement over water was a major contributing cause of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Through its victory Israel enhanced its water resources by capturing the Golan Heights and the West Bank aquifer. These captured sources supply as much as 25 percent of Israel's total water needs but have led to charges that Israel is stealing Arab water. On the West Bank, Israeli authorities have prevented the Palestinians from digging new wells or even finding alternative sources of water to compensate for water lost as a result of withdrawals by Jewish settlements. The disparity between the water allocations to Jewish and Arab settlements on the West Bank is enormous: The average aggregate per capita consumption for the Jewish settlements ranges between 90 and 120 cubic meters, whereas for Arab settlements the consumption is only 25–35 cubic meters per capita. . . .
Experts disagree on the likelihood for future conflict over water. Some argue that more water conflicts are inevitable because of the combination and synergistic effect of the causes already discussed: growing water scarcity, increasing populations, rising standards of living, and higher consumption levels. Many rivers and aquifers in the region are shared, and the lack of adequate treaties and international laws, added to the absence of adequate enforce ment mechanisms, increases the likelihood of confrontation. There has also been a history of hostility among some of the countries and a growing nationalistic self-awareness of the differences among the varied peoples in the Middle East. One could suggest, perhaps a bit cynically, that countries "need" enemies to deflect attention from internal divisions, political corruption, and economic hardships and to help unify or integrate the population. Some even contend that countries also need to justify their military forces and keep them busy.
Others argue, however, that future water conflicts are not likely for a number of substantial reasons. Cooperation is cheaper than conflict. As one person put it: "Why go to war over water, when for the price of one week's fighting you could build five desalination plants?" There is considerable international pressure to avoid war over water, partly because it could escalate into war over other, even more intractable, issues. In addition, a number of external geopolitical forces are indirectly exerting pressure for peaceful cooperation on water allocation issues, such as the end of the Cold War manipulation of states in the Middle East, progress toward a peace between Israel and its neighbors, and Turkey's goal of entering the European Union. The fact that in each river basin there is one stronger military power (Turkey, Egypt, and Israel) further deters conflict. Lack of capital will probably delay and may even prohibit development of some water-using projects. Moreover, if the solutions suggested earlier are implemented, conflict will be less likely.
Furthermore, states have it in their power actually to decide to treat water use as a vehicle for cooperation. Throughout the years of hostilities in the Middle East, water issues have actually been the subject of occasional secret talks and even some negotiated agreements between the states in the region. In peace talks, cooperation on regional water planning or technology might actually help provide momentum toward negotiated political settlement. According to Frederick Frey and Thomas Naff, "Precisely because it is essential to life and so highly charged, water can--perhaps even tends to--produce cooperation even in the absence of trust between concerned actors."
In any case, water is only one of many factors at work in the Middle East-- certainly an important one but only one. Israel's settlements on the West Bank and its occupation of the Golan Heights, radical groups within not only the Palestinian population and Israel but the Kurds and other disadvantaged groups, irredentist pressures, economic pressures--these and many other factors could produce bitter conflict and lead to water's use either as a weapon or as an excuse for hostility.
Much depends on leadership in the region, including the ability of governments to control radical or conservative elements wanting to exploit water issues; obtain capital for the development of industry (which will take some pressure off agriculture); obtain secure food sources from outside the area; reduce population growth; educate the public on water issues, develop an ethos of conservation, and change water pricing systems; and finally, promote cooperation and encourage the sharing of technology, data, and research. One has to hope that the benefits of cooperation in the development of river basins and the rule of law will be seen to outweigh the costs of conflict.
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