Hamid Alkifaey
Bitterlemons (Opinion)
May 5, 2011 - 12:00am

One could reasonably argue that the golden opportunity for peace in the Middle East was blown away when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated on November 4, 1995. He was the only Israeli leader capable of making peace with the Palestinians, and was about to do so had it not been for the bullets of Yigal Amir, the rightwing religious zealot who believed in the "winner takes all" principle.

One could also claim that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its world-wide ramifications are responsible for agitating religious extremism in the Muslim world as a whole, and among Palestinians in particular. Prior to 1987, there was hardly any Islamic factor in Palestinian resistance. The Hamas and Islamic Jihad groups were established after the 1987 intifada. From this we deduce that extremism on the Israeli side led to the same on the Palestinian side, and consequently in other Muslim countries, which manifests in popular opposition to traditional and despotic regimes.

The Arab world is currently going through a social and political revolution that has so far claimed two "entrenched" regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. At least three other regimes in the region are fighting for their lives, and are not expected to survive. There will soon be different styles of government in Libya, Yemen and Syria. This much is certain.

Will there be a different policy towards Israel? Certainly. But this will take time to take shape, since there are more pressing national priorities, such as political and economic reforms. Israel has long branded the Arab world as tribal and undemocratic, in order to brand itself the only democracy in the Middle East. Well, soon enough it won't be. Many of its neighbors will soon join the democratic world as demands for democracy grow. Democracy will mean more development, prosperity and people's power. It means more popular participation in decision-making and awareness of the possibilities of the nation and what it can and cannot do. It may not mean more hostility towards Israel if the latter knows how to deal with it. But there will be tension if Israel continues to follow extreme policies, which it will under the current leadership of Binyamin Netanyahu.

The Palestinians must achieve their right to establish their own state on their land. This right has been recognized by almost everyone except a minority of extremists in Israel, led by Netanyahu. Free and democratic Arab countries won't shrink from supporting this Palestinian right under any circumstances. Muslims will not give up on East Jerusalem, either. Arab regimes have been weak in the past. Democracy will strengthen them, but also add reason to Arab governance. Most Arabs have accepted Israel's right to exist, and accepted United Nations resolutions 242 and 338, but Israeli intransigence is not helping them formulate a unified position.

Democratic Egypt won't be a threat to Israel as the Egyptian military, which will continue to be highly influential in Egypt's politics in the foreseeable future, will not risk another war with Israel. Egyptians under a democratic regime will be seeking better living standards, better laws to govern the country and more rights as citizens. They won't be pressing their government to fight Israel, on the contrary, they want a stable economy where things will be better for future generations. But Israel may aggravate the situation by electing extremists and following extreme policies. This will strengthen the hands of the hawks in the Arab world. Moderate Israel under reasonable and realistic leaders should have nothing to fear from Egypt, with which it has an enduring peace treaty.

The situation with Syria may not be exactly the same, however, especially when the two countries are still officially in a state of war. The regime of Bashar al-Assad, and his father before him, would have never started a war with Israel unilaterally. It also suited them not to have a peace treaty. Any new Syrian leader is not likely (for a considerable period of time) to initiate a move towards a peace agreement with Israel as this will weaken his position domestically. Nor will he launch a war, however, since such a war will not result in victory. A democratic regime in Syria, or any other Arab country for that matter, will need a good ten years to build democratic institutions and stabilize a modern market economy needed in any democracy. So, war won't be on the agenda for the foreseeable future.

Prosperity increases the public's stake in a stable economy, and this will make people want to compromise to make the country more prosperous and stable. However, everything will depend on how prepared the free world is to help new democracies in the Middle East survive and prosper. Small Islamic groups, organized and armed with religious zeal, could hijack power from the moderates; this would lead to a disaster for the whole region. Therefore, it is imperative for the free world, Israel included, not to leave matters to chance. A proactive stance is needed to nurture democracy and help moderate forces organize themselves in order to govern the region.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017