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UNREST IN THE MIDDLE EAST

The Power Of Rage

Demand for Change Roils Arab World

October 15, 2000|Robin Wright | Robin Wright, author of "The Last Great Revolution: Turmoil and Transformation in Iran" and "Sacred Rage: The Wrath of Militant Islam," is chief diplomatic correspondent for The Times

WASHINGTON — The danger in the latest Middle East crisis is not only the cessation of peace talks, the loss of dozens of lives and increasing the volatility of the world's most volatile region. It is also that the tensions, frustrations and anger that sparked the Al Aqsa uprising may end up destabilizing a region that has held out the longest against peace and political change.

The first and most immediate effect of the Israeli-Palestinian clashes is that a Palestinian state may now be born not as a result of negotiations--in the spirit of hope and reconciliation and coexistence--but of the most intense violence since Israel was founded a half century ago--in an atmosphere of animosity and despair. That will set the tone and framework for all that follows, even if a dialogue resumes.

The most profound effect, however, is more likely to be in the Arab world, which has long resisted the democratic tide. The new uprising comes amid increasingly visible anger in the normally tranquil streets of Morocco, Bahrain, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Yemen and other Arab states. It fosters a new momentum--and the kind of dynamic that inspires the hatred behind last week's attack on the USS Cole and other extremist violence extending well beyond the central players in the Middle East drama.

The spark is not only the deaths of Palestinians as young as 9 years old. Arabs are also angry at their own plight: the absence of individual rights, political participation, economic opportunity and, in varying degrees, the abuses and misuses of power by their own governments.

The issues behind the Palestinian cause--the broader quest for freedom and self-determination--are a microcosm. For the wider Arab world, the current crisis offers a pretext to vent grievances otherwise barred or banned at home.

The timing is interesting. Viewed from the prism of history, it's no accident that the uprising overlapped with the revolt in Yugoslavia, where hundreds of thousands turned out on the streets of Belgrade to oust Europe's last dictator, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

In a similar vein, Palestinians took to the streets in part because attempts at negotiating peaceful change haven't delivered. Neither have their own leaders. So they've taken action into their own hands.

Palestinians are not alone in their aspirations. After a decade of empowerment spreading from the black townships of South Africa to the barrios of Chile and the farthest outposts of Siberia, and now Yugoslavia, Arabs increasingly feel that they, too, deserve basic rights. Growing numbers are frustrated and angry that they are being excluded from the process of change.

In between intense policy deliberations and long hours on the phone, a senior U.S. official immersed in the crisis reflected wearily last week, "There's a very scared group of Arab leaders out there who see the streets moving beyond their control. And they sure don't like what they saw in Belgrade."

The initiative is clearly with those on the streets, not in the Arab world's princely or presidential palaces. Indeed, the call for the first full Arab League summit in a decade--this time including Iraq--is as much a response to the unrest in their own countries as to Palestinian-Israeli clashes.

"Egypt got out front and called for a summit as a way of showing the Arab street that something is happening," the U.S. official said.

Arab leaders elsewhere have also been scrambling. Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah, who has been running the kingdom for five years yet remains a reticent public speaker, proclaimed last week, "Nobody should think that Saudi Arabia and the whole Arab and Islamic nation would just watch with their hands tied." Jordan's King Abdullah II rolled up his sleeves last week to donate blood for the Palestinian cause.

The anger on Arab streets even had a ripple effect on U.S. diplomacy. It led the United States, reluctantly, to allow passage of a United Nations resolution condemning Israel for using excessive force against Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. U.S. officials conceded that they feared the reaction in the Arab world if the U.S. had vetoed it. Instead, the United States abstained.

A second force is also at play. The Al Aqsa uprising comes five months after Israel succumbed to steady pressure from Hezbollah and withdrew from southern Lebanon, ending its 22-year occupation.

In a conflict spanning more than a half century, it was the first time Arabs had forced a withdrawal without concessions, without a peace treaty, without international mediation. They won despite far inferior weapons and training. They won because of a commitment inspired by an Islamic identity.

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