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MIDDLE EAST

The Men Who Undid the Peace

October 22, 2000|Henri J. Barkey | Henri J. Barkey, a professor of international relations at Lehigh University, served on the State Department's policy planning staff from 1998-2000

BETHLEHEM, PA. — Amid the disheartening images and stories coming from the Middle East, the truce agreement achieved at Sharm el Sheik, Egypt, was a welcome development. But a cessation of hostilities will not make up for the fundamental change that has taken place in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship.

Yes, these two peoples, as the old adage goes, are destined to live together and make compromises. But the old assumption that the Palestinian state would come into existence as a result of a negotiated outcome has given way to a new one: the Palestinian state is likely to be born out of violence. Therefore, it is also likely to be revanchist and not at peace with Israel.

The new Palestinian state will be at the head of a new regional effort aimed at isolating Israel. Having concluded that the Palestinians and, for that matter, the rest of the Arab world will never agree to a real peace, the Israelis will turn their backs completely on the region. They will rely on their military superiority to extract revenge whenever they feel it is necessary.

This is an ominous development for the Middle East and U.S. interests there. It means that the region will remain unstable and prone to bouts of interstate violence. Moreover, it will put an end to economic and political reform that has begun in the Arab world. Oligarchs will continue to rule and deflect internal criticism onto the external enemy, Israel. As a result, the Middle East will remain impervious to the winds of pluralism. For many leaders in the region, globalization is a fad that they hope will soon disappear. Already, the Middle East, with the exception of Israel, lags behind almost every region of the world in integrating with world markets and attracting foreign investment. The absence of change will, in the long run, contribute to greater disillusionment and instability.

To avert this development, one needs to understand what went wrong. There is plenty of blame to go around, but the two principal culprits are Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's predecessor.

Netanyahu deserves blame because he debased the currency of the peace process. In the name of safeguarding security, he forswore the principles that the Oslo agreement had implied and that Yitzhak Rabin, the assassinated former prime minister, had understood so well: that Israel could--and would--not be maintaining its domination over a large Palestinian popu lation, which had come into its own after the intifada. Netanyahu dallied, wasted time and strengthened Jewish settlements, but, more important, he conveyed the unmistakable message that he was not really interested in the Palestinians or their ambitions. Hence, he contributed directly to the disillusionment of the average Palestinian. He squandered the precious capital that Rabin had put together.

Arafat, by contrast, refused to transform himself and his movement into a state-building enterprise. He was more interested in crisscrossing the globe in pursuit of support for this or than tactical gain. Ironically, as he professed his desire for a Palestinian state, he failed dismally in building the requisite institutions to sustain it. Instead of institutions, he relied on money, money donated to him and the Palestinians, with the best of intentions, by Western countries.

Just like many authoritarian Arab leaders, Arafat established his rule on the back of an elaborate security apparatus instead of becoming a leader capable of inspiring a much-beleaguered Palestinian population to build the new Palestine, brick by brick. All the while, he imagined he could rely on his secret weapon: the power of the street and a new intifada. He should have remembered that the original intifada was not controlled by him; neither is the current one.

Arafat is much weaker today than he has ever been, but probably stronger than he will be tomorrow and the day after. His ability to stop rioting in the street will depend largely on the kind of deals he makes with diverse group leaders. Moreover, the violence in Gaza and in the West Bank has accelerated the plans of the Iranian-sponsored Lebanese Hezbollah to convert the Palestinian cause into a massive anti-peace and violent movement. Longtime Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah has been quite open about his objectives: With Iran's blessing and support, he was preparing the painstaking process of building a Palestinian counterpart. The recent bloodletting may have just signed him the first thousand volunteers.

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