"New" Middle East or Old
A briefing by Samuel Lewis
April 16, 1996
Does recent violence in northern Israel and southern Lebanon indicate a return of the "old" Middle East? Or does the remarkable anti-terrorist statement issued by the gathering of world leaders at Sharm el-Sheikh a few weeks ago, a sign of the "new" Middle East, better represent the current situation? Samuel Lewis, former U.S. ambassador to Israel, explored the collision of these two Middle Easts at a recent event in the Morris Sidewater Lecture Series.
Parallels to Other Cases of Change. One finds two worlds coexisting whenever a sea change takes place in a country or a region. It took over a century for the transformation from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance; and a similar, though more rapid, process is now underway in the former Soviet Union. In the Middle East, some say the peace process is irreversible, others consider it a mere illusion. They may both be right, at least partially.
Evidence of the New Middle East. Ambassador Lewis touched on four indications of the "new" Middle East, and what it has achieved for Israel.
Normalization. This has two facets: diplomatic and economic.
* Diplomacy: Since the signing of the Israel-PLO declaration of principles on the White House lawn in September 1993, the Israeli diplomatic position around the world has "burst into bloom." Israel now has relations with over 160 countries and the number of resident ambassadors in Israel is approximately 80, up greatly from before. Additionally, Israel is now almost a fully participating member of the United Nations after many years of ostracism.
* Economics: Israel's ability to penetrate the markets of dozens of countries in Asia and elsewhere has been extraordinary in the last two to three years. Much of the stimulus that presently makes the Israeli economy so robust comes from exports to nations that formerly would not do business with Israel. Trade within the region is especially important as it reduces the "poison" in the political process that leads to fundamentalist Islam.
Political arrangements. Getting Israeli soldiers out of Gaza and beginning to get them out of the West Bank is a major achievement. While the interim arrangements for Palestinian autonomy are clearly not long-term satisfactory arrangements for either side, they are an important step to the final-status agreements that lie ahead. Additionally, the joint Israeli-Palestinian patrols in the West Bank and Gaza have been cordial, professional, and successful. This suggests that despite past suspicions and fears, these two peoples may be able to work together.
Coexistence. Out of the media glare, Palestinians and Israelis are proving that peaceful coexistence can and does happen. This is exemplified by one remarkable village, Neve Shalom_the "Hill of Peace"_where Arab and Jewish families truly share a common space. Although this village cannot be widely replicated, it demonstrates that Palestinians and Israelis are "beginning to strip away the image of the devil from each other."
Peace treaties and negotiations. The Jordan-Israel peace treaty has been successful in many respects. In addition, new arrangements with Turkey have just been announced. Finally, there have been serious face-to-face explorations of the key issues that divide Israel and Syria.
Evidence of Old Middle East. There are plenty of indications in the other direction, too:
Terrorism. The Hamas and Islamic Jihad terror organizations have shown enormous capacity to inflict pain and suffering and to demonstrate the irreconcilability of their view of the future with the "new" Middle East.
Yasir Arafat. Arafat is a leader "with whom you wouldn't choose to make peace." He is determined to be the leader of all Palestinians, whatever their views, and uses every method, from political games to terror tactics, to achieve that end.
The Rabin assassination. Killings of this sort, by Jews or by Arabs, will likely remain a prominent weapon for many decades to come.
Egypt. Uncomfortable with Israel's growing strength, and worried about losing its regional leadership role, Egypt is "continually finding ways of sticking pins into the Israeli balloon." For example, Egypt keeps the nuclear issue uselessly, but provocatively, before the region.
Syria. While both Syrian president Hafiz al-Asad and Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres "see real advantages to making a peace treaty and understand roughly what the price is going to be," that price may be too high for Syria. At present, Asad doesn't feel he needs a treaty badly enough to take the risks necessary to achieve it.
The Balance Sheet. "Is the 'old' Middle East, in the wake of recent bombs and strikes into Lebanon again surmounting the tender shoots of the 'new'?" In Ambassador Lewis's judgment, the region as a whole has "passed over the mountaintop." The fact that Arafat has acquired a great stake in the peace process is a good sign. Cooperative projects between Egypt and Israel are beginning to come to fruition. Perhaps most important, "the normal acceptance that Israel is part of the region and is best dealt with as a state . . . is irreversible." Therefore, despite the number of "valleys and peaks ahead before you get to the ocean," the "new" Middle East is gradually overcoming the "old."
This summary was prepared by Marc Frey, an intern at the Middle East Forum and a doctoral student at Temple University.
Related Topics: Arab-Israel conflict & diplomacy | Samuel Lewis
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