Mideast’s dynamic opportunity for peace
The Arab world may be in turmoil, but its leaders actually need an enduring peace—now in Gaza and long-term with Israel—because regimes across the region are vulnerable as never before.
Whether they like it or not, that’s true for newly elected Islamists. And old-order autocrats need resolution to prevent protests at home from turning against them.
The challenge for Washington is taking advantage of the vulnerability to work with the new political roster — including players it doesn’t know all that well. The tectonic political shift over the past two years offers a dynamic opportunity.
Committed U.S. diplomacy could not only spur meaningful movement on the 64-year conflict. It could enhance Israel’s security and prevent a whole new type of tension with the region’s new governments.
The potential is visible in budding relations between President Barack Obama and Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate who has evolved since June from an unknown engineering professor to the most powerful Arab leader. They’ve talked often during the crisis. Mursi is now brokering what happens next.
Washington’s relationship with this new Egyptian leader will also influence Phase 2 of the Arab awakening. U.S.-Egypt relations under a Muslim Brotherhood president will shape American ties with the wider Islamic world.
The Obama administration needs to move through three phases.
Phase 1 is a lasting truce—not just a “period of calm.”
Ceasefires never last if not followed by substantive solutions. So Phase 2—in weeks, not months—is tackling immediate flashpoints, including security for Israel, easing the crippling blockade of Gaza and a settlement freeze in the West Bank.
Hamas has no incentive to end military pressure on Israel unless Israel eases economic pressure on Gaza, and vice versa. Hamas can never win militarily, but it can thrive politically by not losing — the Hezbollah model created during the 2006 war. The now weakened West Bank government of President Mahmoud Abbas won’t convince Hamas rivals to consider any deal without proof that Israel is seriously engaging.
Phase 3 is negotiations on a broader Palestinian-Israeli peace. Ironically, after four years of virtually neglecting the peace process, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton now has an opportunity to pick up where President Bill Clinton left off in his final days in office. The working assumption has long been that the Camp David plan outlined 12 years ago would form the basis of any peace. Phase 3 needs an urgent deadline that doesn’t slip, as the other efforts have since the original 1993 accords.
Diplomacy short of all three means indefinite rounds of these conflicts — which neither side can win militarily. The administration needs to move at a clip to ensure events on the ground don’t again overtake diplomacy. The moment of opportunity is short.
Phase 3 could begin to take shape when Mursi makes his maiden visit as president to Washington next month. The new Egyptian government reflects the broader political reality today: Fragile new Arab governments are no longer resistance movements. Their primary focus is on creating jobs, writing constitutions, reconstruction and disarming militias.
They don’t have a lot of time. Egypt, Tunisia and Libya all face elections over the next year for permanent parliaments, after writing constitutions. They know there is more power on the streets today than in presidential palaces. They also know utopian expectations are not being met.
In my travels throughout the region over the past six weeks, I’ve tasted the growing public disillusionment from North Africa to the Gulf.
Islamist parties have stronger ties to Hamas than their secular predecessors. But ideology may not be preeminent—at least now.
Tunisian Foreign Minister Rafik Abdessleem, son-in-law of Islamist leader Rachid Ghannouchi, visited Gaza Saturday. Yet when I saw Abdessleem and Ghannouchi last month in Tunisia, both were consumed with staggering domestic challenges.
Unemployment was 17 percent, but 40 percent among the young, Abdessleem lamented. “Among the young,” he pointed out, “half are college graduates. So it’s not finding them just any job.”
Economics triggered the greatest change in the modern Middle East. A young Tunisian fruit vendor set himself on fire over the right to a job, not to vote for the party of his choice. Enduring hardships can’t be overestimated as the pressing political factor.
In Libya, Tripoli literally stinks from the garbage now lining streets, while the ingénue state figures out how to function. Last month, the capital was without water for six days. And a Muslim Brotherhood parliamentarian fretted about disarming 240,000 armed men from 300 militias: “So far, integration into the military and security institutions is not going all that well,” Neizar Kawan told me.
Only Syria has no interest in either a short- or long-term peace. Gaza diverts attention from the daily slaughter. That says a lot about the changing Middle East—and the possibilities for U.S. diplomacy. A real peace process may have a rippling impact too.
I’ve covered every Middle East war since 1973. This conflict really has critical differences—and opportunities.
PHOTO: Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi (center) could be key to bringing about a greater Middle East peace, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L), and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (R). REUTERS
INSET PHOTO: Tunisia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Rafik Abdessalem. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi