Mideast’s dynamic opportunity for peace

November 21, 2012

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




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You REALLY need to take a remedial course in Middle East history before writing an article like this.

Clearly, you do not understand the subject matter at all.

It would take a book, literally, to respond to how mistaken you are in your opinions.

Posted by Gordon2352 | Report as abusive

Edit: “In my travels throughout the region over the past six weeks months”

Posted by kph6875 | Report as abusive

Is Islamist came to power in Arab spring> Expect more backing propaganda (in form of religion) and money and arms.

Hamas is a special case. It reason for existence is to kill
Israel, but it can only get things through Egypt who depends on US aid. Hamas get free weapons and other support from backers like Iran therefore it has make some kind of war from time to time to keep getting the aid.

Peace will come to the Middle East when either secularism replace Islam or the surrounding nations have enough and mount a coordinated crusade. Neither seems to be coming any time soon. In fact the Islamist came to power.

Posted by Samrch | Report as abusive

@ Samrch:

Actually, peace will not come to the ME until the end of the semi-religious racist Zionist cult in Israel. A bunch of Zionists muscling into the ME, and declaring a country for their own kind only (except of a few Palestinians who they have not yet been able to ethnically cleans) is never going to be a viable peace solution.

A Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign against Zionist Israel can bring an end to this international debacle.

On the other hand, US government’s (but not the people’s) continuing support for Israel, and the consequent implicit support for a continuing ethnic cleansing campaign by Israel, will not only lead to the end of the US-supported Arab regimes, as suggested in the article, but the almost complete loss of US influence in the ME to China and Russia.

Israel is finally in a real bind. They can either give up their racist, expansionist, Jews-only policies, and become a positive economic and intellectual force in the ME, or the Zionist regime can be forced out.

A first step could well be, to get rid of Netanyahu in the next election. Or, Israelis can continue to be sheep being lead to the slaughter, dupes of the very short-sighted, power-hungry, amoral 0.01 percent, and their sycophants.

Posted by xcanada2 | Report as abusive

No pun intended, honestly: Robin Wright is right. One thing that is true about the Middle East “peace process” and how it’s viewed by the world is that many people like to demonstrate how “knowledgeable” they are(n’t) about the whole dynamic by simply stating how complicated and impossible everything is. They think their cop-out viewpoint is backed by the sheer duration of conflict in the region. In this case, I’m happy to disappoint: For/to those with genuine expertise, interest, and affinity for the Middle East affairs, there are very real and clearly unique opportunities taking shape for lasting — even permanent and revolutionary — shared progress, peace, and prosperity for all involved. The fact of life is that the Middle East, as the center of all human civilization, is THE fundamental area of interest for all nations; and that interest is either hostile or benevolent. Wars on the other side of the planet can often be traced in some way to international positions taken with regard to local Middle East issues and relationships. No world peace until MIDDLE EAST PEACE. It’s that simple, I’m not a fatalist, and so PEACE MUST AND WILL COME because genuine people will finally put their minds together in order and bring it about.

Posted by MichaelMorgan | Report as abusive

The changing dynamics do create a unique opportunity. If Netanyahu remains after January he will have standing with the Israeli Right to negotiate a deal because of his hard line stance. The Right will not like it completely, but he would be trusted more than a softer leader. Additionally, as Ms. Wright pointed out, there are dynamics in the fledgling democracies that make agreement more likely. This is a moment where the worlds attention needs to remain and this opening used to advantage. I see Israel’s negotiating power diminishing as the Arab world stabilizes and becomes more acceptable to the West. Yes, there’s a thousand reasons hardliners will submit why it won’t work. Those voices are diminished in the wake of the Arab Spring.

Posted by runnerbob | Report as abusive

Why s it so obvious to me that there will never be pece until

Posted by cjjoy | Report as abusive

The only obstacle to ME peace is Israel and its enabler the USA.

Iran is the clear winner of the recent violence. The West can kiss goodbye thwarting its nuclear ambitions.

The Israeli-Palestinians conflict will sooner or later come to an act of near-genocide on the part of Israel. I don’t see what else is even remotely possible here.

Posted by jrpardinas | Report as abusive