In his landmark Middle East speech last Monday, Secretary of State Colin Powell invoked the memory of Madrid 10 years ago. It was an ironic reference to that moment after the Gulf War when President Bush launched an effort at peacemaking in the Middle East in response to the entreaties of our Egyptian and Saudi allies in the war against Saddam Hussein. Now that president’s son, this time responding to the insistence of our Egyptian and Saudi allies in the war against Osama bin Laden, seems bound to walk in his father’s footsteps by launching an American-led effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Have we learned anything in the intervening decade? On the face of it, Secretary Powell’s speech indicates that we have. We have come to recognize that the Palestinians must have a viable state and that the humiliation of Israel’s occupation should end for the benefit of Palestinians and Israelis alike. But at the same time, Powell appropriately insists that the Palestinians recognize that ending the terrorism, violence and incitement of the intifada is the indispensable precursor.
Powell’s dispatch of retired Gen. Anthony Zinni and Assistant Secretary of State William Burns to undertake a sustained U.S. effort to implement and monitor a meaningful cease-fire reflects an accurate assessment that, on their own, Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat cannot break out of the violent bear hug dragging them both toward the abyss.
But if we have learned some important lessons from a decade of experience with Middle East peacemaking, we have overlooked others. Most important is that our Arab allies did not fulfill their part of the bargain. We invested the power and prestige of the presidency; they mostly sat on the sidelines and criticized.
Worse, while we were preoccupied with peacemaking, they were busy deflecting their opponents onto us. They created safe zones for themselves in their own countries while externalizing their opposition and, in the Saudi case, providing it with funds and a supply of foot soldiers educated for intolerance and hatred.
Powell compellingly identified all the “must dos” for Arafat and Sharon. But he was much less categorical with our Arab friends, who are required only to make clear their “acceptance” of Israel. Why aren’t we demanding the Saudis’ recognition of the Jewish state in return for fulfilling their demand that we recognize a Palestinian state? We are expected to host Arafat at the White House, but when will Sharon receive his invitation to visit Crown Prince Abdullah’s palace? We demand that the Palestinians cease their anti-Israel incitement. But why aren’t we demanding the same of the Egyptians and Saudis who own or control the most influential media in the Arab world, remarkable for their anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism?
Powell did insist that our Arab friends show their commitment to a negotiated settlement. But 10 years of peacemaking experience teaches us that we need Egypt and Saudi Arabia to do much more than that. They need to publicly support reasonable compromises, especially on the most sensitive issues of Jerusalem and refugees. And they need to press Arafat to respond to reasonable offers from the Israeli side. How different might things have been last year had they publicly endorsed President Clinton’s parameters and pressured Arafat to accept them, instead of privately indicating their acquiescence and publicly remained silence?
There is another lesson we should learn from the past decade. Just as we have to treat the human dimension of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by insisting that Palestinian incitement and Israeli settlement activity cease, so too do the Arab governments need to treat the human dimensions of their own failing societies. The terrorists who perpetrated the Sept. 11 attacks were products of systems that allow individuals no room for legitimate political activity and little alternative to the mosques and madrassas that fill their minds with hate. If we are now going to treat the “root causes” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we must also treat the “root causes” in the Arab societies that produced the terrorists.
Powell took an important first step by outlining a vision for the Middle East that included respect for the rights of the individual and support for greater political participation. But if we are to honor the memory of our dead, Zinni should be left to work on the Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire while Burns should work with the Saudi and Egyptian governments on a program to end incitement and promote political and economic reforms.
The purpose is not just to dry up the swamp that has bred the al Qaeda network, although that is essential. It is also to create an environment for reconciling Arabs and Israelis. For the past decade, we assumed that breaking through to peace would, in its wake, create that environment and free the resources for progress in the Arab world. But we should have learned that the two must advance in tandem or the lack of progress on one will impede the other.
Egypt and Saudi Arabia are the two most influential Arab and Islamic states. Their resistance to reform and the resort to incitement breed intolerance for peace with Israel and legitimize terrorism against it.
Ten years of experience should have been a good tutor. This time around, as we look to use the influence in the Middle East that accrues from victory in Afghanistan, we cannot allow our Arab friends to go back to business as usual while we are left to pursue peace.