September/October 2000

The Arabs' Road Map


The first Arab summit meeting in a decade convenes in Egypt tomorrow, and it will signal what road the Arab world intends to go down in the 21st century. There are three possibilities: (1) This summit will end with Egypt still leading the Arab world on a road of cold peace with Israel and integration with the West; (2) it will end with Iraq and Syria leading the Arab world on a path against Israel and America; (3) or the summit could end in a way that will totally shock the 22 Arab leaders. That would be with the world looking at this Arab summit and wondering why the Arab East is the only region in the world, including sub- Saharan Africa, that is still ruled entirely by dictators, autocrats and kings, without one real democracy.

Let's examine all three: What was Anwar el-Sadat's genius? He understood that, for the sake of Egypt's future, he had to end his country's conflict with Israel, even if it meant leaving the Palestinian issue unresolved. Sadat was convinced the Arab world would eventually follow.

His successor, Hosni Mubarak, has adopted a more ambiguous approach. He has maintained just enough peace with Israel to keep getting U.S. aid and investment, but just enough tension so that Israel is not fully accepted in the region and so that the Egyptian regime can use anger toward Israel as an outlet for frustrations in Egypt over the slow pace of democratization and economic growth. In fairness, Israel's own ambiguous policy, negotiating peace while continuing to expand settlements, has made Mr. Mubarak's ambiguous peace easy to maintain. And it must be said that in times of crisis Egypt still works to keep the region from exploding.

Nevertheless, the downside of Mr. Mubarak's cold-peace approach is that it leaves relations with Israel up in the air, and this leaves Egypt and the other Arab regimes vulnerable to Yasir Arafat's inflaming their public opinion and bringing people into the streets, where they could start protesting all sorts of things besides just Israel. This, in turn, could force Egypt and the other Arab moderates into something they have tried to avoid — a religious war against Israel that would drive away foreign investors and leave them globally isolated.

If that happens, we'll have option 2. That would be an end to the fleeting moment when Israeli moderates and Arab moderates worked together against all extremists, and its replacement by a quasi-religious war of angry united Muslims, spearheaded not by Egypt but by Iraq and Iran, against angry united Israeli Jews.

Should that happen, the Arab world will end up stuck in option 3. The Arab peace process with Israel has always been part of a larger embrace of modernization, gradual democratization and integration with the West. If the Arab summit meeting goes back to rejecting Israel, the region will be perceived as moving back to tribalism and separating itself from the major trends in the world today.

And that will only lead the world to ask: Why is it that East Asian leaders said to their people, "If you postpone democracy, we will give you prosperity." And they did, and democracy soon followed. While Arab leaders said, "If you postpone democracy, we will give you the Arab-Israeli conflict," and their people bought it and paid the price. Why is it that when East Asian leaders hold summit meetings they focus on how to solve their economic problems, while when Arab leaders hold summit meetings they focus on how to blame Israel or the West for their problems?

These are devastating questions. The only good news is that Arab leaders of a new generation are already asking them, and their countries — Jordan, Lebanon, Qatar, Bahrain, Tunisia, Morocco — are desperately trying to extract themselves from this Arab summit circus where the past always buries the future. Pay attention to Jordan's visionary young King Abdullah. He will be at the Cairo Arab summit, but afterward he will be flying to Washington. Why? To sign, on Tuesday, the first-ever free-trade agreement between America and an Arab country — Jordan. Jordan will join Mexico, Canada and Israel as the only countries in the world with free- trade accords with the U.S.

Maybe a few Arab journalists will have the courage to ask their leaders at the summit, "O.K., we're glad you're still trashing Israel, but hey, why has Jordan forged a free-trade accord with the U.S. and our country hasn't?" If that happens, maybe the next Arab summit will be different.

Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company

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