Israel Report

May 2003         

Freeing the Middle East

In case you missed it, US President George W. Bush gave a pathbreaking speech at the University of South Carolina on Friday, a speech that should not be obscured by the minutiae of Secretary of State Colin Powell's visit here today. Let's look at it with the care it deserves.
"In an age of global terror and weapons of mass destruction, what happens in the Middle East greatly matters to America. The bitterness of that region can bring violence and suffering to our own cities. The advance of freedom and peace in the Middle East would drain this bitterness and increase our own security...."

This may be Bush's clearest statement yet linking the Middle East's political dysfunctionality with American security. Note that the word "freedom" comes before "peace." Bush seems to have realized that it is the lack of freedom in the region that fuels radicalism, which in turn produces the hatred both of Israel and America. The Arab-Israeli conflict is an element of the problem; tyranny is its facilitator and root cause.

"A time of historic opportunity has arrived. A dictator in Iraq has been removed from power.... Reformers in the Middle East are gaining influence, and the momentum of freedom is growing. We have reached a moment of tremendous promise, and the United States will seize this moment for the sake of peace.... The future of peace requires the defeat of terror."

Yes, it turns out that fighting the terrorist network is the key to peace. It should be obvious that the more body blows the network receives, the more the forces of moderation will emerge, and the greater the opportunities for peacemaking. For years, diplomacy has been confused with peacemaking.

Actually, diplomacy can only reap the harvest produced by defeating the forces opposed to peace, in this case militant Islamism.

"Some believe that democracy in the Middle East is unlikely, if not impossible. ... These same arguments have been heard before in other times, about other people. ... In each of these cases in Germany, in Japan, in Eastern Europe, and in Russia the skeptics doubted, then history replied. Every milestone of liberty over the last 60 years was declared impossible until the very moment it happened. The history of the modern world offers a lesson for the skeptics: Do not bet against the success of freedom."

Bush is right, but he has not yet enforced his views on his own administration. Right now, neighboring Arab governments, along with their friends in the State Department and Europe, still believe that Iraq needs a "strongman" from the Sunni minority to dominate the country. Bush, unfortunately, has not yet clearly weighed in against these forces, and told his own diplomats to solidly back the pluralist vision of Iraqi leaders such as Ahmad Chalabi and Kenan Makiya.

Bush continued with praise for the "hopeful signs of change" in the Muslim world, mentioned that half of all Muslims "live under democratic rule in nations from Turkey to Indonesia," and noted elections or movement toward reform in Bahrain, Morocco, Jordan, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.

Such praise for progress is understandable, but we need to hear a lot more of the frank talk that followed:

"And in Iran, the desire for freedom is stirring. In the face of harsh repression, Iranians are courageously speaking out for democracy and the rule of law and human rights. And the United States strongly supports their aspirations for freedom."

This statement should be just the beginning of a comprehensive campaign to support dissidents struggling against the region's worst regimes, particularly in Iran and Syria. We have yet to see Bush's concrete actions to support the people in these countries risking their lives for freedom, and to more systematically isolate their oppressors.

"The combined GDP of all Arab countries is smaller than that of Spain. ... The Arab world has a great cultural tradition, but is largely missing out on the economic progress of our time. ... I propose the establishment of a US-Middle East free-trade area within a decade, to bring the Middle East into an expanding circle of opportunity."

This proposal, which garnered most of the attention paid to the speech, seems to be an interesting twist on previous efforts to promote normalization with Israel. The fine print here is that, before any Arab state can join the free trade area it must join the World Trade Organization, and before it can do that it must drop all boycotts, including of Israel.

We see the attraction of this subtle approach, but subtlety alone is rarely enough in this region. The ethos of Arab rejectionism that includes open anti-Semitism in the Arab state-controlled press and prevents any contact with Israelis needs to be confronted by name. This rejectionism is so pervasive that it extended to Kuwait at the onset of the war in Iraq, where international reporters embedded with American troops were banned from filing news reports to Israel.

Finally, we cannot fail to comment on the "all sides ... have duties" section of the speech, in which Israel was exhorted to "stop settlement activity" and the Arab nations to "fight terror in all forms, and recognize and state the obvious once and for all: Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish state at peace with its neighbors." The juxtaposition of terror and settlements is as odious as it is commonplace, but attention should be paid to a significant new formulation here: "as a Jewish state."

Bush, in other words, is on to what Bill Clinton discovered at Camp David: Getting Arabs to say they accept Israel is relatively easy; getting them to accept it as a Jewish state has been next to impossible.

This is a subtle hint that should be made more explicit. The Arabs have to drop the ruse of recognizing Israel with one hand, and attempting to demographically transform it into yet another Arab state by flooding it with "refugees" with the other. The simple way for Bush to press this point would be to back Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's demand that the Palestinians be required to renounce the "right of return" to Israel at the beginning of the process, just as Israel is being asked to commit to establishing a Palestinian state.

©2003 - Jerusalem Post;=1052550656094

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