[VIEWPOINT]Hope rises in the Middle EastHas the time for prudent optimism come back in the Middle East? The answer is a cautious “yes,” for three key reasons. The local, regional and international contexts have all changed at the same time, and they are all moving in the direction of a renewed phase of negotiation between the Israelis and Palestinians.
At the local level ― by far the most important one because at the end of the day, it is the Israelis and Palestinians themselves who will succeed or fail to reach an agreement ― the context has been transformed by the encounter between an event and a process.
The event was the death of Yasser Arafat, the historical leader of the Palestinians, an event coinciding with the re-election of the American president and perceived by George W. Bush as a divine and positive signal. The process is the state of sheer exhaustion of the two peoples, after four years of a second intifada that proved to be a strategic and moral catastrophe for the Palestinians, a fall into barbarism linked to despair, leaving the Palestinian Authority powerless and in desperate need of a truce, if not a real peace, with the Israelis.
The new Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, may present himself as the inheritor of Yasser Arafat; he is, in fact, his liquidator. As for Ariel Sharon, his near conversion to a policy that was the one pursued by the Israeli left is the product of an encounter between a personal evolution and a strategic calculus. Sharon has met his destiny and is confronting it with vision and determination. He has reached an age when one starts writing his biography, and he wants to enter history as a man of peace, if not as a second David Ben-Gurion, the founder of the state of Israel.
In strategic terms, he has been convinced by demographers that the future of the “Jewish nature” of Israel implies important territorial concessions to the Palestinians. In fact, Ariel Sharon’s conversion to the cause of peace represents today the greatest hope of success of resumed negotiations.
But if the local context has been moving from the black of yesterday to the gray of today, it is because the regional context has also been transformed. “Men make history, but they do not know the history they make,” wrote the German philosopher Hegel.
George W. Bush is probably an unwilling disciple of Hegel. By overthrowing the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, he may not have brought democracy to the Iraqi people, but he has deeply transformed the political equilibrium of the entire region, and this in favor of the Shiites. After the elections in Afghanistan, those in Palestine and Iraq have reveled in the emergence of a civil society in the Muslim and Arab world, which wants to have a say in the people’s political future. Even if it is not demo-cracy, it is a path on the way to democratization, which deeply transforms regional equilibriums, and in particular the behavior of Sunni-led regimes, which are now on the defensive.
In the past, these regimes all too often were using the Arab-Israeli conflict as a convenient alibi to reject political, social, economic reforms in spite of their absolute necessity. Today, especially after the 9/11 attacks, they badly need a truce in the Israel-Palestine conflict, as a key to the survival of their regimes, which are threatened by an endless escalation of violence in the region. The end of violence in Jerusalem may, at least indirectly, imply the existence of a new equilibrium in Baghdad.
At the international level, the new situation in the Middle East has contributed to the transformation of the style and nature of trans-Atlantic relations. After the results of the elections in Iraq, European governments, even those that were the most opposed to the war, have drawn the necessary lessons. It was one thing to refuse to cooperate with the “American war” in Iraq. It is another to help the new Iraqi government in the rebuilding of their country.
Having already come closer on Iraq, animated by the same desire to help the process of peace in the Middle East conflict, Americans and Europeans, the French in particular, are now, after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, deeply united in their desire to see Syrian forces out of Lebanon. The only source of serious disagreement between Americans and Europeans in the Middle East remains the issue of Iran, and it is a major concern.
Of course, our optimism must remain very prudent. Moderates are now in power in Israel and Palestine. But they confront extremists who can at any moment cancel the dynamic of peace. Yet the majority of the two people are now exhausted, Palesti-nians much more, of course, than Israelis, and this sheer fatigue constitutes the best reason for hope. Too much blood has been spilled, and the crying need for a truce may one day lead to a real peace. Optimism may be reasonable, after all.
* The writer is a senior adviser at the French Institute for International Relations.
by Dominique Moisi