January 2001


The revolt in Palestine is only one of a series of important developments which are changing the strategic environment of the Middle East, presaging the end of an era of Israeli imperialism, American hegemony and Arab defeatism, says the following article.

By Patrick Seale

In spite of the scandalous loss of life, in spite of the insupportable agony suffered by the families of the victims, the battles fought in Jerusalem and throughout the Palestinian territories are signals of robust Palestinian anger and frustration, not of weakness. They should be celebrated by those seeking just peace in the region, not deplored.

The profound meaning of these battles is that the Palestinians have reached the limit of their concessions. A new post-intifada generation has come of age and is prepared to die for the cause. Israel has been thrown on the defensive, which explains the disproportionate violence of its response to the stone-throwers.

No national liberation movement has ever secured its goals without a fight, and the Palestinian national movement is proving to be no exception. For decades, and particularly since the disasters of 1948 and 1967, the Arabs became accustomed to painting their situation in the blackest of colours. This was the era of lamentation and breast-beating, of Arab fatalism.

The Arabs were told - and told themselves - that they were weak, divided, friendless, that they could not possibly win. Israel was overwhelmingly strong and, with unlimited American help, it was getting stronger still. Its arsenal of conventional and unconventional weapons, its scientific elites, its high-technology economy, all made it impregnable. On the Arab side, a culture of defeatism took hold.

But the tide is turning. What is happening today in Palestine is only one of a series of important developments which are changing the strategic environment of the Middle East to the advantage of the Arabs - but which few Arabs yet recognise as such.

The retreat from ‘Imperial Israel’

The first thing to note is that Israel is shrinking to its natural size. In the minds of many of its citizens, if not yet on the ground, Israel is more or less back within its pre-1967 borders. ‘Imperial Israel’, which emerged triumphant and hugely expanded from the 1967 war, is today in retreat.

Israel has been forced out of Lebanon. It has accepted that it must sooner or later withdraw from the Golan (the dispute with Syria is over the last few hundred metres only). And even in Jerusalem, where the latest battles began, the myth has been exploded of Israel’s ‘eternal, indivisible capital’. Prime Minister Ehud Barak has himself conceded that Jerusalem/al-Quds will be the capital of Israel and of a future Palestine.

Despite his brutal over-reaction to the present crisis - a reaction from weakness rather than from strength, due to his fragile political situation - Barak is the first Israeli prime minister not simply to grasp, but to act on, the conviction that Israel can longer dictate terms to a backward and defeated Arab world. Barak understands that Israel’s ultimate security cannot lie in holding on to captured Arab territory but in making peace with its neighbours.

Of course, there is more fighting and hard bargaining ahead - and no doubt more lives will be lost - before the Arab-Israeli conflict is finally resolved, but the trend is clear. Painfully and with much spilling of blood, Israel’s final borders are being drawn, and they will be much closer to the 1967 borders than anyone - Arab or Israeli - had imagined possible.

In this unfolding pattern of retreat, Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon is very significant because it demonstrates that Israelis have, to a very large extent, lost the will to fight. Public opinion can no longer tolerate casualties. Israeli mothers no longer want their sons to risk their lives in hostile territory. The imperial drive to expand has very nearly run out of steam.

On the Arab side, Hizbullah’s achievement in driving out the Israelis has struck a powerful blow against the Arab ‘culture of defeat’. And, by uniting behind the resistance, Lebanese society has provided an example for Arabs everywhere. It looks as if the Palestinian youths facing Israeli bullets on the streets of the Occupied Territories have found inspiration and courage from the Lebanese model.

The death of ‘dual containment’

A second major change in the strategic environment of the Middle East is taking place in the Gulf. Although not exactly parallel in time, two important developments are taking place there: on the one hand the Arab reconciliation with Iran, and on the other the ending of Iraq’s isolation and the crumbling of the punitive sanctions regime.

These two developments sound the death knell of the American policy of ‘dual containment’ which took shape after the Gulf War - the attempt to punish and isolate both Iran and Iraq, described as ‘rogue’ or pariah states, thus leaving the door open for unchallenged American supremacy in the Gulf region.

Over the past three years, Iran has consolidated its relations with Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf states (with the notable exception of the United Arab Emirates because of the unresolved dispute over the three islands, Abu Musa and the Tunbs). Building on these foundations, Tehran has now ended its quarrels with both Egypt and Algeria, thus taking its place as a major player in the Middle East system on equal and friendly terms with the other major players.

Iran’s rapprochement with Algeria, ending a seven-year quarrel, was cemented at a meeting in New York between the Algerian and Iranian presidents, Abd al-Aziz Bouteflika and Mohammed Khatami, at the wings of the recent UN Millennium Summit. Behind the scenes, Prince Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, played a key role in bringing the two countries together. He was anxious to secure a united front of the main Middle East oil producers at the OPEC [Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries] summit in Caracas.

For Iraq, there is at last some light at the end of the tunnel. Humanitarian flights from Russia and France, but also from Jordan, Yemen, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, Algeria, Turkey and Syria, are evidence of international impatience with sanctions. The sanctions are largely being kept in place by the reluctance of the United States and Britain to rehabilitate Iraq as long as Saddam Hussein remains in power. As yet, however, there is no concerted effort by Arab governments to defy them in spite of pressure from Arab public opinion.

However, informed rumours suggest that both London and Washington will undertake a major review of their harsh, and increasingly unsustainable, policy towards Iraq next spring, following the American presidential elections this November.

All these developments - the Arab reconciliation with Iran; the strong oil prices and the new assertiveness of OPEC; the prospects of a return of Iraq to the Arab fold - must  be  seen  as  strengthening  the  overall Arab position in dealings  with  the US  and Israel.

Impatience with one-party rule

Another positive development in the Arab arena is increasing public demands for political liberalisation. A recent striking example is the statement by 99 prominent Syrian intellectuals and professionals calling for political pluralism, greater public freedoms, the release of political prisoners and the lifting of martial law.

Another example of a new more liberal climate is the well-attended meetings of the newly-formed Association for Civil Society held weekly at the house in Damascus of Riad Saif, a prominent industrialist and member of the People’s Assembly.

In Egypt, President Mubarak faces pressure from the press and from opposition political parties, such as the Wafd under its new leader Nu’man Gum’a, to allow the general elections later this month to be free and fair.

These stirrings in several Arab countries suggest a thirst for democracy and a growing impatience with the political monopoly of the ‘ruling party’. They also suggest deep resentment at the excessive interference of the security services in almost every aspect of life.

In Jordan, Morocco and Syria, young new leaders have taken the reins of power and, by speaking the language of reform and modernisation, have aroused enormous expectations of radical political change among their respective populations.

The key question throughout the region is whether it is possible to undertake the necessary and long-overdue reform of Arab economies, of Arab government administrations, and of Arab societies at large without at the time reviving political life. - Third World Network Features

About the writer: Patrick Seale is a well-known writer on Middle East affairs. The above article first appeared in Middle East International (13 October 2000).