The Mideast's New No. 1 Problem
by Daniel Pipes
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Philadelphia — Why has the Arab-Israeli conflict disappeared? The conflict is no longer the No. 1 problem in the Middle East. That is the message from Amman, Jordan, where the kings, presidents and emirs from all over the Arab world met earlier this month.
Not only is this realignment good for the peoples of the Middle East but also it improves the United States' opportunity to exert influence in the region.
Consider what was done in Amman. For the first time since the Arab League was founded in 1945, the Arab leaders agreed that the conflict with Israel mattered less than something else: the Iraq-Iran war. Except for a decision permitting formal relations with Egypt, all the summit meeting resolutions expressed fears about Iranian aggression—against Iraq, Kuwait and Iranian pilgrims in Mecca.
Symptomatically, the English-language version of the final declaration did not even make the routine reference to the Palestine Liberation Organization as the "sole legitimate representative" of the Palestinians.
This change of focus is long overdue, for two reasons. First, pride and passions aside, the Arabs' conflict with Israel is essentially peripheral to most of them. Palestinians are few in number and nowhere do they starve. The long history of military failure against Israel and the conflict's immense cost make it clear that the obsession with Israel cannot last forever.
The P.L.O. seeks political sovereignty, but however vital this goal is to Yasir Arafat, it lacks urgency for other Arabs, especially when compared to the Iranian threat. The Arab states today cannot afford the luxury of devoting their resources to this dream.
Also, Arab leaders see no obvious steps to break out of the current impasse with Israel. None of them likes the way things are, but they have few alternatives. Cooperation with Israel permits Jordan's Government slowly to gain access to the West Bank. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt devotes the bulk of his attention to domestic problems. President Hafez al-Assad of Syria has not achieved the "strategic parity" with Israel he deemed necessary before taking unilateral action. And obviously, no one in Lebanon is in a position to do much about Israel.
Second, unlike the more symbolic conflict with Israel, the war between Iraq and Iran demands concrete and immediate action. This brutal conflict — the fourth largest of the 20th century in numbers of deaths — has the potential to upset the existing order in the Middle East.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini has moved Teheran from the periphery to the heart of Middle East politics; his radical ideology and armed forces challenge the every existence of Arab regimes. An Iranian military breakthrough would revitalize the Islamic revolution and threaten all of Iraq's five neighbors. It would lead to an assault on the Western presence in the Middle East and almost certainly disrupt oil supplies.
The Iran-Iraq war drives the main alliances in the region. Damascus is the outcast from Arab politics today, not Cairo, for everyone knows that alliance with Iran endangers the region far more than peace treaty with Israel. The Arab states have unified more to stop Iranian expansion than they ever did against Israel.
The consequences of these changes go beyond the merely political; they foster a growing mood of political sobriety in the Arab countries. The excited ideologies and inflated hopes of decades past have soared and died. After a host of plans — anti-Zionism, Arab unity, Arab socialism — lost their attraction, a pragmatic sensibility gained in strength. A new appreciation of the possible emphasizes economics, democracy and the concerns of daily life.
This sobriety has great importance for the United States. Much improved United States-Arab relations can be seen in many places and extend even to the long hostile Iraqi state. Arab governments are now working with Washington in ways no one would have imagined a few years ago (for example they are beginning to offer real military cooperation in the Persian Gulf). The old stumbling block of American support for Israel hardly seems to matter now as, in effect, a United States-Arab alliance against Iran has taken shape.
Within the United States, too, discussion of the Middle East has taken on a new tone. The extreme partisanship that characterizes debate over the Arab-Israeli conflict is giving way to a tactical examination of the Persian Gulf. Palestinians and Israelis arouse intense passions; the Iraqi Air Force and Iranian Army demand somber analysis. A far more sensible discussion of American interests has resulted.
In short, a fundamental shift in Middle East politics is taking place, perhaps the most profound since the Arab states become independent after World War II. Despite the recent revival of Soviet diplomacy in the region, these changes suggest that this is a moment of real opportunity for the United States in the Middle East.
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