Hope from the Middle East: Two Promising Pacts

By Hehir, J. Bryan | Commonweal, February 25, 1994 | Go to article overview

Hope from the Middle East: Two Promising Pacts


Hehir, J. Bryan, Commonweal


The pattern of world politics in 1993 illustrated just how violent and chaotic the post-cold war era could be. Freed of the specter of global cataclysm, nations and states, as well as tribes and clans, demonstrated that peace is not the inevitable product of the new order of world affairs. Conflicts that are local in scope, ancient in lineage, and brutal in character defied both the plans of diplomats and minimal standards of humanity. The exception to this depressing pattern has been the Middle East. In a year where Bosnia exploded, Somalia collapsed into chaos, and Haiti deteriorated to the point of civil dissolution, the Middle East produced two major events of hope.

On September 13, 1993, Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization signed the Declaration of Principles which established the framework for addressing the issues that have been at the heart of five wars in the region. On December 30, 1993, Israel and the Vatican signed a Fundamental Agreement which opened a new and potentially expansive agenda between two central players in the religious-political dynamic of the Middle East.

Neither event ended killing or conflict in the region; the media report incidents of violence and death weekly. Israeli and Palestinian families continue to bury their casualties in spite of diplomatic breakthroughs and declarations of principles. In spite of these human tragedies, it is crucial to recognize that the region, which produced seven wars in the last fifty years and posed a persistent threat of catalyzing a superpower conflict, now stands on the threshold of a new era politically and religiously. Both dimensions deserve attention for they not only reveal the meaning of the new situation in the Middle East, they also reflect larger truths about world politics in the post-cold war age.

The Israeli-PLO agreement is a product of the changing structure of Middle East politics. During the cold war it was virtually impossible to separate the politics of the region from the superpower competition. Both the Soviet Union and the United States regarded the Middle East as strategically central to their roles in the international system. Neither superpower would allow the other to become the sole arbiter of power and politics in the region. At the same time, both of them recognized that a direct confrontation could escalate beyond their control. The result was an intricate pattern of competition and restraint; each superpower had allies in the region, but each had interests that were broader and different from those of its local partner. To be sure, the superpowers could be correctly indicted for fueling the regional conflict through arms transfers, but they also contained the aspirations of key states, and, at times, sought (less successfully) to push local parties toward some resolution of fundamental differences.

The effect of the interpenetration of superpower and regional politics was to preclude major initiatives by local actors. There were exceptions: Sadat consciously initiated war with Israel in 1973 in order to bring the United States more directly into the Middle East conflict; he then made his dramatic journey to Jerusalem, initiating the process that led to the Camp David accords. Even these bold moves, however, were designed to catalyze action by others. Regional choices were clearly seen as subordinate to the policies of external actors.

The collapse of the cold war fundamentally altered this pattern of regional-global relations. The Israeli-PLO negotiations were the product of choices made by parties of the Middle East. Both found themselves in a new situation. The Israelis had reason to be concerned that, after the Gulf War, the United States seemed principally focused on domestic issues, determined to trim foreign commitments, even foreign assistance to Israel. The PLO had lost its superpower patron with the demise of the cold war and had lost regional support by its policy in the Gulf War. …

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