Magazine article Brookings Review

Foreign Policy Flashpoints: The Middle East

Magazine article Brookings Review

Foreign Policy Flashpoints: The Middle East

Article excerpt

Last January's heralded Israeli-Palestinian agreement to implement the long-delayed Israeli withdrawal from Hebron and to set dates for full implementation of the Oslo accords was a critical step toward Middle East peace. It stopped the backward movement in the peace process that began with the election last May of the Likud party's Benyamin Netanyahu as Israel's prime minister, and it laid the ground for an essential working relationship between Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat. But the post-election setback to the peace process has been so profound that the agreement by itself will be unlikely to reverse deep regional suspicions. And because regional confidence in the process has been significantly undermined, the role of the United States will be more critical than it has been in recent years.

The change in regional attitudes since the Israeli elections has been consequential not only for the Arab-Israeli peace process but also for U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf. The Netanyahu government's pursuit of ambitious settlement policies in the West Bank and its footdragging in implementing the Oslo accords, problematic enough themselves, are symptoms of a bigger crisis in the region that has been only partly ameliorated by the Hebron withdrawal: a paradigmatic shift in the outlook in the Arab world, not only on the Palestinian-Israeli front, but regionwide.


Washington's biggest accomplishment in the Middle East since the signing of the Oslo accords in 1993 has been to persuade Arab and Israeli moderates that they have more interests in common with each other than with extremists on their own sides - and that the peace process is really irreversible. In essence, the United States was able to get regional leaders to compete to see who could jump on the winning bandwagon first. The psychology of peace prevailed even as the process itself confronted crises. Although neither the Arabs nor the Israelis were happy with the peace that was unfolding, both sides, having made the leap of reconciliation, were headed into the final outcome. Then, following the Israeli election, that paradigm all but collapsed, giving way to growing perceptions of inevitable conflict and a psychology of zero-sum interests between Israel and the Arab states.

At the core of this paradigmatic shift was an assessment of the prospects for a Palestinian-Israeli deal that is viewed as the cornerstone of broader Arab-Israeli peace. The importance of the psychological outlook for regional peace is evident in the way the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians moved steadily forward before the Israeli elections despite serious obstacles. Israelis and Palestinians continued to experience ugly terrorism, and the Palestinian situation on the ground actually deteriorated. The economy dropped by 30 percent, unemployment rose, mobility was further restricted. The belief of both sides that the process was working was driven by the leap of faith by the Labor government and the PLO that they would ultimately have a peace based on Palestinian independence, possibly a demilitarized Palestinian state, consistent with Israeli security needs - with both sides knowing all the while that the issues separating them are tough and will take long to negotiate.

The new psychology that emerged following last May's Israeli elections assumed that the Israeli government was no longer part of that deal. U.S. mediators had spent the years since the Oslo accords trying to persuade Arabs, especially Syrians, of the substantive differences in Israel between moderates and extremists, between the Labor and Likud parties. Many in the Arab world had believed that the only foreign policy differences between the two parties were tactical. It took a great deal of diplomacy - and the 1995 assassination of Israel's Labor prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, by a peace opponent - to persuade many Arabs that the differences within Israel are indeed serious and that the Palestinians would be better off making a deal with Israel's Labor leaders. …

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