Sunday, December 12, 2004


By William Fisher

Arab leaders meeting in Morocco for the Freedom Forum of the G-8 industrialized countries told US Secretary State Colin Powell that "their support for reform in the region will go hand-in-hand with their support for a just, comprehensive and lasting settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict."

Arab League chief Amr Musa echoed the sentiments of all his Arab colleagues when he insisted that Palestinian peace was necessary before the reforms envisioned by the US-proposed Broader Middle East and North Africa initiative could be achieved. He said an independent Palestine "is a must" if the US plan is to have any chance of working. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Faisal put it even more bluntly, telling the conference that the perceived US bias towards Israel was the main obstacle to promoting reform in the region.

But what Mr. Musa and his cohorts forgot to explain is the connection between these two propositions. And for good reason: there is no connection.

For three decades, the authoritarian and unelected governments of the Arab Middle East have used the Israeli-Palestinian dispute as a figleaf to conceal their own unwillingness to embrace transparency, accountability and representative governance. And they have done so while giving little save rhetoric to the Palestinian people or to solving their wretched dilemma.

One has to wonder what these leaders will ever do if, by some miracle of diplomacy and geopolitics, a two-state solution should actually happen -- and the figleaf should drop!

Equitable resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian scourge is the desire of all reasonable people. And most of them would agree that US policy is, and is perceived to be, unreasonably pro-Israel. But that merely limits the ability of the United States to function as a truly honest broker. It says nothing about the glacial pace of Arab reform, or of the capacity of the Arab world to accelerate it.

If reform was a real goal among the Arab states, why would they need a US-backed plan in the first place? They already have all the power they need to speed up the process. What they don’t have is the political will and the conviction that reform is what their people deserve.

In a recent article, Rami Khoury, the executive editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut, posed a tantalizing question: What if the roadmap to democratic reform ended up leading not through Baghdad but through Ramallah? What if the Palestinians were able to elect their new president? What if that president were able to rein in their more violent elements? What if the Israelis and the Palestinians then returned to the table and successfully negotiated an end to the bloodshed?

What would the rest of the Arabs do if the State of Palestine became the first Arab democracy to the Middle East? And their last excuse for doing nothing disappeared?

Maybe it’s a longshot, but watch this space!