The Case For—Would You Believe?—Hope in the Mideast

Grounds for hope in the Middle East? With the recent surge in Israeli killings of Palestinians? With Palestinian militants promising further violence in response? With all of that undermining the first—and very limited—security deal to have been negotiated directly between Israelis and Palestinians since the current uprising (war, really) began two years ago? With the Israeli government in no mood to compromise, and with a majority of Palestinians continuing to support suicide bombings? With—well, no need to belabor the point. Hope?

"Absolutely," said Marwan Muasher, the Jordanian foreign minister, in a telephone interview last week from his office in Amman. "There is certainly forward movement. And that's very important."

Caveat: This is the Middle East, where hope springs infernal. The situation continues to be bad. Very bad. One can hardly blame The Economist for despairing: "As the rage of each side mounts ... it is hard not to conclude that the worst is yet to come." Even so, it is now possible to discern undercurrents of change and—dare one suppose?—progress. Three stand out.

1) A new Arab engagement. In February, the Saudis proposed a complete Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories in exchange for an end to the conflict and full normalization of relations with the Arab world. At the time, the offer seemed intriguing but unrealistic. Some seasoned observers dismissed it as public relations.

PR it would have been, had the Arab states subsequently retreated to passivity and finger-pointing, their customary approach to the Israeli-Palestinian problem. But in June, President Bush made a speech endorsing a Palestinian state—provided that the Palestinians stop the violence and reform their leadership and institutions. The Arab world initially reacted to Bush's speech with despondency, seeing it as an American endorsement of Israel's position; but then, on second thought, Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia—the troika, so-called—decided to take Bush at his word. "They went back and came up with their own proposals in coordination with the Palestinians, and brought those back to Washington," says Tamara Cofman Wittes, an analyst at the Middle East Institute in Washington. "They've really taken the ball that President Bush handed them and run with it."

"Our efforts," said Muasher, "are now geared toward translating the president's vision of a two-state solution in three years into a workable plan." The plan's elements will include an Israeli military withdrawal, obligations and benchmarks to be met by both sides, timetables to prevent foot-dragging, and outside referees. "This is something that we have agreed on the need for with the administration," Muasher said. He hopes to make an Arab proposal public soon, possibly in September.

This all sounds uncomfortably like the failed Oslo process, whose intricate and always-unmet benchmarks and timetables led to disappointment and crisis. What's new, however, is the role of the Arab nations themselves. Before now, they either stood on the sidelines wishing the peacemakers good luck or, in the case of the hard-line countries, exploited and prolonged the conflict. "This is the first time we have seen a really proactive stance from the Arab states," Wittes said. "Now you have these three states with their sleeves rolled up, on the phone every day talking about how to keep the process moving along."

Not only are the troika members helping to frame a deal, they intend to help implement it by training Palestinian security services and assisting in governmental reforms. "Our focus is on coming up with the proper underpinnings of a state," Muasher said. "On security we are working with everyone—the Palestinians, but also the Americans and the Egyptians—on helping the Palestinians restructure their apparatus in order to be more effective." The security assistance of the Egyptians, who have extensive (and not entirely savory) domestic experience in dealing with Islamist extremists, is likely to be particularly significant.

"They've recognized the unique role they have to play," Wittes says of the troika, "and that's to be a sort of guarantor of Palestinian performance. They're saying: 'We will work with the Palestinians to make sure that their security services can fill the gap, and we'll work with the Palestinians to ensure that their new government is accountable in a way that makes the Israelis sufficiently comfortable to move ahead with the peace process.' And this is a role that the U.S. cannot play."

So what role can the U.S. play?

2) A new American formula. Until June, the United States was stuck. It could intervene ineffectively, causing the situation to deteriorate; it could broker a deal that would soon collapse in the face of militants' continuing attacks against Israel, causing the situation to deteriorate; or it could disengage and let the war rage on, causing the situation to deteriorate.

When all existing options are unacceptable, the answer is to create another option. That is what Bush did with his speech in June. He broke out of the box by proposing a new formula: The United States would offer engagement in exchange not for Palestinian promises but for Palestinian reforms.

A Palestinian thugocracry or theocracy—a mini-Syria or Iran—would be a perennial troublemaker in the region. Palestinian reform is thus vital for stability, something that the Arafat-centered Oslo process failed to recognize. Reform is also desirable on its own account. If the United States is going to push for a more open, democratic Middle East, where better to start than with a newly emerging state?

It was this new formula that the Arab troika seized upon. What they need, in exchange for helping to deliver Palestinian reforms, is American help in delivering Israeli reciprocation. If Palestinians make some hard decisions to clean up their act, and if Israelis show some flexibility in response, and if the Palestinians are thereby heartened to continue with reform, then perhaps a vicious cycle can be turned into a virtuous one.

Until recently, the Bush administration was justified in keeping its distance from Middle East peacemaking, because there was little of lasting value that American intervention could accomplish. Thanks to the changing Arab mind-set and to the administration's own creativity, the calculus may now have changed. Three influential (and—a nice irony here—nondemocratic) Arab regimes are offering to partner with America in bringing democracy and the rule of law to an emerging Middle Eastern state, while also helping to settle the region's great conflict. Memo to President Bush: Opportunity knocks.

3) A growing Palestinian pragmatism. Here, admittedly, the evidence is mixed. According to an opinion poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, the popularity of Islamist (read: rejectionist) groups rose to 27 percent in August, compared with 17 percent a year ago; fully 70 percent of Palestinians—up from 61 percent in December 2001—believe "that armed confrontations have helped achieve Palestinian national rights in ways that negotiations could not."

Yet a rethinking of the futile and destructive intifada seems to be going on. In June, more than 300 Palestinians published an ad in the Palestinian newspaper Al-Quds repudiating suicide attacks inside Israel as counterproductive. "These operations achieve no progress towards the realization of our [national] plan calling for freedom and independence," said the ad. "On the contrary: They increase unity among the enemies of peace on the other side and provide excuses for the aggressive [Israeli] government." (A Hamas official retorted: "I remind you that the Palestinian people is supported by blood.") In August the Palestinian Authority's interior minister, Abdel Razak Yehiyeh, greatly exerted himself trying to get militants to stop their attacks inside Israel.

They turned him down. Unlike ordinary Palestinians, who would benefit greatly from peace and normalcy, the militants would disappear into obscurity or jail if a real peace, enforced by a real government, took hold. The militants may never be shut down altogether, but they can be crippled—provided, crucially, that the Palestinian public turns against them and supports the government in cracking down.

The strengthening of Palestinian moderates—not just in Yasir Arafat's Cabinet but in the public's eyes—is thus a precondition for a sustainable peace. The willingness of influential Palestinians to question the uprising, often in the face of violent intimidation, is just a straw, but it is blowing the right way.

What could go wrong? Everything. In the Middle East, however, it is news when a few things emerge that might, just possibly, go right. There is no light at the end of the tunnel, but there now is, at least, a tunnel.