by Dr. Ziad J. Asali
As tension mounts in the Arab world over the Iraq war, it is imperative to act quickly to repair the political and diplomatic damage to US-Arab relations and our reputation in the Middle East.
As it stands, American foreign policy seems to many Arabs to be little more than a laundry list of states, organizations and ideas we don’t like. Yet the most crucial aspects of our foreign policy, above all the “war on terror,” require the cooperation of Arab and Muslim governments and societies. We must demonstrate, and soon, that the American agenda has something positive to offer the people of the Middle East.
Traditionally, the United States has been admired, for its liberties and democratic values, by a solid majority in the Arab world. Over the years, this has been worn down by support for despotic regimes and opposition to democratic reforms.
But the principal cause of mistrust of the United States in the Arab world is the plight of the Palestinian people. For decades, Arabs have watched American support for Israel steadily increase, as the condition of the Palestinians became increasingly dire.
Numerous false starts toward peace and an end to the occupation have only increased cynicism about American intentions to the Palestinians in particular and the Arabs in general.
This effect has become particularly pronounced over the past two other half years, during the latest Palestinian uprising against Israeli rule in the Occupied Territories. The development of pan-Arab satellite news stations, particularly Al-Jazeera, has proven decisive.
Millions across the region have been subjected to daily images of unarmed Palestinians being killed by Israeli occupation forces, homes being demolished, land expropriated, civilian areas bombed, and a slow but inexorable process of grinding impoverishment of an entire people.
The United States is perceived as Israel’s unconditional supporter, as the patron who supplies money and weapons and the protector who defends against international criticism and intervention.
In recent years, Arabs have witnessed an Israeli policy of national humiliation directly against the Palestinian people, and they have taken it personally. This is why anger has boiled over even in states like Kuwait, where United States was wildly popular a few years ago.
Palestine has become, for better or worse, a synecdoche for the entire Arab experience. Every aspect of international relations is viewed through this lens, including our war in Iraq. An American occupation of Iraq, however benign it may be, will be seen by many as an extension of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands. This is a catastrophe for our foreign policy and our relations with hundreds of millions of Arabs, and countless more Muslims besides, that our country simply cannot afford.
At the same time, the Israeli public has been faced with suicide bombings and other atrocities by Palestinian extremist groups, which have played on its deepest existential fears. These tactics swept Israel’s right-wing extremists to power, and united the country behind the illusion of an imminent military victory over the Palestinian rebellion.
Both Palestinians and Israelis have turned away from the peace process. For Palestinians, the Oslo process years were set of empty promises dragging on while they watched their country being sliced away like a salami for more and more settlements. For Israelis, the peace process is now seen as a prelude to uncontrolled violence.
The Palestinians see their violent resistance as necessitated by Israel’s violent occupation. Israel sees its violent occupation as necessitated by the Palestinians’ violent resistance.
External intervention is absolutely required to break this Gordian knot. Only the United States has the influence with both parties to make that break.
The contours of a lasting settlement are: 1. Palestine alongside Israel, with borders defined by UN Resolutions 242 and 338; 2. A shared Jerusalem that fulfills the political aspirations of two peoples and the three monotheistic religions; 3. A fair and lasting solution of the refugee problem that is in accordance with international legality; 4. An end to occupation and settlements; 5. Peace with the Arab world based on exchange of land for peace and open borders for all; 6. A Marshal Plan to rebuild Palestine and peace.
This vision of a lasting peace has received public support in one form or another from the United States, the United Nations, the Arab League, and the majority of the Palestinian and Israeli peoples.
It is the key to peace and stability in the Middle East, and for demonstrating to the Arab and Muslim worlds that American foreign policy has something truly positive to offer.
We have a vital, one should probably say overwhelming, national interest in insisting on the realization of the only viable option for peace in the Middle East.