By Michael Mandelbaum, professor of American foreign policy at the Johns
Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the
Council on Foreign Relations.
April 10, 2002
IN HIS ROSE Garden speech on the Arab-Israeli conflict last Thursday, President
George W. Bush said Arab states must “rise to this occasion and accept Israel
as a nation and as a neighbor.”
The president was right to address the Arab governments in this way and right
to send Secretary of State Colin Powell to several Arab capitals this week
before he travels to Israel.
The Arab regimes bear a large share of the responsibility for the origins and the
continuation of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and it is in their power to do a great
deal to end it.
Unfortunately, Bush’s well-chosen words, and whatever Powell tells the Arab
leaders privately, are likely to have little effect. Perpetuating the conflict with
Israel serves interests that are more important to these governments than is
peace with Israel or the approval of the United States.
The responsibility of the Arab states for the ongoing conflict began in 1948.
The United Nations had voted in favor of partitioning British-held Palestine into
two sovereign states, one Jewish and the other Arab. After the vote, Israel
declared its independence and offered to recognize the new Arab – Palestinian –
But the existing Arab countries refused to recognize either and invaded
Israel from three sides.
In the course of that war Arabs left what became Israel, many because they
were told to do so by their leaders, who promised they would return when the
Jewish state had been destroyed. But Israel won the war, and those who had
left remained in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.
While Israel absorbed a comparable number of Jews fleeing Arab countries, the
governments of the Arab countries forced Palestinians to live in separate camps
and refused them citizenship, deliberately creating the refugee problem that has
persisted for more than 50 years and complicating efforts at peacemaking.
After 1948, the Arab governments launched an ongoing campaign of violent
harassment against Israel that led to the 1967 war in which the Israelis
captured, among other territories, the West Bank and Gaza, the places where
fighting now rages.
After that war, once again, the Arab governments refused to negotiate
peace with Israel despite United Nations resolutions calling on them to do so.
After yet another war, in 1973, Egypt and, ultimately, Jordan did sign peace
treaties with Israel.
But in the year 2000, when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered Yasser
Arafat a Palestinian state on virtually all of the territory captured in 1967, with
a Jerusalem shared with Israel as its capital, the leaders of Egypt and Saudi
Arabia urged him to refuse, which he did.
The war he started in the wake of his refusal finally triggered the Israeli
military operations of the last several days.
The Arab governments supply Arafat with the money and political support upon
which his position as Palestinian leader depends. If they chose to do so, they
could pressure him to make peace with Israel or encourage the Palestinians to
find another leader willing to do so.
But they have chosen to do neither, and something that Bush said in his speech
lies at the heart of their unwillingness to take the steps necessary for peace:
“The Middle East,” he noted, “has often been left behind in the political
and economic advancement of the world.”
The region has been left behind because it suffers from bad governments. None
of the Arab regimes is a democracy or presides over a successful economy. All
practice political repression. In each, the rulers are personally corrupt. Every
one has a demonstrated record of incompetence in economic management.
State-controlled news media in the Arab world print and broadcast virulently
anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic material.
The conflict with Israel is a convenient, perhaps even indispensable, device for
each regime to divert the attention of the chief victims of its dismal
performance – those it rules.
It is also a way to place the blame for their condition on an external
enemy – Israel – rather than on those – the rulers themselves – who bear
responsibility for it.
Thus, like the Jewish communities that were singled out for blame for plagues
and political and economic troubles throughout European history, Israel
functions as a scapegoat for the misfortunes of its Arab neighbors.
Addressing all the governments of the region, President Bush said last week: “I
expect better leadership and I expect results.”
Better leadership in the Arab world is indeed the key to the result that the world
wants: peace in the Mideast.
But the current Arab leaders have shown no inclination to provide it.