The momentous nature of several events in the Middle East has prompted many observers to focus on a few issues and give them primacy in shaping the transformation of the region. These include the Arab citizen revolts across the region that comprise a veritable new Arab Awakening, the rise in Turkey’s role, and the Palestinian initiative to seek recognition of statehood at the United Nations.
These are indeed game-changing developments. But they should not detract from the much wider array of changes under way that represent a rare moment of historic and strategic transformation. The following 10 issues are critical examples of change and together define this new strategic environment:
First, the Middle East has probably reached the limits of what can be achieved through conventional warfare between Arabs and Israelis, or Iranians as well, following the destruction of the last two Israeli wars with Lebanon and Gaza during the past 5 years. The doctrines of deterrence and resistance will now be assessed in new terms.
Second, the United States continues to marginalize itself as a credible or forceful actor in the region, through its increasingly one-sided support for Israel. Washington has very little influence today with the four principal national actors in the Middle East--Arabs, Israelis, Turks, and Iranians. They all routinely rebuff its overtures and ignore its pressures and threats. The U.S. is the world’s strongest power, but also the weakest power in the Middle East.
Third, the ongoing Arab citizen revolts are changing a region that was once defined by autocrats and police states to one more widely infused with mechanisms of popular and participatory democracy, real constitutionalism, and the consent of the governed--with a strong cross-cutting demand for more social justice among newly liberated and empowered citizens. The emerging Arab world will be defined much more by concepts of the rule of law and social equity.
Fourth, Iran and Turkey are both in the process of having to adjust their relations and policies in the region, in view of their evolving domestic conditions and the new realities in the area.
Fifth, the political transition in Egypt has shown that the country will play a role in the Middle East that echoes its days half a century ago, when it was a trendsetter for the Arab region, a shaper and player in the realm of Arab national interests and dignity, and a leader in the confrontation with Israel (without going to war with Israel).
Sixth, the steady isolation of Israel (with that of its American ally and protector), due primarily to its own aggressive policies against Palestinians and other Arabs, has created a new reality. This reality is that Israel’s traditional leading asset – its military superiority – is proving less and less relevant to political changes in the region, as nationalist confrontations are increasingly articulated in political and populist terms, rather than in gunfights.
Seventh, the global tendency toward reaffirming the concept that states or individuals are legally accountable for their actions is being given life through mechanisms such as the International Criminal Court, Security Council sanctions, special tribunals, and other organs of the United Nations system. The Goldstone Report was one example of this, and the hysterical American-Israeli reaction to curtail it emphasized how worried the U.S.-Israel combine is about being subjected to international legal, political and ethical accountability.
Eighth, the Fatah-led Palestinian initiative at the U.N. in September represents a timely example of how even weak and vulnerable parties that are not recognized states can shake up the global political system and initiate new dynamics through bold action. The realization that the powerless actually have power will come into play more frequently in the months and years ahead, as regional and global confrontations shift from the battlefield to the court house and the councils of international organizations.
Ninth, the request for U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state also represents an important shift away from failed American mediation in the Arab-Israeli conflict towards an attempt to address and resolve this conflict through more legitimate and effective forums, at the U.N. and elsewhere.
And tenth, the renewed activism of Palestinian refugees around the region and the world, like the continued development of the Palestinian movement to boycott, sanction and divest from Israel until it grants the Palestinians their legal rights, also represents an important and fundamental shift into a new arena of combat on the basis of challenging Israel’s predatory and racist policies against Palestinians. More and more frequently, “Israel” and “Apartheid” are being used in the same sentence. This means that global reactions to Israeli policies will become increasingly hard.
This wider perception of changes under way across the Middle East may offer a more complete view of how individual developments link together to create a new foundation for the resumption of national history that was stunted, and essentially suspended, in our region for over half a century.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.