A new American plan entitled "Greater Middle East Initiative" (1)
calls for providing massive economic aid and security arrangements
to encourage Middle Eastern countries to introduce major economic,
judicial and political reforms conduct free elections empower women
promote human rights and adopt market economies. The initiative
borrows some of its ideas from the United Nations Arab Development
Reports issued in 2002 and 2003, an indication that the problems
plaguing the region are caused by political and economic
stagnation, and not by Israel or the United States.
In an article published in Survival in spring 2003, Phillip Gordon
writes that there are at least four main assumptions behind U.S.
President George W. Bush's strategy for the Middle East. This paper
focuses on the first and most basic of these assumptions, namely
that the status quo has become unacceptable. For decades the U.S.
basically had a deal with repressive regimes throughout the Arab
world: They could run their countries more or less the way they
wanted, as long as they were willing to sell oil to the West at
reasonable prices, act as U.S. strategic allies, and not threaten
the Middle Eastern regional order. Both liberal idealists on the
left and neo-conservatives on the right had long been questioning
this deal on moral grounds, but after September 11, 2001, this
arrangement faced serious trouble. The price the U.S. had to pay
for its old policy had become all too evident. This eventually
prompted Bush to introduce in his speech of February 2004 the new
plan dubbed as a "New Vision for a Greater Middle East."
Fear of Change
The immediate official Arab reaction was to reject Bush's new
paradigm for the Middle East, which begs the question why should
the Arab systems fear change? What makes them dread this American
vision when it seeks comprehensive reforms in the Arab world?
In fact, reform should not be an American or a European demand; it
should spring from a genuine desire on the part of the Arab states
to initiate the required changes in order to join the 21st century.
How correct is it at this point to fall back on the age-old
rationale that Arab traditions and culture cannot tolerate nor
accommodate Western concepts of liberty, equality, democracy,
better educational opportunities, women's liberation, and social
and economic development? Are these concepts so truly foreign to
the Arab way of life that they should be flatly denied?
What Is Wrong? What Needs to Be Done?
When one Middle Eastern country, Israel, with no natural resources
such as oil, has a gross national product (GNP) equal to more than
that of most Arab countries put together; or when the GNP of all
the Arab countries combined is less than that of Spain alone; or
when more than 40 percent of the Arab population cannot read or
write, then there is cause for concern. The Arabs must pose and
ponder: What is wrong? What needs to be done? And how can we move
The grounds on which the American proposal was so coldly received
have, therefore, to be addressed very seriously. One reason given
is that the implementation of democracy in the Arab world would
eventually lead to anarchy. A second motive is that the cause of
democracy in the Arab world, and even in Palestine, cannot and
should not be promoted as long as the Arab-Israeli conflict has not
been resolved and an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian
territory has not been achieved. A third cause is the suspicion
that the Bush initiative would result in American interference in
the region's domestic affairs and in the domination of the existing
political systems. Finally, one explanation says efforts to promote
good governance, democracy, accountability, transparency and
prosperity in the Greater Middle East Plan cannot run parallel to
the implementation of the Road Map for peace.
This is not the first time that we have been rushed into rejecting
international initiatives aimed at promoting peace and development
in our region, even without giving them a second thought. Abba Eban
once noted that the "Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss
an opportunity" - and I believe this is also true of the Arabs as a
whole. From the UN Partition Resolution of 1947, to the Rogers
Peace Plan of 1968, to the Camp David summits of 1978 and 2000, to
the Greater Middle East Vision of 2004, we have been missing one
opportunity after another. This myopic rejectionist mentality
should be the first to change. This means the U.S. proposal
deserves to be viewed on its own terms- not whether the people of
the region have been consulted or not, or whether it addresses the
Arab-Israeli conflict or not. Continued interest in resolving the
Arab-Israeli conflict is commendable but should not be exclusivist.
At the end of the day, the most important question to be asked is
whether the U.S. plan is in the interest of the Arab people or
It has always been claimed that the unequivocal U.S. support of
Israeli aggressive policies against the Palestinians is what fuels
much of the anger among the Arab masses against American foreign
policies in the Middle East. As a Palestinian, I must say this
should not be another excuse to exploit the Palestinian cause in
order to reject an initiative that aims to promote the general
welfare of the Arab people. Seeking a just and comprehensive peace
in the Middle East should not overshadow all other initiatives that
might, if realized, help toward that endeavor.
Opposing such an agenda will be another missed opportunity. It may
encourage the U.S. administration to lean on other unilateral
initiatives, such as Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan. Now that
Bush has been reelected for a second term, we hope he will stand
firm by this policy.
In my view, initiatives such as the Barcelona process and the Road
Map, which aim to bring peace, democracy, human dignity and
prosperity to our region, are in the interest of the Arab people;
they are opportunities that should not be missed. The Greater
Middle East Initiative is one such opportunity.
(1)The initiative was presented at the G8 summit in June
2004.The term Middle East here includes the Arab countries, Israel,
Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan.