The New York Times
Published: November 28, 2007
President Bush watches as Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas shake hands at the Israel-Palestinian Peace Conference at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, November 27, 2007.
Annapolis, Md.- The Middle East is experiencing something we haven’t seen in a long, long time: moderates getting their act together a little, taking tentative stands and pushing back on the bad guys. If all that sounds kind of, sort of, maybe, qualified, well ... it is. But in a region in which extremists go all the way and the moderates usually just go away, it’s the first good news in years — an oasis in a desert of despair.
The only problem is that this tentative march of the moderates — which got a useful boost here with the Annapolis peace gathering — is driven largely by fear, not by any shared vision of a region where Sunni and Shiite, Arab and Jew, trade, interact, collaborate and compromise in the way that countries in Southeast Asia have learned to do for their mutual benefit.
So far, “this is the peace of the afraid,” said Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief of Al Arabiya, a satellite news channel.
Fear can be a potent motivator. Fear of Al Qaeda running their lives finally got the Sunni tribes of Iraq to rise up against the pro-Al Qaeda Sunnis, even to the point of siding with the Americans. Fear of Shiite thugs in the Iranian-backed Mahdi Army has prompted many more Shiites in Iraq to side with the pro-U.S. Iraqi government and army. Fear of a Hamas takeover has driven Fatah into a tighter working relationship with Israel. And fear of spreading Iranian influence has all the Arab states — particularly Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan — working in even closer coordination with America and in tacit cooperation with Israel. Fear of Fatah collapsing, and of Israel inheriting responsibility for the West Bank’s Palestinian population forever, has brought Israel back to Washington’s negotiating table. Fear of isolation even brought Syria here.
But fear of predators can only take you so far. To build a durable peace, it takes a shared agenda, a willingness by moderates to work together to support one another and help each other beat back the extremists in each camp. It takes something that has been sorely lacking since the deaths of Anwar Sadat, Yitzhak Rabin and King Hussein: a certain moral courage to do something “surprising.”
Since 2000, the only people who have surprised us are the bad guys. Each week they have surprised us with new ways and places to kill people. The moderates, by contrast, have been surprise-free — until the Sunni tribes in Iraq took on Al Qaeda. What I’ll be looking for in the coming months is whether the moderates can surprise each other and surprise the extremists.
The Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, announced even before he got to Annapolis that there would be no handshakes with any Israelis. Too bad. A handshake alone is not going to get Israel to give back the West Bank. But a surprising gesture of humanity, like a simple handshake from a Saudi leader to an Israeli leader, would actually go a long way toward convincing Israelis that there is something new here, that it’s not just about the Arabs being afraid of Iran, but that they’re actually willing to coexist with Israel. Ditto Israel. Why not surprise Palestinians with a generous gesture on prisoners or roadblocks? Has the stingy old way worked so well?
The Israeli-Palestinian peace process has been so starved of emotional content since the Rabin assassination that it has no connection to average people anymore. It’s just words — a bunch of gobbledygook about “road maps.” The Saudis are experts at telling America that it has to be more serious. Is it too much to ask the Saudis to make our job a little easier by shaking an Israeli leader’s hand?
The other surprise we need to see is moderates going all the way. Moderates who are not willing to risk political suicide to achieve their ends are never going to defeat extremists who are willing to commit physical suicide.
The reason that Mr. Rabin and Mr. Sadat were so threatening to extremists is because they were moderates ready to go all the way — a rare breed. I understand that no leader today wants to stick his neck out. They have reason to be afraid, but they have no reason to believe they’ll make history any other way.
President Bush said in opening the Annapolis conference that this was not the end of something, but a new beginning of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. You won’t need a Middle East expert to explain to you whether it’s working. If you just read the headlines in the coming months and your eyes glaze over, then, as the Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea put it to me, you’ll know that Annapolis turned the ignition key “on a car with four flat tires.”
But if you pick up the newspaper and see Arab and Israeli moderates doing things that surprise you, and you hear yourself exclaiming, “Wow, I’ve never seen that before!” you’ll know we’re going somewhere.