DO THE CROSSROADS LEAD TO PEACE IN THE MIDDLE EAST?

An Israeli lecturer claimed that Israeli society “tips [the scale] in favor of peace.” A Palestinian lecturer contended that neither Israelis nor Palestinians are “ripe enough” for peace. A Texan saw the possibility of “a tourism haven” in the Syrian-Jordanian-Israel triangle in a time of peace. And according to an Arab-American scholar, it is “a myth that the Gulf states are fabulously wealthy.”

These were some of the variegated views aired and debated here at a three-day international conference in November that looked at “The Middle East at the Crossroads.” The gathering, which discussed aspects of the peace process, socio-economic dilemmas facing the countries in the region, and different political perspectives, was organized by the University’s Jewish-Arab Center and sponsored by its Bertha von Suttner Research Program.

“There is a solid majority in Israeli society today ready for peace,” Prof. Sammy Smooha of the Department of Sociology told the audience. In addition to the Left, he included a majority of Likud Party supporters in his claim, cited in newspaper accounts of an interview with this expert in race relations, that more than 60 percent of Israeli Jews support the peace process and want the Oslo accords to be implemented. Smooha dates the change in attitude to the mid-1990s. His analysis is based on opinion polls and surveys that he and others have conducted.

Alongside the realization that peace is feasible, Smooha listed a less positive factor involved in opening the Israeli mind “to peaceful alternatives to violence and war”: fatigue. Brought on by the intifada, this “sense of attrition,” as he also termed it, has diminished Jewish stamina, significantly reduced Israelis’ willingness to bear the cost of war and violence, and increased their readiness to accommodate Arab demands for peace.

The sociologist admitted that though the situation may be different from “the bleak picture projected by the media and the impatient Left,” the situation is complex and “the balance sheet is quite mixed.”

The situation of the Palestinians and Israelis pains Mr. Sufyan abu Zayda, director of the Israel Affairs Department for the Palestinian Authority. “Even the thousands at the Rabin memorial demonstration [on the 2nd anniversary of his death] do not know the meaning of the word ‘peace,’” he stated. Israelis, as he sees it, “do not believe that Palestinians are on the same human level ... and so don’t deserve what the Jews should get.”

Among Palestinians, he continued, there are still those who will not accept “the price,” as he called it, of being resigned to a peaceful state alongside Israel. They unfortunately constitute a hurdle to peace, the Palestinian Authority representative said, speaking in Hebrew.

Abu Zayda admitted that Oslo did not bring about total peace, but he thought some of Israel’s reactions against the PA for terrorist acts committed by Hamas and Islamic Jihad to be hysterical. He rejected accusations of the PA’s “being a kind of remote control giving the green light [to those terrorist groups].”

As to security, he said that the Palestinian policy has always been clearly stated, but that “Israel hasn’t found the reliable partner that can give it what it wants”--a commitment that there will be no more acts of terrorism. The Palestinians, he said, cannot agree to such wording.

In his view, the idea behind settlements in Judea and Samaria is to prevent a Palestinian state from coming into being, whereas Israeli-Palestinian cooperation is intended to give the opposite impression. He would like to separate political and security issues. He believes that those negotiations focusing only on the political matters will seek a solution to the settlement problem, without which, he says, a Palestinian state is impossible. He is also of the opinion that an independent Palestinian state without economic cooperation with Israel would not be viable.

In the end, the Palestinian remained pessimistic, charging Israel with wanting to avoid commitments and stating he had “no faith in its intentions toward arriving at a permanent agreement.”

Prof. David W. Lesch, Associate Professor of Middle East History at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, described the Syrian economy as “a glass half empty and leaking as opposed to a glass half full and filling.” His knowledge of that country comes not only from books, but from personal experience, as well.

In the 1980s, he had formed an agency to assist American companies in making deals in the Middle East. He basically had Syria in mind, he said, since it is not a resource-poor country and seemed to offer economic potential, a relatively low debt, and expatriate capital. It also appeared to be open to private enterprise. The business mood at the time, he said, was “upbeat.”

He was to learn, however, that Syria was really undergoing what he termed “second-rate modernization.” Economic liberalization followed a “zigzag approach and was schizophrenic.” First, it was selective, since there was a fear of undercutting both the public sector and the patronage system. Then, too, Lesch said, the Asaad government often put more effort into coopting the private sector, the desire to improve the regime’s base and survivability being the main purpose of economic liberalization.

There is also a “cheaper is better attitude,” he continued, explaining that Western companies found it difficult to compete with the Syrian combination of cheap labor and cheap materials. The latter defied Western safety standards at times. Corruption is also endemic in Syria, Lesch charged. Finally, he noted that the country has no private banking system and also not enough of a regulatory regime in place to oversee trade and industry. The result is that large-scale investments go only to non-productive areas like services.

Ironically, the Texan Orientalist summed up, “the peace process constrains the level of economic performance as well as the succession. Peace itself won’t bring Syria an economic windfall, but will enable internal changes to take place.”

Jerusalem-born Dr. Muhammad Muslih, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Long Island University in New York, focused on the Gulf States. Their main challenge, he feels, will come from within. He pointed to corruption as one of the most serious problems facing these countries. Saudi Arabia, he claims, sees 29.5 percent of its oil revenues disappear and the other countries of the region are not far behind this figure of revenues lost to the state coffers. Only Kuwait, he said, has done anything to move against corruption.

The vagaries of the international oil market and having one of the world’s highest population growth rates have created both unemployment and indebtedness in the Gulf States, Muslih said. Their cash-poor situation--he described their combined revenues as “modest compared to Switzerland’s”--has had the effect of “greatly reducing both the welfare state and foreign assistance.”

Job creation is sorely needed, he continued, but these countries have no well-developed industry. Furthermore, degree holders flood the labor market. But Muslih also sees another job-related issue as posing a major challenge to these regimes in the future. This is the matter of responsible posts for commoners. The royal class reserves the senior positions for its own extended family, he said, but the younger nationals have aspirations that challenge this hold.

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