Arab progressives tend to view the changes initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika as harmful to the cause of Arab national liberation. One leading pan-Arab statesman privately described the rapprochement between East and West as portending the disintegration of the Communist bloc and the total hegemony of the United States. In his opinion, far from favoring global peace and stability, this situation threatens new global conflagration and cataclysms in the Third World.

In the view of many Arab parties, Moscow’s new policy towards the Middle East subordinates its previous stand on the Arab-Israeli conflict to the relations it is now keen to develop with Washington. Moving from “confrontation to cooperation and mutual involvement” with the US appears incompatible with the long-standing policy of holding relations with Israel hostage to that country’s withdrawal from the Occupied Territories. As for the wave of Soviet Jewish emigration to Israel, respect for the right of Soviet Jews to emigrate in the name of the Helsinki accords on human rights is one thing; using the emigration issue as a trump card in a deal at the expense of the Arabs is another.

Some of the thinking behind the new Soviet attitudes was apparent three years ago, when I attended a briefing by Moscow’s top troubleshooter, Yuli Vorontsov. He explained that the Soviet Union does not side with the Arabs against the Israelis, but upholds the legitimate rights of all protagonists and opposes illegal acts by any party. While confirming the Soviet Union’s continued opposition to Israel’s illegal occupation of Arab territory, this statement also disapproves of what could be labeled “terrorism.” During his February 1989 visit to Cairo, Soviet Foreign Minister Edvard Shevardnadze called on all parties to exclude “the image of the enemy” from international relations, as this is incompatible with the principle of the peaceful settlement of disputes.

In the short term, Israel will certainly benefit from Soviet “new thinking.” Out with the old bipolar, Manichaean world outlook is the traditional reflexive Soviet support for the Arabs, now considered to have often been “indiscriminate.” Gorbachev’s “interdependent, interrelated and integral” world view will likely lead to a spectacular improvement in the relations of the Soviet Union and other East European countries with Israel. Strong pro-Israel “lobbies” with an ever greater impact on the decision-making process are emerging in most East European states. It is no longer only Jewish citizens of these countries who portray the “cause” of Israel as one of the many causes which have been unduly repressed and persecuted in the past. With Eastern Europe at the center of world attention, the Middle East, with the exception of Israel, is becoming marginalized. As long as the division of Europe into two antagonistic blocs seemed to be an unalterable fact of life, the Middle East enjoyed a high profile in superpower strategies. In the aftermath of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956, the Soviets perceived Egypt’s confrontation with imperialism as the linchpin in the decolonization process that extended to Africa, Asia and Latin America. The entente between the socialist bloc and Third World national liberation movements altered the global balance of power and paved the way for “parity” between East and West.

The hike in oil prices and Sadat’s opening to Israel in the aftermath of the October 1973 war contributed to the United States’ replacing the Soviet Union as the superpower with the greatest leverage over the region. Sadat hoped that his “pioneer” role in achieving peace with Israel would enable Egypt to become Washington’s main strategic ally in the region, and he actively endorsed the early Reagan-era notion of establishing an anti-Soviet strategic consensus in the region. As long as the Middle East remained a central element in the global game, stands of the superpowers in the region were determined by global rather than regional considerations, though this often produced policy failures. Thus the assumptions of Camp David — that “moderate” Arabs would eventually accept peace with Israel because communism was a greater threat than Zionism — proved to be a miscalculation. Conversely, socialist bloc support for the Arabs in the Arab-Israeli conflict was not always motivated by support for Arab national liberation.

Identity Crisis

The new global game downgrades the Arab side in the short term, but I believe that it will serve Arab national liberation in the long term. Arab national liberation cannot be at total variance with the movement for liberty now sweeping across Eastern Europe. One-party regimes once claimed to embody socialist principles, but proved in Eastern Europe to represent a system that was far from emancipatory. This has helped undermine the legitimacy of their Arab counterparts. Attempts to distinguish between East European and similar regimes in the Arab world, on the grounds that the ideology of the former is Communist and the latter a national brand of socialism, are not convincing. The logic of the one-party structure is more telling than the ideological content of the regimes. The rapprochement now underway between some Arab states, notably Egypt’s recent reconciliations with Libya and Syria, express Arab solidarity and a closing of ranks in the face of a “common threat” — not only from Israel but also from popular uprisings.

In recent months, Jordan, Algeria and Tunisia have introduced some form of multi-party system. Iraq is following the path Mubarak established in Egypt, and street demonstrations in Kuwait prove that even the conservative states of the Arabian Peninsula are no longer immune from liberalization. Mubarak has deliberately encouraged secular opposition, both on the left (the Tagammu‘) and center-right (the Wafd) to deprive the radical religious opposition from becoming the dominant force in the political arena. So far, pluralism in the Arab world has been an instrument for containing the street rather than unleashing it; ensuring diversification has been a means to divide and weaken the opposition rather than strengthen it.

There is at least one basic difference between Eastern Europe and the Arab world: The alternative to existing Arab regimes is not liberalism but fundamentalism. Upheavals aimed at “renewing” the Arab world may be radically opposed to democratic values. The downfall of existing Arab regimes may bring about governments still more opposed to peace with Israel, not the opposite. As long as politics is identified with “imported values” manipulated by alien forces, the Arab identity crisis finds expression in religious extremism.

These factors need not continue to impede Arab emancipation and renewal. The Palestinian intifada is the one movement in the Middle East similar to the popular uprisings in Eastern Europe. Movements outside the Arab world that support the cause of freedom will not, in the long run, side with the party whose central objective is to repress it. Nor will they endorse Shamir’s view that the massive influx of Jews into Israel justifies opposing an exchange of land for peace.

The Arabs need to convince such movements that the grievances of the Palestinians and not the Israelis should be addressed first to achieve progress toward peace in the Middle East. This requires a vision that identifies with the ideals of freedom, human rights and democracy now so seemingly irrepressible elsewhere in the world. Fundamentalism in its sectarian, exclusivist, fanatical expressions can only be overcome by movements embodying freedom, diversity and pluralism, movements that effectively represent new, grassroots, democratic aspirations of the masses.

For such movements to materialize in the Middle East, all parties must admit that partisans of freedom are not only on their side. There are legitimate claims on more than one side, and recognition of these claims must be reciprocal, not unilateral. If the right of return is a sine qua non for the Israelis, the same right should be ensured to the Palestinians. The Israelis must come to admit the legitimacy of the Palestinian liberation movement, while the Arabs must accept that Israel cannot be reduced to a problem of settler-colonialism, that there still exists a “Jewish problem” which the creation of Israel has not definitively solved.

Shevardnadze’s idea of relinquishing the image of the enemy may contain the seeds of a solution. But for this perception to reach its logical conclusion, a number of key issues must be settled. First and foremost, a balanced attitude on the part of the superpowers is necessary. The US has dealings with the PLO, and the Soviet Union has developed relations with Israel. Yet Washington seems to have used its dialogue with the PLO not so much to promote PLO-Israeli talks as to “neutralize” the Palestinian leadership. The US clearly endorses Israel’s goal of creating an alternative, more acceptable, Palestinian negotiating team. On the other side, the pace at which Soviet-Israeli relations are improving indicates that these relations are no longer held contingent on progress in the Middle East negotiations — a distressing prospect to Arab friends of the Soviet Union. Most fundamentally, no new factors should adversely affect the internationally accepted principle that a settlement should be based on the exchange of land for peace.

Events in Eastern Europe may help induce a democratization process in the Arab world. This appears to be a necessary if not sufficient condition for future peaceful coexistence with Israel. But so far these developments have confirmed Israel’s image as a body whose consolidation and survival depend, in the final analysis, on extra-regional inputs. Peace in the long run cannot be based on forcing the Arabs to accommodate themselves to the requirements of a society perceived as an intruder into the region. Rather, Israelis must accommodate themselves to the requirements of the region they have chosen to live in.

How to cite this article:

Mohamed Sid-Ahmed "Consequences of Perestroika," Middle East Report 164-165 (May/June 1990).

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