As Islamists continue to gain strength throughout the Middle East, many Americans ask: “Where are the Arab moderates?”
For an answer, I recommend an important new book called “The Arab Center: The Promise of Moderation,” written by one of the most thoughtful analysts in the region, former Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher, who played a key role in drafting the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative and the Middle East “road map” backed by the White House.
At a time when the administration's efforts to promote democracy in the Middle East are in tatters, and Iraq's fate is uncertain, Arab moderates have become an endangered species.
“They do exist,” Muasher told me in an interview. But, he added, “this Arab center is sinking fast. Radicalism is on the rise, and moderates are on the defensive.”
This book explains why.
Muasher was involved in just about every aspect of the peace process over the last 20 years. His description of the political and psychological challenges he faced as Jordan's first ambassador to Israel is fascinating.
But the core of his book examines how an Arab center – in Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia – came together after 9/11, out of recognition that it had to address its peoples' frustrations. Its focus was on rejuvenating the Arab-Israeli peace process. “Arab moderates fought and won the battle against the radicals in the Arab world to develop the Arab Peace Initiative and the road map,” Muasher says.
Yet that center failed, says Muasher, for two reasons. First, it was unable to resolve the peace process in which America and Israel showed little active interest. And second, the center focused only on the peace process and not on domestic reforms.
“So when Arab society looks at what the center has done, they say, `You've done nothing,”' Muasher says ruefully. “They say, `You've not brought peace, and you've done nothing on reforms at home, so why should we believe you?' “ With moderates discredited, the public is susceptible to Islamist appeals.
Muasher gives important details about the drafting of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. Promoted by then-Saudi Crown Prince (and now King) Abdullah, it called for all Arab states to establish normal relations with Israel in exchange for “full Israeli withdrawal from all territories occupied since 1967.”
Israel objected to provisions on full withdrawal and on ending the Palestinian refugee problem. Muasher says he got the term agreed inserted into the refugee proviso, which meant no final formula could be worked out without Israeli approval.
But the Arab offer, which remains alive, was ignored by the White House and Israel. Similarly, the administration “only gave lip service to the road map.” Nor did Israel or Washington bolster the moderate Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, which led to the election victory of Hamas.
Then there was the Iraq war, which, says Muasher, “shattered the credibility of the Arab center and elevated Islamists.” As for the Bush administration's democracy campaign, the White House rejected election results when Hamas and Hezbollah won. The old guard in moderate Arab states then felt free to resist political reforms, because it said Islamists would win at the ballot box.
Sleave Arab reforms to Arabs
Muasher is harshly critical of resistance to reform by traditional Arab rulers. He also criticizes the failure of Arab civil society and intelligentsia to speak out for reform, blaming their silence on the lack of civic institutions, a lack of organization and on government suppression. He says Arab moderates face two choices: plant the seeds of gradual reform now (without waiting for the peace process), or get ready for the Islamists to come.
He argues that a new U.S. president should leave the Arab reform issue to Arabs themselves, but take up the Arab-Israeli peace process immediately. That, he says, will bolster centrist Arabs who want change at home. He believes that “the solutions are out there,” referring to the Arab Initiative as well as peace outlines reached between Israelis and Palestinians at the end of President Clinton's second term.
“My real concern is that the region is becoming radicalized beyond repair,” Muasher says bleakly. “Without the active support of the United States – in deeds, not just words – the center will soon be overwhelmed by radicalism.”
That is certainly a message the next president should take to heart.