One of this paper’s more cheery recent editorials concluded: "Just as the Crusader kingdoms lasted less that a century, Israel too could easily vanish in the next half-century or so." To the litany of threats listed in the piece – complete diplomatic delegitimization in Europe, a hostile Arab world stirred to genocidal frenzy, proliferating weapons of mass destruction – one could easily add many more: no water to drink, new threats to civilian aviation, and an economy headed south with no end in sight. In short, we suffer no dearth of news to keep us awake at night.
Yet it is possible to contemplate a number of potentially positive developments as well without entering the laughing gas world of the New Middle East. Let’s start with Iraq.
It still remains far from clear who outfoxed whom with Security Council Resolution 1441. So far Saddam Hussein is more than holding his own. As international lawyer Anne Bayefsky has pointed out, prior to the resolution the United States could have gone to war claiming that it was enforcing previous Security Council resolutions. Now, no matter what Iraq does, the United States is committed to securing prior Security Council authorization. Even if the U.S. proves that Iraq has served the Security Council 12,000 pages of bull, it would still not have its automatic casus belli.
Saddam has no reason not to maintain a façade of cooperation, especially since the inspectors’ task is comparable to finding the proverbial needle in the haystack. Saddam has had four years to hide his WMDs and to create mobile production and storage facilities. Even under a much more aggressive inspection regime than the present one, he was able to hide both his nuclear weapons program and his biological and chemical weapons for years.
On the other hand, President Bush has not spent billions to transport an entire army to the Middle East for nothing. The recent Republican electoral triumphs were largely seen as a referendum on his aggressive stance towards Iraq, and Bush has little interest in having Saddam making a monkey out of him.
Saddam’s removal would not guarantee an end to all internal turmoil in Iraq. But Iraq has the most educated and westernized middle class of any Arab nation and the real possibility exists of a Western-oriented federation of Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds emerging.
Moving on to Iran. The country’s mullahs are in grave danger. In recent months, hundreds of thousands of Iranians have taken to the street to march against the government. One of the country’s leading religious figures, Ayatollah Jalabad Taheri, a one-time colleague of Ayatollah Khomeini, resigned from the Supreme Religious Council with a blistering five-page letter castigating the country’s religious leadership for a laundry list of failures -- "deception, unemployment, inflation, the diabolical gap between the rich and poor, bribery, cheating, growing drug consumption, the incompetence of the authorities and the failure of the political structure" -- and for having driven the population away from Islam. Michael Ledeen, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, reports that a secret poll by the mullahs found that only about 4% of the Iranian people think the government is legitimate.
The current round of street demonstrations – which have been shamefully underreported in the prestige American press – are reminiscent of the final days of the Shah or of some Eastern European regimes circa 1989. That does not mean the mullahs are history yet. The Shah’s troops lacked the stomach to mow down their countrymen. The ayatollahs governing Iran today may have no such compunctions. The world is full of Islamic fanatics who view wholesale slaughter of their fellow human beings as a matter of supreme virtue. Nevertheless, a storm of popular unrest has been unleashed, and will not be easy for the ayatollahs to snuff out.
The Iranian people know better than any other the consequences of fanatic Islamic rule. Their marching cry is, "Death to the Taliban, in Kabul and Tehran." In Iran, as in Iraq, the likelihood is that any government that replaced the present one would be both secular and Western in orientation.
The consequences of a change of regime in Iran are almost inestimable. Iran today is the main supporter of international terrorists, including Hizbullah, which keeps Israel’s northern border in a state of constant tension. Were both Iraq and Iran to move into the Western camp, the major nightmare facing Israel – the development of nuclear weapons by one or both – would be removed.
Closer to home, King Abdullah of Jordan has shown a clear determination to lead his country away from the path of Islamic fanaticism by taking on Jordan’s powerful and Islamic-controlled professional unions. The Jordanian Supreme Court ruled recently that it is illegal for the unions to ban members from any contact with Israelis, and three anti-Israel union activists were promptly arrested. At the same time, the government ordered the Engineer’s Union, the country’s largest and richest, disbanded after Islamic groups won a large majority in recent elections.
At a White House Chanukah gathering last week, President Bush stressed that his June 24 speech, not the Quartet Roadmap, expresses his essential vision for the Arab-Israeli conflict. Since the June 24 speech and the Roadmap patently contradict one another, this is a matter of no little significance. On June 24, the President made clear that he sees no role for Yassir Arafat in the Palestinian future and that a Palestinian state must be earned by a cessation of terrorism and the creation of a viable democracy.
The appointment of Elliot Abrams, an outspoken proponent of spreading democratic values, to the Middle East portfolio on the National Security Council reinforces Bush’s Chanukah remark. As former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk put it, "If the Administration were preparing for a new push on the road map, [Abrams] would be a unusual appointment." Last week’s Presidential Determination that the Palestinian Authority has not complied with its obligations under the Oslo Accords is yet a third signal that Yassir Arafat is not part of the President’s vision for the future Middle East.
The failure of the current uprising to secure for the Palestinians any tangible gains and the bitterness generated by the corrupt Palestinian Authority rule has weakened Arafat internally. Arafat’s fabled nine lives notwithstanding, it becomes easier with each passing day to construct scenarios for his departure from the scene, and his replacement by a less corrupt and more pragmatic group of Palestinian leaders.
None of these potentially favorable developments is guaranteed by any stretch of the imagination. And other less sanguine developments must also be noted, particularly the recent electoral victory of an Islamic party in Turkey, which has traditionally been Israel’s only ally in the region and which may well be a major exporter of water to Israel in the dry years ahead.
Yet the realization of any one of the above optimistic scenarios would make all the rest more likely. As a consequence, it is at least possible to imagine Israel no longer isolated in the region, and Israelis traveling and conducting business in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Jordan.
When contemplating these positive trends, one common element stands out. Except for the weakening of Arafat’s position, not one of the scenarios can be attributed to anything that Israel has done or can do. Neither Israel’s military might nor Jewish brains will ultimately determine whether there is regime change in Iraq or Iraq. Nor did Israel have anything to do with the election of George W. Bush as president or with the clear focus and determination with which he has conducted foreign affairs since September 11.
Whether a brave world new world lies on the immediate horizon no one knows for sure. In the meantime, our primary task is to hand tough and let Him do His.