A New Middle East?
About the future of the regionAugust 2006
The talk is of a new Middle East. But what new Middle East? And whose new Middle East? A Middle East designed in Washington DC or, for that matter, Teheran, built to suit the needs of foreigners? Or a Middle East evolved by the locals, built to suit their needs?
Much of the thinking on the Middle East is predicated on the past, or on issues with more past than future, such as the oil and arms trades, the Holocaust, the holy books, foreign interests, who was here first or who has the right to return. But this is no new Middle East - it is a continuation of the old, ridden with problems we all know so well, or new complexities leading out of them.
If we're looking for a genuinely new Middle East, two things help. We need to look at what is nascent and new there. And we need to look realistically at the further future - 2050 or 2080 - and what the region and the world might look like at that time. We need to anchor our judgements to a future reference-point, counting back from there to see a way forward from here. Today's children will see it take shape in their lifetimes.
Peace and cooperation in the Middle East is inevitable. The big question is, how long will it take and what is involved? What is also likely longterm is some sort of reintegration of the region, perhaps as a union, federation or a consensus of nations. Throughout history the region has been more unified than not - whether under Ottomans, Seljuqs, Abbasids, Umayyads, Byzantines, Romans, Greeks, Persians or Babylonians. Except these were empires or tributary suzerainties, and the trend of today is toward unions.
This points to one of the root causes of today's conflicts: the relatively recent past. Territorial division of the region by the British and French around 1920, after the disintegration of the Ottoman empire, led to the creation of states such as Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Palestine. Palestine was re-divided around 1948 into Israel and the West Bank, the latter coming under Jordan's administration until the Six Day War of 1967 and the West Bank's occupation by Israel. This territorial division reflected more the European need to model states in its own image than the needs of the people living in these areas. Part of the agenda was to create small states unable to challenge the hegemony of foreign powers - initially Britain and France, later USA.
This created a massive sociological and ethnic problem that lies behind today's conflicts. Originally the many ethnic groups of the region defined themselves not by territory but by social role - they lived and mixed with each other, or lived in different city quarters, villages or areas, and they all had a place in the scheme of things. As Arabs correctly point out, the Jews of Damascus, Baghdad, Alexandria and Jerusalem had few problems with neighbouring Arabs, Druze, Christians, Bedouin, Kurds or Turks, and everyone got on well enough under whatever dynasty that ruled at the time. Arabs' problems with Jews started in the mid-twentieth century. It was Europeans who traumatised the Jews, alienating them so thoroughly that many felt a need to migrate to what became Israel.
So, in this complex area - Lebanon alone has 16 ethnic groups - territorial division is fatal because, according to the European nation-state logic, each ethnic group should have its own independence or autonomy to feel safe. Except, of course, when Europeans or Americans decide otherwise, as was the case in Iraq, which once was made up of three Ottoman provinces roughly reflecting the ethnic makeup of the area.
We often forget the many people of mixed or no specific ethnicity or faith. In these religiously anxious days, in which much of the agenda is defined by fundamentalist minorities from Texas to Tajikistan, everyone is supposed to cleave to their faith or ethnic group - and if they don't have one, they'd better fake it or get out. This is a deep cultural insecurity, a fear of open questions and independent reasoning. After a century of modernisation and decades of Arab socialism in the 1950s-70s, many Middle Eastern people have no specific allegiance, or it doesn't matter greatly to them.
Longterm, a likely way to resolve the region's conflicts is to de-emphasise national boundaries, allowing an ethno-diverse social structure to form anew across the Middle East, united by the simple fact of living in the same boat and by the greatest peacemaker of all, conflict-weariness. And also by historic, inherent naturalness: multi-ethnicity is a key characteristic of the Middle East, the crossing-place of Eurasia.
Here lies a mechanism by which deep-rooted peace can arise. Oddly, Europeans, major creators of the Middle East problem, provide a model solution. The European Union was founded on a simple impetus generated in two world wars, called 'never again'. In 1920, had someone said that Europe was to unite, the sure-fire response would be 'Impossible' and 'Never'. Yet the first step in founding the EU took place just seven years after the end of WW2 and, fifty years later, there is no going back to bad old warring ways. The EU is imperfect, but it shows how disaster and polarisation can incrementally transform into a multicultural, multilingual union. In a big, wide world, Europeans from Spain to Finland are a minority with distinct commonalities.
This is important because, today, the world's biggest issues are global, and nation-states are losing relevance because climatic, environmental, technological, economic, demographic and cultural realities disregard borders and historic sensitivities. We need to get real about this.
Nearly 200 nations, of varying sizes and magnitudes, cannot handle the massive global issues now gathering strength. No nation can reasonably shelter a million refugees or, on its own, cut pollution output and its climatic effect, without the cooperation of all other nations, without exception. Patching together peacekeeping forces or disaster-assistance packages amongst sundry coalitions of nations is complex, inadequate and inefficient, and the world's aid-giving capacity is getting strained. Meanwhile, the UN and other transnational bodies such as the WTO have been dominated by one or a few powers, making them unrepresentative and unhelpful to the majority of nations and peoples.
This is now changing with the help of an unlikely alliance of China, India, South Africa and Brazil, and other nations ranged behind them. They are big enough between them to form a counterweight to the developed-world 'Washington consensus'. This suggests that the future lies in continental or cultural blocs. By mid-century, we could see the world sectioned into perhaps twelve large entities rather than a patchwork of 200 haphazard and varied ones. As a matter of realpolitik and urgency, precipitated probably by crisis more than foresight.
Not just this, but Western hegemony is waning. Gravity is shifting from Hollywood to Bollywood, from Detroit and Birmingham to Shanghai and Mumbai. The developed world busily seeks to perpetuate the twentieth century, as if its predominance will survive forever. But it has lost its way. It preaches democracy and freedom abroad while eroding them at home, and its concerns are more about waistlines, insurances, share prices, old age and terrorism than with a new vision for the future. As the BBC correspondent Martin Bell once wrote: "Peace and freedom can be defined as the peace that makes traffic jams possible and the freedom to be stuck in them".
Einstein said that problems cannot be solved with the same thinking that created them. For precisely this reason much of the world is gradually shifting from the status of 'Third World' to 'Majority World'. It thinks differently. The 'developed' world refuses to engage seriously with the future because it is held in thralldom to its own vested interests - oil, military, financial, industrial and media magnates, corporations and discrete power-networks, not to mention millions of petty stakeholders with pension funds and property-value concerns. Meanwhile, in the Majority World, things are simpler, and there is a distinct horizon to head for. This is simply 'anything except what we've had before' - in other words, a new future.
National and inter-ethnic conglomerates are therefore a likely longterm answer. Pegging our calculations to this idea, in the Middle East we're therefore talking in the shorter term about transitional arrangements moving in this direction. In other words, the recognition of the state of Israel or the Palestinian Territories, or a one-state or two-state solution, are transitory issues. The key issues are justice, inclusion, social welfare, trade and environmental repair, and the one factor overshadowing all these is peace. Real peace, with a willingness to do whatever is necessary to build and maintain it. Which can be achieved only when all parties genuinely feel they are getting a fair enough deal. It's this we really need to look at.
Despite its current woes, the Middle East stands right at the centre of the new Majority World. The signs are already visible. The developed world, anxious to maintain its comfortably numb affluence and security, sees some of these signs as threatening. It calls them terrorists, insurgents and radical Islamists. Though their extremism seems incomprehensible to Westerners, 'terrorists' are but the top of an iceberg concealing a much deeper and wider movement for change which isn't violent. To label them terrorists, as if to demonise and despatch them, is a mistake of historic proportions - a re-run of the fateful meeting of the Titanic with the iceberg. It is a massive failure to recognise what's really happening.
Terrorism is a reaction to the enormous military and political force imposed on ordinary people who feel unable to argue their case by other means. But look deeper. Two organisations in the spotlight, Hamas and Hezbollah, are not just paramilitaries: they are social welfare movements delivering genuine results. They are not conservative Islamists resisting modernity - they're thoroughly up-to-date bodies answering real needs. Their historic equivalent in the West was the workers' movements of a century ago, which spoiled the show for the power-holders of the time. They had their militants and subversives, for sure, but they were made up mainly of trades unions, cooperative movements, educational networks and reform parties catering for majorities, for workers who, during the twentieth century, later became the social mainstream - the TV-watchers, car-owners, mortgage-payers and holiday-makers of recent decades. Here's a clue.
Hamas' and Hezbollah's supporters aren't just people who are easily hoodwinked by fork-tongued mullahs preaching hatred in the mosques - they are far more astute and mature than that. They support them because they answer the needs of real people living in apartment blocks in Palestine and Lebanon. They wheel their kids along in buggies and shop in supermarkets just like anyone from Omaha to Oslo to Osaka. They have weddings and funerals, worry about their kids, their jobs and the future, just like us. They see Hamas and Hezbollah delivering the goods, and they vote for them in democratic elections. Just as we would if we were they.
Remember, in the democratic West, many ordinary people are dissatisfied with their politicians and feel unrepresented by political parties. The biggest voting block is the abstainers who feel their vote makes little difference. The UK's biggest ever street-demo came in 2003, against government plans to join USA in the invasion of Iraq. In the 1980s, UK's biggest political organisation was the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament - today it is the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Westerners' heart and conscience are nowadays expressed through non-governmental channels and single-issue campaigns that mean something to them.
Meanwhile, Hamas was elected in Palestine with a 60% majority in a high-turnout election judged free and fair, and run by the side that lost. Today, as this article is being written, the Israelis announced that they had arrested the Hamas deputy prime minister for being a member of a terrorist organisation. This is hollow. So much for respect for democracy. The real pretext is that they fear Hamas as a symptom of a new Middle East. They point at Hamas' refusal to recognise Israel, while exploiting Hamas' poor international PR, which fails to bring home the point that forced seizure of Palestinian lands, the building of security walls and settlements on Palestinian territory and other outrages eat away at Palestinian viability, rights and welfare, making Israel a very difficult neighbour to respect and recognise.
Hamas would have little problem with Israel on a level playing-field where fairness and equity ruled, but Israel maintains an inherent sense of precedence and superiority over Palestinians which it expresses through force, appropriation, incarceration and demolition. Israelis keep alive the sweeping label of 'terrorist' to devalue any who stand for an alternative world-view. Yet the state of Israel was successfully founded by terrorists, some of whom became prime ministers. In such a climate, a Palestinian government recognising Israel would be a traitor to its people, and Israelis and Western governments know it. Would that things were otherwise.
Two factors influence the Middle East's future: the impending decline of oil as a source of income and power for ruling elites, and the impending decline of the West, specifically USA. These are enormous in their implications, and the coming decades will see this unfolding. Denial of this lies behind USA's 'war on terror': an anxious attempt to hold the reins of the Middle East agenda as it slips out of its grasp. Oil and the West's fortunes are intimately connected - a strategic error made thirty years ago. Alternative, sustainable ideas and technologies were pioneered in the West in its potential cultural revolution in the 1960s-70s, but it chose to squash them because small-scale, organic, low-consumption, home-grown, people-driven solutions do not equate with the power and dominance of the few over the many.
Since then the West has repeatedly miscalculated its position - and Israel is part of the West. The miscalculation is huge, demonstrating how much the West fails to perceive the unfolding agenda. USA invades Iraq on a false pretext, causing massive destruction and failing in its objectives. Israel bombards South Lebanon on a thin pretext, killing a thousand people and displacing a million to save two soldiers who shouldn't have been sitting where they were. They were beaten on points by a theocrat in a turban, with his volunteers, using relatively primitive equipment bought for it by a minor power. These are massive errors by two countries, USA and Israel, who nominally possess the world's best intelligence and military forces. Smacks of the Roman empire, beaten by mere barbarians - the Romans too lost their grip on reality, so dangerously accustomed were they to being top dog.
What makes 'barbarians' and 'terrorists' powerful? Their economy of action and lack of decadence, their power to improvise and survive, and their single-minded clarity of intent. Terror actions cost a thousand while anti-terror actions cost a billion. Terrorists are not just misguided, despicable criminals: they represent something relevant, and some have their fingers right on the pulse of things. Even for the many Arabs who dislike violence and mayhem, terrorists vent a body of unexpressed frustration, so there is a volatile mix of feeling both for and against them.
There will be no disarming of Hezbollah until Hezbollah feels the need no longer to bear arms. They will cease armed action when the odds are evened, and when the military madness of the Middle East, greatly fuelled by the West, subsides. Thus was the case with the IRA, who stopped only when their usefulness was exhausted - and also when the Old Guard grew too old and American funding for them dried up after 9/11.
The birth of a new Middle East rests on a key factor: the end of unquestioning American support for Israel. It enables Israel, with the size and population of Denmark, to assert itself on the whole region, as if a major power. As soon as American support dies down, Israel will be obliged to make friends with its neighbours, as a matter of necessity. USA is geopolitically changeable and it has its own problems - not least its indebtedness and reliance on Chinese and Arab money to prop it up. Israel might also one day gladly cease being a pawn in USA's geostrategic game.
Arabs, however militant or strong, are unlikely to drive Israelis into the sea: Israelis are there. Many were born there, and Israel is a vibrant and lively country. Its disappearance would mean enormous loss to the Middle East. The loss of most of its Jews has left a shadow over Germany lasting generations: herein lies a lesson. Israelis brought much violence with them to the Middle East, acquired like a virus from the Nazis and stoked by Jewish despair after WW2 but, if Arabs were to eliminate Israelis, such a viral transmission would happen again, to the detriment of the Arab world. It has already partially happened. The cause of this viral infection - injustice toward Palestinians and Lebanese - needs dealing with quickly, before the virus starts galloping.
It's not Israelis who need to go away - it's their current behaviour toward their neighbours. Happy, safe, friendly, open, constructive, collaborative Israelis are undoubtedly welcome in a new Middle East, given a little time, and achieving this would be a key part of the region's transformation, and a potential miracle of our times.
The only people who can end the state of Israel are Israelis themselves, by repeating what they have done in Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank. Massively attacking their neighbours, they increase rather than reduce Arabic resistance and frustration, also undermining the confidence and security of Israelis and causing them to lose heart or consider leaving. Winning is never a permanent condition, and historic tables are turning. Also, arguably, a 'new Middle East' is tugging at the present from the future, and we're walking backwards towards it.
Aliyah (the return of Jews to Israel) has ground to a trickle. Most of the world's Jews now feel safer outside Israel, their supposed safe haven. Meanwhile, young Israelis twiddle their thumbs in India or seek jobs in USA or Europe, hoping things will change back home but wondering whether they ever will. They're not emigrating, just away, getting a life. This is a sign of deep unease and disillusionment which can weaken or even eventually render Israel unviable.
Meanwhile, back home, Israelis wall themselves in behind a security fence, behind the walls of nightmarishly modern, concrete hilltop settlements - 'in the bubble'. Domestic violence and psychiatric disorders nibble at this rather militarised society. Preoccupied with conflict, Israel falls behind in dealing with the real issues of our day, the welfare of people and environment. Lacking cheap Palestinian labour, Israel imports foreign workers from the Philippines and Nigeria, creating a new problem: in a democratic Jewish state, its biggest-growing social groups are Israeli Palestinians and non-Jewish foreigners. Demographic change is critical: since 2005 the combined population of Israel and Palestine together is now less than 50% Jewish. The recent war on Lebanon suggests a possible unconscious diversionary wish not to face this.
It also represents a kind of coup by Israeli military interests, who have dominated the scene since the state's inception in 1948. Israeli society, for its own sake, needs peace, social improvement and normalisation, yet the military lobby, representing the deep Jewish belief that the world is fundamentally against it, is scared of losing its grip on the country. This belief is arguably historically justifiable - though not caused by Arabs - yet is has become more of a self-fulfilling prophecy than a useful survival mechanism. It justifies dreadful behaviour towards Israel's neighbours and victims, it isolates Israelis and costs others terribly.
If we do support peace, we should understand Israelis because they are faced with an enormous, wrenching change that is difficult to face. It took two world wars for my own country, Britain, to accept that it wasn't top dog. Downturn is difficult, painful. Meanwhile, Palestinians, Lebanese and also Iraqis suffer immensely in real terms, deserving sympathy too. But for them the path ahead is clearer: they are already down, and the future direction for them is up - they just need a chance to get on with it. They have big questions of their own to face, but these are less momentous than those that Israelis face.
The big challenge for Israelis is a deep change in world-view and social culture, enabling them to respect and make friends with their neighbours. This requires a change of enormous depth and proportion, bringing some temporary loss until the payoffs work through. This change is likely to be brought about not by pressure from Arabs, but by loss of support from USA - a country facing several possible disasters of its own.
Before we sink into gloomy despair at the prospect of continued violence in the Middle East, let's pull back to see a wider picture. Peace is inevitable. It can take ten or sixty more years, but it is inevitable - not least because bigger global facts are likely eventually to overwhelm local tensions. This is our starting-point. The honourable solution, in line with all three faiths in the area, and following simple humanistic logic, would be for Israel to survive and transform into an integral part of the new Middle East. This looks unlikely at present, but reconciliation between Britain and Germany after WW2 was unlikely too - and it happened.
Bridge-building and normalisation are an easier option than continued conflict. They are better options than continued isolation and insecurity in Israel and ongoing loss of life and everyday normality in Palestine and Lebanon. It is a sensible option, already running perhaps 25ish years late. It was predicted even by early Zionist thinkers like Ze'ev Jabotinsky, who laid the ideological tracks for the founding of the state of Israel.
A new Middle East is already dawning. It is being germinated in the ashes and rubble of destroyed communities. In strife-torn localities where loss is overwhelming, society transforms into a mutually-supportive survival unit where the ills of much of the rest of the world - drugs, prostitution, crime, family breakup and other degenerative ailments - hardly happen. In Britain we call this 'World War Two Spirit'. People are strangely happy and alive, in a tragedy-ridden way - and in this crucible, new things happen and new generations grow up with new ideas.
Why is the new being born in amongst the rubble? Because in the hard soil of devastation and pain, priorities become clearer and straighter. This is what Hamas and Hezbollah are dealing with: how to rebuild homes, families, communities and lives, decimated by injustice and violence imposed frequently (but not totally) from outside.
This is the beginning of a new Middle East - a place which, in 30, 50 or 70 years, could be a world leader in social-cultural values and welfare. A place no longer clamped by the oil trade and its geostrategic priorities. A place where the people are so fed up with the past that they will have no more of it. That leaves the future.
Such a society is likely to have its fair share of Jews. They're gifted, industrious, committed and knowledgeable, and they're needed. After recent events, many Arabs understandably disown any kinship with Jews. But Jews and Arabs are made for each other. They're family. Sorry to say that, but it's true. Family arguments are perhaps the worst and most vicious arguments of all, because moving away doesn't stop a person being your brother or sister. But family reunions are one of the most wonderful of human experiences - and this is yet to come.
To get there, sadly, the concerned parties have to reach the 'never again' point - that point of utter weariness where the previous story is finally laid to rest. Would that they had reached that point by now, or that human wisdom had prevailed. After this recent war, it doesn't quite feel we have reached that 'never again' point - but we're close.
It's a long, slow, wrenching natural birth, and induced or caesarean births are not possible in this game if the next chapter is to be sustainable and legitimate. Birth is happening, nevertheless. War seems to accelerate it by laying the cards flat on the table. But warfare doesn't make peace, and war is not about who's right but who's left. Sometimes, as in pre-birth labour, success is possible by deliberately relaxing, dropping anxieties and focusing on steady breathing.
Consider Northern Ireland - a conflict also stretching back to territorial divisions in the 1920s. The people got fed up and stopped fighting around 1995. The paramilitaries have packed up - or, more accurately, converted into crime organisations. Belfast is now a popular, lively, reviving city, but the old guard of politicians and fighters are still arguing - and marginalising themselves. Society carries on, and peace has come. Sometimes birth succeeds in spite of doctors.
This suggests something for the Middle East. This isn't really a war between Israelis and Arabs. It's a battle between militant/military interests and ordinary civilians, on all sides. It is a fight to maintain polarisation and dehumanisation, by a minority seeking to dominate the agenda by precipitating perpetual crises. It is done over pretexts such as the kidnapping of soldiers. It's a loud game played out to prevent other things happening - the re-enchantment of the Holy Land, care for the environment, cooperation and cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic societies. Powerful interests seek to keep the old agenda going.
A new agenda is nevertheless dawning, and this is scary for everyone. It leaves a wide-open space where the answers aren't clear-cut. Conflict is an addiction, leading to strong withdrawal symptoms. Re-humanising the enemy means living without closure, without categorical judgements, without polarisation. It means attending to other things. This same debate is simmering within Israeli politics, Hamas and Hezbollah: the age-old argument between militants and moderates. It's the Bolsheviks (revolutionaries) and Mensheviks (social democrats) of Russia 90 years ago. These domestic conflicts make people touchy, irritable, engaging in avoidance strategies. Since it's habitually easier to blame and defend oneself against others rather than examine oneself, this easily becomes war. We've seen it all before. It's relentlessly repetitive.
These are tragic birth-pangs. But the good news is that a new Middle East indeed is coming. It is historically inescapable. Let's just pray and work for the possibility that it can be achieved easier. Rockets, bombs and drones perpetuate the past. Hamas and Hezbollah are social reform movements, struggling to establish a new reality in the Middle East. Israelis are transitioning from a post-Holocaust era to a new dawn, a new relationship with God, nature and humanity. It's a terrible struggle. It could be done otherwise.
Thanks for naming the New Middle East, George (Bush) and Condi (Condoleeza Rice), but you are merely dangerous, marginal commentators. The new Middle East is being founded by the people who live there, on terms that pertain to their evolving situation. They don't really know what they're heading for - it's a seat-of-the-pants thing, a jostling and fermentation. In'sh'allah. It concerns a simple homegrown, cross-cultural truism: treat others as you would have them treat you.
Sulha - reconciliation through social process. Hudna - truce, long enough to forget to return to fighting. Salaam-Shalom - the Arabic and Hebrew words for peace are so similar.