Newsreal: Shape of things to come

Neither the massacre at Luxor nor the confrontation between the U.S. and Iraq are the real stories in the Middle East. Overshadowing everything is the failing Arab-Israeli peace process and the failure of the Clinton administration to do anything about it.

By Jonathan Broder
Published November 20, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)
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TANGIER, MOROCCO -- | The massacre of 58 foreign tourists and four Egyptians by Islamic fundamentalists in the ancient Egyptian city of Luxor was a sideshow. Tragic and gruesome -- and perhaps a taste of bloodier things to come in Egypt -- but in the increasingly unstable Middle East, a sideshow nonetheless.

The real action is taking place in the crowded slums and coffeehouses all over the Arab world and in the palaces and presidential offices of its disgruntled leaders. Amid a rising tide of anger and frustration, the region's decision-makers are desperately trying to prevent the current confrontation between Iraq and the United States from destroying what little is left of the Middle East peace process.

And from here, the Clinton administration is being seen -- even by its closest friends -- as a muscle-bound naif, lacking the courage of its own often-stated political convictions to secure a true and lasting peace.

Arabs have not forgotten America's pledge in 1991, after being helped by Arab allies to subdue a belligerent Iraq, to make an evenhanded effort toward an Arab-Israeli settlement. Here in Morocco, one of America's oldest and closest allies in the region, that promise was symbolized by the 1994 Middle East Economic Summit in Casablanca, a gathering of Israeli and Arab leaders and business people that translated the hopeful rhetoric of regional peace and economic cooperation into something tangible.

Three years after the Casablanca summit, Arab expectations lie dashed. The only tangible result of the Gulf War victory seems to be the unrelieved suffering of the Iraqi people. No Arab leader trusts or supports Saddam Hussein, but a strong sense of Arab and Muslim solidarity compels them to side with their powerless Iraqi brethren. As a result, President Clinton's bid for support for the use of military force to punish Saddam for his noncompliance with United Nations weapons inspectors is getting a very cool reception here. Even Kuwait, the victim of Saddam's 1990 aggression, will not support the use of more U.S. force against Iraq.

Instead, Arabs are asking, where is the American president's outrage over Israel's dismal record of noncompliance in the Middle East peace accords? Ever since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu assumed power in 1996, the U.S.-sponsored process has faltered and stalled, largely as a result of Israel's continued construction of Jewish settlements, the wholesale demolition of Arab houses and other provocative acts. Netanyahu's botched attempt to assassinate a Hamas political leader in Amman last month outraged Jordan's moderate King Hussein, once Israel's staunchest defender in the Arab world.

What has the Clinton administration done to protect its investment in Middle East peace, Arabs ask, other than to slap Israel with the mildest of rebukes? It should have come as no surprise to the White House that despite its best efforts only a smattering of low-level Arab officials attended this month's Middle East Economic Summit in Qatar. Such regional gatherings, with all their attendant political symbolism, cannot be divorced from the glaring absence of any meaningful peace process, Arab officials say. To attend, they add, would have just given Netanyahu another concession he could pocket without offering anything in return.

Here in Morocco, the prevalence of such anger and frustration toward the United States is noteworthy. In 1777, before the outcome of the American Revolution was clear, Morocco became the first country in the world to recognize American independence, the foundation for the longest alliance with the United States in the entire Arab world. Before Egyptian President Anwar Sadat made his historic journey to Jerusalem in 1977, it was Morocco's King Hassan who hosted the secret Israeli-Egyptian talks that made the visit possible. In addition to hosting the first Middle East economic summit, Hassan established low-level diplomatic relations with Israel and welcomed a permanent Israeli representative in Rabat. Other than the U.S. ambassador, no other foreign envoy enjoys such access to the Moroccan monarch.

The man who put together the Casablanca summit is Andre Azulay, Hassan's top economic counselor, an elegantly tailored, French-speaking Morrocan Jew with close friends and family in Israel. "Today, I feel like all my work has been in vain," he told Salon. "You can see the distance from where we were before, how everything has been broken and hurt. Today, because of Israel's policies, there is no more momentum." Azulay pauses, then adds: "We have special credentials in this matter. When we say that the peace process is in trouble, people have to listen to us."

King Hassan places the blame for that lack of momentum squarely at Clinton's feet. During a meeting last month in which U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross urged the king to send a delegation to the Qatar economic summit, Hassan angrily accused the Clinton administration of blithely standing by while Netanyahu was allowed to backslide on one commitment after another, and of violating Washington's solemn promise to remain evenhanded.

"This is a guy who went out on a limb for peace long before any other Arab leader," departing U.S. Ambassador Marc Ginsberg told Salon. "He can't understand why the United States won't protect its own investment in the region, why it's letting Netanyahu change the rules of the game. This is a guy who doesn't like the look of the limb anymore. It's a limb where he can get shot."

The same goes for other moderate Arab leaders who realize that the future depends on their ability to lift their people out of the crushing poverty that fuels Islamic extremism. How do they explain the lack of dividends from what is being seen in the coffeehouses and bazaars as a blatantly unfair peace process -- a point the extremists are quick to exploit?

They are also looking with increasing scorn at Clinton's apparent reluctance to get tougher with Netanyahu. According to a recent poll, more than 80 percent of American Jews support further Israeli withdrawals from the occupied West Bank land to further the peace process. Moreover, American Jews, 90 percent of whom belong to the Reform or Conservative denominations, are outraged over Netanyahu's plans to support a proposed religious law that will effectively disenfranchise them in Israel. And when the chairman of the congressional appropriations committee warned Netanyahu's government that the $3 billion of U.S. aid would be cut unless it handed over an American Jew suspected of a murder outside Washington, D.C., there was barely a peep of protest either in Congress or among American Jewish groups. So, goes the thinking here, isn't it time for Clinton to take on an Israeli government that not only inspires contempt almost everywhere, but even speaks for less and less Jews?

A tougher U.S. posture toward Netanyahu would be greatly welcomed in the dispirited Arab world. There are risks: American Jews and Congress could circle the wagons (and hurt Al Gore's chances in 2000). But after President Clinton's constant reminders about the need for the Arabs to take risks for peace, he would be well-advised to take a few of his own. Lest the kind of sideshow seen this week in Luxor become the main event.

Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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