As the world watches the Arab Spring unfold, few pundits are foolish enough to predict what will be blooming when the rains cease. Yes, there are fervent hopes that freedom, dignity and democracy will blossom, but they are tempered with fears that what is sown will be even worse than the previous brutal repression. These events force one thinking about this region to consider new and fresh approaches.
But even before the 2011 uprisings, it was time to rethink the Middle East end game. The time had come to press “delete” on the endless replay of failure, and progress to a new formulation, one that focuses on improving the lives of those in the region, and away from artificial constructs.
The original motivation to create separate nations for Jews and Arabs was a sound one, given the theological and historic animosity of Arabs toward the Jews. And, in fact, new Arab nations were created: TransJordan, Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Yemen were created on the desiccated husk of the dismantled Ottoman Empire (dismantled for having chosen the losing side during World War I; losing a war is invariably the source of nation mutation and creation throughout human history). In order to appease Arab Jew-hatred, the plan then became to subdivide again the remaining land into a Jewish State and yet another Arab State. The Jewish State, Israel, was embraced and (re)born, but the Arabs could not bear a Jewish entity within their midst. They attacked the Jewish State, rejected the proffered land, and that territory – the Jordan River’s West Bank – has remained little more than a battlefield ever since.
Indeed, the two state “solution” is widely considered the only plausible option for peace between the Israelis and the Arab Palestinians, with any resistance denounced as an obstacle to peace. But perhaps the straitjacket of plausibility led to the atrophy of creativity. Perhaps the obstacle to peace was the ossified insistence on the creation of a Palestinian State. Wouldn’t it make more sense to have the geopolitical configuration facilitate the goal, rather than be the goal?
In order to plan for a future, we have to believe that at the end of the day, most people want to live safe, productive lives. The ability to read what they want, say what they want, marry whom they want, and go where they want are nearly universal goals. And we all, fervently, want access to good medical care, cutting-edge technology, first class educational opportunities and a vibrant economy. The goal of a real peace process in the Middle East should be a viable model that ensures the greatest number of people – of all religions and ethnicities – have access to all these rights and services, while internalizing the importance of tolerance, pluralism and respect for the rule of law. That model may not comport with the creation of another Arab State, and it certainly does not with the creation of another terrorist state.
But before this new initiative is rejected as unfair to the Arab Palestinians, consider their history over the last half century, and what has occurred as their own leadership has fought over the new state construct. During this time, while the lives of many in the Palestinian Arab leadership have been immeasurably enriched, the only state given to the people over whom they rule is the state of suspended animation.
And yet, significantly, there was a time during which the lives of those people improved, and improved dramatically by every objective measure. Those improvements happened in spite of the Arabs’ leadership, and it had nothing to do with the creation of an Arab Palestinian state. From the standpoint of hard economic numbers and demographic measurements of well-being, by far the very best, healthiest, most prosperous period in the lives of the Arab Palestinians was that period most bemoaned by their leaders: post-1967 through to the beginnings of the uprisings, in other words, during the “occupation,” but before the “intifadas.” This was a time of unprecedented, and never-since repeated, good fortune, as revealed by Efraim Karsh in an astounding 2002 article, “What Occupation?” Health for the Arabs located in the disputed territories improved dramatically during that time: mortality rates in the “West Bank” and Gaza fell by more than two-thirds, and life expectancy rose from 48 years to 72, while infant mortality rates fell from 60 per 1,000 live births to 15 per 1,000. Their quality of living improved: in 1967 only 20% had electricity around the clock and only 16% had running water, but by 1986 those rates soared to 92.8% and 85%, respectively.
Indeed, an indispensable tool for success and self-sufficiency – higher education – was made available for the first time to the Arabs in the territories and Gaza post-1967. Before then, there was not a single institution of higher learning available to those Arabs; by the early 1990’s there were seven. Illiteracy rates dropped below 15%, compared to nearly 70% in Morocco, more than 60% in Egypt and 44% in Syria.
Perhaps most startling: during the 1970’s the “West Bank” and Gaza constituted the fourth fastest growing economy in the world! And the engine driving this quality of life explosion for the Arabs of the region was their interconnection with the modern, western, growth-oriented democratic neighbor, Israel.
The re-assertion of their political leadership’s control over the Arab Palestinians’ destiny, through its practice of violence and destruction, dovetailed precisely with the re-emergence of misery, poverty, and stagnation in which most Arab Palestinians have remain mired ever since. While the earliest leaders of the Zionist movement from the 1880’s onward worked tirelessly to create institutions and laid down infrastructure to nurture and sustain the people of Israel, the opposite has been the case due to the leadership which controls the Arab Palestinian people.
Our effort to re-imagine the Middle East Peace Process begins with the premise that it makes no sense to condemn the region’s inhabitants to wait while others frantically flail to revive an old construct, based on a model that has failed repeatedly. It is time to stop rewarding flawed leadership with promises of life-tenure, and time to start, finally, fostering human potential. Insisting that what is necessary to resolve the conflict is the immediate creation of a Palestinian State – especially now that the entire region is in profound and violent turmoil – is not only misleading but dangerously foolhardy.
Putting the focus on improving lives in the Middle East makes more sense than pursuing a proven failure. We invite others who want peace and prosperity in that region to join us.
Lori Lowenthal Marcus is president, and Asaf Romirowsky is the Senior Fellow, of Z STREET.