|Efforts to overcome regional differences this summer may signal Arab rapprochement [REUTERS]|
Barack Obama, the US president, is attempting to seal an Arab-Israeli peace deal that has eluded the region for more than six decades.
Ahead of an initiative expected to be announced in September, Al Jazeera is examining the prospects for peace in a week-long series from Israel, the West Bank, Gaza and Jordan.
Al Jazeera’s Alaa Bayoumi looks at intra-Arab disputes and domestic issues which could prove to be obstacles to lasting stability in the region.
There is cautious optimism in the Middle East that recent developments, such as the post-election protests in Iran and inter-Arab reconciliation efforts backed by Washington’s willingness to engage with Tehran and Damascus, may usher a “new political era”.
Fawaz Gerges, a professor of Middle Eastern politics at the London School of Economics and author of several books on Middle East politics, believes confrontational politics which dominated the past eight years may be coming to an end.
|Planning for Peace|
He said: “[The Middle East] is at the beginning of a new phase that represents a radical departure from the Middle East under the policies of the Bush administration and the policies of the neo-conservatives in Washington.”
Gerges believes that US-Arab relations are on the threshold of a new era based on negotiations and political engagement and “not on the use of force.”
It was during the presidency of George Bush that the ethos of pre-emptive force and regime change in the Middle East, exacerbated by the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, sharply divided the Arab world into two rival camps: the “resistance camp” and “the pro-US camp”.
The resistance camp, which was led by Syria and Iran, and includes Hezbollah, Hamas and anti-occupation fighters in Iraq, actively opposed US policies in the Middle East and was consequently isolated by the Bush administration.
The pro-US camp is comprised of traditional allies such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, who maintain strong relations with the US despite periodically dissenting views.
Arab Cold War
The divisions between the two camps surfaced most prominently during the Bush presidency and became painfully visible during Israel’s war on Gaza earlier this year.
Qatar, a pro-US ally which maintains warm relations with various members of the resistance camp, attempted to host an emergency Arab League summit in Doha to unite Arab opposition to Israel’s military offensive.
Yet, after heated debates among Arab governments, the 22-member Arab League failed to secure the quorum of 15 states required for a formal Arab Summit.
Qatar still held a consultative meeting that was attended by Iran, Syria and Hamas leaders amid unprecedented media rows with countries like Egypt, who rejected the summit.
“What we witnessed during the Bush era was an Arab cold war,” says Gerges.
Resistance camp retreats
|Hezbollah failed to win a majority in Lebanese elections held in June [AFP]
But seven months after Israeli troops ended their invasion of Gaza and Barack Obama was sworn in as US president, the geopolitics of the Middle East are again shifting.
On June 4, Obama addressed the Muslim world from Cairo and began to publicly pressure Israel to halt construction of settlements.
He also adopted an engagement approach toward Syria and Iran, and fulfilled his pledge to withdraw military forces from Iraqi cities.
“Obama’s speech in the Middle East left a good impression and revealed a new direction in US policies. This impression was strengthened after Obama insisted that Israel should halt expansion of all settlements,” says Hassan Nafeaa, a professor of political science at Cairo University and a critic of US foreign policy in the region.
The new direction had immediate effects. In Lebanon, a coalition led by the Islamist group Hezbollah failed to secure a majority in last June’s parliamentary election.
A month later, widespread post-election protests dominated the political scene in Iran after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, known for his strong rhetoric against the US and Israel, was returned to office.
The large and sometimes violent demonstrations surprised the world and forced many to re-examine their understanding of politics in Iran.
“Iran’s image as an independent and influential regional player that is capable of standing up to US policies in the region was diluted after the election,” says Hassan Nafeaa, a professor of political science at Cairo University and a critic of US foreign policy in the region.
Some in the region believe that the the Obama administration’s approach has been in tandem with a shift in regional politics.
Saudi Arabia has in recent weeks taken steps to improve relations with Syria, encouraged by Washington’s desire to engage with Damascus in the hope it severs its alliance with Tehran.
Observers in the region believe there may be now be room for dialogue in US foreign policy and agree that Obama’s approach to the Middle East may have helped to defuse mounting tensions.
“The two leading powers in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, have come to recognise there is a new Middle East policy in the region. Their approach to Syria is based now on more reconciliation. This could lead to more inter-Arab reconciliation,” says Gerges.
“The anti-Iranian rhetoric toward Iran is changing. Even the hard pro-American countries are de-escalating their rhetoric toward Iran.”
However, despite these positive signs, Arabs still feel cautious, if not outrightly, pessimistic about the future.
Some analysts maintain that recent policy changes in the Middle East are temporary and only delay the onset of yet another crisis in the region.
“The situation in the Middle East has to explode somewhere in the next two to three months,” says Radwan El-Sayed, a professor of Islamic Studies at Lebanese University and critic of Iranian polices, Hezbollah and Hamas.
El-Sayed acknowledges that there are “major changes” taking place in the Middle East but he fears “new regional changes have not reached the point of stability or balance yet”.
“America is not persistent enough in pushing for change in the Middle East,” he says, “changing US policy is not enough. Arabs have internal problems.”
El-Sayed and other experts believe that sectarianism, tribalism and hard-line political ideologies within Arab states cannot be overcome by simply changing US foreign policy or holding elections.
He says recent elections held either handed power back to hard-liner groups in Israel and Iran, or failed to sufficiently weaken hard-line groups in Lebanon.
“New changes are still hostage to opposition from Israel, Iran, and hardliner groups in the region … in the short term, there will not be any success in terms of internal stability or the peace process,” he warns.
Concentrated US effort
|The Israeli military still maintains control of Syria’s Golan Heights [GETTY]|
Other analysts believe tangible change is possible, but only if the Arabs and the US launch concentrated efforts to resolve the region’s most crucial issues.
“If the US succeeds in convincing Israel to reach a peace agreement with Syria, the whole political equation in the Middle East will change. Pressure on Hamas and Iran will increase,” Nafeaa says.
Attempting to isolate Syria from Iran has been a major motivating force behind Obama’s new engagement policy toward Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president.
“Syria controls important political keys in the region,” says Nafeaa, who believes that Damascus’ support for Tehran is fundamental to Iran’s influence in the Middle East and its ability to back groups like Hezbollah and Hamas.
“Isolating Syria from Iran will require the US to pressure Israel to withdraw from Syrian land occupied in the 1967 war,” he adds.
But Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, has said the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in a 1967 war, are vital to Israel’s security and will remain in its hands.
Regional political reforms
But many human rights activists and pro-democracy groups say the real question is whether the Arab world can reform decades-old political systems and allow for free and fair multi-party elections and freedom of the press.
They say the Obama administration needs to understand the important role democracy could play in changing – and stabilising – the Middle East.
“Promotion of democracy is not a high priority on the Obama administration’s [agenda],” says Gerges.
He believes that Obama is leading a “pragmatic approach” that is more focused on stabilising Iraq, winning the war in Afghanistan and pushing the Arab-Israeli peace process forward.
Mubarak and succession
|Activists had hoped that Obama, right, would push Mubarak, left, on reforms [EPA]
Nafeaa, however, believes political developments in Egypt, the most populous Arab country, may be an indication of where the region is headed.
“If Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, succeeds in transferring power to his son, it could lead to the explosion of the political situation later. If he fails, Egypt has to look for a new president,” he says.
Many believe the 81-year-old, who has ruled the country since 1981, is grooming his son, Jamal, to succeed him in power.
Some suspect Mubarak may attempt to transfer power to his son before or during the next presidential election in 2011.
“What happens in Egypt in the next two years will shape the future of the Middle East,” says Nafeaa.