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The End of an Arab Era Gives Israel
its Last Chance



Feb. 17, 1999

LONDON- Two weeks on, the sentiments of the moment somewhat subsided, it's now very clear that the death of King Hussein of Jordan ushered in a new and perhaps painful era in the Middle East. Fifty heads of government may have made the pilgrimage to the funeral in Amman out of respect, but more likely the real compulsion--and in President Boris Yeltsin's case, a sheer act of will power--was a worry, verging on paranoia, that if the present dispensation of military and dynastic strongmen in the Arab Middle East disappears before a full peace is made with Israel there will be chaos, war-- and who knows what that may bring?

Everybody there knew that King Hussein's efforts to introduce a larger role for an elected parliament foundered on rank and file hostility to making peace with Israel. When King Hussein's coffin entered the ground, all that was left on the surface was a populist tinderbox--and the 50 grey men, from around the world, perhaps excepting Israel's Binyamin Netanyahu, did not need to be told.

The military and military-backed dynastic rule of the dying off generation (leaving on one side the special case of the younger Saddam Hussein)--King Hussein, Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat, Syrian Hafez al-Assad, the Saudi King Fahd, all sick men, and even Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, although a robust 70, is drawing to its inevitable close. In retrospect we now see it was an era of unusual stability.

On attaining their independence, soon after the close of World War 2, the new Arab states were swept by coups. Until Assad took over in Syria in 1970 there were 14 serious attempts of a military take over. In 1952 the monarchy was ousted in Egypt and in Iraq six years later. Between 1961 and 1969 twenty-seven coups and attempted coups took place in the Arab world. Yet since 1970 successful coups have been virtually non-existent.

The secret of these men's enduring success has been management of the military. The recipe varies from country to country but the essentials are: careful cultivation of the officer corps, enhancing its privileges, appointing members of specific groups, often minorities, to key posts and rotating commands rapidly to ensure that plots have no time to mature, not to mention the adept use of special security forces reporting directly to the head of state, combined with regular purges.

But this has been at a price: the ability of the armed forces to function well in combat. Despite possessing many of the world's largest and most expensive militaries they have rarely realized their potential on the battlefield. In 1948 Arab armies fared poorly against Israeli forces. In the 1967 Arab-Israel war the coalition of Jordanian, Syrian and Egyptian forces failed to turn its substantial numbers of men and arms to its advantage. In the October 1973 war Egypt squandered its initial strong position. Again, Iraq's great defeat in 1991 revealed the gap between arms and capabilities.

The main impediment in all these cases was poor command. The Egyptian command structure was once aptly described as a tower with a pyramid on top . Over-centralization of command makes war-fighting too rigid, depriving lower ranks of autonomy and flexibility. Often, politically convoluted lines of command, constructed to make a coup difficult, make this formalised rigidity even worse.

But these military regimes, not much capable on the battlefield, are the best interlocutors for peace that the Israelis could have hoped for. Having been vanquished on the battlefield and having no prospect of ever re-gaining the military upper hand, given Israel's vast superiority, not least in nuclear arms where it now has a second-strike capability, they really have no alternative but to allow the peace process to go forward more or less unhindered. That Netanyahu has not realized, as Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Perez did before him, that this is Israel's best moment is probably a mistake of historic proportions.

The Israeli general elections in May will determine whether Israeli public opinion understands its country's predicament better than its present prime minister.

There is no good reason to think this unusual state of affairs of the last 30 years will continue. Successors to these present day Arab regimes cannot hope to possess the stature of the old war horses--as is already clear with the passing of King Hussein and the proclamation as heir of Prince Abdullah. A more educated and larger middle class will not tolerate for much longer an Arab world singularly immune from the tides of democracy that have now reached every other corner of the world, bar China.

Yet a more vociferous and articulate public opinion will be less patient with Israel and less accommodating to Western oil interests, (which only recently have started to win back their old freedom to explore and exploit oil themselves in countries that are belatedly shedding their old suspicions of the Western oil giants).

This is the soon-to-change Arab world that the Israeli electorate, momentarily perhaps, has it in its hands to make a final, sustainable, peace with. If it chooses to miss it no one who is honest can tell if there'll ever again be such an opportunity in our lifetime.


Copyright © 1999 By JONATHAN POWER


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