At a crossroads

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While predicting the future is a very difficult task, the looking glass of the Middle East is not so murky. The last century has carried with it very significant regional trends that seem to be continuing into this new century. These trends embrace internal Arab dynamics, Arab-Israeli relations and individual state relations with the major international superpowers and players.

The gap between Israel and the Arabs has widened significantly on all fronts. This gulf includes different visions of the future, contrasting ideologies and an imbalance of power demonstrated through economic strength, military might and other crucial components. The combination of these inequalities and the growing gap in ideology and politics promises the continuation and probably a deepening of the tension between the two sides.

All along, international involvement in this conflict has been a negative factor in aggravating relations between the two sides. In the past, the Middle East and the Arab-Israeli conflict was negatively affected by the Cold War. Both the United States and the Soviet Union were competing in the Middle East by supporting and encouraging both Israel and the Arabs. The result was the inflammation of the dispute. More recently, we have seen how international involvement in the region, whether in the Gulf War or in Afghanistan, has negatively impacted Middle East differences.

The third significant trend sustained through most of the last century has been the growing gap in the economies of the Arab world, on one hand, and both the West and Israel, on the other. The great failure of development projects in the Arab world and growing poverty has been responsible for an increase in religious fundamentalism (another negative factor that seems to be continuing with us into this new century). The combination of increasing poverty, lagging development, poor education and slow modernization, against a backdrop of little political progress in solving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has maintained and deepened that same conflict.

Finally, the biased approach of the international community in general and superpower USA in particular plays a significant role in elongating this dispute. The result has been a widespread regional bitterness and lowered confidence in the role of international legality in the Middle East conflict. That trend, too, seems to be continuing, if not growing.

Only three sources of hope remain to mitigate these ongoing trends. First, one cannot rule out the possibility of a leveling of the balance of power between Israel and the Arabs of the kind that will make Israel take Palestinian rights and concerns more seriously. That balance would create a situation more conducive to a lasting peaceful future.

Another mitigating factor would be a more serious, responsible and balanced intervention by the international community that might influence regional developments towards closer alignment with the demands of international law as the criteria and guidelines for international intervention.

But the third and most promising source of hope comes from inside Israel itself. The last ten years have witnessed increasing Israeli public understanding and recognition of Palestinian rights and concerns. Beginning in 1991, with the start of the peace process, the Israeli public began to demonstrate an acceptance of the idea of a Palestinian state, an end to the Israeli occupation in most of the territories and agreement for sharing the city of Jerusalem. If that trend continues until the Israeli people, and consequently the Israeli government, recognize the rest of Palestinian legitimate rights (which are, by the way, the same rights that Israelis enjoy and Palestinians have already accepted and recognized), then the future will, indeed, be different from the past.

Otherwise, the year 2025 is going to bring with it a continuation of the same trends and characteristics we see now, only accompanied by a few changes for the worse. Demographics will dramatically aggravate the situation, but what may prove more dangerous will be advancements in science and technology, especially information technology, making conflicts such as the one we are living in a great deal more dangerous and harmful.

One might say that the Middle East is now at a crossroads, with many signs pointing to a continuation of negative trends and a snowballing of the current hatred and regional violence. On the other hand, perhaps the recent suffering of the two peoples will cause them enough alarm that they minimize, if not stop altogether, the current negative trends and give an opportunity for change.

Mr. Ghassan Khatib is a Palestinian political analyst and director of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center.

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