Lebanon + 3 more

The Middle East: Fragility and crisis

Originally published


Coping with Crisis
Working Paper Series Feb 2007

Markus E. Bouillon

Introduction: A Crucial Region for the World

The Middle East is perhaps the world's most crucial region:economically and strategically,the Middle East occupies a top rank on the international agenda,with significance far beyond its geographical bounds.(1) In the coming five to ten years, the highest number of key global security challenges is likely to be concentrated in the Middle East, or be related to it. The 2006 crises in Lebanon and Gaza, involving a wide range of regional actors including Syria and Iran, may have given only a taste of what is yet to come. They certainly manifested the reality of fragility that characterizes the Middle East.They also point to the necessity of approaching conflict(s) in the Middle East in a holistic manner, taking full account of the interlinkages between the various epicenters of instability in the region. Such interlinkages illustrate the potential for either positive or negative domino effects: escalation and crisis in one arena tends to evoke a spillover effect elsewhere in the region and in the relations of regional actors with the international community, or individual international actors. In addition, longer-term trends that affect most or all Middle Eastern societies in a cross-cutting way also need to be taken into account, as they exacerbate instability and underline the need to approach issues comprehensively. As a consequence, crisis management vis-à-vis the Middle East requires not only in-depth understanding of individual crises, but also a fundamental appreciation of the interlinkages and symbolic and political connections between the various issues,as well as early preparation in anticipation of longer-term developments.

This paper will present the different epicenters of instability and crisis in the region,and seek to engage in informed speculation on their evolution in the coming five to ten years. It will then outline the longer-term trends that affect, to one degree or another, all Middle Eastern societies and that have tremendous potential to trigger new crises or exacerbate existing ones.Based on this discussion, this paper will then proceed to examine the various actors engaged in the region,before sketching a number of ideas for an improved crisis management system for the Middle East.

The 'Old' Center of Gravity: The Arab-Israeli Conflict and the Middle East Peace Process

The traditionally most significant challenge in the Middle East is the Arab-Israeli conflict and its core, the dispute between Israelis and Palestinians. It is a center of gravity around which the region has revolved, and remains of vast political and symbolic significance. Both in its own right and due to its (positive or negative) signaling effects,reinvigoration of the peace process is a key challenge for regional and international policy-makers in the coming five to ten years. Success in this area will facilitate the capacity of the international community to deal with a variety of other epicenters of instability; sustained failure to reinvigorate the process will cast a shadow over efforts to resolve other crises in the Middle East.

The key challenge ahead does not lie in how to settle the conflict,but in how to move towards such a settlement.While a broad consensus now exists on the two-state solution and its general parameters, profound disagreement prevails regarding the process towards realizing it. In Israel,a 'third way'perspective has recently evolved that reflects an ideational evolution over the past decade and promotes unilateral steps as the best path to pursue in order to enhance security and contribute to ending Israel's occupation of Palestinian land.This approach underpinned Israel's 2005 Gaza Disengagement, and has since been embodied in the Israeli Kadima government of Ehud Olmert. Among Palestinians, PLO Chairman and President of the Palestinian Authority (PA) Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) remains committed to a negotiated permanent status and strongly rejects the resort to violence. Hamas's takeover of the Palestinian Authority in early 2006, however, has deepened the challenges confronting Palestinians; its reluctance to disavow violence, recognize Israel and thus commit to the two-state solution, and to uphold previously signed agreements resulted in a near-boycott of the PA internationally. The core challenge ahead in the effort to revive the peace process thus will be to deal with Israeli unilateralist tendencies - or the implementation of unilateral withdrawals - and with the Palestinian extremists - either by inducing their moderation,or by weakening their hold on power.

Three basic scenarios lie ahead. The first is a continuation of the status quo. Continued Israeli occupation and intransigent positions on both sides regarding negotiations will translate into continued low-intensity warfare, with occasional flare-ups. Under this scenario, a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from parts of the West Bank is likely to be implemented at some stage in the coming years, resulting in a long-term interim status quo considered manageable from Israel's perspective,but still entailing a continuation of violence and occupation, with economic and humanitarian crises in store for the Palestinian civilian population.(2) This scenario would continuously strengthen Palestinian militants and reverberate regionally, contributing to the solidification of an axis of "rejectionist"actors including Iran, Syria, Hizbullah, and some Palestinian groups.A full confrontation might become difficult to avoid within a five to ten-year period.(3) A second scenario would entail the immediate resumption of permanent status negotiations. Such a scenario is ultimately likely to result in crisis, as domestic Palestinian rivalries would be exacerbated.A possible failure of such talks would set off a major crisis of confidence among both Israelis and Palestinians,leading to a repetition of the eruption of the intifada in 2000,which followed the breakdown of the Camp David Talks in July that year. While a resumption of permanent status negotiations would be desirable, their likely failure,given the vast differences between the parties on the outstanding issues,might have disastrous consequences, as witnessed in the aftermath of Camp David.

Most promising,therefore,would be a combination of existing elements in a gradual approach, underpinned by international support.In such a third scenario,negotiations would take place between Israel and the moderate Palestinian leadership (Abu Mazen), preferably with the support or tacit approval of Hamas and other radical factions, resulting in an Israeli withdrawal from large parts of the West Bank and the establishment (and international recognition) of a Palestinian state with provisional borders.Such a move would be difficult for Hamas to reject and would thus likely lead to its de facto recognition of Israel;alterna-tively,statehood would create a new domestic political process among Palestinians that would return a reformed (and continuously reforming) secular-nationalist movement to power. In either case, the necessary conditions for subsequent state-to-state talks would be created.On that basis,eventual permanent status negotiations could then yield a settlement of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, which in turn would give impetus to the broader regional peace process and enhance the probability of a settlement of Israel's conflicts with Syria, Lebanon, and the wider Arab world. However, realization of the first step without subsequent permanent status talks would likely result in crisis and deterioration.

A concerted effort is necessary over the coming five to ten years in order to induce a gradual revival of the Middle East peace process. Continued stalemate and absence of a political process,or the (unrealistic) alternative of an over-ambitious early return to permanent status negotiations, are likely to spell deterioration and crisis,with significant repercussions throughout the region. One important ramification of deterioration would be an even closer link between the Israeli-Palestinian and Arab-Israeli arenas and Iran, with the latter increasingly directly squaring off with Israel,which might fuel a much deeper confrontation regionally and globally, as foreshadowed in Israel's 2006 campaign against Hizbullah.


(1) Loosely defined as the area ranging from the North African Mediterranean to the Arab peninsula and the Gulf region, including, at the margins, Turkey and Iran and bordering on Russia,the Central Asian republics,and Afghanistan, as well as Sudan,Somalia and the Horn of Africa.

(2) Although Israeli Prime Minister Olmert declared the end of his unilateral 'convergence'plan in the aftermath of the Lebanon war, if no other solution is found,a managed unilateral withdrawal from some parts of the West Bank will quickly become a likely prospect in the coming years.

(3) Such a prospect is exacerbated by the fact that the presidential term of Abu Mazen expires in 2009,with no successor in sight, unless popular Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti is released from prison.