The Changing of the Arab Guard

The two longest-serving rulers in the Arab world, King Hussein of Jordan and King Hassan of Morocco have died this year and passed the torch to sons who are both in their 30's. This is the beginning of the shift to a new generation of leaders in the Middle East that raises hope for a new era in Arab-Israeli relations. Of course, the two examples we have so far both involved countries that already were on good terms with Israel, so the optimism about the future may be predicated on wishful thinking.

The most anticipated change of government is in Syria where Hafez Assad has ruled with an iron hand since 1971, but, at 69, has been in failing health for years. His assumed successor is his son Bashar. The optimism that exists is based on the belief that a peace treaty between Israel and Syria may be hastened by the change in rulers in Damascus. I have argued for some years that Assad would never make peace with Israel because his views are too deeply entrenched and he could not bring himself to "betray" the Arab cause. Many people insist the collapse of the Soviet Union forced Assad to move toward an accommodation because his poor country did not have any other patron to provide arms and aid and that he could win new friends, particularly in the United States, by making a deal with Israel. A decade has passed and even offers of virtually the entire Golan by Rabin, Peres and Netanyahu were not sufficient to persuade him. Moreover, Assad is getting renewed offers of arms from the Russians. My view is that he recognizes the war with Israel is lost, but he will leave it to his son to make the deal after laying the groundwork to show his people this is an acceptable course. Others argue, plausibly, that Assad will try to sign a treaty with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak precisely so his son does not have the burden of explaining it to the Syrian public and being viewed as the traitor.

Just about everyone in the world has looked forward to Saddam Hussein's demise in Iraq, but the sexagenarian appears likely to outlive all his opponents. Even if he dies or is replaced in the near future, no possible successor is viewed as likely to change Iraq's disposition toward Israel. Of course, if Syria were to change its policy by then, who knows what the Iraqis would do.

One change no one is looking forward to is in Egypt where 70-year-old Hosni Mubarak has maintained a cool but stable peace with Israel since succeeding Anwar Sadat. We don't know for sure who will follow Mubarak, but no guarantee exists that the next President will maintain peace with Israel. As the country that has the largest and most powerful army (now equipped with front-line U.S. weapons) closest to Israel's border, Egypt is potentially the most serious strategic threat to Israel. Furthermore, though they've been suppressed for most of the century, the Islamic fundamentalists in Egypt remain a danger.

Another of the likely changes with an uncertain outcome is in the leadership of the Palestinians. Yasir Arafat is looking increasingly frail and talk of the potential battle for his mantle has increased in the last year. Unlike the candidates in many of the Arab countries, the next Palestinian leader will almost certainly have an existing relationship with the Israelis and be well known to them. Arafat already has paved the way for coexistence through the agreements he has signed thus far, so his successor will not have to worry about being accused of abandoning the cause. The orderliness of the transition will be important to demonstrate to the Israelis the stability of the Palestinian regime. No Palestinian has Arafat's prestige and it is conceivable a bloodbath could ensue between rival factions of the PLO and/or the Islamic groups. Israel's main interest is to make sure any violence does not spill over the borders and that the next President of Palestine remains weak and unaligned with the more powerful Arab nations.

Though Barak has a good 20 years on the new Arab leaders, he still represents a new generation of Israeli politicians. The founders and builders of Israel no longer hold sway and the young turks are more focused on peace and future economic prosperity than refighting the old wars and maintaining an impregnable fortress.

Shifts in leadership may make it possible to break through psychological barriers that the older generation had difficulty abandoning, but certain constants will remain. Islamic fundamentalists will continue to view a Jewish state as unwelcome and remain a disruptive force. Access to oil will still be the paramount concern of the major powers and influence their attitude toward the region's leaders. Decades of hostility and suspicion will cause elder statesmen to discourage change. Even in the next millennium the Middle East will be a different place than the Middle West.