US FOREIGN POLICY: The Tarnished Fig Leaf
William Fisher

Arab leaders meeting in Morocco for the G8 industrialized countries` Freedom Forum told US Secretary of State Colin Powell that `their support for reform in the region will go hand-in-hand with their support for a just, comprehensive and lasting settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict.`

Arab League chief Amr Moussa echoed the sentiments of all his Arab colleagues when he insisted that Palestinian peace was necessary before the reforms envisaged by the US-proposed broader Middle East and North Africa initiative could be achieved. He declared an independent Palestine a `must` for the US plan to have any chance of working.

Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud Al Faisal bluntly told the conference that America`s bias in favor of Israel was the main obstacle to promoting reform in the region.

But what Mr. Moussa and his cohorts forgot to explain is the connection between these two propositions - and for good reason: there is no connection.

For three decades the authoritarian and nonelected governments of the Arab Middle East have used the Israeli-Palestinian dispute as a fig leaf to conceal their unwillingness to embrace transparency, accountability and representative government. They have done so while giving little to the Palestinian people other than rhetoric.

One wonders what these leaders will ever do if, by some miracle of diplomacy and geopolitics, a two-state solution should actually arise - and the fig leaf should fall!

Equitable resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian scourge is the desire of all reasonable people, most of whom would agree that US policy is unreasonably pro-Israel. While that limits America`s ability to function as an honest broker, it says nothing about the glacial pace of Arab reform - or of the Arab world`s inability to accelerate it.

If reform was the real goal of Arab states, why would they need a US-backed plan? The answer is that they lack both the political will and the conviction that their people deserve reform. The truth is that they already have the necessary power to speed up the process.

Rami Khoury, the executive editor of the Beirut newspaper The Daily Star, recently posed a series of tantalizing questions: What if the road map to democratic reform ended up leading not through Baghdad but through Ramallah? What if the Palestinians were able to elect their new president? What if that president were able to rein in violent elements? What if the Israelis and the Palestinians successfully negotiated an end to the bloodshed? What would the Arab states do if Palestine became the first Arab democracy - and their excuse for doing nothing disappeared?

It may be a long shot, but watch this space!

William Fisher is a regular contributor to the Middle East Times.