A peace as flimsy as papyrus

Any semblance of harmony in the Middle East is an uneasy one, writes Michael Sheridan
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The Independent Online
Beirut - As twilight nudges over the ruined city, pale and ghostly lights come on here and there in half-abandoned buildings. A fire burns on an upper floor of the old St George's Hotel, warming the Syrian sentries huddled against the salty damp of the sea. Car headlights glimmer around the pompous new offices arising in a darkened city centre. Poor Shia Muslims and Palestinians still throng in angry, unredeemed squalor in the shanty towns and suburbs.

Is this just the sad past of the Middle East? Or is Beirut its future, an omen for capitals that are yet to descend into an abyss of chauvinist strife or a war of succession, cities even now pursuing the humdrum life of commerce and government while the dragon's teeth grow underground?

In the aftermath of the assassination of Israel's Yitzhak Rabin, every neighbouring country in the Middle East paid ritual deference to the peace process. But conversations with politicians, officials and influential private citizens in each nation raised legitimate doubts over its future.

Mr Rabin's death seemed to spur onwards the reconciliation for which he sacrificed his life. In Saudi Arabia, King Fahd confided to a visitor that one day his kingdom would establish diplomatic relations with the Jewish state. In Damascus, President Assad murmured about his "strategic choice" for a negotiated settlement. President Mubarak of Egypt, beset by religious opponents, defied them by visiting Jerusalem for Rabin's funeral. King Hussein of Jordan invoked the shade of his assassinated grandfather and publicly sought the honourable end of martyrdom in a just cause.

Viewed from Beirut, the advent of "peace" in the Middle East seems to be a stillness born of exhaustion. "In Lebanon," observed a functionary in the elegant villa housing its foreign ministry, "we are, to use your English phrase, repenting at leisure." Beirut was torn apart between 1976 and 1990. To one returning after a decade, it feels like an itinerary of horror tourism - here the echo of a car bomb, there the pock-marked memories of a terrifying afternoon under siege, elsewhere the remembered thump of shells and the awful, sick thud of munitions and flesh.

Like a future Sarajevo, Beirut has a half-peace, its inhabitants reconstructing while the world's attention moves on. Lebanon needs regional peace to expel the Israelis from the south and to formalise an end to its own conflicts.

But there is no guarantee that the peace treaties between Israel and its neighbours envisaged by the Americans will deliver the stable security sought by investors and regimes like the fragile Lebanese government. Indeed, their very advent will provoke extremists to overthrow the ruling order.

In Saudi Arabia, the royal family faces an unquantifiable amount of "Islamist" opposition. Last week's car bomb in Riyadh, which killed five Americans, showed that the kingdom is no longer immune to violence.

Syria and Jordan face succession problems. President Assad is in only moderate health. He lost his first son, and has yet to groom a successor to inherit a regime delicately balanced between the President's minority Alawite sect and the Sunni Muslim majority. King Hussein of Jordan has had a cancerous kidney removed and has visibly aged. He must confront Iraqi intrigues against his country and hold a consensus of the "silent majority" against Islamic radicals opposed to his peace treaty with Israel.

The fates of the Hashemite monarchy and the Palestinians are linked because Yasser Arafat's nascent state may enter a confederation with Jordan. Yet this prospect, too, is fraught with instability. Arafat's own safety, he says, "is a matter of destiny", and a new division of power between the West Bank, Gaza and Amman could invite violent contention. In Egypt, the Mubarak government has unleashed a ferocious repression of fundamentalism. The underground war against Islamic guerrillas has so far kept Egypt from turning into Algeria, but at a terrible price.

All these individual cases underline a common problem, which is that in most Arab regimes, governments are "recognised" but not necessarily legitimate, even in terms of their papyrus-flimsy constitutions.

Israelis such as Ariel Sharon, who are opposed to the Rabin-ordained peace deal, argue that it is not possible to make binding arrangements with untrustworthy and unstable societies.

The frequent reply, that the Arab regimes have proved durable, is fatuous, because the actuarial odds are inevitably against Messrs Assad and Mubarak as well as King Fahd and King Hussein. Change in any of these countries could bring violence.

Rabin's answer - a soldier's response - was that Israel's long-term interests argued for the early realisation and entrenchment of treaties and agreements, so that any successor governments - Islamic or secular - would risk violating the pacts at their mortal peril.

In other words, ran the Rabin and Peres argument, Israel needed to exploit the favourable strategic situation bequeathed by the end of the Cold War and the Gulf war before the factors of population and arms proliferation put it at an overwhelming disadvantage to the Arab states.

Yet when this challenge was flung down to a dinner table of high-powered Israeli commentators and analysts in Tel Aviv last week, it met scorn. Every such suggestion - this one from a very senior Western official - is interpreted as a coercive argument intended to push them into premature concessions.

This brings us back from Beirut to "Palestine" and the unresolved core of the double dispute between Israelis and Palestinians over land and between Jews and Muslims over the possession of the sacred shrines of Jerusalem.

Edward Said, the gadfly Palestinian intellectual, has identified Arafat's "fatal yet characteristic mix of incompetence and authoritarianism" as the barrier to achieving a just settlement for his people. He says "no negotiations are better than endless concessions that simply prolong the Israeli occupation".

Arguments of this kind grow in authenticity with every delay and each political humiliation meted out to Arafat. It now falls to Shimon Peres to grapple with the awesome choices Israel must make. For the Arabs, the darkened shambles of Beirut stands as a warning of what will happen if it all goes wrong.

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