The Arab Summit in Cairo on Oct. 21-22 could have gone worse. The radicals could have hijacked it, insisting on a cutoff of all Arab diplomatic and economic ties with Israel or repudiation of the peace process. But sighs of relief came with a shock of recognition. To see Arab leaders striving forĘbalance amid the swirl of demands for confrontation with Israel, to see Iraq attend such a meeting for the first time since before the Gulf War, revealed that there was more at stake than relations between Israelis and Palestinians. The Pax Americana which brought a decade of relative stability to the Middle East is now at risk. Should hostilities reignite, the consequences for America and its allies — in and outside the region — will be long-lasting.
The reason lies in the tangled circuitry connecting the two critical zones of the region: Israel and its immediate surroundings, and the Persian Gulf, where engagement has been a core U.S. policy for decades. This policy has paid real dividends. Israel has enjoyed the most peaceful decade of its existence. Egypt and Saudi Arabia began reforms crucial to their political and economic stability. Jordan had a peaceful succession and the smaller Gulf states emerged as durable players in a rough neighborhood. Perhaps more important, the competing ambitions of Saddam Hussein's Iraq and Iran for regional domination were thwarted. And for a decade Europe and the U.S. have benefited from cheap oil.
All of America's partners in the region want the Pax prolonged. But images of violence in the West Bank and Gaza have poured like acid into the Arab world, exposing a deep rift between ruling elites and the "street." Demonstrations in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia have shaken those governments, and diplomatic observers say they have rarely seen sentiments so inflamed, America so vilified, or the prospect of a regional war so near.
Moderate Arab regimes will try pacifying public opinion by rallying behind the Palestinians and opposing Israeli "aggression" with sharp rhetoric and U.N. resolutions. Managing that without shattering the fragile rapprochement with Israel or alienating the U.S. will test these leaders' abilities and courage. The creeping redefinition of the conflict as a religious one will intensify the challenge. The sacred, unlike competing territorial claims, brooks no compromise.
In the near term, a spark will become a blaze if Hizballah's provocations lead to hostilities between Israel and Syria, or if Iraq launches a Scud missile at Israel. Over the longer term, America's defensive role in the Gulf is imperiled. Saudi Arabia, sensitive to domestic criticism of its alliance with the U.S., might press Washington to reduce its military presence. Saddam Hussein would then present himself as the phoenix of radicalism, the vindicated helmsman of the Arab cause. The sanctions regime, already troubled, would face greater stress; if it collapses, billions in oil revenue will fuel Iraq's weapons programs, for tanks but also for missiles that could reach Beersheva, or, for that matter, Brighton. Iran's hard-liners would renew their challenge to America's presence in the region, whether through diplomatic pressure, renewed terrorism or appeals to public sentiment in Arab countries.
This is not a problem for America alone. Moderate Arab regimes must show leadership by explaining to their people what is at stake. Above all, Egypt, the leader of the Arab world, needs to be constructive. President Mubarak's rejection of war fever was the right start. He must now convince Yasser Arafat that the future of the region requires nothing less than peace. The stakes for Egypt are high: the U.S. Congress has accepted Administration assurances that the U.S. is giving $2 billion in annual aid to a friend. In the face of an ambiguous Egyptian record, Congress will question that assessment.
Europe — and especially France — must come to the realization that this, like the Gulf War, is a time for solidarity, not dubious interventions such as President Jacques Chirac's reported encouragement of Arafat to reject a compromise that would have yielded a cease-fire. Europe, reeling from mild disruptions in its oil supply, has benefited from America's steadying hand in the region and must recognize that it cannot be insulated from disorder there. European governments need to underscore to Arab leaders that the demise of the peace process threatens all. And just as Washington pushes Israel not to use excessive force, Europe's leaders must make clear to the Palestinians that the European Union will provide the long-hinted profusion of economic assistance if — and only if — the peace process goes forward.
Daniel Benjamin is a former TIME correspondent and Steven Simon is assistant director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Both served on the U.S. National Security Council staff from 1994 to 1999