Amman meeting on the Middle East

Amman workshop on the Middle East, March 2004

On 4-7 March 2004, Pugwash Meeting no. 293 was held in Amman, Jordan.

11th Pugwash Workshop on the Middle East:  Prospects for the Peace Process

Report by Erzsébet N. Rózsa

The 11th Pugwash Workshop on the Middle East: Prospects for the Peace Process was held in Amman from 4-7th March, 2004 in co-operation with the Amman Center for Peace and Development (ACPD). As is customary with Pugwash meetings, the workshop was held on a non-attribution basis, thus the workshop report is the sole responsibility of the author and has not been endorsed by any of the participants.

Pugwash is very grateful to ACPD for facilitating the meeting and for the organisation of the workshop, which a total of 62 participants from 18 countries attended.

The workshop had three broad issues on its agenda: the situation in Iraq, the Geneva Accord and the proposal for a Middle Eastern Zone Free of Weapons of Mass Destruction.

The situation in Iraq

One of the most controversial points in the current debate on to facilitate the hand over of power to Iraqi authorities is the timing of direct elections, especially given the message such elections would send as being the most democratic and legitimate way to constitute a new political authority in Iraq.

The Iraqi people are very aware and conscious politically, even more so in local issues, and feel capable of handling their own affairs without interference from anyone. With regard to the timetable proposed by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), many have warned of putting an unelected body at the head of the transition process, because such a body would lack legitimacy. There is widespread sentiment that the US administration has been ill-advised by their Iraqi advisors, who mostly had been living abroad and therefore out of touch with the Iraqi realities of the past decades. The one man, one vote type of elections would be unfavorable especially to these Iraqi political figures, and to small parties, which would have no chance at all. It was also noted that at the moment there is no electoral law in Iraq, which would be the prerequisite to any elections.

A persistent fear exists regarding Shiite ‘domination’ of other ethnic groups in Iraq, especially the Sunni Arabs and the Kurds. Sunni Arabs fear that Shiite domination might bring about a kind of Shiite revenge for the centuries-long Sunni repression of the Shiite communities, not just in Iraq, but all through the Muslim community. The Kurds for their part fear losing much of the relative autonomy they had acquired following the first Gulf war in the early 1990’s. The idea of the Lebanese model of a confessional state was raised, but rejected by the participants.

It is a long-standing fear in the region that Shiites, should they have a say in the formation of the state, would opt for the Iranian theocratic model. On the contrary, many Iraqis argue that Ayatollah Hosein Ali Sistani explicitly forbade (by a fatwa) the interference of religious personalities in any public issue belonging to the competency of either the state or local administration. Though in principle there should be secular groups/forces among the Shia, at the moment they are invisible, probably as a result of the policies in the last decades of the central Baghdad authorities.

There is much concern in the region that an unstable Iraq may become the breeding ground for radicalism and terrorism, especially if radical Sunni and Shiite organizations unite their forces, even if only on a case-to-case basis. Though it was mentioned that the neighboring countries would be interested in a weak Iraq, participants coming from these neighboring states rejected these assumptions and stated that on the contrary, all neighbors would want to see a stable, strong, democratic Iraq. The emergence of a democratic Iraq, however, raises a couple of far-reaching implications: what effect it would have if a central Arab state was dominated by the Shia, especially on other Arab countries that have no Shiite minorities? Some one even raised the idea of a Shiite axis reaching from Tehran via Baghdad and Alawite Syria to Hezbollah, Lebanon.

In Iraq at the moment there are two trends of development: while everyone agrees (regional and global actors alike) that the territorial integrity must by all means be preserved, this can only be done by emphasizing the Iraqi character of the identity, which is dangerously close to the ideology of the Baath party. On the other hand, when giving each ethnic and/or religious group/community to self-representation in the elections and government, this necessarily helps emphasize the local, ethnic or religious identities and strengthens the bonds within the small communities as against the ‘all-embracing’ Iraqi identity.

From the perspective of the Bush administration the war in Iraq (and to a lesser extent in Afghanistan) was necessary to restore and communicate US power not just in the region, but globally as well. There is a firm belief in the Bush administration that they did have legal justification for invading Iraq. From this point of view the policy of the Bush administration has proved highly successful, because beside getting rid of a dictator and his regime in a strategically important part of the world, positive developments were induced in such ‘rogue states’ as Libya, Iran and North-Korea.

Iraq has been and is the centerpiece for the US Middle East policy, facilitating as it does the ability of the US to lessen its dependence on Saudi Arabia. The relocation of US military forces and bases not just in the Middle East, but also in Central and Eastern Europe, is seen as part of the implementation of the wider US aspirations of the changing of the Middle East as a whole.

It has been pointed out that from the perspective of the policy-making in the Islamic Republic of Iran, the developments in Iraq raise three main issues:

  • What will the new Iraqi regime be like: more or less hostile to Iran, Shiite dominated or not, federal or not. The Iranians are convinced that disintegration would be a ground for extremism.
  • What regional impact the developments will have, especially with regard to the Palestinian cause.
  • What impact the situation in Iraq will have on the EU-Iran and the US-Iran relations – will the US try to isolate Iran more?

While the Iranians are very much aware of Iraq being an Arab country (there is a history of Arab-Iranian rivalry and mistrust), as a neighbor and as a country hosting a Shiite majority community there are many incentives to forge a close co-operation between the two. Global (especially US) politics towards to two states in the last decade or so, treated them along much the same lines: ‘dual containment’ and the ‘axis of evil’. The present situation affords opportunities for the two neighbors to build a ‘constructive rivalry’, in the framework of which common interests could be better exploited.

While it was noted that Iran has improved its image in the region by establishing closer ties to its neighbors, especially in the Gulf; by its pragmatic low-profile behavior during the Afghan and Iraq wars, and by signing the Additional Protocol to the NPT, the Libyan model (Qaddafi’s renunciation of weapons of mass destruction) was advised as the best possible solution to resolving the misunderstandings and mistrust between the US and Iran.

Regarding the post-electoral situation within the Islamic Republic, the Chinese model (economic liberalization followed by political liberalization) was frequently mentioned as a possible way forward. While this is generally considered favorably by many political elites in Iran, the applicability of this model in the Islamic Republic was doubted: the circumstances in China were very much different. There the whole society was involved in the party as a first step, and the process started from the roots, with the support of the whole society. In Iran it would be a process started from the top down and would by necessity not enjoy universal support. There are also profound differences in the status of the two countries: China is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, while Iran is not; China is a nuclear weapon state, while Iran is not, etc.

The Geneva Accord

A majority of the Israeli society favors the 2-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also a majority supports the present Israeli government and Ariel Sharon, and the use of force as a security measure. In addition, most Israelis believe that the separation wall/fence provides a needed security guarantee, despite its negative political and social ramifications.

There have been several peace plans, recommendations, and proposals since the beginning of the al-Aqsa intifada from the international community, including those presented by the United States, from the Arab world and from the local participants involved in the conflict. Until the publication of the Geneva Accord, however, the Ayalon-Nusseibeh Statement of Principles was the only widely publicized clue to possible Palestinian concessions on the critical final status issues, some points of which re-emerge in the Geneva Accord as well.

The Geneva Accord is a long and detailed draft proposal of a possible peace agreement between Israel and the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people. It differs from the other proposals as it aims at giving a detailed, practical answer to all the problems in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not just principles. “It is not the best solution, but one we could live with” – was the view held by many participants. The essence of the Accord, apart from its fixed timetable and international guarantees, lies in the treatment of territory, Jerusalem and the refugee issue.

The Geneva Accord “affirms” that it “marks the recognition of the right of the Jewish people to statehood and the recognition of the right of the Palestinian people to statehood … parties recognize Palestine and Israel as the homeland of their respective peoples.” The border is to be based on the June 4, 1967 lines with reciprocal modifications on a one-to-one basis. An international Implementation and Verification Group is going to be set up (including a Multinational Force) to “facilitate, assist in, guarantee, monitor and resolve disputes” if so agreed by Israel and the Palestinians. The Palestinian state will be demilitarized, therefore the Multinational Force will be deployed within the Palestinian state.

Jerusalem will be the capital of Israel with the Jewish neighborhood under Israeli sovereignty, and of the Palestinian state with the Arab neighborhood under Palestinian sovereignty. An International Group will be created to monitor and verify implementation of the measures outlined for the compound of the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount and ensure security.

The refugee problem is foreseen to be solved starting from the acknowledgement of UN resolutions 194, 242 and the Arab Peace Initiative “regarding the rights of the Palestinians” as “representing the basis” for an agreed resolution of the problem. Refugees will have the right to choose between four options: the state of Palestine, third countries, the state of Israel or the present host country. Israel and each third country will submit the number it will accept. The process of refugee relocation is to be completed within five years, with priority given to refugees in Lebanon.

The Geneva Accord was promised to be delivered to every household in Israel and in the occupied territories, and its text was available on the internet. A publicity campaign was organized to introduce the Accord, yet it received an unexpected “support” in advertising, when Prime Minister Sharon publicly condemned the meeting which was to finalize the text of the Accord. As a result extraordinary media attention was given the Accord, maintained by the attacks voiced by the government and right-wing figures. First of all the legitimacy of the Accord was questioned, namely, the right of private citizens to “negotiate”, i.e. they interfered with/jeopardized the work of the government.

Opposition to the Accord was mostly raised on the territorial clauses, the splitting of Jerusalem, especially in connection to the Temple Mount, and the refugee problem. The option for the refugees to choose a permanent place of residence in Israel is an anathema to most Israelis, in spite the fact that Israel explicitly has the right to determine which and how many refugees may actually enter Israel.

The vast majority of the population has not read the Accord, therefore their response is based on the publicity received, both positive and negative. It was also noted that the Accord is linked to certain politician or intellectuals, and is viewed by the public accordingly. The biggest achievement of the Geneva Accord was to show that there is an alternative to the current impasse in Israeli-Palestinian relations, and there is a negotiating partner on both sides. (Both societies – due to different factors – seem to have lost belief in there being a partner on the other side.). It was also an important point that in making the Geneva Accord public, people were shown what the negotiations were about, even to the smallest detail.

It is yet to be seen what effect the Geneva Accord is going to have in the long term. While it cannot be expected that either the government of Israel led by Ariel Sharon, or the Palestinian Authority or the PLO will officially adopt it in the absence of official negotiations, it may be assumed that the Geneva Accord will be a kind of a model when and if permanent status negotiations are opened. The Geneva Accord has already influenced the public discourse, however, it should be better “advertised”, it should gain more support. In this regard there is much to be done, otherwise it may become just one among several initiatives.

Developments in Israel
It has been pointed out by one participant that in Israel a paradigm shift is in the making, a change, which is broader and bigger than Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and which is going to happen with or without him. Israel’s security margins after the Iraq war are wider than ever before, yet this favorable strategic position cannot curb terrorism. There has been a shift in the hierarchy of the threats perceived by the Israeli society: while formerly the biggest threat perceived were conventional weapons followed by weapons of mass destruction, terrorism and demography, at present demography is considered to be the biggest threat followed by terrorism, weapons of mass destruction and conventional weapons. The general attitude to a Palestinian state has changed as well: most of the Israeli society accepts that to maintain the Jewish state (and preserve its Jewish character), a Palestinian state must be established. While settlements formerly were an asset, now they have become a liability. The attitude towards time has also changed: formerly it was widely held that time was on Israel’s side, while now it seems to be against them.

There is a widely held belief in Israel that they do not have a partner on the Palestinian side, a concept Prime Minister Sharon helped get rooted in the Israeli public opinion, but which makes it much more difficult now to conduct any negotiations.

If and when a new Palestinian state is established, some serious issues arise:

  • How will Israel’s security be affected if e.g. Hamas takes it over?
  • How far should the separation between the two entities go, e.g. would some settlements remain or should there be a total separation with abandoning all the settlements?
  • Withdrawal should be coordinated with others, especially with Egypt and Jordan, on a practical level, e.g. if Israel withdraws from Gaza, Egyptian co-operation must be ensured to the effect that the Egyptian authorities should provide border control to prevent arms smuggling, etc.

Due to the demographic threat mainly, it was postulated that Jerusalem must be divided: if the Palestinian residents of Jerusalem participated in municipal elections, even with their present numbers, there is a possibility that they could take over the control of the city, and the eternal capital of Israel could have a Palestinian city mayor.

Palestinian perspectives
There was a heated debate among the participants around the wall/fence issue. While everyone agreed that the delineation of where the wall/fence was/would be built was unjust (even to the extent that at some places it was ordered pulled down and rectified by the Israeli court – most significantly around Qalqiliya, which was totally surrounded), it was also claimed that the Palestinian fears and projections of there being three encircled, separate Palestinian territories, were unfounded and not justified. The wall/fence running northwards from Jerusalem along the western ‘borders’ of the Palestinian territories are being built and are close to completion. Southwards from Jerusalem there is a government decision to build such a wall/fence, but no construction has yet started, except for the immediate surroundings of Jerusalem. On the eastern side of the Palestinian territories there has not been any decision taken as yet, therefore, it is premature to show such projections. The Palestinians claimed that the information they calculated upon was taken from the Israeli press and several other non-official, but frequently quoted sources. In addition, Israelis noted that some 94% of the 360 km long separation barrier is a simple fence only, with only 6% constituting a concrete wall, typically around cities. It was emphasized time and again that the suicide bombers have had a huge impact on the Israeli society, which should not be underestimated, and that this explains why the construction of the wall/fence has been supported by a huge majority of the Israeli society. It was added that should suicide bombing stop, the construction would stop as well.

For their part the Palestinians claim that information they use show a wall/fence running along the eastern side of their communities, through the West Bank (thus totally encircling Palestinian areas), has been taken from the Israeli press and several other non-official, but frequently quoted sources. For them, the discriminatory and prejudicial aspects of being shut in behind a wall, whatever one calls it, are intolerable. It was also emphasized that the wall/fence was an everyday burden and hindrance to the everyday life of the Palestinian communities, which were prevented – in several cases – from attending their businesses, farming their fields, reaching hospitals without first having to cross checkpoints or openings in the wall/fence.

Syrian perspectives
Officially Syria said very little on the Geneva Accord. What little support it has garnered in Syria stems from the fact that Prime Minister Sharon opposes it. In addition, Syria feels slighted in that the Accord made no mention of either Syria or Lebanon, which – Syria is convinced – should be part of any regional arrangement. From Syria’s perspective this issue is not ‘just’ an Israeli-Palestinian, but rather an Israeli-Arab issue. And it is especially this perception that makes it difficult for Syria to make peace with Israel, which would be a top national interest for her: Syria perceives herself the centre of Arab nationalism. Syrian identity is Arab in the first place, therefore Syria is expected to defend Arab nationalism. Making peace out of a complex regional arrangement, therefore, is seen as treason and sui generis impossible. (“Syria is not Egypt.”)

Though it is widely believed that Syria and Lebanon would follow the same policy on every detail of the Arab-Israeli conflict, it is not so. For example their interests and policies would be different on the right of return of Palestinian refugees. For Lebanon (and as a matter of fact for Jordan as well) it is vital that the Palestinian refugees on their territories should have the right of return to their former homelands. Syria, on the other hand, is closer to the position of the Arab League.

In general, it was thought that Syria could do a much better public diplomacy, presenting her position and achievements to the international community much more effectively.

Democratic reform in the Arab world

While many claim that the main reason why there is no democracy in the Western sense in the Arab countries is the incompatibility between Islam and democracy, in fact there is no inherent contradiction between the two. Islam shares many of the democratic ideals and principles, therefore the cause of democracy-building problems in the region should be sought for in historical, political, cultural and economic factors, and not in the religion.

Though progress in liberalizing societies and economies in the Arab world is generally slow and limited, education has a significant impact on all these developments. Yet it remains the case that authoritarian regimes – and the necessarily weak civil society structures and institutions they engender – are generally perceived as sources of terrorism, especially in the post-September 11 environment.

Two types of autocracies can be defined: full and liberalized autocracies. Full autocracies are dictatorships that do not tolerate dissent, free debate or competitive politics. These are the regimes where different opinion is punished by imprisonment or even execution. Liberal autocracies are autocratic in the sense that the rulers control all the fields of security, economy and the media. Yet, it is usually the leader who initiates and promotes a certain extent of political opening by arranging elections and/or even permitting for a certain – though controlled – political pluralism. Though supreme authority belongs to the monarch or president, liberalised autocracies operate as a kind of virtual democracy.

The Middle Eastern zone free of weapons of mass destruction

The international community should negotiate an international treaty or arrangement on the non-use and non-possession of nuclear weapons and/or other weapons of mass destruction. An international debate should be conducted on such questions as what kind of advantage a country can have from the possession of WMD, or what military use these weapons have.

In spite of the fact that ever since 1980 the resolution on a Middle Eastern nuclear weapon-free zone has been passed unanimously in the UN General Assembly, and that the scope of the resolution was expanded to a zone free of all WMD in 1992 by Egyptian president Mohammad Hosni Mubarak, no measure has been taken to this day towards the realization of such a zone. In December 2003, at the end of Syria’s UN Security Council membership, the Syrian delegation again presented the concept to the Security Council.

The present WMD situation in the region gives reason for some concern: Syria, Egypt and Israel are not yet parties to either the Chemical Weapons Convention or the Biological Weapons Convention, and Israel has still not signed the NPT. After the war in Iraq there is limited talk only about nuclear weapons, though the signature by Iran of the additional protocol – under international pressure – is a positive development, even if the implementation of IAEA verification procedures must still overcome obstacles. Libya’s renunciation of all WMD has, on the other hand, been a most welcome development. Yet there remains a growing concern worldwide about sub-national groups using WMD, a development of concern to all states.

Several participants raised the issue of the Israeli nuclear arsenal arguing that the international community in general and the United States in particular – while pressing other states to give up nuclear weapons – keep silent on the Israeli nuclear potential. While it is understood that Israel feels threatened, an effective verification regime for the region might induce Israel to become involved. More broadly, it was noted that any regional security assessment should take into consideration the Indian and Pakistani nuclear potential as well.

Pressure is growing on Iran over the nuclear issue. The Iranians feel that the signature of the Additional Protocol was not appreciated by the international community, and there remains concern in Iran that the US might attack nuclear-related sites in Iran. Fears of US pre-emption are leading some to the conclusion that the acquisition of nuclear weapons is a must. Many have the perception that Iran has become a victim of propaganda recently, in spite of the fact that Iran was a major victim of WMD attacks in the Iraq-Iran war, when the international community stood by and did nothing. While only a few in Iran question the need for nuclear energy facilities (for civilian purposes only), most Iranian surveys show that the Iranian public are very much opposed to nuclear weapons, seeing these running counter to their desire of peace and security, and also because their memory of having been targets and victims of chemical attacks. Also, 75% of the Iranian public supports the reconciliation with the US, and a majority of Iranians under the age of 30 (who make up some 70% of the population) do not share the passionate anti-Israeli sentiments others have in the region. Why then – the argument runs – go after nuclear weapons?

Regarding the Iranian signature of the additional protocol, representatives from neighboring states stated that Iran’s openings were still on an intentional level only. It was also said that we are still not in position to state that Iraq is clear of chemical and biological weapons – reference was made to the 1998 status reports -, in spite of the fact that no trace of them could be detected so far. Given these uncertainties, neighboring countries (especially Turkey) feel safer with the US counter-terrorism activities.

The documentation revealed in Iraq (Iraq Survey Group) provides an insight to the mindset of a proliferator: WMD for Iraq served two purposes. One, they were considered necessary for internal security reasons (against the Kurds), and two, for international security (in the war against Iran). The example of the Iraqi efforts to increase the distance of missiles proves that Saddam Hussein never intended to disarm. His main intention was to ensure the survival of his regime.

In conclusion, the necessity to continue the dialogue on all these topics was emphasized. Due to lack of time the Middle Eastern zone free of WMD was touched upon only briefly, there was a general understanding among the participants, that a detailed discussion of an issue of such outstanding priority should follow very soon.


Situation in Iraq: Concerns of Neighboring States by Sajjad Ashraf

Iran and the New Iraq: The Challenges Ahead from an Iranian Perspective by Kayhan Barzegar

Democratic Reform in the Arab World by Nihal Fahmy

Iran’s Nuclear Program: The Question of Non-Proliferation by Nasser Saghafi-Ameri