The Middle East is changing in profound ways that have not been fully appreciated. In particular, economic, political, and social links are proliferating between Israel and Arab states, adding a new element to the region. While the peace process is quite fragile, these links, if developed, may ultimately be what sustains peace and makes it stick.
It is not possible to understand political change in the Middle East without looking at its causes.
The first big development was the fall of the USSR. Prior to it, regional countries were divided into blocs associated with one or the other superpower. When the USSR collapsed, so did parts of this divisive structure, allowing for new forms of politics at regional and global levels.
The second big event on the road to change was the 1991 Persian Gulf war. While generating some new sources of conflict, it left Israel and Arab states with a common goal: stopping Iraq's Saddam Hussein. Syria's involvement in Desert Shield, as well as the fall of the USSR, made Syria more likely to jump on the peace train; Iraq's drubbing at the hands of the US-led coalition undermined Saddam - and other immoderate actors - as alternatives to the peace process.
Since the war, Gulf countries have abandoned secondary and tertiary economic boycotts against Israel and are participating unprecedentedly in multilateral water negotiations with Israel. To some extent, they feel indebted to the US for checking Saddam, remain dependent on US power against a still strong Iraq, and see Israel in a new light. Reflecting Gulf Arab sentiment, the Saudi daily, Al-Riyadh, asserted that "Israel and the Arabs must put away their historic enmity and resort to the logic of interests."
The third development changing the region is the peace process itself. It is forcing Arabs and Israelis to cooperate on a variety of issues. For instance, Israel obtains 30 percent of its 600 million cubic meters of water annually from three aquifers originating in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Each side clearly needs the other, and they are devising plans to to solve their intertwined water problems.
In the economic arena, Israel needs economies of scale that Arab markets may provide. Arab leaders are impressed with Israeli know-how and, in particular, its cutting-edge water and agriculture technology, applied with vigor in the Negev. Israel's high-tech edge can spearhead a Middle Eastern renaissance, particularly if utilized for purposes of making peace stick. Economic interdependence does not necessarily mean less conflict, but under some conditions it can break down barriers. Intelligent attention should focus on fostering such conditions as trust and recognition of an enduring commonality of interests.
Arab countries are openly discussing major economic and water projects with Israel. And, in turn, Gulf states are accelerating their investment in Lebanon and Jordan. On Jan. 16, 1996, Israel and Jordan signed the Israel-Jordan Transportation Treaty, which will vastly increase the free movement of people and vehicles across borders; broaden such links as roads, railways, and ports; and solidify peace through joint projects. Hebrew is now commonly spoken by visitors to Petra, Jordan. Change is afoot. It is palpable at Petra.
The peace agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) further joins their futures. They agree to cooperate on a host of issues including Palestinian elections, security, and diplomatic interaction. Article 15, for instance, binds the PLO as well as Israel "to prevent acts of terrorism, crime, and hostilities directed against each other" and codifies means to do so.
Many obstacles to peace remain. But, at a minimum, the peoples and countries of the Middle East understand more than ever that they are linked in the economic, social, political, and strategic arenas. As they become more interconnected and interdependent, they may surmount their tortuous history and chart a new course into the next millennium.
* Steve Yetiv, assistant professor of political science at Old Dominion University and research affiliate at Harvard's Center for Middle Eastern Studies, is author of "America and the Persian Gulf: The Third Party Dimension" (Praeger).