An Ironic Catalyst for Peace

CRITICS of the Persian Gulf war abound during this year's fifth anniversary of its end. But one of the things they overlook is that the Middle East peace process, a startling development given nearly 50 years of Arab-Israeli hatred, is a byproduct of that war. The Gulf war's links to the peace process need to be better understood.

* By enhancing US credibility, the war put Washington in a position to spearhead the peace process. It reinforced America's ability to convince Arab states that it could influence Israel to make serious concessions for peace, and made peace potentially more rewarding for Arab states.

At the same time, US power gave Israel more confidence that its concessions for peace would not compromise its security. US influence could help ensure Arab compliance with a peace agreement, or could reassure Israel in the event that peace collapsed after it had made territorial concessions. Arab Gulf states also feel indebted to the United States for checking Saddam Hussein's growing regional influence. They remain dependent on US security support, and do not want to be viewed as undermining the peace process.

* By weakening Iraq, the war also made it safer for Israel to make concessions for peace. Moreover, Iraqi Scud-missile attacks on Israel convinced some Israelis that territorial depth was less significant in the ballistic-missile age than it had been before, thus making territorial concessions more palatable. Israeli public opposition to full withdrawal from the Golan Heights has decreased significantly since the end of the war.

* Desert Storm stripped Arab nationalist and radical states of a military alternative to the peace process. Iraq and Syria had been the only actors that could seriously fight Israel. However, by weakening Iraq militarily and discrediting it politically, Desert Storm removed Iraq in the near term as a serious antagonist and political force in the Arab world. Meanwhile, Syria's involvement in Desert Shield made it more likely to assume a role in the peace process. This was not only because Syria joined the US-led alliance, but also because cooperation with the West as opposed to steadfastness with the Arab radical front made more sense after the military success of Desert Storm.

* For the first time, excluding Egypt's threat to Saudi Arabia in the 1960s, Arab Gulf states and Israel had similar interests. Iraq was and remains a common threat. The war clearly improved the Arab attitude toward Israel and made the Arab Gulf states more willing to join the peace process. Reflecting broader 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.'' In early January 1996, Kuwait surprisingly even publicly thanked Israel for staying out of the war.

r The war has illustrated the dangers of conflict in the 21st century. While no weapons of mass destruction were used, Iraq did deploy chemical weapons, and fears did exist that Israel would use nuclear weapons if Iraq used biological or chemical weapons in its Scud attacks. Given the spread of information and technology, Middle East states will become more heavily armed in the future, making peace and communication even more important.

The peace process is still vulnerable to breakdown, of course, as suggested by the recent Jerusalem bus attack by the Islamic militant group Hamas. But it may very well prove resilient. The Gulf war, unfortunate as it was, may go down in history as the event that finally triggered the peace process. This is something the war's critics need to ponder.

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