In the complex milieu of forces that drive Arab regimes, no word has had a more emotive resonance than Al-Nakba - or "the catastrophe." It's the term used to describe the creation of Israel from Palestine in 1948 as well as all the brutal Arab-Israeli wars that followed.
Al-Nakba has been a touchstone of domestic and foreign policy throughout the Arab world.
But several factors may prompt a strategic rethink of Arab policies that focus on Israel as the enemy: Israel's recent pullout from southern Lebanon, any progress in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, and the arrival of a new generation of Western-educated Arab leaders, such as Syria's Bashar al-Assad, who won 97.2 percent of vote in a July 10 nationwide referendum.
From Baghdad to Tripoli, opposition to the Jewish state and a half century "at war" have helped bolster iron-fisted Arab rule at home, and prolong dictatorial-type regimes.
Military rule has been the norm for decades - to better deal with the "Zionist enemy," Arab rulers told their subjects - while economies faced financial crunches as cash was sunk into tanks and missiles instead of education and other social services. Syria especially assumed the Arab mantle, and also championed the Palestinian cause against Israel.
"Conflict has been very important for the [Syrian] regime," says a Syrian analyst who asked not to be named. "When there were human rights abuses or corruption, the ultimate excuse was the conflict.
"It was a legitimizing factor, but are people fooled by it?" he adds. "Over time, the power of the myth deteriorates. People wonder: 'If you were really fighting Israel, then you wouldn't be importing all these Mercedes.' And the record of the regime is not commensurate with the sacrifices we have been asked to make. That's why after 30 years it sounds hollow."
Others argue that the late Syrian president, Hafez al-Assad, was created by the Arab-Israeli conflict, not vice versa. Israel captured Syria's strategic Golan Heights while Mr. Assad was acting defense minister, and his land-for-peace demands - full peace with Israel, in exchange for a full Israeli withdrawal - never changed.
"The greatest rebuttal is that Assad did not invent this conflict, and if Israel had given back the Golan as required by the United Nations, there never would have been an Israel-Syria conflict," says Murhaf Jouejati, a Syrian policy analyst at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
"It was not used solely for domestic political purposes, because the conflict was there before," he adds. "Nor will the new regime use it as an excuse, because if Israel delivers the Golan Heights, Syria will make peace."
"Assad's legitimacy did not arise just from the struggle with Israel," adds an observer in Damascus, Syria. "The fact that there is need for reform now shouldn't take away from achievements in educational and rural development."
This debate over Israel's role in shaping the policies and acts of Arab nations stretches far beyond Syria.
Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein galvanized support inside his closed country and across much of the Arab world during the 1991 Gulf War, when he fired Scud missiles at Israel. In one ploy, Iraq tried to parlay a pullout of its occupation troops from Kuwait, for a Palestinian-Israel peace settlement. Despite his dictatorial rule, Saddam Hussein remains a hero among Arab nationalists.
Likewise, when critics point to violations of human rights, freedom of press freedom, and other abuses by Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority, the usual response is that the PA can't be expected to conform to normal rules when it is still fighting for its sovereignty.
"All the military dictatorships have taken power since 1948," notes Tahseen Basheer, a former Egyptian ambassador and
spokesman. "The military has dominated, because Arabs felt insecure, and felt a strong army was the answer [to Israel]. Saddam Hussein uses the deep frustration of the Arab world to say that even his mistakes are justifiable, because he is fighting devils."
Syria continues to devote a significant portion of its budget to military spending - 6.3 percent in 1997, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. And while the economy has stagnated, Damascus still fields one of the largest ground forces in the Mideast.
"From an early age, Assad focused on the idea of Israel - it took 90 percent of his energy," says a Syrian analyst in Damascus, who asked not to be named. "Of course it has been a legitimizing factor for the regime, as it has been for the entire Arab world. Always there was the conflict with Israel, and we are still at war.
"Syria must always have an enemy" to help create political cohesion, he adds. "It is true across much of the third world - where regimes don't represent the people - they must have an enemy to fight."
In next-door Lebanon, where Syria deploys 30,000 troops ostensibly to keep the peace, that view resonates.
"No question, the fig leaf has been Israel," says a Lebanese analyst in Beirut. "The [Syrian] regime fabricated its legitimacy under that fig leaf. Assad used the discourse of war to block any discourse rejecting his policy. It worked."
Syria's case is even more complex, however, due to a mixture of endless anti-Israel rhetoric, years as a client of the former Soviet Union during the cold war, ruthless suppression of internal threats, the advent of rural development and universal education, and the Assad's transformation of Syria into a regional power.
"The Arab-Israel crisis in many ways defined the Assad regime because it was the central issue on his agenda, other than stability and survival," says Edward Djerejian, a former US ambassador to Syria and director of the Baker Institute at Rice University in Houston.
But among Arab nations, "you still have authoritarian rule without the justification of an immediate threat."
For 20 years, Syria was "the prototype coup state," he says, so Assad's first priority was to consolidate power using the multi-confessional Baath Party to create a political system backed up by an array of intelligence services.
"With or without Israel, the regime - at least as Assad developed it - would have been very much the same," Mr. Djerejian says. "Now, whether there would have been more voices for opening up, and economic and social reforms and liberalization, I don't know. But certainly, we can see those now being manifest."
The idea that the echoes of Al-Nakba might one day wane were first sounded after the 1978 Camp David peace agreement between Egypt's Anwar Sadat and Israel's Menachem Begin. It received further currency in 1993, when Israel's Yitzak Rabin and the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat signed the Oslo Accord. Once foes, the four leaders were later awarded the Nobel Peace Prizes. One result of peace, noted a French analyst in 1993, was that "an important foundation of authoritarianism in the Arab world is going to disappear."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society