The speed and publication in seventeen languages of Shimon Peres's new book suggest that it will deal with one of the most secret political agreements in recent history - the Oslo Agreement between the PLO and Israel - in which Peres was a key architect.
However, those readers expecting to find details of how the agreement was reached, its high and low points, the discussions in Israel, Peres's own role in it and his relations with Rabin, will be disappointed. The New Middle East makes only scant mention of the Agreement and what went into making it. And while Peres's picture at the White House signing ceremony on September 13 (flanked by Arafat and Clinton) on the cover of the book would suggest that the book will deal in substance with that important document and event, it is hardly touched upon. In fact, of the book's fourteen chapters, only the first chapters deal with Oslo and Washington; the rest concentrate on Mr. Peres's vision of the future of the area.
Israel's Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, has been preaching about his vision of the new Middle East for some time now. In his vision, Peres skips over the present political and military situation and tries to dream what a peaceful Middle East will look like. He states clearly that the Israeli-Arab economic imbalance is the most important issue that needs to be addressed and his book is a detailed prescription for how that economic prosperity which Israel enjoys, can also be enjoyed by the Arabs of the area.
Shimon Peres's starting point differs greatly from that of most Israeli apologists and of his government's own propaganda. He admits that the economic situation of Palestinians as well as that of all other neighboring Arab countries is way below the standard of living of Israelis and of Europeans. The per capita income of the Arabs in the Middle East is $1,200 per year which is one tenth of that of Europeans. The difference between Egypt's per capita income of $640 and Israel's $9,790 is staggering). He also repeatedly makes the case that Islamic fundamentalism and ideological extremism stem primarily from an inferior economic situation. From that starting point he goes on to detail how a new Middle East on which "moderate" Arab rulers and Israeli leaders (namely people like himself or from his own Labor Party) can be built by cooperation and sharing resources.
He explains how much money has been spent on the arms race and in previous wars - a staggering $60 billion every year on average, with the investment in military equipment consuming 21% of all governments' budgets, with countries like Syria spending nearly 50% of their budget, and Israel 26%, on arms.
Shimon Peres argues that with peace, not only can much of that spending be saved, but a lot more can be gained as a result of a new peaceful situation, and cooperation. One example he gives is electricity, where he says billions of dollars could be saved by working together. One of his ideas is the Red Sea-Dead Sea canal which he says will make electricity and generate tourism and produce agricultural growth.
With one exception, throughout his New Middle East Shimon Peres ignores the prospect of Palestinian statehood. On page 139 and under a section about ports and free trade areas, Peres says in reference to the new Gaza port "merchandise and cargo will pass through its gates to points in Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and even Iraq".
The vision of Shimon Peres of a new Middle East is fine except for two crucial problems: Mr. Peres skips the details involved in the question of how we get from where we are now to this new utopia. The first problem then is how Mr. Peres plans to convince the Israeli people and government of his vision. Visions and promises seem far away when compared to the reality on the ground as regards many aspects of Israel's economic, political and military control over the Palestinians.
Would all this be different if Mr. Peres was prime minister and not simply foreign minister? The answer is not clear. What is clear to the average person living in the Middle East is that you simply can't dream about a new Middle East without changing the policies of occupation, expansionism and colonialism of Zionism and the State of Israel for most of the 20th century.
The second problem with Mr. Peres's vision is his expectation that the Arab world, which has not been really united all these years, will all of a sudden sing to the tune of the Foreign Minister of Israel. Economic cooperation which is the key to Peres's new Middle East is almost non-existent among the twenty-three Arab countries which are members of the Arab League. On the average, Arab trade amounts to less than 10% of the total imports of the Arab world. Existing rail lines between Saudi Arabia and Syria have not been used for tens of years. Pipe lines have also been out of use. Syria and Iraq can't agree on the use of the waters of the Euphrates and Tigris. Will Assad of Damascus be more flexible with Israel? Highly unlikely.
Should Mr. Peres then not dream of a new Middle East? There is nothing wrong with dreaming such dreams. But for Palestinians and Israelis for whom the existing situation - the feelings, concerns, angers and fears of both people are only too familiar - what is needed is some hard work on improving things in the short term. Peres's long term vision might be looked at more seriously once Palestinians see and feel that Israeli policy has changed from that of occupation and expansion to that of cooperation and mutual respect.