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
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