Posted on August 22, 2005 in Washington Watch

The Arab world is facing critical challenges in Iraq and Palestine. Passivity will not do, nor will merely blaming others, even if they justly deserve blame for having created these crises in the first place. It is past time for demonstrations of leadership and vision.

What can be done?

Let’s start with Palestine.

Israel’s evacuation of its colonies in Gaza presents challenges and opportunities that must be addressed–and quickly. The Israelis are carrying out their plan largely unilaterally, showing little inclination to move forward on the Road Map toward negotiations. In addition, critical issues remain unresolved.

Israel is leaving Gaza, but will remain the occupying power over this congested and impoverished strip, since it will continue to control all land, sea, and air routes into the area. Without unimpeded access to the West Bank and the outside world, Gaza can not be considered free, nor will it be possible to develop a viable and sustainable economy.

Nevertheless, it is critical that work begin to build Gaza’s infrastructure, to radically transform the conditions of daily life by providing jobs and hope to Gaza’s young and to assist the Palestinian Authority in meeting its responsibility to provide services and security for Gaza’s over one million people.
The wise decision of the UAE’s Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed to invest $100 million in building a new city for 30,000 – 40,000 Gazans shows the way. But more must and can follow.

The UAE’s action should not stand alone. An emergency Arab Reconstruction and Development Fund for Gaza should be established. Even before solutions are found to the many real problems that remain (the closed borders being only one of those), Arab leaders should announce that help is on the way and take quick steps to provide some immediate relief.

A decade ago I proposed the creation of the Gaza equivalent of the US’s Depression-era Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Together the WPA and CCC created hundreds of thousands of government funded make-work jobs provided hope and needed cash to the nation’s unemployed. The Palestinian Office for Disengagement Affairs, headed by Mohammed Dahlan, reports that something akin to this is underway, with 1,800 being employed making flags and t-shirts for a Gaza celebration/clean-up campaign. With broader Arab support, this endeavor can be expanded to hire 50,000 and can engage in a number of labor intensive reconstruction projects. All that is required is leadership and vision.

Simultaneous with these largely economic efforts designed to bring hope to Palestinians and demonstrate concrete support for and buy time for the Palestinian Authority, additional efforts can take place on the political front as well.

King Abdallah of Saudi Arabia should breathe new life into his Arab League-endorsed peace initiative. Simply announcing it, after the 2002 Beirut Summit, was never enough. The Arab League, after embracing the peace offer, needed to embark on an international campaign focused primarily at transforming US and Israeli opinion. The plan needs to be elaborated and sold. In doing so, Arabs will take the initiative away from Sharon, providing a real vision of a comprehensive peace. By projecting such a vision, Arab leadership will not only help to impact the policy debate in the US and Israel, they will also inspire and empower the forces for peace and give hope and a political horizon to Palestinians.

That Sharon will reject this Arab peace offer is a given, but this should not stop Arabs from taking the high road and demonstrating leadership and vision. In the end, none of this is being done as a favor to Sharon. Making Gaza work, giving hope to young Palestinians and challenging Israel’s resistance to a comprehensive peace, these are Arab interests.

Iraq requires Arab attention and action as well. The US, it is clear, has made a mess of the situation and still has no plan to move the country forward. But, especially in light of the problems being dealt with in Iraq’s debate over a new Constitution, realities must be faced.

A new and potentially explosive situation has been created in the heart of the Arab world. The Kurdish leadership has a vision for their region and the Iranians, as we say, are “sitting pretty.” But besides worrying about outcomes, debating the identity and unity of Iraq, or bemoaning the present state of affairs, where is the Arab vision and leadership for Iraq?

An Arab-led effort at “Reconstruction and Reconciliation” can be launched to engage all of Iraq’s communities in a collective discussion about the future of the country and its role in and relationship with the broader region.

It is imperative that Arabs not wait for the US to solve Iraq, it can not. And, if left alone, the centripetal forces of ethnic and sectarian divisions will continue to pull Iraq apart, encouraged by some groups determined to foment internal strife. But a concerted, positive, and independent Arab effort to engage Iraq’s new leadership, coupled with offers to assist rebuilding the country’s infrastructure and proposals as to how Iraq can take its rightful place in the region, can help provide a new direction.

The choice here is a simple one. The long beleaguered Kurdish people have been empowered and Iraq’s majority Shi’a community are now in a strong position as well. It is imperative to recognize these new realities. What Arab leadership and vision can provide is a bridge between the old Iraq and this new Iraq that is in formation–helping the country’s complex constituency to find their place in the Arab family.

What is needed is leadership and vision.

For comments or information, contact James Zogby

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