(February 13) - Prime Minister Shimon Peres is seeking, by sheer will, to transform the Middle East from a war-torn, strife-ridden region filled with hatred into a vibrant, economic, democratic, confederation of states in which Israel will play a vital role. His goal is the "creation of a regional community of nations../... modeled on the European Community."
One of the main challenges is the growing threat of Islamic fundamentalism, which Peres sees as the chief danger facing the region. To counter this threat, he prescribes the development of "institutional democratization," accompanied by the "modernization" of the region. According to Peres, democratization is the solution to ending violence in the region, and "economic and social development are the criteria for successful democratization of the Middle East."
Unfortunately, the historical and empirical foundations upon which Peres has constructed his vision are fatally flawed. Trying to model the Middle East after the European Community is a naive and spurious venture. Today's European Community rose from the rubble of a continent devastated by a world war. It was built on the massive influx of economic support from the US. These countries were united against a common threat, the Soviet Union, in a bipolar world. Moreover, the US exercised benign hegemonic control over Western Europe and compelled these countries, through political and military leadership, to suppress their individual animosities toward each other. Finally, the countries of Western Europe have experienced democracy for at least 50 years.
Consequently, they have had the opportunity to inculcate the democratic values necessary for them to eschew violence as a viable option to resolve their differences.
Unfortunately, today's Middle East lacks any of the criteria needed to draw parallels between the two regions. Unlike Europe of 1945, the main belligerents in any potential future regional conflict have their armies intact. Not having experienced the level of destruction that visited Europe in World War II, the countries of the Middle East have not forsaken the use of force as a viable option for conflict resolution.
Peres sees the rise and proliferation of Islamic fundamentalism as the common threat to the region. However, many of the countries in the region view Israel as the main threat to the region. Their adamant stand against allowing Israel to join the coalition in the Gulf War vividly illustrated that the Arab states are still united in their opposition to Israel.
While the US is currently playing an active role in the "peace process," this participation may be ephemeral. The US is in the process of defining its role in a new unipolar world. It is quite likely that its enormous monetary deficit and internal social problems may lead it to reduce its involvement in international disputes.
That Peres sees democracy as the panacea for all the region's problems reflects his pervasive ethnocentric attitude. While Israel may embrace democracy as a preferred model, a great many Arabs reject the notion. Many view democracy as an alien element used by the US to subjugate Arabs.
The struggle between Islamic fundamentalism and democracy is in its embryonic stages. Until it is resolved, any movement toward modernization and economic union is premature. To achieve peace, Peres says, "the basic problems of the Middle East need to be approached realistically."
Realistically: While Peres talks peace, Arafat talks jihad; while Peres talks of economic integration, the Arabs talk of the US 's attempts to exert hegemonic control through its proxy Israel.
While Israelis hold peace rallies and put peace stickers on their cars, Palestinian children wear pins showing a Palestinian state encompassing Israel. This is the reality of the Middle East today, and no amount of wishful thinking or visionary dreaming will change it.
Shawn M. Pine is a former US military intelligence officer and a doctoral candidate in international relations at the Hebrew University.