In visiting Gaza and Israel a few weeks ago, I realized how much the huge drama in Iraq has obscured some of the slower, deeper but equally significant changes happening around the Middle East. To put it bluntly, the political parties in the Arab world and Israel that have shaped the politics of this region since 1967 have all either crumbled or been gutted of any of their original meaning. The only major parties with any internal energy and coherence left today are Hamas, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood, and they are scared out of their minds – scared that if all the secular parties collapse, they may have to rule, and they don’t have the answers for jobs, sewers and electricity.
In short, Iraq is not the only country in this neighborhood struggling to write a new social contract and develop new parties. The same thing is going on in Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Gaza. If you like comparative politics, you may want to pull up a chair and pop some popcorn, because this sort of political sound and light show comes along only every 30 or 40 years.
How did it all happen? The peace process and the large-scale immigration of Jews to Israel (aliyah) were the energy sources that animated the Israeli Labor Party, and their recent collapse has sapped its strength. Meanwhile, Ariel Sharon’s decision to pull out of Gaza unilaterally and uproot all the Jewish settlements there, settlements that his Likud Party had extolled as part of its core mission, has fractured that party.
Likud’s vision of creating a Greater Israel “collapsed because of Palestinian demography and terrorism, and Labor’s vision of peace collapsed with the failure at Camp David,” said the former Likud minister Dan Meridor.
The death of Yasir Arafat, the Palestinian intifada – which was as much a revolt by Palestinian youth against Fatah’s corrupt old guard as against Israel – and Israel’s crushing response have broken Fatah and its animating vision of “revolution until victory over the Zionist entity.”
“Fatah never made the transition from a national liberation movement to civil society,” said the Palestinian reformist legislator Ziad Abu Amr. Iraq’s Baath Party was smashed to bits by President Bush. Syria’s Baath – because of the loss of both its charismatic leader, Hafez al-Assad, and Lebanon, its vassal and launching pad for war on Israel – has no juice anymore. Lebanon’s Christian Phalange Party and Amal Party, and the other ethnic parties there, are all casting about for new identities, now that their primary obsessions – the Syrian and Israeli bogymen – have both left Lebanon. Egypt’s National Democratic Party, which should be spearheading the modernization of the Arab world, can’t get any traction because Egyptians still view it as the extension of a nondemocratic regime.
Intensifying these pressures is the big change from Washington, said the Palestinian political scientist Khalil Shikaki: “As long as Washington was happy with regimes that offered only stability, there was no outside pressure for change. Now that the Bush administration has taken a bolder position, the public’s expectations with regard to democratization are becoming greater. But the existing parties were not built to deliver that. So unless new ones emerge, either Hamas or anarchy could fill the vacuum.”
The big challenge for all these societies is obvious: Can they reconstitute these old parties or build new ones that can make the task and narrative of developing their own countries – making their people competitive in an age when China and India and Ireland are eating their lunch – as emotionally gripping as fighting Israel or the West or settling the West Bank?
Can there be a Baath Party or a Fatah that has real views on competition, science and the environment? Will Labor and Likud (which, though badly hobbled, are still more like real political parties than those in the Arab world) ever have a defining debate over why nearly one in five Israelis live below the poverty line?
“For decades, people in the region were only interested in political parties that offered national liberation,” remarked Jordan’s deputy prime minister, Marwan Muashar, whose country is in the midst of a huge overhaul. “But now all the existential threats to the different states are gone. Now the focus has shifted from national liberation to personal liberation, but in all spheres: more equality, less corruption, better incomes, better schools. … Governments are talking differently, but up to now people are still skeptical. They have heard so much talk. … The first country or party that really shows results will have a big effect on the whole region because everyone is looking for a new vision.”