Middle Eastern identity—false objective

Opinion by Fahed Fanek, Jordan Times, Monday 21 July 2003

IS IT a feasible objective to try to abolish Arab identity so that our nationality thereafter becomes Middle Eastern, so that we, as former Arabs, will gain a common identity with the Israelis, the Turks and the Iranians? At one time we heard the expression “Middle Eastern complexion” to describe a terrorist who turned out to be blond, and American, but to hear about Middle Eastern identity or nationality is beyond reason.

For the sake of argument, let us assume that the Arabs gave up their national identity in favour of a Middle Eastern identity. Would the Israelis give up their identity? Would they accept the idea of being integrated in the Middle East with its Arab majority, to become a small part of the so called New Middle East?

Most likely, the answer is negative. The slogan “New Middle East” was first coined by Shimon Peres, but the project was not acceptable even to the Israelis. It failed and was shelved, not only because of soft Arab reservations, but also because of a strict Israeli rejection.

Israel is determined to be, and to remain, a closed fortress. It sees in opening to the Arab world a fatal danger. It wants to avoid melting in the Arab sea.

Even though we hear a lot about Israeli ambitions to reach and perhaps dominate Arab markets, we have not, so far, notice any Israeli serious move in this direction. The Israeli economy is geared towards American and European markets. Israel sees itself as part of the West, it does not belong to the Middle East and knows quite well that it is a stranger in this part of the world. Israel is perceived by its citizens as an island in the Atlantic Ocean, somewhere between Europe and America.

The president of the United States offered a free trade area between America and the Middle Eastern countries. This offer renewed the talk about a New Middle East, an idea perceived as a Zionist conspiracy in favour of Israel. In fact, President George Bush did not have Israel in mind when he made his offer, simply because it already has a full-fledged free trade area with America. The offer was a sort of public relations overture directed to the Arab world in an attempt to improve the image of the United States and to be some sort of bribe to the Arab peoples to swallow what America did in Iraq.

On the other hand, America wanted to establish a free trade area with each willing Arab or other Middle Eastern country separately. It did not make it a condition that Middle Eastern countries should open up their markets to each other. The idea of a New Middle East is out of the question.

Understandably, Arabs do not want a New Middle East because they already have the Arab League and have failed, so far, to open up to each other as a priority over entering into a free trade area with any other power. Israel, also, is not interested because it looks to Europe and the United States. Turkey is completely geared towards integration within the European Union. Its relations with America are now at a low point, after lack of cooperation over the invasion of Iraq. Iran is not welcome as a partner in any Middle East arrangement. If anything, America is active in containing and isolating, if not destabilising, Iran.

My conclusion is that the project labelled “New Middle East” is not on the table, nor is it being promoted by any party. Arab press commentators should not waste their time in attacking the fictitious project.