Nine years ago, when we first interviewed Marwan Muasher, then Jordan’s soft-spoken ambassador to the United States, he was — at least on the surface — brimming with optimism over the chances for lasting peace between the Arab states and Israel. After all, the horrors of 9/11 had not yet occurred, George W. Bush hadn’t yet invaded Iraq, tourism to Jordan was booming, the Palestinian intifada was still a year away and Ehud Barak — whom Muasher had come to know and admire during Barak’s tenure as foreign minister — had just been elected prime minister of Israel.
Those heady days are long gone, and the Middle East of 2008 is a much more dangerous place than ever, rife with religious extremism and ready to explode. Hence Muasher’s new book, “The Arab Center: The Promise of Moderation” — a 312-page memoir and historical narrative whose basic message is that time is rapidly running out for a comprehensive solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
“I’m a product of the Oslo process, meaning that my generation believed in a gradual approach to peacemaking as a way to build confidence between the parties so they could make the necessary painful compromises. I no longer believe in this gradual approach because the last 15 years have been used by opponents of peace on both sides to derail the peace process,” Muasher recently told The Washington Diplomat.
“On the Arab side are the radical elements, the suicide bombers, and on the Israeli side, the settlers and right-wingers. Anytime there is change — whether in Israeli politics or in Arab politics — we start all over again. We were hopeful when Mahmoud Abbas came, that as a Palestinian moderate we’d see a quick resolution of the problem. And now, we are all worried that if Kadima loses, you might get a rightist in power in Israel.”
Muasher, interviewed at his Wash-ington D.C. residence, warned of serious consequences following the resignation of Israel’s scandal-plagued prime minister, Ehud Olmert, as head of the centrist Kadima Party.
“There’s a power struggle going on, which might mean that the Israeli government won’t have their eyes focused on a final settlement,” he said. “At any rate, I’m not optimistic that they’ll be able to reach one anyway.”
Muasher, 52, is in a unique position to pontificate on such things.
In 1995, the up-and-coming diplomat — Jordan’s spokesman at peace talks in Madrid and Washington — opened the Jordanian Embassy in Tel Aviv and re-mained in Israel for 10 months. From 1997 to 2002, he was Jordan’s ambassador to the United States and eventually became Jordan’s foreign minister, and later deputy prime minister in charge of reform.
That gave him a front-row seat to recent undertakings ranging from the Saudi-backed Arab Peace Initiative to the Bush administration’s so-called Middle East “road map.”
“Marwan Muasher is not just a witness, but also an active participant and a shaper of realities in the Middle East,” said prominent Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi, who’s mentioned several times in Muasher’s memoir. “His book is a valuable and unique contribution to the field with insights, inside information and a superb grasp of history in the making.”
An equally glowing accolade comes from none other than Jordan’s King Abdullah II: “Few Arab thinkers are better positioned to discuss the challenge to moderation in the Middle East, and I hope that Marwan Muasher’s distinguished voice of reason and pragmatism will be heard well beyond our region.”
Muasher says he began writing his book at the end of 1995. “I was aided by the fact that since the Madrid peace talks, I had kept daily handwritten notes,” he explained. “When I quote people in the book, it’s verbatim. It took me a year, and another six months for the publisher to edit the manuscript.”
Muasher has now spent the last half a year promoting “The Arab Center” on a book tour that’s taken him to New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Detroit, Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Hampton Roads, Va., as well as various spots in Washington, D.C.
“It’s being very well received in this country,” he said. “I wrote it in English because there are almost no Arab politicians who write in English. I also want the message to reach the Arab public. It’s being translated into Arabic and will appear in October.”
Among Muasher’s key arguments:
• Moderate politicians and governments have paid too little attention to internal reforms, focusing almost exclusively on the peace process. Their failure to pay attention to issues of good governance and the economic well being of their citizens has undermined their credibility as an alternative to radical Islam.
• The idea that Arabs don’t want peace with Israel is a myth. Most of the promising initiatives for solving the conflicts that have arisen in recent years have come from the Arab center. The West must take seriously the Arab center’s interest in peace, and work in genuine partnership with the moderate core to seek solutions of regional origin.
• The Arab world must learn to view political and cultural diversity as a strength, rather than a weakness. Policies of inclusion and popular participation must be welcomed rather than feared. Jordan has the potential to pave the way for the growth of such views.
“Democracy is not just about free elections — it’s a culture that you nurture and grow,” Muasher told The Diplomat. “It’s also minority rights, rule of law, human rights, judicial independence and freedom of the press. I’m not a proponent of immediately opening up the system, because that would bring in armed radicals. What we need to work for is an evolutionary process that opens up the system gradually while putting in place the pillars of democracy.”
And nowhere in the Arab world is there any “real credible and sustained process” to put that into place, according to Muasher. “There’s a lot of resistance from the political elites. Diversity of thought is still looked at as a weakness, and people are urged to think monolithically rather than critically,” he lamented, adding that the “empowerment of women in the Arab world is a must. You cannot use the Arab-Israeli conflict as an excuse for not giving women their economic and social rights.”
It’s also not an excuse for corrupt politicians, and one Arab politician who clearly did not impress Muasher was the late Yasser Arafat — whom he wrote in his book “was notorious for putting on a public show in front of others.”
“The Hamas victory in 2006 had less to do with its stand on Israel and more to do with corruption. It was a protest vote, an anti-corruption vote,” said Muasher. “If I have a central message in my book, it’s that Arab moderates need to be a center on all issues, not just peace. Unless Arab moderates address issues of reform, they will have no credibility.”
He added: “I have come to realize that you cannot be selective in your moderation. You cannot ask people to have peace with Israel while at the same time you don’t allow them a diversity of opinions within their own countries.”
Yet peace with Israel remains a deeply elusive goal — one that has become even more elusive since Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and subsequent violence between the Palestinian Authority’s ruling Fatah party and militants belonging to Hamas, which controls Gaza.
“This unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza is a myth used to justify Israel’s occupation of the West Bank,” Muasher argued. “Yes, Israel pulled out of Gaza but turned Gaza into a ghetto, where people are trapped in a large prison. They don’t have an airport or a seaport, and their movement into the West Bank is curtailed. That’s not a solution and it doesn’t bode well for the future.”
In 1995, while still Jordan’s ambassador in Tel Aviv, Muasher was with Yitzhak Rabin the night he was assassinated by a Jewish fanatic. He said Jordan’s King Hussein deeply respected the late Israeli prime minister. Muasher, in fact, was responsible for hastily arranging Hussein’s attendance at Rabin’s funeral — the monarch’s first visit to Jerusalem since Jordan lost it to Israel in the Six-Day War of 1967.
“Even though Rabin had a rather brutal past, early on he concluded that a two-state solution was the only way to go, and he pursued it with seriousness,” said Muasher, noting that the king “felt [Shimon] Peres did not deliver on promises he made. Rabin, on the other hand, was a man of his word, and things started going downhill after Rabin died.”
To that end, Muasher has few kind words to say about Benjamin Netanyahu, who became prime minister after Rabin’s assassination, describing Netanyahu as someone who “often stretched or hid part of the truth.” And if the hawkish Netanyahu returns to power — depending on whether Israel holds general elections in early 2009 — Muasher worries that could be the nail in the coffin of any Arab-Israeli peace deal.
Yet these days, the biggest threat to Israel’s existence appears not to be Palestinian terrorist attacks or even the Hezbollah presence in Lebanon — but an Iranian nuclear attack. Even so, Muasher warns that an Israeli pre-emptive strike would be a grave mistake.
“Iran’s nuclear capability is a problem, just as Israel’s nuclear capability is a problem. The question to ask is, will a military option address that problem?” he said. “In my opinion, it will not. Most experts will tell you [the threat of a military strike] is not going to deter the Iranians; in fact, it might give them an added incentive. Secondly, military interventions have been tried by the U.S. before, and it didn’t result in pacifying the region. All other options — including economic sanctions and dialogue — must be tried first. But this is not the number-one issue on our radar screen.”
The number-one issue, he says, is the rise of Islamic fanaticism personified by al-Qaeda, a major threat also to Jordan. In fact, Muasher’s book begins with a description of the suicide bombings against three hotels in Amman the night of Nov. 9, 2005, that killed 60 people and injured hundreds more.
“Al-Qaeda feeds on the frustration of people, and there’s a lot of frustration in the region directed against the United States,” he said. “Jordan has advocated open policies which shielded [the U.S.] for awhile, but we’re not living in isolation. To our east we have the Iraqi problem, and to our west the Palestinian problem.”
And contrary to arguments put forth by the pro-Israel lobby, according to Muasher, “a two-state solution is not a sellout of Israel” but rather a goal that’s as much in Israel’s interest as in the Palestinians’ interest.
“Neither the Israeli government under Ariel Sharon nor the Bush administration has made peacemaking a priority,” he charged. “Sharon wanted peace, but only on conditions that satisfied Israel and not the Palestinians. Bush’s priority in the Mideast was Iraq, then Iran for the bulk of his administration, and he only picked up peacemaking since Annapolis.”
In his book, Muasher describes Bush as quite unlike his predecessor, Bill Clinton, charging that Bush “had no facility for nuance and instead tended to see things in black and white.”
Bush, he wrote, had little interest in Middle East peacemaking until the latter half of his second term, by which time he had become basically irrelevant. “Annapolis was too late. You cannot ignore the Arab-Israeli conflict for seven years and attempt to solve it in the eighth year,” Muasher said, noting that all successful peacemaking efforts took place in a president’s first term rather than the second.
“If I have any suggestions for the incoming administration, the first would be to pick up the Arab-Israeli conflict early on in the first term and to push for a quick settlement to the conflict. If we don’t go for a two-state solution — and the window is fast closing on that — then we are going to be faced with radicalism, frustration and violence in the region. If we’re going to wait until all the stars are properly aligned, we will never achieve peace.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.