Libmonster ID: BY-1862
Author(s) of the publication: Yevgeny Primakov

Author: Yevgeny Primakov

The Middle East Problem in the Context of International Relations

Research in the field of international relations and world economics would be untenable without an analysis of regional conflicts, among which the Middle East one takes a special place. This is, perhaps, the longest regional conflict in the world. It has already surpassed other conflicts in the number of states involved and the frequency of its evolving into the crisis stage - large-scale armed clashes. Yet this is not all there is to determine the impact that the Middle East conflict has on the dynamics of the international situation.


The Middle East conflict is unparalleled in terms of its potential for spreading globally. During the Cold War, amid which the Arab-Israeli conflict evolved, the two opposing superpowers directly supported the conflicting parties: the Soviet Union supported Arab countries, while the United States supported Israel. On the one hand, the bipolar world order which existed at that time objectively played in favor of the escalation of the Middle East conflict into a global confrontation. On the other hand, the Soviet Union and the United States were not interested in such developments and they managed to keep the situation under control.

Yevgeny Primakov is President of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of the Russian Federation; Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences; member of the Editorial Board of Russia in Global Affairs. This article is based on the scientific report for which the author was awarded the Lomonosov Gold Medal of the Russian Academy of Sciences in 2008.

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The behavior of both superpowers in the course of all the wars in the Middle East proves that. In 1956, during the Anglo-French-Israeli military invasion of Egypt (which followed Cairo's decision to nationalize the Suez Canal Company) the United States -- contrary to the widespread belief in various countries, including Russia -- not only refrained from supporting its allies but insistently pressed -- along with the Soviet Union -- for the cessation of the armed action. Washington feared that the tripartite aggression would undermine the positions of the West in the Arab world and would result in a direct clash with the Soviet Union.

Fears that hostilities in the Middle East might acquire a global dimension could materialize also during the Six-Day War of 1967. On its eve, Moscow and Washington urged each other to cool down their "clients." When the war began, both superpowers assured each other that they did not intend to get involved in the crisis militarily and that that they would make efforts at the United Nations to negotiate terms for a ceasefire. On July 5, the Chairman of the Soviet Government, Alexei Kosygin, who was authorized by the Politburo to conduct negotiations on behalf of the Soviet leadership, for the first time ever used a hot line for this purpose. After the USS Liberty was attacked by Israeli forces, which later claimed the attack was a case of mistaken identity, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson immediately notified Kosygin that the movement of the U.S. Navy in the Mediterranean Sea was only intended to help the crew of the attacked ship and to investigate the incident.

The situation repeated itself during the hostilities of October 1973. Russian publications of those years argued that it was the Soviet Union that prevented U.S. military involvement in those events. In contrast, many U.S. authors claimed that a U.S. reaction thwarted Soviet plans to send troops to the Middle East. Neither statement is true.

The atmosphere was really quite tense. Sentiments both in Washington and Moscow were in favor of interference, yet both capitals were far from taking real action. When U.S. troops were put on high alert, Henry Kissinger assured Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin that this was done largely for domestic considerations and should not be seen by Moscow as a hostile act. In a private conversation with Dobrynin, President Richard Nixon said the same, adding that he might have overre-

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acted but that this had been done amidst a hostile campaign against him over Watergate.

Meanwhile, Kosygin and Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko at a Politburo meeting in Moscow strongly rejected a proposal by Defense Minister Marshal Andrei Grechko to "demonstrate" Soviet military presence in Egypt in response to Israel's refusal to comply with a UN Security Council resolution. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev took the side of Kosygin and Gromyko, saying that he was against any Soviet involvement in the conflict.

The above suggests an unequivocal conclusion that control by the superpowers in the bipolar world did not allow the Middle East conflict to escalate into a global confrontation.

After the end of the Cold War, some scholars and political observers concluded that a real threat of the Arab-Israeli conflict going beyond regional frameworks ceased to exist. However, in the 21st century this conclusion no longer conforms to the reality. The U.S. military operation in Iraq has changed the balance of forces in the Middle East. The disappearance of the Iraqi counterbalance has brought Iran to the fore as a regional power claiming a direct role in various Middle East processes. I do not belong to those who believe that the Iranian leadership has already made a political decision to create nuclear weapons of its own. Yet Tehran seems to have set itself the goal of achieving a technological level that would let it make such a decision (the "Japanese model") under unfavorable circumstances. Israel already possesses nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles. In such circumstances, the absence of a Middle East settlement opens a dangerous prospect of a nuclear collision in the region, which would have catastrophic consequences for the whole world.

The transition to a multipolar world has objectively strengthened the role of states and organizations that are directly involved in regional conflicts, which increases the latter's danger and reduces the possibility of controlling them. This refers, above all, to the Middle East conflict. The coming of Barack Obama to the presidency has allayed fears that the United States could deliver a preventive strike against Iran (under George W. Bush, it was one of the most discussed topics in the United States). However, fears have increased that such a strike can be launched

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by Israel, which would have unpredictable consequences for the region and beyond. It seems that President Obama's position does not completely rule out such a possibility.


Another aspect of the highly negative impact of the Middle East conflict on the international situation is the 21st-century challenge -- terrorism. The Middle East, or rather the Arab-Israeli conflict, has become an incubator of international terrorism. Many extremist and terrorist organizations and groups, including A1-Qaeda, have emerged and develop under the influence of this conflict. Military actions taken by Israel to oppose terrorists, which often are disproportionate and which cause suffering to the civilian population, not only fail to narrow the scope of terrorist activities but, on the contrary, broaden it.

The danger of this "vicious terrorist circle" can be seen in the theory of the "clash of civilizations," which has become widespread in the West. Humankind has hardly recovered from the ideological confrontation between Capitalism and Communism, which divided it, when a new division of the world is now predicted -- this time along religious and civilizational lines. This theory is particularly full-blown in works by American political scientist Samuel Huntington. He views clashes of civilizations as the basic conflict of the present and argues that such clashes are inevitable. The popularity of this theory is seen in the frequency that Huntington's works are cited in various publications, including monographs on geopolitics.

Unfortunately, the works by Russian scholars are lacking proof of the invalidity of Huntington's theory. Meanwhile, there is a dire need to study the impact of globalization on various civilizations and analyze the effects of the convergence of not only their material parts but also cultures and the dialectics which does not negate the individuality of the civilizational development of nations when such convergence takes place.

Tensions between the Western and Islamic civilizations do exist, and it is no use shutting one's eyes to it. But these tensions stem not from the essence of these so-called "irreconcilable antagonists" but from the crisis of dialogue between them, which has been replaced with confronta-

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tion and even armed struggle. The Middle East conflict plays a special role in this context, which certainly increases the price of its settlement.

The Arab-Israeli conflict has one more important dimension, as it has a destabilizing effect on the entire Middle East region, which has 68 percent of world oil reserves (not including Arab North Africa, which has also been affected by the Middle East conflict). One will hardly see a recurrence of the events of 1973 when Arab states stopped oil supplies to the West. Yet the U.S. military operation against Iraq, which accounts for almost 10 percent of the world's oil resources, has already placed this country outside the list of major oil exporters for years.

Despite the development of alternative energy sources, oil and gas will continue to be primary energy resources for the next few decades. Therefore, stability in the Middle East is and will be of paramount importance, especially at a time when the main consumers of Middle East oil start overcoming the present recession. The jocular saying "The energy crisis has made the light at the end of the tunnel go off' is in fact not that jocular.

I would also like to emphasize that the Middle East region, which has been least hit by the global economic crisis, will be of special value in the post-crisis period as an object of foreign investment. Huge financial resources accumulated in the Gulf area provide good prerequisites for that.


What capabilities does the international community now have to settle the conflict in the Middle East? What does history teach us in this respect?

First of all, it must be said that the Middle East conflict cannot be settled militarily. This was confirmed, yet another time, by Israel's latest major military operation in the Gaza Strip against the Palestinian Hamas movement. Interference from the UN Security Council made Israel stop combat actions and withdraw its troops from Gaza. This time, the United States departed from its usual practice of vetoing Security Council resolutions critical of Israel. There are grounds to believe that the U.S. will continue to abide by this position with regard to

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Israel's military offensives because of a possible reaction from the Islamic world. In any case, the United States, along with the other permanent members of the Security Council, will oppose a military solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The use of force is unproductive from the point of view of the objective interests of Israel itself. It has military advantages over Arab countries, but it has very limited capabilities to use these advantages in order to annex occupied Arab territories -- not only because of the absence of international support. If Israel annexes the Arab territories it occupied in 1967, it will soon cease to be a Jewish state as the ratio between the Jewish and Arab populations in it will inevitably change in favor of the latter due to its birth rates. There are grounds to believe that not only the leaders of Israel but also the bulk of its political class are aware of this.

The impossibility of a military solution to the Middle East conflict emphasizes the need for its all-embracing settlement. Back in Soviet times, there were two contrasting approaches: the Soviet Union stood for a comprehensive settlement, while the U.S. favored separate agreements between Israel and individual Arab countries. As a result, Israel signed peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. Was the Soviet Union right in its approach? In retrospect, some authors support the American policy line. I do not belong to them. Obviously, the ability to reach an all-embracing settlement was simply ignored during the preparation of the agreements with individual Arab countries. Moreover, it was not even provided that those would be interim agreements paving the way to an overall solution.

Aware of the complexity of the process and the impossibility of achieving settlement overnight, the Soviet Union never opposed intermediary measures leading to a clearly defined and mutually agreed goal -- all-embracing settlement. At the same time, the Soviet logic was dictated by the fact that the conclusion of separate agreements removed one Arab country after another from the settlement process and thus complicated the solution of another issue -- the settlement of Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Syrian relations. Both these "tracks" involve basic territorial problems. And it is not accidental that, despite the Egyptian-Israeli and Jordanian-Israeli peace settlements, endless armed clashes have been going on in the region for more than 30 years now, including

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two Israeli interventions in Lebanon -- in 1982 and 2007. Both interventions were comparable in scale and the number of casualties with the wars of 1967 and 1973, which took place before the conclusion of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.

Without an all-embracing settlement, it is impossible to put an end to the state of hostility between Israel and the Arab world in general and to guarantee stability of what has already been achieved in Israel's relations with Egypt and Jordan. Without an all-embracing settlement, radical Islamist forces have good chances to destabilize the situation in the region, especially in key Arab countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

The foundation for an all-embracing settlement of the Middle East conflict was found in the following formula: the territories occupied by Israel in the course of the 1967 war in exchange for peace in Arab countries' relations with Israel. This implies not only the recognition of the Israeli state but also the establishment of full-scale diplomatic and other relations with it. This formula, established at the Madrid Peace Conference (1991), meant universal recognition of the undeniable truth that Israel's withdrawal from Arab territories, on the one hand, and guarantees for Israel's security, on the other, were the only way to achieve settlement in the Middle East. I would like to emphasize: the assent of all Arab states and the Palestine Liberation Organization to the "Madrid formula" means their absolute waiver of the demand that Israel withdraw into the borders originally defined for it by the UN General Assembly. (As a result of the first Arab-Israeli War of 1948-1949, Israel's territory was largely expanded.)


The settlement of the Palestinian issue implies the solution of several problems, the main of which is the creation of a Palestinian state, as was provided for back in 1947 by the UN General Assembly's decision on the partition of Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states. There is now a global consensus on this issue, which includes the United States and the European Union. The previous Israeli government, led by Ehud Olmert, also recognized the need to create a Palestinian state. I do not think that the negative position of the incumbent Israeli prime minister,

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Benjamin Netanyahu, on this issue is final, although he is likely to make his consent to the establishment of a Palestinian state conditional on some concessions from the latter. The process of creating a Palestinian state involves difficult negotiations also on such issues as borders of this state, the rights of refugees, and the future of Jerusalem, which must become the capital of the two states.

I do not share the point of view of those who think that all these problems are insoluble, as they can be solved if Israel renounces its practice of establishing settlements in the occupied West Bank. The expansion of existing Israeli settlements and the establishment of new ones is done notwithstanding UN Security Council resolutions and the negative attitude to this practice from a majority of states, including not only Russia, China and European countries but now also the United States.

Borders. They could be defined by means of a minor rectification of armistice lines and even an exchange of some territories.

Refugees.. The right to their return does not mean that all refugees will want to return. Most of them may choose financial compensation, which will let them give up living in Palestinian camps and settle in the future Palestinian state or in some other Arab country. The separation of the issue of refugees' right to return from the issue of a mechanism for implementing the return, including compensation, was discussed at informal talks between former Israeli minister Yossi Beilin and member of the PLO leadership Yassir Abd Rabbo. The two parties reached an understanding.

Jerusalem. It was none other than U.S. President Bill Clinton who proposed dividing Jerusalem into Israeli and Palestinian sections in his settlement plan.

As regards the Israeli-Syrian track, success in this field depends entirely on Israel's consent to Syria's sovereignty over the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since the war of 1967. Damascus has expressed its desire to enter into negotiations with Israel. Factors that make such negotiations possible include the position of those in the United States who are not interested in a further rapprochement between Syria and Iran, which would inevitably happen if a Syrian-Israeli settlement is not reached. The new Israeli government is divided over this issue. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has publicly reject-

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ed a possibility of returning the Golan Heights to Syria. Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who represents the Labor Party (Avoda) in the government, occupies a different position.

Success in the Syrian-Israeli peace process would also help to solve Israeli-Lebanese problems.


Attempts to achieve a Middle East settlement have been made in three forms: direct Arab-Israeli negotiations, an intermediary mission by the United States, and an international intermediary mission by the U.S., Russia, the European Union and the United Nations -- the present Quartet on the Middle East. The past experience has demonstrated the futility of two of these three forms: attempts by the conflicting parties to come to agreement on their own, without the involvement of outside forces, and the monopolization of an intermediary mission by the United States.

Recent examples of that include the termination of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating process after the Netanyahu government came to power in Israel and the failure of the promise given by former U.S. president George W. Bush to achieve a peace settlement in the Middle East before his presidency expired. The White House did not confine itself to words. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice actually moved the Quartet aside and spent more time in the Middle East in 2008 than in any other region of the world. It was not fortuitous that the White House named the U.S. city of Annapolis as the venue for a Middle East summit, intended to mark the start of the home stretch for settlement.

I would like to mention just one of the factors for the failure of the process started at Annapolis. In order to ensure the broadest possible Arab participation in that meeting (including Syria, of course), Rice said that the Annapolis summit would be followed by an international conference on Middle East settlement in Moscow. This implied the continuity of the process, with the active participation of Russia and other members of the Quartet. Given all that, Moscow decided to support the American initiative to convene an international meeting in Annapolis. President Vladimir Putin, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, his deputy Alexander Saltanov, and other Foreign Ministry officials played the main role in that.

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I too took part in the settlement efforts. Shortly before the Annapolis summit, on behalf of President Putin, I met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Israeli Prime Minister Olmert and Israeli Defense Minister Barak, Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa. In Damascus, I also met with the head of Hamas's political bureau, Khaled Mashaal. The keynote of all those meetings was the idea of continuity of the Middle East settlement process, which the planned Moscow peace conference was to ensure several months after the Annapolis meeting. For example, President Assad of Syria linked his consent to send a Syrian delegation to Annapolis to the idea of holding a follow-up conference in Moscow. His position was shared by the other officials, with whom I talked.

However, the Moscow peace conference never took place. It was repeatedly postponed throughout 2008. Then it was announced that the conference would be held in the spring of 2009. The main reason why the Moscow conference was not held as scheduled was the unwillingness of the United States, which quoted the opinion of Israel, while Israeli leaders, in turn, quoted Washington's unreadiness.

In view of the changes in the political leadership of Israel and the differences among Palestinians which have divided them into supporters of the Fatah and Hamas movements, I think holding a peace conference in Moscow in the present circumstances and without thorough preparations would be counterproductive.

But this conclusion does not mean that headway in the Middle East settlement process is now impossible. Despite the enormous difficulties and obstacles that have piled up on this way, chances for success do exist.

First, there is reason to believe that U.S. President Barack Obama, concerned over the situation in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan, will take the Middle East settlement problem much more seriously than his predecessor. Washington can exert a decisive influence on Israel to press the Netanyahu government to solve problems with Palestinians and Syrians. Naturally, the strong pro-Israeli lobby in the United States will stand in the way of the White House's resolute measures to influence the Israeli leadership, but today this lobby has somewhat lost its strength as many former supporters of Israel's radical measures now feel the need

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for a peaceful settlement. Another encouraging factor in this regard is that President Obama has not let neo-conservatives, famous for their anti-Arab lobbying, into his team.

Second, Arab countries, above all Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have taken a constructive position and have a positive impact on Palestinians.

Third, before Israel attacked the Gaza Strip, Tel Aviv and Fatah had come closer to each other on some sensitive issues -- in any case, the refusal to discuss them had given way to exchanges of views.

Finally, Moscow's role and policy can be a very important reserve of settlement. In contrast with the other Quartet members, Russia has established good relations not only with Israel, Iran and Syria, but also with Fatah, Hamas and Hezbollah.

Using the experience gained, the Quartet could work out a compromise plan on all major settlement issues. This plan should be handed over to the conflicting parties as a collective decision of the United States, Russia, the EU and the UN. Let us remember how Israel was created. Didn't the international community dictate its decision on the partition of Palestine and the creation of Israel and an Arab state in Palestinian territory then?

The proposed plan should include the establishment of a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. This problem is exacerbated still further today. Israel's nuclear armaments and concerns about the possession of nuclear weapons by Iran encourage nuclear ambitions among other countries in the region. Israel opposes the establishment of a nuclear-free zone. But its position may change if an Arab-Israeli settlement is linked to a verifiable renunciation by Iran of nuclear weapons.

Of course, the path to a Middle East settlement is difficult. This task cannot be solved overnight. But active efforts in this field must be made.


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