Reinventing the Levant

Reinventing the Levant

These countries should incorporate themselves into a single economic zone.

In 1945, six Arab countries—Egypt, Syria, Transjordan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Yemen—undertook another ill-fated bid to unify when they came together to found the Arab League. The decision to base the institutions of pan-Arabism in Egypt signaled the organization’s orientation away from the Mashriq and towards North Africa and the Gulf—a focus that became even starker in 1979, when the capital of the Arab League was temporarily moved to Tunis as a consequence of Arab anger over the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.

The league provides a kind of sifting mechanism for the problems of the Arab world. The West works with and through the league as necessary and especially when it serves broader U.S. strategic interests, such as in the 1991 Gulf War. But the league has done very little to assist the nations of the Mashriq, and its record on the Palestine question (with the possible exception of the Saudi-led 2002 Arab Peace Initiative) is lackluster. The league’s approach to economic issues surrounding oil, as evinced by the 2006 decision to admit Venezuela as an observer, betrayed an increasingly muddled and distant agenda. It has, likewise, not achieved any significant degree of political or economic integration among its member states, which remain extremely disparate. The inability of the Arab League to solve or even begin to address the political, cultural and economic difficulties of the Mashriq reflects the failures of the Arab nationalist model. Given its legacy as a talk shop and showcase of Arab divisions—not to mention regional identities trending toward the local—the league is unlikely to emerge as a force for stability.


THE ONE part of the Levant that has captivated American policymakers is the state of Israel. Israel has enjoyed huge amounts of economic, political and military support from the United States, especially since its occupation of Palestinian territories after the 1967 war. U.S. administrations have expended exorbitant amounts of energy and resources in trying to negotiate a “peace process” intended to stabilize the region.

Such efforts have repeatedly fallen short, largely because they have not conceptualized the conflict within the Mashriq’s colonial history. Even if the Israelis and the Palestinians were to sign a peace deal, Israel’s hostile relations with its neighbors would continue to threaten its position. Any lasting solution must therefore also consider Israel as a central part of the Mashriq, recognize its cultural and historical importance to the history of the region, and offer it genuine economic and political integration. Successful economic exchange and development must be considered essential to any peace settlement.

This may seem like an unlikely scenario, especially in the face of arguments that the security barrier has allowed Israelis to relegate the ongoing conflict to a back-burner issue. But in fact, Israel has much to gain from regional economic and political integration. Such a solution would allow it to establish a lasting peace with the Palestinians as well as its Arab neighbors, especially Lebanon, with which Israel has been intermittently at war for the better part of three decades—a conflict that has taken an immense toll on the Israeli psyche as well as costing thousands of lives and billions of dollars. Integration for Peace would provide Israel with regional allies against its greatest foe, Iran, perhaps eventually building new strategic lines of communication with Tehran, and reinvigorating relations with Ankara. It also offers Israel the opportunity for major regional economic development, opening up huge new markets for Israeli goods and services. But above all, it represents an opportunity for the normalization of relations and the permanent legitimization of Israel in the eyes of its neighbors. The genuine acceptance of Israel as an economic partner of the Arab states of the Mashriq would enshrine a new regional order.

The states of the Mashriq must shift from outdated anti-Israel rhetoric, which served for so many years to prop up the failing institutions of Arab nationalism, and instead recognize Israel as a potential partner in a major economic redevelopment of the region. Integration for Peace offers the most promising path towards regional security and prosperity. This sort of cooperation could lead to sustainable partnerships between Israel and its Arab neighbors, a desirable outcome for U.S. national interests.


PIECEMEAL SOLUTIONS to the so-called “Middle East problem” have failed repeatedly. Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan (reached at great financial and diplomatic cost to the United States) have reaped little in terms of broader integration. Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat’s agreement, despite leading to a Nobel Peace Prize, failed to deliver a genuine peace between Israelis and Egyptians. Similarly structured individual peace arrangements with the Palestinians or with Israel’s two northern neighbors would likely suffer from the same tunnel vision.

The region has been in a state of cold war since the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the last time that the Israeli army engaged another conventional force in limited war—in contrast with actions against nonstate actors like Hezbollah and Hamas. Israel has existed in a tense atmosphere for nearly three decades, facing down Syria, Lebanon and various Palestinian groups. The Camp David Accords, in retrospect, look more like an armistice than anything else; any additional piece-meal peace would be no different.

A Mashriq-wide peace process should supplant the “Land for Peace” approach with an Integration for Peace framework. Such a model would include land settlements between Israel and the Palestinians (based on pre-1967 borders), as well as among Israel, Lebanon and postwar Syria. Offering Israel a phased path to full integration in a Mashriq market could function as a catalyst.

The United States has proven incapable of advancing the Israeli cause in the post–Arab Spring landscape. But a war-weary America must play a role in reimagining the Mashriq. The incorporation of these countries into a single economic zone allowing the free movement of goods, services, labor and capital, based on a European Union–style single market, is the first step towards reclaiming an identity that was lost in the violent colonization of the Middle East.

Reimagining a new Mashriqi identity, based on a common history of cosmopolitanism and a commitment to a shared economic prosperity, is viable. Integration for Peace has pre–twentieth century antecedents and represents an alternative to the recent Islamist trend. It rejects the sectarianism that has come to characterize the Middle East (which developed primarily as a response to colonial and neocolonial legal and political systems), burying the concept of a Sunni-Shia divide in favor of a vision based on the region’s much longer history of tolerance and diversity. Far from presenting a threat to the United States, this new vision holds promise for a stable and productive Mashriq, with benefits for the Middle East as a whole.

The United States, though wounded by its invasion of Iraq and a damaged reputation throughout the Middle East, remains the only feasible mediator. But it must break from the pattern of trying to solve crises in isolation. The United States and Russia, whose role in Syria makes it an indispensable player, should initiate a combination of bilateral and multilateral tracks with the strict intention of discussing the region’s interlocking, inseparable crises holistically. These conversations would involve not only regional government officials, but would also engage leading intellectuals and economists to outline a path toward integration in the postwar decade. The endgame is integration.

The European Union, in spite of its many imperfections and uncertain future, offers a modern-day example of success in the wake of a disastrous conflict. In an era of tight budgets, a market-based approach offers an attractive alternative for reconstructing Iraq and Syria, creating jobs and bringing refugees home. The United States must seize the opportunity to reassert itself as an honest broker in the Mashriq—much as it did in postwar Europe. The seemingly endless stream of crises from Syria, Turkey and Iraq to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict demands a bold, new approach.

A renewed sense of collective identity based on shared economic interests may hold the key to healing a divided region desperately in need of a shared vision of a more peaceful and prosperous future.

Jamal Daniel is chairman of Crest Investment Company and founder and publisher of Al-Monitor, winner of the 2014 Free Media Pioneer Award.

Image: A sign at the border in Syria. Photo by Paul Keller, CC BY 2.0.