An Innovative Approach to Middle East Peace

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have an opportunity to lay out an overarching policy on the Middle East in Monday night’s debate. Thus far, that has been missing in the presidential campaign. Amongst the public, there is widespread frustration with repeated policy failures and a perception that the region is beyond repair.

The next president will inherit a daunting to-do list: ending the Syrian war, decisively defeating ISIS, stabilizing Iraq, resurrecting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and navigating a troubled relationship with Turkey. Attempting to deal with these problems in isolation as we have for decades will only produce more failures and frustration.

Instead, there is a need for a new approach to the Middle East which offers a vision of inclusion rather than division, where the governments and peoples of the region have equal stakes in their future. Such a vision may appear more aspiration than reality, given the region’s bloody conflicts, but there is a model rooted in the region’s history that could provide such a path.

For hundreds of years, the peoples of what the West called the “Levant,” (encompassing Israel, the Pal­estinian territories, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and parts of Iraq and Turkey), shared a common bond and identity that transcended religion and ethnicity. The often loose rule of the Ottoman Empire, while hardly a model of twenty first century good governance, nonetheless facilitated both a “live and let live” approach among the region’s diverse communities. It also encouraged the free move­ment of goods and people, instilling a spirit of commerce and entrepreneurship.

This era came to an end when France and Britain arbitrarily carved up the region in the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement, paving the way for sectarian and ethnic strife, authoritarian rule, economic stagnation, and ongoing conflicts.

Yet, the traditions of integration, diversity, and tolerance are not lost among the peoples of the Middle East. The excesses of authoritarian rule and the atrocities of ISIS and Al-Qaeda are the exceptions, not the norm. The habits of integration are deeply ingrained in Levantine culture and reside just beneath the surface, waiting to be tapped.

A recent example suggests that this model is more than a historical artifact. Six years ago, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan announced a free-trade zone and visa-free travel among the four countries. Economically, the Arab world and Turkey became more integrated than they had been for nearly a cen­tury as trade doubled to $30 billion between 2007 and 2011. Arab travel to Turkey rose by nearly 50 per­cent in 2010 compared to the previous year.

Soon after, Syr­ian protesters, inspired by popular revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, took to the streets and were met with a vi­cious response from the Assad regime. By the fall, Turkey and others imposed sanctions on Syria, and the Levantine integration project disintegrated.

This short-lived integration experiment provided a peek at the potential for a new turn in the region’s politics. Economic integration, by definition, offers a shared vision of prosperity, and allows insulation against the sectarianism and ethnic hatred which fuels violent extremists, including ISIS and others.

The Levantine model would also offer the best chance for Israel to normalize relations with its Arab neighbors. A territorial settlement based upon the 1967 borders is necessary but not sufficient for a lasting peace. The transformation of Israel into an economic partner of its Arab neighbors would be an endgame of a new Levant, and satisfy a longtime American objective.

The vision of a New Levant will not be realized simply by reflecting on better times of a previous era. ISIS and Al Qaeda must be militarily defeated, but there is no time to waste in working toward an “integration for peace” model. War will not last forever, but the coming post-war period must not simply become an interregnum between conflicts.

The US, in collaboration with international and regional partners, should initiate a combination of bilateral and multilateral diplomatic tracks focusing on the region’s interlocking, inseparable crises. 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 of these countries into a single economic zone al­lowing the free movement of goods, ser­vices, labor and capital.

For those who want to dismiss a new Levant as idealistic, I suggest a quick look at European history prior to the formation of the EU. In an era of tight budgets, Integration for Peace also offers an attractive market-based alternative for recon­structing Iraq and Syria, creating jobs and bringing refugees home.

The United States must reassert itself in the Levant—much as it did in postwar Europe. Trump and Clinton would be wise to recognize that a renewed sense of collective identity based on mutual economic interests holds the key to healing a divided region so desperately in need of a shared vision of a more peaceful and prosperous future.

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