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Bolstering the Arab center

Marwan Muasher is a former foreign minister and deputy prime minister of Jordan. He is the author of a new book, "The Arab Center: The Promise of Moderation."

To be a moderate in the Arab world today sometimes feels like an act of courage, and other times like a leap of faith. Sometimes, it’s just plain suicidal. And yet, there has never been a time when moderation is more needed in the region than now.

Although Westerners looking at the Arab world tend to focus on its extremists, Arab moderates do exist, and they have -- at least with regard to the Arab-Israeli peace process -- put a number of initiatives on the table (including the Arab peace initiative first floated by the Saudis in 2002 and the Middle East road map of 2003, which was originally proposed by Jordan). To do so, they have to fight against much more radical positions within the Arab world, and in several cases, they have prevailed.

Yet today, Arab moderation is at risk as radical forces gain strength throughout the region, marketing a dark vision of the future. Al Qaeda is growing stronger rather than weaker; Hamas has taken over from Fatah in the Palestinian territories. The favorability of the United States has been extremely low throughout the region since the beginning of the Iraq war.

There is no doubt that the failure of the peace process to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has strengthened the argument of the radicals: that violence is necessary because the moderate path has not worked. If there is any suggestion I would offer to the incoming U.S. administration, it is to take on the issue of Israel and the Palestinians aggressively in its first term and to abandon any further attempts at a gradual approach to solve the conflict. A gradual process of confidence-building -- which was the theory behind the Oslo peace process in the 1990s -- has exhausted its possibilities and has given detractors of peace too much time to operate.

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Fortunately, the parameters of a solution are today known to all, a result of previous negotiations and frameworks arrived at by the parties themselves. What is needed is the political will of the new U.S. administration, perhaps in collaboration with the United Nations, the Russians and the Europeans, to make it happen.

There is nothing more the international community can do to help Arab moderates than this. Time is not on the side of moderation. If the new U.S. administration dawdles, hopes for a two-state solution will quickly fade, with disastrous results.

But even as the U.S. steps in aggressively, Arab moderates must also help themselves. Despite the Arab center’s efforts to solve the Arab-Israeli issue, its major shortcoming is that it has focused on that one subject. If it is to be popular in Arab eyes, it needs to expand its agenda to other areas of concern -- governance, political reform, economic well-being and cultural diversity.

Opening up political systems in the Arab world, even gradually, has been fiercely resisted by the region’s traditional political elites (whose main argument after the Hamas victory in the 2006 Palestinian elections has been: “We told you so. If you open up the system, the radicals come in.”)

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The fact is, however, that extremists in the Arab world have been strengthened by the continuation of the status quo, especially as the moderates have failed to deliver on peace or address issues of political and economic reform.

The process of opening up political systems in the Arab world -- which means democratizing them and making them more transparent, among other things -- must begin as an alternative to the current stalemate that has trapped Arab citizens between the status quo (dominated by ruling elites that have often failed to deliver development, freedom and good governance to their people) and the more radical forms of political Islam, which many believe would curtail political, social and personal freedoms.

Arab moderates should be at the forefront of the effort to create serious, if gradual, political reform. Although previous efforts of trying to impose reform from the outside have not and will not work, a serious and credible home-grown process can be supported by the new U.S. administration and the international community.

If the Arab center is to triumph, it must rid itself of the image its opponents paint. Arab moderates must no longer be viewed as apologists for the West or compromisers of Arab rights. Instead, they must plant the seeds for a time when the peace process will be concluded and the challenge of a robust, diverse, tolerant, democratic and prosperous Arab society remains.


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