Finding moderation: Arab politico talks of middle ground in Middle East

For not advocating suicide bombings, former Jordanian diplomat and politician Marwan Muasher has been painted as a traitor. In his native Jordan, he has been referred to as a neo-liberal and an American agent.

But that isn’t to say he’s embraced in the United States.

Many people here are dismissive of his notion of an “Arab center” — a conceptual middle ground of diverse Arab thinking that is moderate, and abhors terrorist tactics.

The deputy prime minister of Jordan for 13 months in 2004 and 2005, Muasher shared his views in a talk titled “Finding Moderation in the Middle East” on July 8 at the Commonwealth Club of California.

His talk in San Francisco, before a packed house of about 75 on a hot, sticky evening, was in conjunction with a discussion of his latest book, “The Arab Center: The Promise of Moderation.”

“To be called a moderate in the Middle East has been described as an act of courage, a leap of faith and just plain suicidal,” Muasher said. “But I don’t think there is a time in the Middle East when moderation is needed more than today.”

Much of Muasher’s talk focused on solving the enduring conflict between Arabs and Israelis, with an emphasis on seeking not just a peaceful coexistence between Palestinians and Israel, but peace for the entire Arab world.

Mausher said the Arab center — which attempts to forge one moderate voice from among the Arab left and right — needs to establish credibility as the first of many steps toward peace.

Consistency will hopefully follow, he said, along with the anticipation that Arab moderates will have their theories for peace taken seriously.

“The Arab center is losing its credibility fast among the Arab public,” Muasher said. “Many say, ‘You promised us peace and you did not deliver. Why should we believe you? Maybe radicals have a better solution.’

“If there is not peace today, it is not for a lack of trying. We must take on other issues in Arab society if we are to be truly prosperous and credible.”

Because advocates of the Arab center focus on finding the road to peace, Muasher said, issues such as political reform, cultural diversity and good government have not been addressed.

Muasher’s contributions toward peace include writing about the Middle East in English and opening Jordan’s first embassy in Israel in 1995; he served as the first Jordanian ambassador to the Jewish state.

Muasher was also Jordan’s foreign minister from 2002 to 2004, and he served as Jordan’s ambassador to the United States and Mexico from 1997 to 2002.

“Most Arab politicians kiss and don’t tell,” Muasher said. “They are in government for a long time. When they leave, they hardly document their experience.

“I made a rare attempt at writing an account from the inside when most of the history of the Middle East has been written by outsiders, not practitioners.”

Muasher described his experience living in Israel, which he called an “enemy state” during his talk, as a series of dilemmas that were not easy for him or his family, who were against his move. The decision to live there, being immersed in Israeli culture, weighed heavily on him.

While Israel today is a country of about 7.3 million, including about 1.5 million Arabs, Muasher said that in the future, Israel would have to face the situation when Arabs outnumber the Jews.

“I claim that if Israel really wants to live in the neighborhood, it will have to give up the fortress mentality and give in to the two-state solution,” Muasher said.

Engaging the United States in the Middle East conflict has been nothing short of a challenge since the war with Iraq began, Muasher said.

An Arab peace initiative, brought forth by the leaders within the Arab center, resulted in little progress within the Bush administration, according to Muasher. He called the plan “a milestone” because it addressed Arab and Israeli needs.

Muasher said he sent a copy of his book, “The Arab Center,” to Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain, but has yet to meet with them. With the war in Iraq and the United States’ volatile relationship with Iran topping the list of international issues, the candidates might be putting other Mideast issues on the back burner, Muasher said.

“You are given the impression that [the Israel-Palestinian conflict] is not a priority,” Muasher said. “This is a compartmentalization of the issues. The United States thinking that Iraq has nothing to do with the peace process or that terrorism is not linked to the peace process. You end up with the results we see today — a more radical region and continuation of the conflict.

“Those who are interested in peace-making need to be more vocal with peace, the United States and the international community.”