Peres' scenario for Middle East is brimming with optimism

February 13, 1994|By Charles Mitchell | Charles Mitchell,Knight-Ridder News Service

Title: "The New Middle East"

Author: Shimon Peres

Publisher: Henry Holt

Length, price: 224 pages, $25

Shimon Peres, Israel's foreign minister, is known as a no-nonsense politician, a self-promoter and a tough diplomatic negotiator. With the publication of "The New Middle East," many will add wild-eyed optimist to the list.

"The New Middle East" is Mr. Peres' blueprint for the development of the region after the outbreak of peace last August.

With a monumental leap of faith, Mr. Peres says the accord (whose implementation now seems to be delayed indefinitely) between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization on limited autonomy for Jericho and the Gaza region will serve as the basis for the economic and social revival of the Middle East.

In pleading for cooperation between traditional enemies, the former Israeli prime minister makes some valid points about the futility and obsolescence of modern war.

He notes that the proliferation of chemical warheads and medium-range missiles in the Middle East means that in any future conflict the civilian populations of all countries in the region will be primary targets. Thus, a Middle East war now simply would be too costly in terms of civilian casualties to make sense.

Mr. Peres believes regional leaders have accepted this argument, leaving no alternative but an inevitable movement toward cooperation.

The new Middle East would be a confederation of states based on the model of the European Union, complete with a common economic policy, regional governmental organizations for tourism and the environment, and a regional security network. It obviously would require unprecedented military cooperation and exchanges between one-time enemies.

There would be one "superbank" that would act as a clearinghouse to allocate aid and investment funds regionally. Perhaps a single currency eventually would come into use.

Mr. Peres envisions Japan and Western Europe playing key commercial roles in the development of the Middle East, but says the region itself can fund many necessary development and social projects. He points out that Middle Eastern countries spend more than $60 billion a year on arms. That's money that could go a long way when used for peaceful purposes.

Mr. Peres proposes digging a canal to connect the inland Dead Sea with the Red Sea -- a project that would create a commercial and tourist boom.

All this sounds just great on paper. Mr. Peres helps by glossing over the political and ethnic differences that have made the Middle East a tinderbox since the founding of the modern Israeli nation.

Also, he doesn't mention that such regional unions have been tried and have failed before in underdeveloped regions more used to strife than peace. For example, in the 1970s and '80s there was the East African Community of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, which disintegrated into political feuding and eventually undeclared war.

"The New Middle East" is not easy to get through. Mr. Peres' style is stream-of-political-consciousness, rambling and repetitive.

One can only hope that the scenario that Mr. Peres proposes for the future of the Middle East is possible. Unfortunately, history seems to argue against it.

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