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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1998, Vol. 1 No. 2 .

The Decline of the Arab-Israeli Conflict
Avraham Sela

(NY: SUNY,1998)
423pp. Index Bibl. ISBN 0-7914-3537-7..
Pb ISBN 0-7914-3538-5

This is not a work on ethnicity or conflict resolution so much as an essay in conventional international relations theory applied to the analysis of a major regional subsystem, namely, that of the Middle East. In this context, the key isue is changing Arab Arab perceptions and attitudes towards Israel; and the key actors are Arab ruling elites. The authors objective is: "to fill a gap in the existing literature on the history of regional Arab politics." (x) Sela's purpose is to remedy a deficiency in the interpretation of "the relationship between inter-Arab politics and the Arab-Israeli conflict." (x) Central to Sela's work is the claim that "Arab attitudes toward Israel" constitute an analytically valid "unit of analysis, involving qualitative and quantitative factors." (x) These factors are examined in the context of summit conferences that provide Sela with a terrain on which to test his claims regarding the commitment to pan-Arabism and competing Islamist trends. What his works demonstrates is that these commitments were by passed by Arab political elites who thus opted for a more pragmatic approach, albeit often indirectly endorsing what amounts to containment as opposed to direct confrontation with Israel.

Sela's thesis turns on his claims with respect to the role of the conflict with Israel, on the one hand, and the paramount importance he alleges with respect to pan-Arabism and Islamist movements. While this is a work that provides valuable documentation, the proposition that assumes a generic Arab attitude toward Israel is as unpersuasive as the claims with respect to pan-Arabism as the dominant motif whose subversion was achieved by Arab summits. In practice, this approach leaves out the considerable evidence of an Arab post-war politics far richer, far more divided, far more subject to internal criticism and opposition on grounds other than pan-Arabism, than the present work suggests. Similarly, the analysis of Arab attitudes towards Israel that omits discussion of Israeli regional policies and attitudes towards Palestinians and Arabs, appears to exclude a critical dimension of the story being told. Finally, the role of foreign intervention is similarly limited, notably with respect to the analysis of the regional and international constellation of forces that led up to Madrid and Oslo. The practical results are far more pessimistic than Sela's title suggests.

Irene L Gendzier, Boston University

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