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The Middle East in the Late 20th and early 21st Centuries

At the end of the late 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century many ongoing issues continued to affect relations between the Middle East and the rest of the world. In Iraq, economic sanctions, imposed after its invasion of Kuwait in 1990, remained in effect. These sanctions, which included an embargo on Iraqi oil, were intended to force Iraq to pay war reparations and destroy its nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. In December 1998 Hussein’s decision to expel international weapons inspectors who were sent to Iraq to ensure that these conditions were met drew renewed criticism and threats of military action from several Western nations. UN member nations, many of whom rely heavily on Middle Eastern oil, often failed to agree on the extent and duration of the sanctions and on an appropriate response to Hussein’s noncompliance. Following a UN resolution in October 2002, Hussein agreed to readmit weapons inspectors. The government of U.S. president George W. Bush, however, insisted that Hussein possessed chemical and biological weapons and was actively planning to reconstitute a nuclear weapons program. In March 2003 U.S.-led forces invaded Iraq and overthrew the Hussein regime. Following the war, however, no evidence was found that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction or the production facilities needed to manufacture them.

Despite some steps toward peace, the continuing conflict between Israelis and Arabs continued to play a significant role in regional and worldwide relations. Negotiations beginning in 1993 between Israel and the PLO resulted in limited Palestinian self-rule under the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) in some parts of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. This initial progress in negotiations improved relations between Israel and many Arab countries, including Jordan, which signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1994. However, terrorist attacks continued on both sides. An Israeli student opposed to the peace process assassinated Israel’s prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, in 1995. The peace process stalled once again, especially after the election of a right-wing government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996, which called for the adoption of a much more uncompromising stance toward the Palestinians.

Ehud Barak took office in July 1999 and created a broad center-left coalition government in Israel. Barak pledged to take “bold steps” to help forge a comprehensive peace in the Middle East. He focused his attention on negotiations with the Palestinians and promised to withdraw Israeli troops from southern Lebanon, which Israel had occupied since 1982, within one year. The withdrawal was completed by June 2000.

In an effort to move the Israeli-Palestinian peace process forward, the United States convened a summit at Camp David, Maryland, in the summer of 2000, at which U.S. president Bill Clinton, Barak, and PNA president Yasir Arafat focused on a comprehensive peace agreement. Despite intense efforts and some areas of accord, no agreement was reached, and violent clashes between Palestinians and Israelis ensued. Barak suddenly resigned as prime minister in December 2000.

Barak was succeeded by Ariel Sharon, who announced in 2003 that Israel would unilaterally withdraw from the Gaza Strip in 2005. Sharon argued that the peace process could not go forward until the PNA demonstrated that it could control terrorism by groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Israel completed the evacuation of Gaza in August 2005. However, the PNA, now headed by Mahmoud Abbas, who succeeded Arafat following Arafat’s death in 2004, continued to seek a more wide-ranging negotiated settlement which would include Israeli withdrawal from all or most of the West Bank and perhaps from East Jerusalem.

Politically motivated Islamic groups continued to operate in many Middle Eastern countries in the early 21st century. In general, these groups express anger and frustration against what they regard as corrupt and illegitimate regimes, against U.S. activities in Afghanistan and Iraq, and against continuing U.S. support for Israel. However, violence has not been confined to the struggle against tyranny and injustice, but has also been directed against individual advocates of tolerance and democracy. Most Middle Eastern governments have responded with varying degrees of repression, both against Islamists and those urging respect for human rights.

It is also widely believed in the Middle East that the West, and especially the United States, largely controls the affairs of the region, and that the corrupt governments of the Middle East survive because the West needs them in order to protect its interests there. These beliefs have caused considerable anti-Western sentiment and widespread feelings of cynicism and disempowerment, which in turn have led many to conclude that Islam is the only solution.

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