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Oil, Religion, and Politics Make a Volatile Mix

"A frog and a scorpion want to cross the Nile River," begins a joke about the Middle East.

"If I ride on your back, we can cross together," the scorpion says.

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"I'm not crazy!" answers the frog. "What if you sting me?"

"Why would I do that, and kill myself too?" the scorpion replies.

The frog agrees to ferry the scorpion across the river. Midstream, the scorpion stings the frog. As they sink, the frog yells: "Why did you do that? Now we are both going to die!" The scorpion responds: "Because this is the Middle East."

Grim as this joke may be, it underscores the troubled, sometimes self-destructive history of the Mideast.

This decade, however, has brought as much hope as any other time: The 1991 Gulf War brought together nations as diverse as the US and Syria to drive Iraq out of Kuwait. That success helped persuade Israelis, Palestinians, and their neighbors to embark upon an unprecedented peace process.

But the process is now in crisis. Much of the pro-Western goodwill earned by America during the Gulf War has dissolved. Today, the Mideast buys 42 percent of the world's weapons even as global arms sales have dropped by half in the last 10 years, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

Still, decades of conflict have given way to widespread battle fatigue - and a growing will to give business priority over bullets.

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What trends have formed the modern Middle East, and which are likely to shape the future? Is the pessimistic tale of the frog and the scorpion an inevitable prophecy? Or will peacemakers who envision a "new" Middle East win control?

Two factors have shaped the Mideast this century: land, in the Arab-Israeli conflict; and oil, in the Persian Gulf. Battling for control of these two limited and critical resources is the root reason that the region remains the most militarized on Earth.

These trends promise to define the future as they have the past:

The creation of Israel: The formation of the Jewish state in 1948 has transformed the region more than any other single event. After the British Mandate of the 1940s, the tiny state of Palestine was to be partitioned into separate Arab and Jewish areas. Arabs rejected the UN partition that gave more than half the land to minority Jews. Jewish guerrillas launched a terrorist campaign to force Arabs from the biblical lands of Israel.

Disorganized Arab armies were roundly defeated in the War of Independence, which spawned 900,000 Palestinian refugees and ever since has been known to the Arabs simply as Al-Nakba, the Disaster. The result has been constant friction.

The discovery of oil: The discovery of vast oil reserves in the Persian Gulf in the 1920s and later has guaranteed superpower interest in obscure desert sheikhdoms. The oil shocks that began in 1973, set off by steep price hikes introduced by the Arab oil cartel OPEC, caused the United States and other oil-dependent Western nations to look for means of intervening.

For years US strategic planners wanted a robust and at least semipermanent troop presence in the Gulf to "protect" the flow of oil. Then came the Gulf War. Numbering just 1,000 before 1990, the 20,000 US troops now in the Gulf enforce a "dual containment" policy against Iran and Iraq.

* Islamic fundamentalism: Few events have had such far-reaching consequences as Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution. Radical groups across the Islamic world were emboldened to challenge pro-West or secular Arab regimes. In Tehran, American Embassy staff were taken hostage for 444 days, and US interests around the region were targeted by pro-Iranian groups.

Toning down their ideology, many Islamic groups this decade have turned poverty into political capital. In Turkey, Lebanon, and Algeria, they are building strong support by helping people locally more than their governments.

* Collapse of the Soviet Union: For decades, the fuel for Middle East wars came from the cold war: US support for Israel was countered by Soviet backing of Arab states.

The fall of the USSR brought an end to the protective Soviet "umbrella." Syria, which is still technically at war with Israel, has been hardest hit and has little choice but to accept the US as the power-broker in peace talks.

These trends have mixed into a powerful cocktail. A simple list of the conflicts - seven major and many smaller ones - that have rocked the region since World War II seem sufficient to justify the scorpion's self-destructive tale. They indicate that peace in the Middle East isn't automatic and must be deliberately sought and actively preserved.

Hope for peace has never been higher than in the 1990s, with Israel and the Palestinians agreeing to trade land for peace in the 1993 Oslo accords. But those hopes have unraveled with the 1995 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the election last year of hard-liner Benjamin Netanyahu, who has vowed to reject the land-for- peace formula.

"Israel must trade with its neighbors," says a Western diplomat. "Israelis are the ones who never accommodate, who don't get on with others. They're not swimming in the same sea."

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