Thursday, May 7, 2009

Not Anti-Israel, Just Anti-Realistic

Welcome to “Middle East classroom.” I’m your host, Barry Rubin, explaining how the region works. Let’s begin today with Salah, that’s Salah Nasrawi of Associated Press. For the purpose of this session, we will assume his article is accurate. It seems to be but let’s just walk through it and see what we can learn.

Ready? Let’s go!

“The Obama administration is trying to build on the shared interest of its Arab allies and Israel in blunting the threat from Iran.”

That sounds good to me. I hope that’s true, though all the emphasis on engaging Iran and Syria doesn’t seem likely to help in that direction.

“As part of the new strategy, Arab diplomats said this week that the U.S. has asked the 22-member Arab League to amend a 2002 peace initiative to make it more palatable to Israel.”

Well, that doesn’t sound too anti-Israel so perhaps the administration isn’t determined to destroy the Jewish state in the next six months.

"`What we are discussing today is a combined approach of bringing together Arabs, Europeans and the United States as a team to create the circumstances over the next several months that allow Israelis and Palestinians to sit at the table, but also with Lebanese, Syrians and Arab nations,’" Jordan's King Abdullah told a news conference in Berlin.”

Hey, everybody! Let’s all get together in a big room and solve the Arab-Israeli conflict! I wonder why the first president Bush didn’t think of that in Madrid, back in 1991? He did? Oh yes, right after winning a huge victory over Iraq and saving the Saudis and Kuwaitis. And we all know how well that worked.

Now, you did say Lebanon, right? That country which in early June will either have Hizballah as a coalition partner or as part of a pro-Iran majority right? Don’t think they’re coming. And Syria, the state that just hosted a huge celebration for the visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? No doubt, President Bashar al-Assad has a previous engagement that week.

And Libya, with Muammar Qadhafi showing up? And Qatar which has now allied itself with Iran’s regime? And Iraq, which despite hundreds of American soldiers giving their lives for its freedom and democracy won’t take such a risk? And what is Hamas, ruler of the Gaza Strip, going to be doing while this is going on?

“The Obama administration's efforts to start a dialogue with Iran have sent ripples of concern through the capitals of America's closest Arab allies, who accuse Tehran of playing a destabilizing role in the Middle East. In a rare confluence of interests with its Arab neighbors, Israel has also singled out Iran as the greatest threat to stability in the region.”

Great, that’s what I’ve been saying for years. But what is the Obama administration doing: leading this coalition or trying to conciliate with Tehran and Damascus? You can’t have it both ways.

“Arab diplomats say the Americans are pressing Arabs to amend their 2002 peace initiative to make it more acceptable to Israel. The plan — first proposed by Saudi Arabia in 2002 — called for exchange of Arab land occupied by Israel in the 1967 war for normalized relations with Arab countries. Later Arabs added an insistence on the right of Palestinian refugees who lost their homes in Mideast wars to return to what is now Israel.”

Finally, the AP presenting the initiative accurately! By the way,

“Several diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media, said the Americans are asking the Arab nations to drop the right of return and agree to either resettle the refugees in the host countries or in the Palestinian territories.”

I don’t think the Palestinian Authority is going to go along with that.

“Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa said rejected that suggestion. `There is no amendment to this initiative….The question of Iran should be separate from the Arab-Israel conflict,’ Moussa said.”

True, Moussa is a big-mouthed Arab nationalist ideologue but he’s also a good buddy of Egyptian President Husni Mubarak. If Egypt was on board don’t you think that Mubarak would tell Moussa to be quiet?

By the way, Israel isn’t bothered by all of this:

“An Israeli government official welcomed the involvement of the Arab allies in the peace process. `We see a very important role that moderate Arab states, countries like Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and others can play in the process, in strengthening the peace process. We believe their more direct involvement in the peace process can be positive and can help energize the process of reconciliation between us and the Palestinians….’"

Presumably, Israel can say: Sure, go ahead and try. We're with you on this one. And then if (when) the administration fails, Netanyahu can point out that he was cooperative. And presumably he could ask for some border modifications if (unlikely) all of this came together.

So maybe I’m wrong but here’s what I see:

The Palestinians, Syrians, Lebanese, Sudanese, Qatari, and Libyan leaders all say “no.” Iraq avoids supporting the idea. Egypt favors it but won’t take any risks in doing so. The Saudis won’t buck the consensus and so…it looks like Obama and Abdallah are working closely together, and pretty much alone.

Will the administration look foolish in its plan to settle the conflict real fast? What seems “logical” to people who rip the conflict out of its political context unfortunately doesn’t fit Middle East realities.

One of them is this: the administration assumes the Arab states are eager to solve the conflict. To some extent that’s true, especially for Jordan, a little less so for Saudi Arabia, and a little less than that for Egypt. But they don’t want to take any risks or make any concessions of their own to do so. They cannot, and won’t work too hard, to secure the needed consensus. They make a lot of hay out of the conflict in their internal propaganda. They fear radicals at home will portray them as betrayers. And even the Palestinian Authority won’t give up the demand for everything it wants including the “Right of Return” while offering to give up nothing in return.

These forces hope that if they keep just blaming Israel all the time, they will wear down the Europeans and Americans to give them more and more in return for less and less. And the radicals? They think they are winning and will soon take over additional states. Being intransigent, they think, is a major part of their winning strategy.

Here’s my view. You come into office and say: That George Bush was certainly a bad man. Why hasn’t anyone solved the conflict? Because they haven’t tried hard enough! Everyone wants peace right, or perhaps everyone but Hamas and Iran’s regime. The Palestinian Authority is moderate, isn't it? We’re all on the same side, aren’t we?

So it’s simple, we just get everyone together in a big room and have a nice solution: Israel recognized in its 1967 borders, Palestine an independent state. Gaza um, er, well, something or other will turn up. East Jerusalem, uh well how hard can that be?

So we make peace and everyone says: Wow, that President Obama!  Such a genius; such an irrisistable personality. No one can solve the conflict for more than a half-century and he comes along and fixes it in a few months.

Unfortunately, the Arab world isn't on the same page...of the teleprompter.

The administration’s policy is not so much “anti-Israel” as it is anti-realistic.

Note: This being the Middle East, it is possible that the details above are a Jordanian plant to show how much Amman is contributing to the peace effort and to win Obama's favor. This might be the same alleged new plan which former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been hinting at.  Whether or not these details are accurate, this analysis shows the profound difficulty in making any progress in the peace process. It is easy for Western politicians and tempting for reporters to blame everything on Netanyahu but then why is there still no solution in the year 2009, and why did the strenuous efforts of Netanyahu's predecessors not result in successful peacemaking?

The key to this apparent paradox is the counterintuitive (for some truth): the Palestinian leadership doesn't want peace but merely unilateral Israeli concessions; Arab regimes either don't want peace or are unwilling to do much or anything to help reach an agreement ending the conflict. All these forces have good material reasons of self-interest for acting as they do.

As both moderates and radicals perceive themselves to be winning the "propaganda war," with Israel blamed for the lack of a solution, they have even less incentive to make peace.

As radicals perceive themselves to be winning the war for control of the region, they have far less incentive to stop their aggression.


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