Monday, July 20, 2009

2009: A Diplomatic Odyssey, On the Wine-Dark Sea of Middle Eastern Politics

By Barry Rubin

“‘If anyone unwarily draws in too close and hears the singing of the Sirens, his wife and children will never welcome him home again, for they sit in a green field and warble him to death with the sweetness of their song. There is a great heap of dead men's bones lying all around, with the flesh still rotting off them. Therefore pass these Sirens by….

“‘Come here,’ they sang….`He who listens will go on his way not only charmed, but wiser, for we…can tell you everything that is going to happen over the whole world.’” --The Odyssey, Book 12

So sang the Sirens to Odysseus. They promised not material or carnal joy but wisdom, for they claimed to predict the future. And thus warble the two Sirens, those of America and those of Europe. And what do they sing to Israel?

More! More! More concessions; take a risk; take a chance; prove you want peace. If you make a deal with Arafat; if you give control over the West Bank and Gaza Strip; if you offer to come down from all the Golan Heights; if you withdraw from south Lebanon, if you withdraw from the Gaza Strip, if you offer a state, then we will love you and help you and you will live in peace! We know the future and it will be a future of peace if you only heed us, you silly, stubborn people!

Come the delegations, come the parliamentarians, come the journalists, to the shores and luxury hotels, and conference rooms. And those who comply are rewarded, for a short time, with honeyed words and nice media coverage. Blessed are those Israelis who make unilateral concessions for they are called “moderates.” And cursed be those Israelis who don’t make unilateral concessions, for they will be called “hawks” and “hardliners.”

But soon their bones, or rather those of their less fortunate countrymen, lay all around. And the Sirens reset and start all over again.

We are only looking for your own good, they say. We want to help you. These are the lotus wholesalers.

As Homer also wrote:

“The Lotus-eaters did them no hurt, but gave them to eat of the lotus, which was so delicious that those who ate of it left off caring about home, and did not even want to go back and say what had happened to them, but were for staying and munching lotus with the Lotus-eaters without thinking further of their return.” –The Odyssey, Book Nine.

For no sooner is a concession given, a risk taken, that it is forgotten by those who ate lotus at the diplomatic banquets, at the international conference buffets. And so is the promise of support.
Remember the 1990s’ version of the Sirens’ song?

Here’s the plan: Create a Palestinian Authority, give them lots of money and guns. Let them bring in tens of thousands of Palestinians. Turn over more and more of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

And by governing they will learn responsibility. And Yasir Arafat will become moderate, and a statesman. And there will be no more terrorism or incitement to terrorism. And there will be a two-state solution.

And what about the 2006 song: Stop the war with Hizballah and the UN will establish a strong force to patrol south Lebanon. Hizballah will not be able to return or to build military installations. Arms smuggling will be halted. For we are the entire international community, almost 200 nations strong.

And each time, the chorus goes: if this doesn’t work out, we will support you. We will recognize the risks you have taken, and the concessions you have given, and the losses you have suffered. And the name of Israel will be exalted as a great peacemaker. And the media will say nice things about you.

The above is written in what I hope to be an entertaining style. But it is deadly serious—as dead as hundreds of Israelis are as a consequence of Western advice and promises, along with hundreds of Palestinians whose deaths are also a direct result of these failures.

That’s what happened. And here we are at the end of that process as if none of it has happened.

As if the concept of having a “reset” of policy is just a euphemism for short-term memory loss.

If Israel’s leaders and people believed that a freeze in settlement construction would actually bring benefits--either for real peace or for at least real and full Western support based on an understanding that the Palestinian leadership didn’t want peace and that Arab states would do almost nothing to bring it about—it would happen despite all the political obstacles. But the Israeli public is, for good reasons, doubtful.

If only, we were told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that he would accept a two-state solution, how we will appreciate you! And he did. And they didn’t.

How many weeks after the freeze, for example, would the Europeans find some new reason to stop advancing toward Israeli integration with the European Union?

Knowing all this, we will follow the advice of Circe to Odysseus on how to deal with the Sirens:
“Pass these Sirens by, and stop your men's ears with wax that none of them may hear; but if you like you can listen yourself, for you may get the men to bind you…and they must lash the rope's ends to the mast itself….If you beg and pray the men to unloose you, then they must bind you tighter.”

With all seriousness, the absolute refusal of American and European leaders and journalists even to acknowledge this history and their own behavior guarantees Israeli refusal to heed their Siren song.

Repeatedly, without being tied to the mast, I have raised this issue in private conversations—What about your unfulfilled promises in the past? What about the risks we’ve taken unrewarded? What about all the other concessions that have backfired?--to Western political figures and diplomats. Not a single one responds.

Let me emphasize that: they don’t deny, they don’t apologize, they don’t even make a counter-argument. They simply go on without any reference to what I’ve just said. Not once have I ever heard an effort to address this issue from anyone in an official position. That’s no exaggeration.

They are the ones with wax in their ears. But if they refuse even to acknowledge the consequences of their past demands and advice, why should we listen to their latest versions of the same tune?

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition) and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books, go to To see his blog,

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