Sunday, May 17, 2009

It's Still A Fantasy If You Put Your Hands Over Your Ears

By Barry Rubin

One of the features of these intellectually blighted times is that the most absurd statements can be made—and about what place are they more often made than the Middle East?—and then protected from being seriously challenged. True, licensed conservatives get a certain amount of column inches and air time but that’s part of the problem.

The alternative views are restricted largely to a group that is given the smallest possible share of the mainstream media space and is either ideologically conditioned or portrayed as such so that it can be dismissed on those grounds. What people need to hear is serious, credible nonpartisan expert opinion which blows to smithereens nonsensical arguments.

In other words, only one side is heard by many (or most) people and its remarkably weak arguments are thus protected from simple logical responses which are likely to be persuasive.

Let’s focus on a single point. Here I quote Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman, one of the most intelligent officials in the current administration speaking about the Middle East in one of his less fortunate moments:

"We want to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in order to remove one of the tools that Iran uses to distract the region from what Iran is doing,"

Such an idea has been supposedly stated by White House top advisor Rahm Emanuel and, in cruder or crudest form, by hundreds of op-eds, university lectures, and other sources of wisdom.

Yet even the briefest examination will show how this is absurd. True, for someone who doesn’t know about the region it seems quite logical—Arabs and Muslims complain about the conflict and so if it is resolved or appears about to be fixed they will rejoice and bless the United States for being the peacemaker-- yet it falls apart very quickly.

The first fallacy is that the Palestinians, Arab regimes, revolutionary Islamists, and Iran would be happy if there was a resolution through some kind of diplomatic agreement. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the agreement would turn all of the West Bank and Gaza Strip into a Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital. In exchange, all the Arab states would recognize Israel and the conflict would come to an end.

Yet for Iran and its allies or supporters, such an agreement—which would necessitate great risks and concessions by Israel—would be a treasonous sell-out. Those who made such a deal would be deemed as betrayers of Islam who merited death. The agreement would be rejected and great efforts and large amounts of violence would be devoted to destroying it. The level of violence would actually increase, not decrease as a result.

Yes, I know about the Arab peace initiative—also called the Saudi plan or the Beirut Arab summit proposal—but the way this was worded made it acceptable to the Syrian, Libyan, and then Iraqi regimes. It was arguably a step forward but contained provisions that, at least in its existing state, were aimed to make possible an apparent peace settlement which also paved the way to Israel’s extinction.

In the event of such an agreement, endless campaigns would be waged to destabilize the Palestinian state from within. Cross-border raids would be conducted by Hamas and other radical forces (including within the majority Fatah party) to foment an Israel-Palestine war and mobilize popular support for a revolutionary takeover. Radical states would intervene to subvert the state, and so on.

The idea that running a state would inevitably produce a pragmatic and moderate leadership was discredited during the 1990s, when Yasir Arafat and his colleagues showed no interest in providing competent rule and rising living standards but only in waging a struggle culminating in total victory.

Moreover, it would not just be radicals who would be set on fire by such an agreement but the masses in every country, who have been indoctrinated for decades to hate Israel. Any Arab state that endorsed the agreement would be slated for overthrow; any leader who did so would be marked down for assassination. Remember that while Egypt and Jordan have signed peace treaties with Israel, this did not foreclose the option of eventual total victory and Israel’s destruction. In the situation of an overall agreement, this mechanism for blowing off steam would be closed and an all-out battle would begin.

Faced with this storm of extremism, the moderate states would not want to stick their necks out but would either take neutral positions or join the radicals in rhetoric, if not in action. A great deal of hatred would be directed at the United States as the evil architect of this agreement. Anti-Americanism would not be replaced by gratitude but with white-hot hatred.

Of course, the degree to which the Palestine government lived up to its commitments could not be taken for granted. The argument that all the land should be Arab or Muslim would prevail, basing itself on basic Muslim texts and a never-ending sense of grievance and entitlement.

Aside from everything else, the regimes need the conflict—along with the scapegoat of Israel and of America—to stay in power despite their misgovernment. And the Islamist radicals need these scapegoats in order to climb into power, through demagoguery poured into ears made willing by decades of indoctrination.

The idea that an agreement would stabilize the conflict and bring it to an end is a fantasy at this point in history.

But that is only the first half of the argument. The second half is that this issue’s settlement would quiet other issues or pull the rug out from under Iran. Really?

--Despite what they say, Arab regimes will not be mobilized into action against Iran by progress on the Arab-Israeli conflict. They will either act to preserve themselves out of self-interest—if they believe the United States is strong—or act to appease Tehran to preserve themselves out of self-interest—if they believe America is weak.

--The broad regional struggle over whether governments and societies should be nationalist or Islamist would remain.

--The battle between regimes and Islamists in every country would remain. The Muslim Brotherhood, for example, would not disappear in Egypt. On the contrary, it would gain impetus from the ammunition supplied by the infamous conflict-ending agreement

--The effort by Hamas to take over the Palestinian state (how anyone will deal with the fact that they already control about half of it is usually left out of the calculations) will intensify. If they succeed, their first act would be to tear up the peace treaty.

--The campaign by Iran, Syria, and Hizballah to take over Lebanon would not be undercut.

--Indeed, Syrian regional ambitions would only be inflamed.

--And Iranian regional ambitions would be either unaffected or actually furthered by having this new act of American “aggression” to inveigh against.

--The Iranian regime’s drive for nuclear weapons would not stop or slow.

--Terrorism against Americans and American institutions would increase.

--The struggle for control of Iraq between Sunni and Shia, with Iran and Syria trying to gain influence there would not be affected.

--The travails of Afghanistan and Pakistan would in no way be altered.

Of course, the fallback position is to say: “We don’t believe in these linkages but the local leaders, intellectuals, and masses say that they do.” Yet the whole point of analysis is to look behind the superficial to understand the underlying needs and goals of regimes or movements.

And to return to Feltman’s statement even if the United States does “address” the conflict, this is something America has been doing since the late 1970s. The demand is for the United States to solve the issue with minimal Arab or Muslim help, on terms to Arab and Muslim liking, and without any Arab or Muslim concessions.

Such insatiable demands will not be satisfied by addressing issues, announcing plans, holding conferences, or any other such mechanisms.

No serious analysis of the region could deny this, so those offering apparently easy answers will simply ignore each and every argument. In the same way, they never bother to examine in detail the leadership of the Palestinian Authority or Fatah, or to examine closely the statements for internal consumption made by these groups or others in the region.

Yet even if academics, journalists, officials, and politicians ignore reality, reality does not ignore itself. These factors will wreck any attempt to implement a policy at odds with the interests of regimes, the ambitions of individuals, and the contents of ideologies that dominate vast political entities or movements.

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