Tuesday, October 20, 2009

When it comes to the Middle East: The Brains in Spain (and elsewhere) Fall Mainly Down the Drain

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 By Barry Rubin

You’ve all seen horror movies in which the stupid characters just don’t look behind them at crucial moments.

And you want to yell: “Look out!” Or: “Can’t you see that he’s the murderer!” Or: “That innocent-looking green globule is actually a man-eating silicon-based creature from Andromeda!”

Welcome to my world, the world of analyzing the contemporary Middle East or, to put it a different way, yelling, “Look out!” to those who think the best way to handle a threatening regime or revolutionary foe is to take them out to dinner and a movie.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero and Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, who is widely considered in the European Union to be their big brain on the Middle East, visited Israel and met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

According to reliable leaks, Moratinos told Netanyahu that Turkey will stop baiting Israel—excluding it at the last minute from long-planned joint military maneuvers, running antisemitic shows on state television, and a whole range of other insults—if Israel agrees to have it mediate between Israel and Syria.

One of the two Spaniards then remarked: "Assad is serious and more responsible….It is possible to reach an agreement with him."

Netanyahu politely, and no doubt firmly, demurred.

When last heard from before this, Moratinos, who seems to take his own middle name as meaning he is the Syrian dictatorship’s guardian angel, was advocating signing a major economic cooperation agreement with Damascus without conditioning it on that regime behaving better on human rights.

Israeli leaders know, largely across the political spectrum, that Assad isn’t interested in peace with Israel.

They also know:

--Iran is seeking nuclear weapons at all costs and will use them to further Tehran’s ambitions, and that halfhearted sanctions and falling for more of the regime’s stalling tactics won’t help matters.

--The Palestinian Authority is incapable of making a comprehensive peace and not that interested in trying. That doesn’t mean some cooperation can’t be fruitful but not a full resolution ending the conflict. At the same time, it is clearly recognized that the Palestinian Authority—being too weak and too radical simultaneously—is the main barrier to peace, and that the true moderate transformation of Palestinians and acceptance of a two-state solution has barely begun. Indeed, one can argue that public opinion and politics are moving in an even more intransigent direction.

--Hizballah and Hamas are not interested in becoming moderate and that concessions both enable and encourage them to be more aggressive.

--If radical Islamist groups take over Arab countries they won’t moderate, whatever their pretensions to fool the West, and this will be the source of massive war, terrorism, and suffering for the region.

--That all too few people in Western governments either understand the above-mentioned facts or for a variety of reasons (greed for trade, fear of conflict, seeking easy popularity, naiveté, ideology, ignorance, antisemitism, and you name it) won’t face these facts.

At the beginning of this year, a new addition was made to this list:

--Turkey is governed by an Islamist party that has strong ant-Israel, anti-American, and anti-Western views no matter how much it pretends otherwise.

Now it can certainly be argued that Israeli analysts, journalists, and political figures have a vested interest in pushing these arguments. But that isn’t exactly true. Many or most of them would be far happier celebrating the great chance for a breakthrough to peace and how apparent enemies just want to get along.

The same goes for ideology as an explanation. A variety of different viewpoints are represented, one can find people who have changed their minds due to experience and developments. And even if you think that someone is “right-wing” or any other category you dislike, it is still worthwhile examining the facts and arguments presented to judge whether they are correct.

So this analysis cannot just be disregarded by assumptions about what the sources of it think or want or need.

How does much of the world respond to the Israeli analysis? Parts do understand it or are learning it to be correct. But many or most simply ignore or demonize it. Once Israel is viewed as an illegitimate state, a war criminal genocidal monster—in short, as all Islamist and most Arab and Muslim-majority state propaganda puts it—the ears can close completely.

Another element in this deafness is the unique argument that various dilettantes, visitors, intellectuals, self-proclaimed peacemakers, people in the entertainment world, U.S. and European officials, etc., want to save Israel in spite of itself. This is a standpoint practically never heard regarding any other country in history, certainly not a democratic country whose voters disagree with the assessment.

It is furthered by the taking up of the idea by certain Jews—usually quite ignorant of conditions in Israel and often committed to movements with different interests—who insist they are the true guardians of a country they know little about and (in many cases) have done little to help in the past.

And so delegation after delegation arrives in Jerusalem to tour around, talk to the usual suspects, and bestow advice on its potential victims—I mean, fortunate interlocutors!

In all cases, politeness inhibits explaining to these people that they are meddling in things of which they understand little or nothing. When they are high-ranking officials of the United States or European countries, there are additional reasons for not doing so. They can choose to listen or not to the explanations as to why Israel does not believe what they believe or do what they want it to do.

Ultimately, anyone who believes too much in soft power is soft in the head. Or as the English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes put it: “Covenants, without the sword, are but words, and of no strength to secure a man at all.”

As for the international affairs of the Middle East nowadays, however, one cannot do better than by paraphrasing the American political philospher Robert Zimmerman, also known as Bob Dylan: We're surrounded by people who don't want to "admit that the waters around you have grown" at the very same moment that "the pump don’t work cause the vandals took the handles."

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