Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Joke that is Middle East Diplomacy: Egyptian Foreign Minister Wins a Great “Victory” by Totally Distorting Clinton’s Statement

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By Barry Rubin

You have to have a sense of humor to study the Middle East. What happens every day—often presented and analyzed in the greatest detail and actually taken seriously—has its farcical quality out front. As William Shakespeare put it in Macbeth, "It is a tale/Told by an idiot,/ full of sound and fury,/Signifying nothing."

And remember: It doesn’t matter what’s said, the games played, or public relations’ victories scored, but only the realities on the ground. In this sense, the Arab and Palestinian side has won hundreds of “victories” without actually gaining anything in the real world. That’s why things are the way they are.

While in Cairo, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton was asked what the U.S. government thought about the shape of a future Palestinian state.

Here’s her answer:

“I can repeat to you what President Obama said in his speech at the United Nations and what he said here in Cairo: that the United States believes that we need a state that is based on the territory that has been occupied since 1967. And we believe that that is the appropriate approach. It is what has been discussed when my husband was president with Yasser Arafat, and it is what has been discussed between the Israelis and the Palestinians and the Bush Administration when President Abbas has been there.”

Now, this is a very clear answer, albeit one that many people might misunderstand. Clinton is refusing to commit herself. Indeed, the text is more pro-Israel than pro-Palestinian as she refuses to set the re-1967 borders as those of the Palestinian state. After all, U.S. policy has always been that the borders are to be determined by negotiations between the two parties.

 The phrasing of such statements is very carefully scripted and given to her as talking points. If she had only said: a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, that still would NOT have implied in the entire territory.

Remember, for example, that the interpretation of UN Resolution 242 in 1967 as not requiring Israel's withdrawal from all the land captured in 1967 is based on the fact that the resolution says--and this was worked out in the debate beforehand--"withdrawal from territories" captured rather than withdrawal from the territories captured.

By adding the word "based in," Clinton makes the assertion even stronger. The state will be located in those places but where she cannot and will not say. If she had wanted to say they get everything then Clinton would have said so but that has never been U.S. policy.

In leaps the Egyptian foreign minister. Did he genuinely misunderstand the words of Clinton or is he consciously trying to play a silly trick. He asks to follow up and then says:

“This position that was just stated by Secretary Clinton, we say that we approve it and we are in agreement totally with it. We support it fully, we support fully this U.S. position because it

reflects a conviction that - of a Palestinian state that is capable, that will be on all of the territories that were occupied in 1967 and that will be a hundred percent of those territories, because a hundred percent of those territories goes to the Palestinians….And with this such position, we support the U.S. fully.”

Get it? Clinton says: the Palestinian state should be in the areas captured by Israel in 1967 but we’re not saying where. The Egyptian says: Great! You support our position completely and the Palestinians get everything!

Some people have noted that Clinton didn’t “correct” his interpretation. Right. She’s not going to say in front of all these reporters: “Sorry, you got it wrong. Actually we completely disagree with you.” That’s the nature of diplomacy: let everyone think they agree when they are actually totally at odds.

Of course, she wants the Arabs to think that U.S. foreign policy is wonderful, and he wants to justify Egypt’s close relationship with the United States (and have the delusion that he has just shifted U.S. policy in his direction).

These games gain nothing for anyone. And of course they set the stage for conflict later on when the parties either fail to reach a real agreement or bitterly accuse each other of lying or hypocrisy.

And so the conflict goes on forever as politicians play games, grab credit, and accomplish nothing.
Who could have said it better than Puck in William Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream”?

“Shall we their fond pageant see?
Lord, what fools these mortals be!....
And those things do best please me
That befal preposterously.”

 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), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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