Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Middle East: Can You Handle the Truth?

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By Barry Rubin

The Obama Administration has no idea of what is about to happen. After all, it has won hasn't it and done something positive for the Palestinians, right? It demanded that Israel freeze all construction on West Bank settlements. Israel agreed, save only that it finish the approximately 3000 units already begun. So the U.S. government can deem itself successful, having delivered something along the lines of what it promised originally to give the Palestinians.

Moreover, this agreement was ultimately gained without any corresponding Palestinian or Arab concessions. It will be remembered that for some months the United States tried to get the Arab side to give something. It failed. Nor did the U.S. government give anything to Israel in exchange for the freeze.

So objectively, what’s happened? Israel made a big concession; Israel got nothing; the Arab side gave nothing. Isn’t this a sort of Palestinian or Arab victory; proof of President Barack Obama’s leverage with Israel; an example of Israeli flexibility?

And, after all, when the current apartments being constructed are finished there will be a construction freeze. So all that’s necessary is to wait a few months, right?

Take a step back, clear your mind, look at it. Of course that’s what has happened. The Palestinians and the Arab states “should” be happy.

But this is the Middle East, a place where even if all Arab or Iranian demands are met, this only triggers anger, blame, complaint, and still more demands.

And you can’t solve the problem using Western rules. Hilary Clinton, stung by Arab criticism that she praised Israel’s plan too highly, does a bit of a turnaround two days after proclaiming Israel’s concession to be amazing:

“This offer falls far short of what we would characterize as our position or what our preference would be. But if it is acted upon, it will be an unprecedented restriction on settlements and would have a significant and meaningful effect on restraining their growth."

Nope, that won’t do it. You are saying a nice, rational, carefully callibrated Western-style statement: we want more but it’s a step in the right direction so it should be praised and it is a good thing. That isn’t how things work here. In the eyes of the Palestinian and Arab leadership Israel cannot ever do anything good. You can praise Palestinians, Muslims, and Arabs every day of the week but you aren't allowed to ever say anything positive about Israel or do anything for that country.

As for Clinton saying it is a step in the right direction, this is also unacceptable. Israel can give endless concessions and show infinite flexibility but this can never be accepted as much. Each step is portrayed as a trick since not everything is surrendered at once. Every concession is just a reminder that not everything has been handed over.

And what, by this behavior of Hilary Clinton's, is the U.S. government communicating to Israel> When Israel makes a big concession and reaches agreement with the United States, if the PA or Arab states complain about the terms of the deal the U.S. government will then criticize their own deal! So how can Jerusalem trust Washington?

As if in proof, Al-Hayat al-Jadida, the closest thing to an official PA newspaper, attacked Clinton with these words: “Why, Mrs. Hillary? How much did the Zionists pay you as a bribe?” The editorial went on to say that the secretary of state was wallowing in a swamp of lies and ran a cartoon showing Uncle Sam looking into a mirror to see a big-nosed Orthodox Jew wearing a hat with a Star of David on his hat, as nasty a cartoon as ever graced the pages of a Nazi newspaper in the 1930s.

Indeed, also on the hat is a globe surrounded by barbed wire, indicated that the international Jewish conspiracy holds the entire earth in its evil hands. And this is Fatah, the PA, the people who get all that U.S. aid, military training, and diplomatic support.

And this is not the Bush Administration they’re talking about either but the Obama Administration. You just can’t please some people. And that’s precisely the point.

If you want to understand how things work in the Middle East consider this story. Suppose someone says that they want to sell you a house. They demand $500,000. You offer $400,000. They say, “No.”

You offer $450,000, saying that if both sides give some that a mutually beneficial deal can be reached. Again they say, “No.”

Finally you offer $500,000, smug in the belief that you’ve made a purchase. And then they say once again: “No! How dare you! What a cheat! How about changing the financing to my benefit, putting the full amount down in cash, and buying me another house?”

You are incredulous. How could your reasonable, apologetic, empathetic, confidence-building, willing to give concessions strategy have failed?

Answer: They never intended to sell. For them, Palestine is Arab or Muslim or both forever. It’s not for sale at any price. Anyone who indicates a real interest in selling will be disgraced, or fired, or even killed. To sell your land is to be a sell-out.

And the fact that their title is questionable and they never actually had national ownership, that someone else who has a previous claim has long ago returned and built it up with all sorts of additions and improvements is irrelevant to this thinking.

So instead they prefer to wait. What matters the suffering? What matter the years? The deepest principle of blood, and honor, and religion, and right is at stake. So they wait. They wait for the other side, Israel, to collapse. Or for the West to throw Israel to the wolves, persuading themselves that this is happening. Or they wait for all Arabs—more recently the favored formulation is all Muslims—to unite and wipe out the evil usurper. Or perhaps when Iran gets the bomb or the Mahdi, the Islamic messiah, comes, or something will happen and then total victory will be theirs?

And if passers-by shout out: “Yes, you are in the right! Your suffering is intolerable and we want to help you!” that doesn’t erode but only reinforces their determination to remain steadfast. Obama’s speeches, UN votes, Goldstone report, leftist chants, growing Muslim migration to the West, Iran defiant and going nuclear, and Western concessions, do not inspire eagerness to compromise but an enthusiasm for fighting on.

Sound strange to you? Well it sounds normal for many millions in the Middle East. And even if part of their brains say something different--Israel is strong, Israel won’t go away, Arabs and Muslims always bicker among themselves, why continuing following a strategy that always fails, wouldn’t it be nicer to have higher living standards—the siren song of militancy overrides it.

At least that’s true in public, no matter how much privately many deride all these notions as pure foolishness, and even no matter how much publicly a few brave souls reject the whole mess and point out how it has in the past and will in future lead the Arabs to disaster.

But now Palestinians and Arabs need someone to blame. Of course, that someone is Israel. Yet also of course, as always, that someone will be the United States.

In this view, Obama has sold them out. He’s like all the others. He didn’t give them everything they wanted; everything they said they wanted and more; everything at no price whatsoever to themselves. He is, they say and will say more in the days to come, is just like all the other presidents who came before.

For they—the Arab dictatorships that need the conflict to stay in power; the Palestinian leadership that still believes in total victory; the Islamist oppositions that want to use the conflict to prove their enemies to be Western puppets and to use the Palestinian issue to seize state power—can never blame themselves.

To blame yourself a bit is the first step to fixing one’s world view and policy. Unfortunately, this possibility is rejected and there is no glimmer of hope that it will change over the next few years, dare I say decade or decades?

Indeed, $2 billion in annual U.S. aid to Egypt buys no leverage. Knowing that they tremble in fear of a nuclear Iran buys no leverage either. Liberating Kuwait from the hands of Iraq and Iraq from the fists of Saddam Hussein doesn’t solve the problem either. Remember the sanctions on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq? The elite didn’t reduce its truffle consumption and just told the masses that they were suffering due to America. Ditto for Hamas in the Gaza Strip. And the Western left will agree with them.

Equally, no matter how many apologies, how many statements made about the glories of Islam and the sufferings of the Palestinians that Barack Hussein Obama makes, it will not matter. Now he is the enemy.
Does that sound bleak? Well, sorry, reality is bleak, bleakest of all for the Arabs themselves—and pity for the victims of this system—who follow that path. Why do you think there is so much hatred, violence, miscomprehension, tyranny, and pure stagnation in this region?

Meanwhile, Israel goes on developing its society, pioneering in technology and science, maintaining democracy, showing flexibility, and surviving the hatred and slander that’s all-too-common in today’s world both inside and outside the area.

Mr. President, welcome to the real Middle East.

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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