Friday, April 26, 2013

How Much Did U.S. Policymakers Learn about the Middle East in Forty Years? Some Proof

By Barry Rubin

Consider this quotation:

“Israeli pessimism seems largely if not entirely unwarranted. It seems based on an extraordinary lack of understanding of what happened in the Arab world in the last year and a half. Rather than girding their loins for the fifth, sixth, seventh Israeli-Arab wars. The Israelis might examine more carefully than they seem to have done so far the alternative of a peaceful accommodation with the Arabs."

This is not a reference to the "Arab Spring." No, it's from a dispatch sent from the U.S. embassy in Saudi Arabia, January 9, 1975. It concluded that the lack of peace in the Arab-Israeli conflict was Israel’s fault. That dispatch could be published—as we will see in a moment—word for word today, 38 years later, with just as little accuracy. 

The dispatch reflects the unshakable premise--well, from time to time it does decline or disappear for a while--that the Arab side really wants peace, that Israel is not so much threatened but paranoid, that Israel doesn't think enough about making peace, and that conditions in the Arab world demonstrate that peace is possible or even imminent.

What was happening at that point in time? The PLO was energetically pursuing terrorism, including deliberate operations against Israeli civilians, and openly declaring that it would never make peace with Israel and that if it got a West Bank-Gaza Palestinian state it would use that as a springboard for wiping out the remainder of Israel. 

Lebanon was a country where the PLO could operate with complete freedom of action, controlling the south and launching cross-border attacks whenever it pleased. Syria and Iraq were ruled by radical Ba’thist regimes dedicated to Israel’s destruction and sponsoring terrorism. Egypt was about to be engaged by Israel in secret negotiations while constant behind-the-scenes discussions were being held by Israel with Jordan.

Yes, in Egypt President Anwar al-Sadat was thinking about the usefulness of peace with Israel as a solution to Egypt’s woes. But let’s also remember that after he made peace Egypt was isolated by every other Arab states and denounced by them (and the PLO). And of course Sadat was assassinated. And of course while the peace treaty survived, much of it wasn’t implemented. Of course, though Israel did seize the opportunity of making peace with Egypt at the price of material concessions.

The PLO only took about two decades more and being on the verge of extinction before it agreed to negotiate. And then it broke its commitments and rejected a two-state solution.

And what was the name of the supposedly hard-line, closed minded prime minister of Israel at that time who just refused to take the obvious steps that would have allegedly brought peace? Answer: Yitzhak Rabin.
A serious paradigm would understand that for deep-seated structural reasons the Middle East was not on the verge of comprehensive peace then and the same applies to today.

Now the Washington Post has published an editorial entitled, “John Kerry’s efforts in Middle East could lay groundwork for success.”  Yes, once again we are on the verge of progress! Yet in a real way the editorial is realistic. The success predicted for Kerry merely maintains the status quo of not having peace. Expectations have been considerably lowered yet the fiction must be maintained that peace is almost at hand and thus this issue should be a very high priority for U.S. diplomacy.

The editorial begins by saying that, yes, a U.S. obsession with the Arab-Israel conflict today seems strange with other issues seeming to be more serious:

“Syria’s civil war… gets worse every day. So does Egypt’s domestic political and economic turmoil. The terrorists who assaulted the U.S. Consulate in Libya have yet to be corralled; Iraq is on the verge of splitting into sectarian pieces; negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program are going nowhere.”

You foolish little people who lack the gigantic brains and profound wisdom of such geniuses who live thousands of miles away from the deadly consequences of their political positions. Because despite the fact that the “peace process”:

“Has proved resistant to the diplomacy of President Obama and numberless previous secretaries of state, but also is not, for now, the source of any of the fires raging across the region.”

And both sides, the editorial continues, put forward preconditions—Abbas “deftly,” since he must be praised even for blocking progress toward peace in a move that he’s been doing for years. 

And yet, there’s supposedly something brilliant in what Kerry is doing:

“In pursuing a new peace process in spite of the leaders’ resistance, Mr. Kerry is making an assumption that Mr. Obama has rejected elsewhere in the region: that by leading from the front, the United States can force events and impose solutions. If his goal is a final agreement on Palestinian statehood, he has almost no chance for success.”
Ah, so the goal of peacemaking isn’t to make peace?

“”The initiative could still prove useful, if it is carefully crafted. Encouragingly, Mr. Kerry is beginning with an economic initiative, what he described as `specific steps that we could take to . . . expedite the goal of economic growth in the West Bank.’ He is talking to Mr. Netanyahu about Mr. Abbas’s objective of prisoner releases and to Mr. Abbas about refraining from further action at the United Nations targeting Israel. He appears to have persuaded Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan to postpone a potentially provocative visit to the Gaza Strip.”

This is absurd. First, Israel has put forward the goal of economic growth in the West Bank for years. It’s nothing new and indeed there has been for several years the appearance of growth which has now once again fallen apart. Economic development always founders because no one in their right mind would invest in an economy ruled by corrupt kleptocrats who keep insisting that they are about to go to war again. In 2009 it was common to claim that economic growth was raising living standards in the West Bank. Now, however, everyone knows that the economy is doing badly. Why? Because the flow of aid has been reduced. In other words, "economic growth" is purely due to sending in money to pay a regime over-heavy with security forces, plus a bit of speculative construction of luxury apartments.

Second, Netanyahu had rejected the prisoner releases already. There have been literally dozens of such releases previously during the last two decades with no lasting effect whatsoever, except that many of the released prisoners return to terrorist activities.

Third, Abbas' great compromise is not to seek membership as a state in more UN bodies. He won't keep that promise long and he is busy on a different diplomatic front. For example, Turkey has announced that it will send an ambassador to Palestine; Guatemala recognized a Palestinian state. Kerry only closed off one way of exploiting the PA's gain at the UN that had been achieved due to Obama Administration incompetence.

Fourth, Israel's entire experience during the 1993-2000 "peace process" era is ignored: the yielding territory to Palestinian groups brings more, not less problems; that Israeli concessions do not make it more popular or ensure that its sacrifices are accepted internationally.

Fifth, Erdogan has already rescheduled his trip to the Gaza Strip. And, if the editors only read their own newspaper they would see that Erdogan has been systematically showing that the Turkey-Israel rapprochement supposedly engineered by Obama and Kerry is a joke.

Sixth, it appears as if PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has finally been pushed out of office so the corruption (which makes it impossible to improve Palestinian living standards) and doctrinaire revolutionary ideology of Fatah can be unfettered. This behavior by the PA is a slap at the Western donors, showing that it ignores their wishes, though that doesn’t even factor into the editorial. Without Fayyad and given the battle beginning over the succession to "President" Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian decisionmaking process is paralyzed.

Seventh, there’s no consideration of the regional situation already mentioned in the editorial. If radicalism is triumphing in Egypt and Syria; the United States can’t or won’t protect its ambassador to Libya or go after those responsible from being murdered in a client state; if Iraq is falling apart showing that any Arab regime’s commitments cannot be expected to last; if Iran is likely to get nuclear weapons then Kerry’s piddling little game-playing is worthless. The PA is hardly going to risk "moderation" with Islamists everywhere ready to denounce such a move as treason.

Eighth, there's still the little matter of Hamas ruling the Gaza Strip. The PA cannot commit the Palestinian side in any decision. Moreover, the U.S. policy of the Bush era--show PA prosperity while weakening Hamas so Palestinians could see the moderation pays--was dismantled by the Obama Administration which reduced punishing Gaza to a minimum.

We have radical Islamists running Egypt, Tunisia, Sudan, Lebanon, Syria, Iran, the Gaza Strip, and Turkey but on the other hand we’re working to get more investment on the West Bank!

Here are the two latest developments in the current Middle East:

The U.S. government has concluded that the Syrian regime used sarin, nerve gas, against its own people. If the rebels win they may well have that weapon. The leading forces on both sides have sworn to wipe Israel off the map.

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood government seeks to force the retirement of lots of judges it doesn't like. If that happens--and the judges will be replaced by Islamists who are now judging on the basis of a Sharia-compliant constitution--there will be no remaining institutional barriers against the Brotherhood regime doing what it wants.

Back to the editorial which concludes:

“These measures could serve to ease tensions [tensions continually raised by the Palestinian leadership whenever it wants to get something—BR], make life better for Palestinians [the newspaper would be better advised to consider why the last effort to make life better for Palestinians has just collapsed—BR] and lay the groundwork for a day when serious negotiations about Palestinian statehood will be possible [and why isn’t it possible now? How about the assumptions you refuse to examine about why there isn’t peace—BR]. If that is the aim, Mr. Kerry’s diplomacy could prove worthwhile.”

There is a curious error in the last sentence. Who cares what the “aim” of Kerry’s diplomacy is? Good intentions are not a measure of results. We are just seeing the same formula that has failed repeatedly in the past being once more mindlessly applied.

So in many ways the conventional wisdom has not progressed in 40 years. 

It is often forbidden to consider that the lack of peace is due to the Arab side. 

It is often forbidden that given regional and Palestinian political conditions Israel's policy response is very rational.

It is often forbidden to consider that diplomatic efforts will not bring progress. 

It is often forbidden to conclude that the region is become a worse and more dangerous place. 

And it is often forbidden to consider that—although this editorial goes as close as any mass media organ dares—there just isn’t going to be formal Israel-Palestinian peace for a long time to come.

If you are interested in reading more about the Arab-Israeli conflict, current regional situation you're welcome to read my book Tragedy of the Middle East online or download it for free.

If you are interested in reading more about the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, you're welcome to read my book The Arab States and the Palestine Conflict online or download it for free.

This article is published on PJMedia.

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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 book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press. Other recent books include 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). The website of the GLORIA Center  and of his blog, Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.

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