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The Big Lie About the Middle East

5 minute read
Lisa Beyer

No sensible person is against peacemaking in the Holy Land. Applause and hopefulness would seem the reasonable reaction to the Iraq Study Group’s recommendation that the Bush Administration “act boldly” and “as soon as possible” to resolve the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians. But as a front-row observer of similar efforts over the past 15 years, I could muster neither response. In lumping the Iraq mess in with the Palestinian problem–and suggesting the first could not be fixed unless the second was too–the Baker-Hamilton commission lent credibility to a corrosive myth: that the fundamental problem in the Arab world is the plight of the Palestinians.

It is a falsehood perpetuated not just by the likes of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, who came late to the slogan after their actual beefs–Saddam with his neighbors; bin Laden with the Saudi royals–gained insufficient traction in the Arab world. The mantra is also repeated like an axiom in the U.S.–in parts of the State Department, in various think tanks, by editorial writers and Sunday talk-show hosts.

Yes, it was a great disturbance in the Arab world in the 1940s when a Jewish state was born through a U.N. vote and a war that made refugees of many Palestinians. Then the 1967 war left Israel in control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and thus the Palestinians who lived there. But the pan-Arabism that once made the Palestinian cause the region’s cause is long dead, and the Arab countries have their own worries aplenty. In a decade of reporting in the region, I found it rarely took more than the arching of an eyebrow to get the most candid of Arab thinkers to acknowledge that the tears shed for the Palestinians today outside the West Bank and Gaza are of the crocodile variety. Palestinians know this best of all.

To promote the canard that the troubles of the Arab world are rooted in the Palestinians’ misfortune does great harm. It encourages the Arabs to continue to avoid addressing their colossal societal and political ills by hiding behind their Great Excuse: it’s all Israel’s fault. Certainly, Israel has at times been an obnoxious neighbor, but God help the Arab leaders, propagandists and apologists if a day ever comes when the Arab-Israeli mess is unraveled. One wonders how they would then explain why in Egypt 4 of every 10 people are illiterate; Saudi Arabian Shi’ites (not to mention women) are second-class citizens; 11% of Syrians live below subsistence level; and Jordan’s King can unilaterally dissolve Parliament, as he did in 2001. Or why no Middle Eastern government but Israel’s and to some extent Lebanon’s tolerates freedom of assembly or speech, or democratic institutions like a robust press or civic organizations with independence and clout–let alone unfettered competitive elections.

One might argue that if the Arab dictators were deprived of the Great Excuse, they might begin to rule with greater concern for their constituents’ needs. But why should they be allowed to wait–in the meantime cynically selling their people the Israel Myth–especially since the wait is apt to be long? The Baker commission is quite right in wanting to see sooner rather than later a viable Palestinian state. But the report’s airy prescription for frog-marching Israelis and Palestinians into new peace talks perpetuates another persistent fiction: that U.S. involvement is the key to a breakthrough. That contradicts the real-life story of all three of the major peace agreements Israel has signed, with the Egyptians, Palestinians and Jordanians. Each was the result of bold initiative not by Washington but by local leaders, when conditions were ripe. In all three cases, the accords were the product of negotiations begun in secret behind the backs of the Americans. The Oslo accords with the Palestinians ultimately fell apart, but not because of a collapse of U.S. diplomacy; rather, because of a failure of leadership by Yasser Arafat.

The Israelis and Palestinians aren’t going to make peace until they have brave, inspiring leaders, which they don’t, and when they are sick of fighting, which they aren’t. When that time comes, the U.S. can facilitate negotiations, as it has before, but only if it re-establishes its reputation as a reasonably honest broker. In the past, Washington tilted to the Israelis’ side but not so much that the Palestinians couldn’t live with it. President Bush has turned the tilt into a slap-down. He says he supports Palestinian statehood, but the Palestinians don’t hear the words; they grasp the lack of feeling he evinces for them. They take in the unprecedented silences in Washington when Israeli forces overreact; they wince at White House endorsements of what the U.S. used to call illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank. If James Baker had wanted to improve U.S. policy toward the Palestinians, he might have whispered these things into Bush’s ear instead of sucking up to the Arab states with his inappropriate and quixotic peace plan.

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