Think Again: Narrative isn’t everything

Recent events in the region have only reinforced what Israel has been saying about the Middle East all along.

By
February 4, 2011 16:20
Rally in support of Fatah in the West Bank

Pro Fatah rally 311. (photo credit: AP)

Revelations and events of recent weeks have done much to buttress Israel’s narrative of the Middle East. First came the WikiLeaks releases that laid bare the emptiness of the American claim that resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the key to preventing Iran from going nuclear. In reality, to the extent that there is a connection between Iran and the peace process, it cuts the other way: Clipping Iran’s wings, and thus those of Hizbullah and Hamas, would make peacemaking far easier.

The WikiLeaks documents showed one Middle East potentate after another conveying the explicit message to American diplomats to forget about peacemaking and concentrate all American efforts on denying the Iranians an offensive nuclear capacity. “Cut off the head of the snake,” was the pithy advice of the Saudi ambassador of the US to Gen. David Petraeus.

WikiLeaks thus confirmed what Israel had been saying along: Arab governments are far more leery of Iran than of Israel. Inasmuch as the released documents were all internal US diplomatic messages, they also revealed that the Obama administration knew that the argument it had been pressing since day one to pressure Israel was bogus.

SECRETARY OF State Hillary Clinton’s unusually frank speech in Qatar last month also constituted a sotto voce retreat from one of the pillars of the Obama administration’s foreign policy. In words that would shortly prove prophetic, Clinton warned that without respect for human rights, improved business climates and an end to pervasive corruption, the Arab regimes will “increasingly turn toward radicalism and violence that will bleed outside of the region [and threaten] the rest of the world.”

Her speech constituted an implicit repudiation of the linkage doctrine that has been repeatedly articulated by every top Obama administration official, from the president down, according to which resolution of the Palestinian- Israeli conflict holds the key to solving all the region’s pathologies. At most, Israel is a means by which Arab rulers distract their peoples from their own failures, not the source of those failures and the attendant instability.

Not once during her speech did Clinton veer from her focus on the internal failures of Arab regimes and the connection between those failures and the attraction of radical Islam. She did not throw out any bromides to her largely Arab audience about the necessity of creating a Palestinian state before Arab states could possibly be expected to undertake internal reform.

Fouad Ajami noted in The Wall Street Journal that the speech also represented a sharp policy reversal. Everywhere that she visited in the Gulf states, Clinton met with representatives of civil society groups to drive home her message that the creation of a democratic, civil society is the precondition for the emergence of Arab states from their current backwardness.

In doing so, she effectively adopted president George W. Bush’s vision of a “new Middle East,” which had been so ridiculed by the Obama foreign policy team and blamed for much of the animosity towards the US in the Muslim world. Until recently, according to Ajami, the Obama administration had effectively accepted a doctrine of Arab exceptionalism, which posited the inevitability of tyranny in Islamic countries.

That approach was reflected most notably in the “moral and strategic failure” of refusing to strongly condemn the Ahmadinejad regime’s brutal suppression of popular protests over its election chicanery, and in the Obama administration’s passivity in the face of the Syrian regime’s systematic reversal of the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon.

Rather than confront the Syrians over their reentry into Lebanon via Hizbullah, the US has returned its ambassador and been engaged in constant efforts to repair ties.

In this context, Clinton’s Qatar speech suggests a retreat from two failed aspects of the Obama administration’s Middle East diplomacy that is as welcome as it is surprising.

LAST WEEK’S release of alleged Palestinian Authority internal documents by Al Jazeera and the Guardian provided another teachable moment. The accuracy of the documents, which purport to show that Palestinian negotiators were prepared to cede Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem built since 1967, is questioned. Some on the Left argued that the documents demonstrated that there is a Palestinian peace partner, though the Guardian was a bit schizoid on this point, as it simultaneously denounced the negotiators for signing away their patrimony.

The supposed concessions are highly questionable.

Yasser Arafat refused to even acknowledge any Jewish connection to the Temple Mount at Camp David in 2000. Doing so, he told president Bill Clinton, would be tantamount to signing his own death warrant. And PA President Mahmoud Abbas, a far weaker leader, has publicly acknowledged that prime minister Ehud Olmert offered virtually the entire West Bank, recklessly agreed to international peacekeepers on the Jordan River and renounced sovereignty over the Temple Mount. Abbas never even responded or offered a counterproposal.

What ultimately matters, however, is not what negotiators acknowledged in private discussions as the parameters of any possible peace agreement, but what they were prepared to present to their own people. In that regard, the only thing relevant last week was the PA’s fervent denunciations of the Al Jazeera “plot” to bring it down through the publication of the alleged concessions. With those denunciations the PA leadership tacitly admitted what its behavior has consistently demonstrated, the Palestinian public is not prepared to accept even the most minimal concessions upon which all negotiators have assumed a peace agreement would be built.

In short, the PA leadership has utterly failed to prepare its people for peace in any form. As a consequence, the two goals enunciated by Secretary of State Clinton for a peace agreement – an end to the “occupation” for the Palestinians and safe and secure borders for the Israelis – remain irreconcilable. There can be no safe and secure borders as long as the Palestinians have not reconciled themselves to the existence of a Jewish state and renounced forever the resort to arms to remove it.

The unrest currently roiling the Arab world only demonstrates how precarious any agreement contracted with non-democratic leaders and not commanding overwhelming popular support would be. In that context, what the Palestinians broadcast in their media and teach in their schools is far more important than what their leaders tell American intermediaries.

ALAS, EVENTS in Egypt have trumped any victories Israel might have claimed in the narrative wars. President Hosni Mubarak is no friend of Israel. He prevented a warm peace from developing, fostered open anti-Semitism in the arts and media, and has always imperiously insisted that Israeli leaders come to Egypt for discussions. Egypt has used every international forum to undermine Israel’s nuclear ambiguity.

But under his rule, the peace treaty has held.

Street demonstrations in Egypt will not bring about a stable, parliamentary democracy. The necessary civil society does not exist, and the grinding poverty in which most people live makes long-range stability unlikely.

Either the army will retain control, with or without Mubarak, or rule will pass to the Muslim Brotherhood, by far the best organized opposition force, and Egypt will experience its own version of Iran’s Islamic Revolution.

The latter outcome terrifies (or should) both Israel and the US. The Muslim Brotherhood spawned both al-Qaida and Hamas, and has always held the Egypt-Israel peace treaty anathema. With its takeover, the Arab world’s largest army, armed to the hilt for over 30 years with tens of billions of dollars of the most sophisticated American weapons, would fall under Islamist control.

The IDF, which already faces threats of great magnitude on multiple fronts, would have to increase its troop strength and once again deploy in anticipation of a possible attack from Egypt. In addition, Israel would either have to confront the Egyptian army and retake control of the Philadelphi Corridor or watch armaments flow into Gaza unimpeded. And finally, it could expect the abrogation of the contract under which Egypt supplies half of its natural gas needs today.

If there is any ray of hope in massive demonstrations in Egypt, which are keeping the rulers of many Arab states up at night worrying about their own restive populations, it is that the same thing could as easily happen to the hated rulers of Iran and bring about the Middle East’s first anti-Islamic revolution since Kemal Ataturk.


Hopefully, if millions of Iranians also take to the streets, Obama will show at least as much support for them as he has for those in Egypt and not deem it “not productive to be seen as meddling,” as he did in response to widespread protests after the stolen elections of summer 2009.

The writer is the director of Jewish Media Resources, has written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997 and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.


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