The Region: Twisted 'victory'

How the Arabs sustained the conflict for 60 years at the cost of improving their lives in every respect.

September 23, 2007 19:43
4 minute read.
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barry rubin column 88. (photo credit: )

Working on new material for the seventh edition of the Israel-Arab Reader, a documentary work I edit along with Walter Laqueur, reminds me that there is nothing like examining old material as a way to gain new insights. This edition updates the book whose current contents ended in 2000 with the failure of the peace process. The most important developments since then are basically the renewed intifada; Israeli withdrawals from southern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip; the growing direct involvement of Hizbullah and Iran, including the 2006 war; and Hamas's triumph over Fatah in the 2006 elections and in seizing control of the Gaza Strip. But you know all that already. What is really interesting is to see some fascinating themes that tell us so much about both the conflict and Middle East politics. A very important theme is whether there is any operational plan, any real ability, to implement needed reforms and achieve goals. Compare the speech made by Mahmoud Abbas to the Palestinian Legislative Council when he took power as prime minister, April 29, 2003, with one made by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert immediately after the Lebanon war, on August 28, 2006. Abbas gives an impressive talk. While blaming all Palestinian problems on Israel and the "occupation," he also puts the emphasis on the need for internal reform. The Palestinians have behaved so impressively, he claims, that the world has decided they are worthy of a state. To achieve that goal, however, requires the Palestinians to put their own house in order. It must provide security for its citizens, ensure the security services operate according to law and be disciplined. "The government will not allow - to the contrary, it will strictly prevent - interference by the security forces in the lives, affairs and business of citizens unless within the limits permitted by the law." On and on he goes, discussing the need for economic development, higher living conditions, and freedom. To Israelis, he pledges that his government will oppose terrorism. What is telling is that literally not a single thing Abbas talks about was ever implemented. We aren't just talking about success; Abbas never even tried. From today's perspective, with Fatah driven out of the Gaza Strip and so much discredited, all these promises seem most ironic. ONE DOESN'T have to be an admirer of Olmert to see the difference in attitude, for he is reflecting his society in this case. He explains: "Even if the overall balance is positive, we cannot ignore the failures, we must not cover them up, we must not overlook anything. "We do not have time. We must act quickly [to]... fix everything that must be fixed.." Obviously, Olmert wants to avoid taking the blame or suffering the consequences of these shortcomings. But his government and the military especially has honestly examined the mistakes and made many changes. And if they don't do the necessary reforms, their elected successors will do so. The difference here is a society which takes self-criticism and implementation seriously and one that does not - perhaps cannot - do so. A SECOND interesting theme is whether human life is valued. Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah and the leaders of Iran, Syria and Hamas, extol martyrdom. They will win, they claim, because they love death and their enemies love life. A word of advice: When you hear someone bragging about how wonderful it is to be a martyr, be assured that those people will lose. For the object of war is to survive and win. The martyrdom egomaniacs are obsessed with being heroes, no matter what the cost. But he who loves martyrdom also loves the martyred cause, the glorious defeat which their strategy is leading them toward. The Palestinian movement's history provides the best possible example of this syndrome. In contrast, Olmert said: "It is true that [the other side] suffered heavier losses, but this does not console us over the loss of one soldier, one person who was killed, one citizen who died." But caring about your own people - even if the other side sees that as weakness - is a far greater weapon in building a strong, successful society than treating your citizens as dispensable pawns for the glory of deity and dictator. A THIRD theme is the definition of victory. Nasrallah's stance here is shockingly, well, suicidal. He stated: "If the resistance survives, this will be a victory. If its determination is not broken, this will be a victory... [A refusal] to accept any humiliating terms... will be a victory. If we are not militarily defeated, this will be a victory." In short, as long as you keep fighting and refuse to acknowledge defeat you have won even if you destroy your own society. What this means in practice is that the Arab side has been able to sustain the conflict for 60 years at the cost of social progress, higher living standards, stability and freedom. This is a disastrous "victory" which ensures that the inability to win becomes ever more certain. Israeli leaders, in contrast, define victory in terms of security for their citizens, control over strategic territory, deterrence and other very specific goals that actually produce some benefit. Moreover, they can either be met or measured against the need for changes in strategy and methods. There are reasons why some societies succeed and others fail, why some causes triumph and others don't. When such differences are attributed to conspiracy, Western meanness, or even defeat as a virtue; when being the underdog forgives all vices and the highest praise is to be regarded as victim, these reasons are disparaged. And that, of course, ensures that all the bad notes of history play on into a new century. The writer, director of the GLORIA Center at IDC Herzliya and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs, is scheduled to speak at Jerusalem's Sheraton Plaza Hotel on September 29 at 8:30 pm. (Information: [email protected])

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