The Region: A new paradigm

Explaining how the world perceives the Arab conflict with Israel.

barry rubin 88 (photo credit: )
barry rubin 88
(photo credit: )
The world's understanding of the Arab-Israeli conflict seems to be entering a new period different from what it had been in the past 10 years. Call it the Third Paradigm era. A paradigm is a way of envisioning something, a guiding concept, a framework for definition. People may not be aware they hold such an underlying paradigm, but it guides their thinking.
  • The Paradigm One Era: During this time, roughly from Israel's creation in 1948 until well into the 1980s, the conflict was defined in terms of being aggression against a legitimate state. Israel, under attack by those who wanted to wipe it off the map, was acting in self-defense against much larger forces. Consequently, much of the world was sympathetic toward Israel. While this perception can be attributed to many factors, the critical point was the way the Arab-Israeli conflict was defined: radical states and revolutionary movements were attacking a legitimate country and trying to destroy it from outside. This was a familiar pattern, one often seen then and earlier regarding the behavior of fascist and communist regimes and movements toward other countries around the world. Like many states, Israel was facing an external, subversive threat. Unlike other states, the recent experience of the Holocaust made this threat graphically real and its consequences horrifying. In these pre-public relations‚ times, the PLO and Arab leaders or media were proud to say that their goal was Israel's extinction, which made them look bad not only in the West but also in much of the Third World that aspired toward democracy and moderation. It was rightly perceived during this period that the Palestinians and Arabs were not ready for peace with Israel, clearly evidenced in the politics of boycott, rejectionism and violence. Israel, it was understood, had no real choice. This era faded in the 1980s for a number of reasons. The Palestinian intifada, a local movement of people under occupation, was one key step, while others included the intensive criticism toward Israel during the 1982 war in Lebanon and a belief that apparently changing Palestinian and Arab views offered an opportunity for peace.
  • The Paradigm Two Era: During the late 1980s and early 1990s, much of the world moved on to Paradigm Two. In this model the key concept, another familiar theme, was oppression of a victimized people. Sympathy went to the Palestinians, though the full impact of this shift was cushioned by the Oslo peace process, since Israel could be seen as trying to respond to this problem. In this period, past Israeli military victories were seen as giving it security, but it was thought to be violating another people's rights. Since peace was believed to be possible, there was no reason for the occupation to continue except for Israeli greed or stubbornness. Yasser Arafat was seen as a man of peace. Many Israelis contributed to this new perception. The more moderate new interpretation blamed both sides, the more radical only Israel. But the most important aspect here was the new paradigm: the issue was not a people - Israel - under attack but a people - the Palestinians - under occupation and yearning to be free. An assumption here was that the Palestinians and Arab states were ready for real peace if only they were given a fair offer. Objectively, that offer was made in the second half of 2000, starting with the Camp David meeting (the opening bid) and ending with president Bill Clinton's plan (the final, best offer). Arafat turned both down. THE PEACE process, in effect, was an experiment to see if Paradigm Two was true. The results showed that it was not. That is why the battle over distorting or honestly interpreting these events is so critical. Those who want to cling to Paradigm Two simply cannot admit what really happened, finding some flimsy pretext for pretending that things could have been otherwise. For Israelis, any belief in Paradigm Two ended by the close of 2000. For much of the rest of the world, however, it lingered on for five long years. While Israelis were under daily terrorist attack, Arafat incited long-term hatred, and Palestinian radical forces and thinking grew even more extreme, the world was stuck back in Paradigm Two. This explains why after Israel took the greatest risks and made the biggest concessions, the international response was the highest level of slander and misrepresentation in the country's history.
  • Paradigm Three: By 2005, however, there are signs that the world has caught up to reality to a large extent. We now seem to be entering a paradigm which has much in common with the original Paradigm One. This stage was set most immediately by the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, but its deeper causes include September 11, the War on Terrorism, Arafat's death and the ensuing collapse of the Palestinian national movement, as well as the growing power of Hamas and the growing struggle over democratic reform in the region. It is in this context that the Iranian president's call for destroying Israel was seen. The new Paradigm is built on the theme of the impossibility of conciliating those who hold extremist ideology and engage in terrorism. Between chaos, radicalism and incompetence, events in Gaza and elsewhere - including Iraq - have shown that the Palestinian leadership and much (though by no means all) of the Arab world is not ready for moderation, including any real peace with Israel. Palestinians are disorganized, or dominated by extremist activists and thinking. Therefore sympathy is shifting back toward Israel. Obviously, there are counter-currents. Paradigm Two will not go away entirely. Some cannot resist the temptation to blame all problems on Israel - including radical Islamism, Arab or Iranian intransigence, and terrorism in Europe - since in that case it is not their own fault or even a problem they must manage at their own cost. But such arguments are more obviously absurd and will be less popular. Evidence for the rightness of Paradigm Three will continue to build. The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center.