The Region: Let's pretend we're making peace

Actually achieving it is of no importance.

barry rubin new 88 (photo credit: )
barry rubin new 88
(photo credit: )
Here is one of my favorite stories explaining how the Middle East works as told by the famed Egyptian journalist Muhammad Hussanein Heikal. Like all of Heikal's stories, it may or may not be true, which is also part of the lesson being taught. When Muammar Gaddafi first became Libya's ruler, Heikal was dispatched to meet and evaluate him by Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. After returning to Cairo, Heikal was quickly ushered into the president's office. "Well," said Nasser, "what do you think of Gaddafi?" "He's a disaster! A catastrophe!" "Why," asked the president, "is he against us?" "Oh no, far worse than that," Heikal claims to have replied, "he's for us and he really believes all the stuff we are saying!" The point was that the Egyptian regime took the propaganda line out of self-interest that all Arabs should be united into one state under its leadership, all the Arab monarchies overthrown, Israel wiped off the map immediately and Western influence expelled, but it knew itself incapable of achieving these goals and to try to do so would bring disaster. Indeed, when Nasser had tried to implement part of this program in 1967, he provoked Israel into attacking and suffered his worst nightmare. Come to think of it, Arab regimes are still playing this game of systematically purveying radicalism, hatred and unachievable goals to distract their populace, excuse their own failings, focus antagonism against foreign scapegoats and seek regional ambitions. Western governments do this kind of thing a bit differently. In this regard, recent statements by a number of leaders including US President Barack Obama, prime ministers Gordon Brown and Binyamin Netanyahu and others establish an important principle: Actually achieving Middle East peace is of no importance. The only thing that is important is saying that progress is being made and that peace will come soon. I don't mean that as a statement of cynicism, but as an accurate analysis of what goes on in international affairs at present. What's achieved by pretending there is progress and success is imminent? Some very real and - in their way - important things: • World leaders are saying that they are doing a great job, doing the right things, remaining active and achieving success. • By saying peace is near, the situation is defused. Why fight if you are about to make a deal? • Israel (and anyone else from the region who joins in) shows that it is cooperating, so others should be patient and not apply pressure. • Since the West is taking care of business, Arab states will supposedly feel comfortable working with it on other issues, like Iran for example. I want to stress that this behavior is not as silly as it might seem. Often this is how politics actually work. THE FREEZE on settlement construction, as another example, is a scam. If Israel gives something on this issue, the Western governments declare victory and go home, so to speak. That doesn't mean there aren't reasons for not doing so, but the virtually open cynicism of the US and European strategy is striking. When the US president portrays the possibility of two tiny states, Oman and Qatar, letting one-man Israeli trade offices reopen as a major triumph in confidence-building, despite being his sole achievement after months of top-level diplomacy, what can one do but snicker? Finally, since Israeli-Palestinian peace is not within reach, pretending it is while knowing the truth is not such a bad alternative. It is certainly progress, since the Obama administration came into office and originally pursued a policy based on the idea that it could achieve peace in a matter of months. What is the downside here? There are three problems. The first is if Western leaders believe their own propaganda. Because if peace is "within reach" but isn't actually grasped, then someone must be blamed. That someone will, of course, be Israel. Why? Because if the West blames the Palestinians, leaders presume that Arabs and Muslims will be angry and not cooperate on other matters. There could be more terrorism and fewer profitable deals and investments. They gain nothing. But if they insist that everything is going well, there is no need to blame anyone. This is the phase we are now entering. The second problem, however, is that neither the Palestinians nor Arab regimes will join in the optimism. Their line is: The Palestinians are suffering! The situation is intolerable! Something must be done! And since we will make no concessions or compromises, the only solution is for the West to pressure Israel to give more and more while getting nothing in return. Since this is not going to happen if Israel resists, they fall back on their alternative approach: Okay, so since you aren't forcing Israel to give us what we want, you have to give us other things, like money, and you cannot demand we help you. The best outcome is that certain Arab states, with other interests at stake, will downplay the conflict altogether and focus on more pragmatic needs. The radicals - principally Iran and Syria - will never do so and will claim that the situation shows how the West cannot be trusted and must be defeated. What's the third problem? Actions that might actually promote regional stability, or even Arab-Israeli peace, are not taken. These include two especially important tactics: • More energetic efforts to overthrow the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip. As long as Hamas is running half the Palestinian territories and outflanking Fatah in militancy, there won't be peace. Keeping Hamas from taking over the West Bank, isolating it and maintaining sanctions against it is a good policy and can preserve the status quo. It is not, however, the best policy and the pressure on Hamas could erode over time. • More pressure on the Palestinian Authority to moderate and compromise. The PA and its positions are the main barriers to peace. As the PA possibly becomes more radical, the likelihood of violence increases. Thus, while in the short-to-medium run the "feel good" and status quo policy may work, it also has risks and limits. Still, it is the best that can be expected at present.