The Region: Some swampland, anyone?

If you have grievances, have suffered, and root causes must be resolved then it is in your interest to make and implement an equitable, workable deal.

barry rubin new 88 (photo credit: )
barry rubin new 88
(photo credit: )
Step right up! Place your bets, ladies and gentlemen! It's easy, fun, and everybody's a winner! Just guess which shell the nut is under. After studying and living with the Middle East for a few decades one sees certain patterns endlessly repeated, though always with a new set of details. Understandably, naïve newcomers fall for the carnival con-man's traps. They should learn after one disaster. Veterans have no excuse. In a con-game, a malefactor gains the mark's confidence in order to rob him. Classic examples include selling swampland as vacation homes or the internet scam of posing as a distressed African official who promises rich rewards in return for a loan. The victim is fooled by the promise of big gains if he only trusts his partner and gives up his own assets. Contrary to folklore, the best way to cheat someone is not to offer them something for nothing - that's too obvious - but to pledge something dreamy tomorrow in exchange for getting something very real right now. THE PATTERN goes like this: Step One. They say: We have been your victims so you must make up for it. Our violence has been due to our grievances. You must deal with the root causes of problems. In short, you owe us big time. Pay up to show you have changed your ways. A common Western response: Following our usual style of self-criticism and trying to do better, we acknowledge fault and do nice things to build credibility with you. Then you will like us better, trust us more, and make a deal. Proper analysis: Such behavior not only convinces the Middle East side that the West is weak, scared, and surrendering but it is also taken as an acknowledgment of guilt. Grievance and outrage, in this context, are bottomless pits. Playing this game establishes a terrible relationship along the lines of˜probably the worst thing Shimon Peres ever said - our task is to give, their job is to take. This pattern never gets broken. Correct response: If you have grievances, have suffered, and root causes must be resolved then it is in your interest to make and implement an equitable, workable deal. You are not doing us a favor by making peace, stopping terrorism, or being moderate. It is in your interest and you must show credibility, too. If it is true that you are so terribly suffering, then you are the ones with an incentive to compromise. Things are the exact opposite of what you say. Step Two. The con-game's siren call goes this way: If you only take risks and build confidence through concessions you will gain great rewards. A common Western response: What do we have to lose? Since we don't remember what happened last time this will probably work. We can alleviate suffering, prove we want peace, there's no harm in talking. We can be the great heroes who brings peace, and so on. Proper analysis: I do remember what happened the last half-dozen times I fell for this trick. In addition, a careful examination of your ideology, regime interests, statements to your own people, media incitement, and power structure show me what to expect: little or nothing. Correct response: If you won't acknowledge all the times I took risks before and they came back to bite me (Oslo agreement, withdrawal from south Lebanon, withdrawal from the Gaza Strip) and you didn't keep your commitments (or act the way I expected) why should things be any different now? I've proven good faith now it is your turn. Don't misunderstand what I am saying here: the description above, in general, is not about contemporary Israeli government policy but about the US and Europe. Israel has a third perspective. The central theme of Israeli thinking today is readiness to accept a two-state solution and to give up almost all the territory captured in 1967 for real peace, coupled with the view that there is no prospect of the other side making and implementing this desired outcome. In effect, the policy is to show Israeli willingness for negotiation and compromise -showing how good a deal could be - but making it equally clear that nothing material will be given unless something very real and specific is provided in exchange. By way of contrast, in the West, wrote Elie Kedourie, perhaps the last century's greatest Middle East analyst, "The prevalent fashion has been to proclaim ... the newest turbulence as the necessary and beneficent prelude to an epoch of orderliness and justice." Rather than understanding regional instability is not going away, there is an endless search for panaceas and belief they are close at hand. The latest example being an American president who first insisted, despite all evidence to the contrary, that the region was on the verge of democracy, and who now proclaims there will be a peace agreement this year. IN THE 1950s, they thought new Arab military regimes would bring modernization. There were those who extolled leftist guerrilla/terrorist movements of the 1960s as heralds of utopia, others who hoped Iran's revolution would bring moderation there in the 1970s. Following that came endless plans, proposals and negotiations expected to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict in the 1980s and 1990s. Then there were those who were going to bring democracy to Iraq and the region. Today we have those who put faith in their ability to make moderate Hamas, Hizbullah, Iran, Syria, and the Muslim Brotherhoods. But the real problem is the Arabic-speaking world's political structure and prevalent ideology. Nothing outsiders can do will change this very much, or at all. To believe the problem is simply how much the West is ready to give away is merely, as Kedouri put it, chasing "illusions in that maze of double talk which Western political vocabulary has extended over the whole world." Like those secret peace dialogues Western or Israeli participants argue about what concessions they must give the other side while their interlocutors spend the whole time criticizing them with no hint of reciprocity. Unfortunately, the real situation often reminds me of a true story. Standing next to an Egyptian at a conference, and trying to show how empathetic Israelis were to his country, a colleague of mine proudly related that he worked at the Begin-Sadat Center, half-named after Israel's former prime minister; the other half after Egypt's late president. "Very nice," answered the Egyptian, "but why Begin?" The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center at IDC Herzliya and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs. His latest book is The Truth About Syria.