A tragedy of misconceptions

Projecting our way of thinking on Muslims, or analyzing them with Western logic, won't lead to progress.

arab man reading paper 248.88 ap (photo credit: AP)
arab man reading paper 248.88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
A survey published on February 5 by the prestigious Jerusalem Media and Communications Center, a Palestinian polling institute, indicates that 46.7 percent of the Palestinians believe that Hamas defeated Israel in the recent fighting in Gaza; 50.8% (compared to 39.3% last April) believe that the rocket attacks should continue, and only 20.8% believe that they are harmful to Palestinian interests. Finally, 55% are convinced that terrorist acts should continue. These figures illustrate a major aspect of the confrontation between Israel and the Palestinians and, on a wider scope, of the West and the Arab world: a tragedy of misconceptions, a confrontation of two societies that do not understand each other and naively believe that people on the other side have the same way of thinking and reasoning as them. As long as both sides persist in this erroneous perception of each other, there is going to be no peace in the Middle East. In 1997 the Four Mothers organization was founded. Its goal was the full pullout of the IDF from south Lebanon. Every year, Four Mothers said, we are losing 25 to 30 soldiers in the battle with Hizbullah. Isn't it a pity to sacrifice these young lives? Let's pull out of Lebanon, and the Lebanese will leave us in peace. The Four Mothers won and in 2000 prime minister Ehud Barak evacuated every single inch of Lebanese territory. But the result was the opposite. Nobody in the Arab world believed that Israel had pulled out of Lebanon because of its concern for 25 casualties a year. The retreat was perceived in the Arab world as a victory by Hizbullah over the IDF, and the logical conclusion of Hizbullah and other extremist organizations was that they should continue fighting till Israel's final defeat. The late Faisal Husseini, a respected Palestinian leader, once told me openly: "Michael, if you don't agree to our demands [about Jerusalem], we'll talk to you in Lebanese." Even the sophisticated Husseini thought that the Hizbullah formula was the one that brought results. The same misconception guided prime minister Ariel Sharon when he carried out the unilateral disengagement from Gaza in 2005. He was right in pulling out the settlers who shouldn't have been there in the first place. But Sharon also believed that the military pullout from the entire Gaza Strip would convince the Gazans of our goodwill. Their perception, though, was different. "Israel retreated because it was defeated by us," a Hamas spokesman said, "therefore let's intensify our battle, and we'll destroy the Zionist entity." The United States made a similar mistake when in 2006 it insisted on carrying out free elections in the West Bank and Gaza. Washington, intoxicated with the mantra of free elections, failed to understand that Western democracy does not always work in Arab lands. The American experts wouldn't listen to the warnings of their Israeli colleagues who predicted a sweeping victory of the Hamas extremists. That was what finally happened. Bringing democracy to Iraq also was one of the major arguments for the war against Saddam Hussein. We can only hope that the democratic regime created there will hold after the US troops' departure. The enthused American experts who promoted the idea seem to have forgotten that the only periods when Iraq's parliamentary regime worked was when strong leaders ruled the country with an iron fist. THE MISTAKE of casting our own image on the opponent was repeated during the Second Lebanon War in 2006. Israel believed that by destroying major parts of Lebanon's infrastructure - roads, bridges, power stations - it would make the Lebanese people turn against the Hizbullah that had ignited the conflict. That could be true in Israel or in America, where public opinion weighs heavily on the political scales, but not in Lebanon. In Gaza, too, the massive destruction by the IDF didn't convince the Gazans that Hamas caused the disaster; on the contrary, their support for Hamas and its operations even grew. I often read articles by learned experts who explain how we'll get rid of the nuclear danger in Iran. "We'll tell them that if they do this to us, we'll do that to them," they say, or "the Iranian people will revolt against the mullahs," or "the Iranian economy is in shambles, they cannot feed their people if they continue their nuclear project." Well, the threats of American pundits don't seem to bother the Iranian leaders; the Iranian people will not revolt; the only potential rebel is the army, as in all Muslim countries, and so far the army is very happy to build a nuclear weapon; as far as the poor state of the economy is concerned, the Iranian leaders couldn't care less. Iran's glory and its return to the status of a great regional power are much more important to them. We have to understand that the Middle Eastern nations don't think the same way as the Western nations do. They have their own logic, and their perception of events is different from ours. Words and promises and commitments don't have the same meaning to them as they have for us. This is not a judgment, but a statement of fact. Therefore, we should make an effort to understand their way of thinking and of reacting to our moves before we engage in negotiations with them. But as long as we keep trying to project our way of thinking on millions of Muslims, or analyze their words and deeds with Western logic, we'll not achieve any progress in our relations with them. The writer is a former member of the Knesset and the biographer of David Ben-Gurion and Shimon Peres.