The Region: Round and round we go

The Region Round and ro

Every day, dreadful things happen in the Middle East and in the echoes of that region - diplomacy, news coverage - in the West. Yet things are by no means as bad as they seem. Precisely because a lot of what happens simply doesn't reflect reality, ultimately the material effect is minimized. Let's examine two aspects: Israel-Palestinian (and Arab-Israeli) along with the effort of Islamists to seize power in Muslim majority countries. The second - not the first - of those two is by far the most important issue in the Middle East, arguably the most important issue for our entire era. Then, a few words about US President Barack Obama's learning opportunity. Israel-Palestinian Conflict Despite all the noise, absolutely nothing has changed on this issue since the end of the Gaza war in January. The Palestinian side is intransigent and has no interest in serious negotiations. Hamas has been intimidated into virtually stopping its attacks on Israel. (Note to Western leaders: Force still works at achieving reasonable goals.) Israel's morale and national unity is relatively high and the economy continues to do well, especially in light of the international recession. A potential crisis in relations with the US has been brilliantly defused by the government. The Obama administration has still not taken, despite a lot of questionable verbiage, any material step against Israel. Therefore, all this talk of freezing construction, final-status negotiations, Western pressure, Palestinian threats and so on has amounted to absolutely nothing in practice. What is the long-term prospect? On one hand, there will be decades more - an entire generation at least - without formal peace. That doesn't mean war either, but rather a status quo punctuated by sporadic low- to medium-level violence. The biggest danger, a Hamas takeover of the West Bank, has been pushed back. Israel's defensive capacity gains strength. Life will go on. Again, please note that there is possibly no issue in the world which generates as much media coverage, academic publication and debate, peace plans and conferences and Western officials' speeches as much as the Israel-Palestinian and Arab-Israeli conflict. And yet nothing really changes. Islamists Seizing Power Islamist governments now rule in Iran, the Gaza Strip and to some extent in Sudan. In every other country (including Israel) in the region (including Central Asia, Pakistan and Afghanistan), radical Islamists pose the main opposition to the status quo. With every ounce of energy and a great deal of innovation, they are trying to seize state power. Will they succeed and if so, where? Are they really the wave of the future? While the Islamists have a lot going for them, they also face many problems. First, don't underestimate the incumbent regimes. Arab nationalism still appeals to a majority of Arabic-speakers. The rulers have many resources at their disposal, including money and repressive power. The Islamists have not taken over any state since the Iranian revolution 30 years ago. They are often divided. While they have definitely picked up speed, they are still saying and doing many things which most Muslims deem to contradict traditional Islam. And the Islamists also make a lot of mistakes. Within their own countries, confessional differences among Muslims often matter a great deal. In Lebanon, for example, Shi'ite Islamists led by Hizbullah have unnecessarily antagonized Sunni Muslims, while in Iraq the revolutionary Sunni Islamists are rejected by the Shi'ite Arab majority and ethnic Kurds. In North Africa, the large ethnic Berber minority opposes Islamism. At home and internationally, the intransigence of radical regimes (Iran, Syria and Hamas) and movements alienates potential allies. By making such huge demands and refusing to make small concessions, they throw away opportunities and virtually force the West to confront them despite the preference of many for appeasement. Similarly, the constant aggression forces Western public opinion to reject concessions. Nor can the Middle Eastern dictatorships, whether Islamist or nationalist, defeat the West or Israel. The centralization used to preserve the dictators' power inhibits prosperity. In the longer-term, the oil-producing countries will run out of petroleum and the rest of the world might even develop alternative and more efficient energy use. US Policy Something very big - but predictable - is starting to happen: The Palestinians, and no doubt soon a lot of the Arab world, are turning against Obama. He will find shortly that unless he gives everything and asks for nothing, they will soon be calling him another Bush. The fact that Obama is perceived as weak doesn't help him any. Cairo speech, UN speech, distancing from Israel, engaging radicals? All these things will get him nowhere. Help him on Iran? Well they weren't going to do that any way. The hostility is partly due, of course, to the interests of the Arab rulers, partly to the radicalism of the opinion makers there, partly to the Islamists who always outbid their incumbent rivals and need anti-Americanism as one of their main tools to stir passions. This is how the Middle East works. But many in the mass media, academia and Western governments (especially the Obama administration) have absolutely no idea. They basically accept the concept that if you are nice enough, give enough and bash Israel enough, the Arabic-speaking political forces - and maybe even Iran - will love you and be nice to you, or at least leave you alone. When this proves wrong, as it does periodically (1990-1991, Iraqi invasion of Kuwait; 2000, failure of Camp David followed by September 11), there is a period of comprehension when policies get better. Might this be a stage coming next year? All the silly articles in Western newspapers, wrong-headed speeches by Western leaders, threats of mass murder by Islamist clerics and all the other things that could be added to this list do not change the material realities of the Middle East. Or, to use a supposed Arab saying, the dogs bark but the caravan moves on.