Western media observers mostly do not understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at all. It’s interesting to speculate if our governments do.
Either they are are really as clueless as they look, or something entirely different is going on.
Annapolis: One Cheer, One Yawn, One Cynical Shrug
By Barry Rubin
Before the Annapolis meeting, some said the operation would save the patient; others that it would kill the patient. In fact, the patient is exactly the same but the doctors had a hell of a big party and congratulated themselves on doing a terrific job.
We’ll end the conflict by December 2008, says President Bush. We want to make peace and get along, say Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) The Western media cheers it as a big success since everyone showed up and said the right words; nobody walked out or hurled insults. It’s enough to make you believe that peace is at hand.
But there’s a huge gap between Western and Middle Eastern reactions to the meeting. While the former celebrates, the latter knows better than to expect anything.
It isn’t surprising that Western would-be mediators cannot end a conflict when they don’t understand why it exists. Neither the Arab-Israeli nor the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is based on a misunderstanding, a gap that can be closed by well-meaning but ignorant conflict managers, or Israeli intransigence.
The reason the issue persists is twofold. First, the Palestinians and a very large portion of their fellow Arabs still want and expect total victory. They don’t seek compromise because they don’t really want a two-state solution, at least not as more than a temporary stage leading to Israel’s disappearance from the map. Thus, there is endless talk about Israeli concessions and commitments but virtually nothing about what is required by the other side. Why? Because they won’t give anything and pointing that out too explicitly shows there is no chance of real progress.
Second, Arab politics needs the conflict’s continuation. Incumbent regimes require it to provide a scapegoat so they can mobilize support for themselves and as an excuse letting them explain away their own multiple failures. The Islamist oppositions need it as a slogan in their pursuit of power. Fatah is in the first category; Hamas in the second.
Consequently, any analysis that piously blames each side equally is incapable of comprehending Middle East politics. Yet peace brokers believe their effectiveness requires a dishonesty that ensures their own failure. They pretend intransigence, terrorism, and incitement comes from both parties.
The future is easily predictable: endless talks; no agreement. The only progress will be from the comforting illusions of vague speeches like those made at Annapolis.
This will have little effect on the ground. Attempts to attack Israel will be made daily, including by Fatah members who may get U.S. training but reject an end to the conflict or even resettling Palestine refugees in a West Bank-Gaza Palestinian state. The PA will arrest almost nobody and hold no one in jail very long. Anti-Israel incitement will continue.
Indeed, the day after the conference ended, PA television ran multiple times a film showing Israel being transformed into an Arab Palestine. What is amazing is not that the PA makes inadequate attempts to preach peace and compromise but that it makes no effort at all in that direction. Meanwhile, what Abbas is really hoping for and expecting is not so much any material Israeli concessions but billions of dollars in foreign aid, in exchange for which he won’t be asked to do much more than merely to survive.
Consider in this context just one element in President George Bush’s new framework which is being touted as a major advance. The United States will be the judge of whether Palestinians and Israelis are meeting their commitments. This sounds tough and decisive. But it is not at all new.
During two previous periods, U.S. policy put itself in a similar position. The first was in the 1988-1990 period, when the White House-under Congressional pressure-had to certify that the PLO was stopping terrorism in order to continue dialogue with that organization. As a result, the State Department, charged with this mission, repeatedly ignored PLO attacks by the simple expedient of saying they were not carried out by the PLO but by groups which just happened to be members of the PLO. Only when a major foiled terrorist attack was praised by PLO leaders did the United States have to end the dialogue.
The second example was the 1994-2000 peace process. The PA usually made no serious attempt to stop terror attacks from lands it controlled nor did it arrest or punish those responsible. It is hard to find a single PA media program or speech made internally that urged conciliation. On the contrary, incitement took place daily. But the United States had to remain either silent or, at most, equally blame both sides, in order to keep the process going.
As sole judge this time the United States will never say the PA is not meeting its commitments by publicly denouncing the scandal of continued incitement, pitifully minimal anti-terrorist effort, and massive corruption. After all, to show the PA breaks all its commitments to a tremendous degree would be to demonstrate that the peace process cannot work. It would also anger Arabs, who would charge that the United States is pro-Israel and not an even-handed mediator. Oh, and by the way, this policy will also make U.S. policy incapable of bringing real progress.
The administration’s public goal is peace but its real one is to keep talks going until it leaves office. The Israeli public is well aware of this fact. According to polls, while 53 percent supported the Annapolis conference’s goals, only 17 percent thought the meeting a “success,” while 42% called it a “failure.” They don’t, however, expect any serious pressure or major concessions from Washington either.
Is this apparent contradiction so terrible? Much less so than it may seem. If the United States has strengthened its position in the region, even on the basis of illusion, that is not a bad thing. If having this framework eases Israeli-PA tensions somewhat, shows those willing to listen that Israel wants peace, and helps avoid Hamas overthrowing Fatah, that is a positive contribution. Israel can talk about all the concessions it would make if it really had a sincere, determined partner ready to reciprocate, knowing that this scenario will not happen.
The important thing is for the Bush administration not to believe its own propaganda. If it makes this mistake, and tries to pressure Israel and appease the Arab side into a negotiated settlement — which will not materialize in the end — that would make things worse. But I don’t think that is going to happen to any considerable extent either. What is needed might best be called constructive cynicism.
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Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA). His latest books are The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan) and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).