Incident at a Roadblock
Almost exactly 20 years ago I was getting into a taxi around 2am at the Algerian airport. I had agreed to share the cab with two Angolan radio journalists exhausted after their long, roundabout flight via Paris to head off to the Palestinian National Council (PNC) meeting I was covering as a reporter.
The driver wanted over $100 and we were angry at what seemed a rip-off. But assured by Algerian officials that the hotel was far away--it was--we agreed and off we sped through the night. About 45 minutes later, suddenly, in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere, we hit an army roadblock.
A soldier pointed his automatic weapon straight at my head while a lieutenant asked who we were and where we were going. The driver said we were important journalists going to the PNC meeting. If so, asked the officer, where were our press credentials? The cabbie correctly answered that we would only get them when we arrived at the hotel.
Uh-oh. No credentials; no go. We sat and sat while the officer checked for orders. Suddenly, one of the Angolans--discomfited by his weariness and uncomfortable metal leg brace--freaked out and began screaming at the soldiers.
Important note: when a nervous, under-trained soldier of a dictatorship has a gun pointed at you, don't upset him unnecessarily.
Fortunately, things calmed down and finally the lieutenant returned with permission to go on our way. He apologized to us passengers explaining, "We must be very careful, you know, because there are Zionist agents everywhere."
I couldn't resist responding generously, "Thank you very much lieutenant. Those Zionist agents certainly are everywhere and we appreciate you protecting us from them."
Compared to that experience, the PNC meeting was almost an anticlimax. But those it is forgotten today--even by the PLO, which says something in itself--the conference would end with the declaration of an independent Palestinian state.
Today, two decades later, there is no such state. But there could have been. The reason why there isn't has very little to do with Israel and a lot to do with Palestinian and Arab politics. Briefly, the PNC was called on to pass a simple resolution--mere words--saying that it accepted Israel's existence and would stop using terrorism. In exchange, it was promised U.S. and international help to receive a state.
A few weeks later, Yasir Arafat, with obvious resentment, mumbled a couple of sentences which the U.S. government and many others were able to leap upon as proof of his new-found moderation and willingness to make a compromise peace. But Arafat, and the PLO, didn't think that promise was worth keeping no matter what the proffered reward. There were too many who wanted to believe, however, and to discount all evidence to the contrary. The State Department explained away 23 terrorist attacks on the ludicrous grounds that they were launched by PLO member groups, not the PLO itself.
The charade only ended with a major attack attempt--ironically, on a beach I was headed toward at that moment--that Arafat clearly knew about and refused to condemn. Thus, in 1990, Round One of the peace process ended. The story of Round Two, the Oslo process, in the 1993-2000 period is better known, though there are those who still don't comprehend how Arafat killed that one--and consequently a lot of Israelis and Palestinians--too.
Today, with the U.S. government promising peace now despite the ridiculously inaccurate assessment of the situation might be called Round Three. People want to believe and they don't want to fight. They assume that moderation is inevitable, that the "oppression" and "grievances" of the Palestinians should lead them eagerly to grab at some way out of their dilemma, and so on. Anyone puncturing this dream is easily portrayed as mean and even evil. The problem is that they cannot be portrayed as wrong.
There are many reasons why the Palestinian leadership is uninterested in compromise and the masses go along with them: misunderstanding of Israel, religious and nationalist ideology, systematic misinformation, and so on.
One, however, deserves special attention because it is so neglected and yet so important. Western civilization has developed around "win-win" situations. The assumption is that people would rather have part of the cake than to starve; are ready to compromise to avoid suffering.
Yet Western society was not always like this. In the past, it was mostly--and in more recent times, often--guided by a "zero-sum game" mentality. One side wins; one side loses. There is no middle ground. You must dominate and grind down others because, if you don't, they will do it to you. And it is good to have your enemy hate you because it means that he fears you.
As the Greek historian Thucydides recounted, the Athenians--remembered mainly today as the creators of moderate democracy--explained to the Melians, just before killing their men and selling their women and children into slavery: "If we were on friendly terms with [a different] people who should be subject, our other subjects would regard it as a sign of weakness in us, whereas your hatred is evidence of our power."
And this is how Middle East politics still works in the Arabic-speaking world and Iran: total victory is possible, right, and inevitable. Better to suffer for a hundred years than to give up one inch.
Indeed, many in the Middle East are ready to fight and die on the basis of this principle.
A U.S. official once told me the following story from his personal experience. The United States made available a special fund for environmental programs and offered it to Egypt and Israel, after they made peace, to clean up the Gulf of Eilat in cooperation with each other. Israel quickly accepted, but a high-ranking Egyptian official explained that his government must reject the plan.
"But it will be good for you, too," explained the well-intentioned American.
"That doesn't matter," the Egyptian answered. "We can't do anything that would benefit Israel."
When win-win (WW) and zero-sum (ZS) come together the negotiating process is something like the following:
- ZS: We demand 100 percent!
- WW: We'll give you 50 percent!
- ZS: 100!
- WW: 75!
- ZS: Perhaps if you offer me 100 I will make a deal.
- WW: Wow, what a window of opportunity! How about 90?
- ZS: 100
- WW: 95, and that's my last offer!
- ZS: 110!
This is the history of Israel-Palestinian negotiations, of talks about Iran's nuclear drive, attempts to deal with Hamas or Hizballah, and diplomatic exchanges with Syria. All fail for very real reasons. But refusing to understand the fundamental problem, these failures are interpreted differently: not enough was offered, cultural sensitivities were disregarded, the table was shaped wrong, the democratic side did not prove its good intentions sufficiently.
And then of course the Western WW priesthood blames their own governments--be they American, European, or Israeli--for the failure, becoming all the more determined to make it work next time with the Palestinians, Syria, or Iran, or any and all Arab or Islamic states or groups that follow the ZS model. They ignore experience, evidence, and the fact that giving everything--in many cases to movements seeking total state power and the extinction of their adversaries--would make things far worse.
Consciously, they cannot admit that an easy solution lies just out of reach, and they live in an era dominated by an ideology which only permits Westerners to blame the West for anything that goes wrong. Political correctness assumes that all people think alike (except when non-Westerners are better); that understanding the shortcomings of the others is just bigotry toward the "Other;" that classifies accurate perceptions as racist and imperialistic; that treating different cultures as innocent children rather than as entities having their own beliefs, structures, and goals is to do them honor.
Such an approach is at worst suicidal, at best set for inevitable failures. Ironically, of course, it hurts Middle Eastern peoples as much or more than it injures Western ones.
Just think, there could have been a Palestinian state celebrating its double-digit anniversary right about now. And a lot of people who are dead would be alive.
I think about my experience at that Algerian road block now and then. At least that was a road block that everyone can see. There are many roadblocks that seem quite invisible to supposedly great minds.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle- East (Wiley).
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