You Can't Get to Peace if You Can't Get it Right

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 03-Dec-07 | Author: Barry Rubin| Source: GLORIA Center

U.S. President George W. Bush (C), Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (L) and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas stand on stage at the Israel-Palestinian Peace Conference at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, November 27, 2007.

I love Annapolis. A charming town that has maintained its historic district quite nicely. Nice little harbor with interesting shops. Then there's the magnificent statehouse, best-known for George Washington's famous farewell speech, when he gave up the command of the American army at the end of the revolution rather than making himself dictator, got on his horse, and rode home to be a farmer.

Oh, and then there's the Annapolis summit conference on the Middle East, an area where most of the regimes are based on army commanders who didn't resign and rode home but who rather marched into the local equivalent of the statehouse and seized power.

Let's see if we can glean some interesting points from the massive coverage of this event.

From Scott Wilson, Washington Post, November 24, 2007:

"I'm not hiding any secret about the Saudi position; we were reluctant until today," said the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal. "And if not for the Arab consensus we felt today, we would not have decided to go"

Whether this is just rhetoric or sincere amounts to the same thing. Does this mean Syria has veto power over Arab politics, with the old consensus mania surviving as an excuse for not doing anything? If so, this is one more nail in the Peace Process II coffin.

Wilson then writes:

"With its vast oil wealth and authority over Islam's holiest sites, Saudi Arabia exercises great sway among Arabs, including the two largest Palestinian factions . "

But wait a minute. If Saudi Arabia can only come if the other Arab regimes give permission then how does it exercise great sway? And is there any evidence that the Saudis exercise sway over Fatah (to whom they don't give money) or to Hamas (to which they do, not the government but powerful individuals close to it)?

If ignoring what the prince says covers up one problem about Arab politics--each one of which plays iceberg to Peace Process II's Titanic--Wilson's next paragraph ignores another. The Saudis will not use whatever sway they have. Why?

  • It brings the danger of internal upheaval--increasing the number of bin Ladin supporters and terrorist attacks, too--since they have trained their people to equate Israel with the devil.
  • It creates the potential for inter-Arab conflicts, which disrupts the previously mentioned consensus, a consensus in which the most radical have veto power.
  • It could bring them into collision with an increasingly powerful Iran, which they fear.
  • Why should they bother? Let the United States and the West do all the work and take all the blame for failure.
  • And as long as they fail, the Saudis can mobilize support by bashing the West to cover up their own failings.
  • The sufferings, real and alleged, of the Palestinians are a great demagogic tool.
  • What if the peace process succeeded and the Saudis actually had to make peace and have normal relations with Israel. Shudder.
  • The Saudis still hate Fatah because of Yasir Arafat's dissing of them (American slang for "disrespect") and siding with Iraq against them in 1990-1991.

One rarely sees any of these points mentioned in the mass media or academic presentations yet they are at the core of Middle East politics.

And how about Wilson's revisionist formulation of the Saudi peace plan:

"Saudi Arabia is the chief proponent of a plan endorsed by the Arab League in 2002 that offers Israel broad recognition by Arabs in exchange for withdrawal from all territories seized in the 1967 war, including East Jerusalem. The Arab initiative, which Israeli negotiators refused to include in drafts of the joint statement, also calls for a `just' solution to the plight of Palestinian refugees who demand the right to return to homes inside Israel."

Well that sounds quite reasonable but "broad recognition" is a bit vague. You give us everything we want and we admit that you exist? And how about that slick presentation of the Palestinian demand of a "right to return?" Notice how Wilson makes this sounds like a mass movement rather than a slogan developed by the PLO and regimes as a way to wipe out Israel. But all of the refusal is placed on Israel's side. No mention of the PLO and Syrian refusal of peace in 2000.

In this context, it is interesting to counterpose something from Amy Teibel, AP, November 25, 2007:

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas "said he was committed to doing everything possible to hammer out an agreement in the coming year."

But will Abbas actually do anything? Will he break up planned terrorist attacks? Arrest those involved in terrorism? Stop the incitement in the Palestinian media, which he controls, to kill Israelis and which justifies terrorist attacks on them? Begin to educate for peace in the schools, mosques, and media? Fight corruption and the quick transfer of foreign aid into the pockets of his officials?

I doubt it. The mass media doesn't even mention it.

Another myth that the media nurtures is contained in Michael Matza, Philadelphia Inquirer, November 26, 2007, appropriate entitled, "Pitfalls if Peace Talks Fail Again."

Matza does not rise to the occasion but does come up with a new phrase, "After months of intense but fruitless talks about how to end their mulish conflict, the warring parties bring their dispute to the edge of the Chesapeake Bay tomorrow for a conference orchestrated by President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice . "

Get it? The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is "mulish," based on a stubborn blind stupidity by both sides. He continues:

"But in the Middle East, where blood is spilled routinely, the price of failure can be another round of deadly violence. To reach for peace is admirable. But it can quickly turn lethal if the groundwork isn't there and the effort fails, experts say .

"A flop could mean the extremist Palestinian faction Hamas expands its sphere of control from the Gaza Strip into the West Bank. It could weaken Palestinian moderates and energize another round of limited warfare if ordinary Palestinians, stirred by frustration, join the fighters because they see no political horizon that leads to a Palestinian state . "

This is precisely backwards. First, it should be noted how disgusting is the phrase that in the Middle East "blood is spilled routinely." It is consistent with the "mulish" idea that all these people simply act irrationally. Bloodshed is terrible but it is not based on habit but on goals. It is the extremism of ends and of ideology that brings about the extremism of means.

The kind of thinking used by most Western reporters applies very well to Western society or politics but completely fails to comprehend how things work in the Middle East. No wonder this cannot explain the past, help in the present, or predict the future.

In this case, the model implies that people yearn for peace, compromise, and conciliation. When they don't get it they use violence. In fact, this has nothing to do with reality. The problem is that peace, compromise, and conciliation are equated with heresy, treason, and surrender. The more these "good" outcomes appear possible, the higher the level of violence used to prevent them. Consider that Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip led to Hamas taking over; Israel's withdrawal from south Lebanon strengthened Hamas; the 1990s' peace process did not produce many Palestinian moderates; U.S. democracy promotion helped radical Islamists more than moderate democrats; and the invasion of Iraq did not bring peace and love among Iraqis.

This doesn't mean that the Annapolis conference or trying to achieve peace is a bad thing. But it does mean that no one is ever going to resolve a conflict until they understand who is at fault for continuing it or why it persists.

Barry Rubin is Director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, Interdisciplinary Center university. His latest book, The Truth about Syria was published by Palgrave-Macmillan in May 2007. Prof. Rubin's columns can be read online at:

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