Barry Rubin: The Middle East shell game





[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.]

Step right up! Place your bets, ladies and gentlemen! It's easy, fun, and everybody's a winner! Just guess which shell the nut is under.

After studying and living with the Middle East for a few decades one sees certain patterns endlessly repeated, though always with a new set of details. Understandably, naןve newcomers fall for the carnival con-man's traps. They should learn after one disaster. Veterans have no excuse.

A con-game is one in which a malefactor gains the mark's confidence in order to rob him. Conventional examples include selling swampland as vacation homes or the Internet scam of pretending to be a distressed African official who promises rich rewards in return for a loan.

The victim is fooled by the promise of big gains if he only trusts his partner and gives up his own assets. Contrary to folklore, the best way to cheat someone is not to offer them something for nothing--that's too obvious--but to pledge something dreamy tomorrow in exchange for getting something very real right now.

The pattern is this:

Step 1. They say: We have been your victims so you must make up for it. Violence arises from our grievances. You must solve the root causes of problems. In short, you owe us big time. Pay up to show you've changed your ways.

A common Western response: In our usual style of self-criticism and trying to do better, we acknowledge fault and do nice things to build credibility with you. Then you will like us better, trust us more, and make a deal.

Proper analysis: Such behavior not only convinces the Middle East side that the West is weak, scared, and surrendering but is also taken as acknowledging the West's guilt and the rightness of their own cause. Grievance and outrage, in this context, are bottomless pits. Playing this game establishes a terrible relationship along the lines of--probably the worst thing Shimon Peres ever said--our task is to give, their job is to take. This pattern never gets broken.

Correct response: If you have grievances, have suffered, and root causes must be resolved then it is in your interest to make and implement an equitable, workable deal. You are not doing us a favor by making peace, stopping terrorism, or being moderate. It is in your interest and you must show credibility, too. If it is true that you are so terribly suffering, then you are the ones with an incentive to compromise. Things are the exact opposite of what you say.

Step two. The con-game's siren call goes this way: If you only take risks and build confidence through concessions you will gain great rewards.

A common Western response: What do we have to lose? Since we don't remember what happened last time this will probably work. We can alleviate suffering, prove we want peace, there's no harm in talking, every government official can be the great hero who brings peace, and any journalist can promote happiness and tranquility by twisting the truth a bit.

Proper analysis: We do remember what happened the last half-dozen times we fell for this trick. In addition, a careful examination of your ideology, regime interests, statements to your own people, media incitement, and power structure show me what to expect, little or nothing.

Correct response: If you won't acknowledge all the times we took risks before and they came back to bite us (Oslo agreement, the two Camp David meetings, withdrawal from south Lebanon, withdrawal from the Gaza Strip) and you didn't keep your commitments (or act the way we expected) why should things be any different now? We've already proven good faith now it's your turn.

Don't misunderstand what I'm saying here: the description above, in general, is not about contemporary Israeli government policy but about the United States and Europe. Israel has a third perspective: we are responding to what you say publicly (in part due to Western policies) but we also take into account what you do and what you also say out of Western earshot.

The central theme of Israeli thinking today is readiness to accept a two-state solution and to give up almost all the territory captured in 1967 for real peace, coupled with the view that there is no prospect of the other side making and implementing this desired outcome.

In effect, the policy is to demonstrate Israeli willingness for negotiation and compromise--showing how good a deal could be--but making it equally clear that nothing material will be given unless something very real and specific is provided in exchange.

Nor does this mean that nothing has changed. Much of the Arab world--notably the governments of Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and the Gulf states, would like the conflict to go away. But they are not prepared to do much themselves, nor can they deliver the Palestinians and Syria, those without whom there can be no agreement, not to mention an increasingly important Iran. Thus, while shifts in the Arab world are a positive development--the fact that a war between Israel and Arab states is unlikely is a huge advance over the past--at the same time formal peace remains closer in theory but not so much in practice.

For example, let's say that Israel agrees to a Palestinian state and, with some modification, the 1967 borders. Does this mean Arab states will make peace with Israel? Well, only if the Palestinians and Syrians agree to these terms. Will the Palestinians drop demands for all refugees to have the right to live in Israel? Will they agree to any border modifications including changes in Jerusalem? Will the Syrians abandon demands for highly strategic parts of pre-1948 Israel that they occupied until 1967?

If the answer to these and other questions is "no," Arab states will do nothing about it nor will they make peace, even if 90 percent or so of these demands are met. In effect, Fatah and Syria have veto power over peace and for a number of reasons neither is willing or able to make a deal. Even success with one would not trigger the minimum needed to shift Arab state policies.

But suppose a peace agreement is reached. Is it so self-evident that all or almost all Arab states would make full peace? Would they ignore domestic public opinion (which they have done so much to stir up and which has so often helped keep them in power), and Islamist opposition groups (which would use any actual moderation as a weapon to overthrow them) to take the risk of establishing normal relations with Israel and change the endlessly hostility of their schools, medias, and mosques?

Would they do anything if the Palestinians or Syrians broke their agreement or support those regimes even as they permitted or sponsored cross-border terrorist attacks? Would they cheer, and arm, and finance those breaking the treaty? Could they ever acknowledge that Israel was in the right or accept its acting in self-defense in response to such assaults? And of course if Islamist movements did take over, any prior agreements would be renounced.

It may well be worthwhile to take risks and make sacrifices for peace, but only if there is a realistic assessment that the situation would improve, not get worse. Realism is vital, but here I mean a real realism, not a naןve miscasting of other regime's and country's interests or attitudes to mirror image those of the West.

By way of contrast, in the West, wrote Elie Kedourie, perhaps the last century's greatest Middle East analyst, "The prevalent fashion has been to proclaim...the newest turbulence as the necessary and beneficent prelude to an epoch of orderliness and justice."

Rather than understanding regional instability isn't going away (the main problem is internal, not international) or accurately defining other's priorities (the Islamists want social revolution, not Western kindness; Syria's regime needs to survive through radicalism not through prosperity linked to Western economies; Iran wants regional hegemony, not electricity from nuclear power plants), there is an endless search for panaceas and a belief they are about to work. The latest example being an American president who first insisted, despite all evidence to the contrary, that the region was on the verge of democracy, and who now proclaims there will be a peace agreement this year.

In the 1950s, they expected new Arab military regimes would bring modernization. There were those who extolled leftist guerrilla/terrorist movements of the 1960s as heralds of utopia, others who hoped Iran's revolution would inevitably turn pragmatic in the 1970s. Following that came endless plans, proposals and talks expected to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict in the 1980s and 1990s. Then there were those who were going to bring democracy to Iraq and the region. Today we have those who put faith in their ability to make moderate Hamas, Hizballah, Iran, Syria, and the Muslim Brotherhoods.

But the real problem is the Arabic-speaking world's political structure and prevalent ideology. Nothing outsiders can do will change this very much, or at all.

To believe the problem is simply how much the West is ready to give away is merely, as Kedourie put it, chasing "illusions in that maze of double talk which Western political vocabulary has extended over the whole world." Like those secret peace dialogues where Western or Israeli participants argue about what concessions they must give the other side while their interlocutors spend the whole time criticizing them with no hint of reciprocity.



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