Archive for category Mideast peace
My mantra: You cannot be pro-Israel without being pro-Palestinian. You can not be pro-Palestinian without being pro-Israel. The two peoples’ destinies are linked, they’ll either keep killing each other or find a way to live together. There is one feasible solution: a viable Palestine alongside a secure Israel.
The frustrating thing about violence like this is that observers tend to join the combatants in forming two camps. The pro-Israeli side condemns the Palestinians for engaging in terrorism, and dismisses concern about innocents by simply blaming Hamas. In the US sympathy for the Palestinians in Gaza is dismissed by pro-Israel hawks as “anti-Semitic,” or akin to support of the Nazis. Never mind that a large number of Jews in Israel form the backbone of an Israeli peace movement even more radical, the pro-Israel side often paints the world in stark good vs. evil tones.
On the other side are the defenders of the Palestinians, pointing at the big bad Israeli military hurling massive weapons into Gaza, killing women, children and other defenseless folk. They rationalize Hamas’ missile attacks into Israel by pointing out the horrid conditions in the occupied territories and how Israel’s grip limits economic opportunity and leaves millions with no real political and economic rights. For them it’s good vs. evil as well, but the Palestinians are the victims, fighting out desperation for a better future against a ruthless foe.
Go on line and follow blogs and news sites for each side and you’ll find two self-contained narratives wherein it is absolutely clear that one side is right and the other wrong, with little ambiguity or uncertainty. Of course, which one is right depends on the side you’re following.
The reality is that ambiguity and misunderstanding define this conflict, while the capacity to paint it in stark black and white terms makes it harder for each side to truly understand the other. In turn, that makes it more difficult to solve the conflict. But the Arabs won’t drive the Jews into the sea and the Jews won’t drive the Arabs into the desert.
Consider this case. Border clashes leave a Palestinian youth dead. Mad at that and other IDF (Israeli Defense Force) actions Hamas shoots missiles into Israel. In Hamas’ mind it’s a tit for tat, they’re retaliating. For Israelis shooting missiles into residential areas is an escalation – the IDF was engaged simply in protecting Israel’s security. So they retaliate hard against Gaza. Hamas then retaliates back, upping the ante.
Emotions are ignited on both sides, the conflicts grows in intensity, and soon we have a full blown crisis that apparently neither side planned or wanted. Protests world wide show sympathy to the residents of Gaza, while supporters of Israel grumble that the media is unfair and doesn’t understand that no country could tolerate missiles being launched across the border into residential areas. Two legs good, four legs evil. Or was it four legs good, two legs evil?
The reality is far more complex. The Palestinians have suffered and often have been treated unfairly and denied dignity by the Israelis. Hamas did send missiles into Israel in an action no state could ignore or just accept. Hamas is a terror organization which could end this by renouncing its terror tactics and stopping the bombardment. Israel does keep the Palestinians on the leash that naturally breed resentment and anger. That’s why each side is so adept at seeing themselves as the good guys – each side has evidence to that effect.
At this point its foolish to try to say one side is “more to blame.” That falls victim to that same capacity to choose evidence and make interpretations that will see one side as essentially good and the other as the cause of the violence. The first step out of this is to see it as a problem to be solved, rather than enemies to be defeated. Neither side can win unless they both win. That can only happen if they solve the fundamental problems they face.
There is a reason why war maker Yitzak Rabin became a peacemaker, reaching agreements with the PLO in 1993. There is a reason why ultra-hawk Ariel Sharon ultimately proposed unilateral withdrawal from the occupied territories after running a much a different platform. An objective look at Israel’s security interests makes clear that on going conflict is harmful to Israel, especially with the rise of non-state actors like Hamas and Hezbollah. The Arab states never really could pose an existential threat to Israel. The non-state actors? That’s a different story.
So how to solve the problem? First, the two sides need to agree to a cease fire. Israel should not try for a ‘military solution.’ Invading Gaza will be no more effective than invading Lebanon in 2006. Even if they damage Hamas, the conflict will be intensified and Israel will be no more secure.
However, Israel should work to split the Palestinians. There are two groups, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. Israel should turn to the PA and work with it, trying to get Arabs around the region to throw their support to the PA as the voice of the Palestinian people. As this is happening, the US needs to pressure Arab states to emphasize the role of the PA as opposed to Hamas, with Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad as the primary Palestinian negotiators.
This will create dilemmas for both the PA and Hamas. The Palestinian Authority doesn’t want to be seen as abandoning Gaza. The only way they can possibly break from Hamas is if Israeli military action in Gaza has ceased. Israel would also have to renounce some of the new policies they have for settlements in the West Bank, as well taking a softer line on the Palestinian Authority’s efforts at the UN.
Some would see that as Israel giving into pressure, but it’s a clever “giving in.” If done in a way that undercuts Hamas it would be a victory for Israel. Hamas might respond by upping the ante with more attacks. But a more likely response would be to communicate to the PA the need to be on the same page and try to influence the negotiations.
Much conspires against such a solution. Can Israel really pivot to a political effort to isolate Hamas rather than a military effort to defeat it? Will Israel and the Palestinian Authority be able to make enough progress on past roadblocks to negotiation to make real communication between the two feasible? Will the PA be willing to risk “selling out” its rival Hamas, and will the Arab world side with the PA over Hamas? Still, despite the mess, this could open up the chance for a real move forward.
The phrase may be over used but it’s true – in every crisis there is an opportunity.
When I was in 7th grade I remember hearing about Islam for the first time, at least in an educational setting. Our teacher, Mrs. Gors, asked us what religion was closest to Christianity. Most people thought it was Judaism. She said that she thought it was Islam, and she explained the basics of the Islamic faith. I don’t remember much else, only that I was intrigued by the fact there were other religions that were well developed and had a considerable following. Perhaps it sticks in my memory because that opened my mind to the fact that perhaps I was Christian simply by dint of geography.
Of course the rise of Islamic extremism with the Iranian revolution caused the faith’s reputation in the West to take a hit, but not a fatal one. After all, there are Christian extremists as well. During the 90s brutality against Bosnian Muslims and later Albanian Muslims in Kosovo painted the picture of Muslims as victims, minorities in a culture that was defined by brutal nationalism.
Then came 9-11. Suddenly a man with an extreme, radical and bizarre interpretation of Islam launched an attack on the US. 19 of us followers managed to shock and anger (and awe) the country with the use of box cutters, hijacked planes and spectacular destruction. For Americans the Taliban and al qaeda became the face if Islam. Instead of being a great and popular faith spread over North Africa and down into Asia, it was seen by many as dangerous and scary.
Muhammad went from a prophet that people didn’t know much about to a demonized caricature, the most extreme forms of Islam became posited as the norm; the Koran was misinterpreted and taken out of context to make it seem like Muslims were commanded to kill all others. Out of fear and ignorance people constructed an “other” that was irrational, unreasonable, unwilling to change, and therefore an enemy that had to be defeated.
Islam is a great world religion that is not going to go away, and trying to repress Muslim political expression is not only futile, but likely to create more harm than good. The Ottoman Empire’s repression of peoples’ political voice and embrace of a very conservative form of Islam set up current difficulties. Those problems are real but can be overcome. The region has to start progressing, which means bringing all voices, including those of fundamentalists and extremists, into the mix. There is no other way.
The US can facilitate this with a clear message: We will not get involved in your internal affairs, we will assist you when our mutual interests make that possible, and we will respect our cultural differences. All we ask in return is not to be seen as or treated as enemies. For almost all Muslims that would be welcomed and start a path to a good relationship.
If not for the Israeli-Palestinian issue, that would be enough. There can never be true normalcy in the region as long as the Arabs (and to a lesser extent non-Arab Muslims) see Palestinians being humiliated and denied basic rights in the occupied territories. That doesn’t mean Israel is completely to blame, they’re in a tough spot with Hamas and Hezbollah kindling trouble: who can blame them for being hesitant? But there is hope.
The Arabs blew the first opportunity in 1948 when they could have had a state containing far more territory than what they now could possibly dream of when they rejected the UNSCOP plan (Israel accepted it and declared statehood on its basis). After losing the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948 the Arabs could have accepted their defeat. They would have kept East Jerusalem and been able to construct a Palestinian state with no issues of Israeli territory. Not wanting to compromise kept them from results that now would be seen as major Israeli concessions.
Yet Israel has also proven unwilling to entertain ideas that could finalize Palestinian borders. My own view is that Arafat should have taken Ehud Barak’s 1999 proposals, but Israel could show some leeway on East Jerusalem and Palestinian borders. If they had done that in 1999 then Hamas might not have become a factor, Hezbollah would be easier to counter, and a main irritant in Mideast relations could have been avoided. Both sides are to blame, and neither side can “win” — the Arabs won’t push the Jews into the sea, the Jews won’t push the Arabs into the desert.
Though the positions there have intensified in the last decade, ultimately the two peoples’ destinies are linked. They’ll fight or they’ll make peace, but neither will make the other go away. One cannot be pro-Israel without being pro-Palestinian, or pro-Palestinian without being pro-Israel. That irony is the biggest obstacle to piece, neither side wants to truly accept their shared destiny.
Still, after a decade of pessimism there may be cause for optimism. As the Arab world changes, so to will change come in thoughts about Israel. One reason the issue has remained so hot is that it was useful for the dictators to have something to unite their people around. Now as Arab peoples slowly start moving into modernism and away from the old repressive regimes, they’ll need to rethink what is best for them and their respective states.
Islam is not anti-Jewish; the Koran commands respect for the other religions of Abraham, Judaism and Christianity. Muhammad had many Jewish friends and allies. Political Islam could actually hasten acceptance of a settlement in Israel by shifting the tone. After all, religion only entered the conflict late, before 1973 it was about European colonizers taking Arab land, not Jews taking Muslim land.
First and foremost is to make sure that the West does not fear political Islam in the Mideast, or treat it as an enemy, thereby setting up a self-fulfilling prophecy. Second, treating political Islam without fear does not mean ignoring our values. A Taliban like state will have to be opposed. If new leaders start acting like the old ones in denying people a voice, our support should be lukewarm. We shouldn’t fear them, but shouldn’t treat them different from other third world states where we reward democracy (or at least moves towards more openness) and refrain from supporting authoritarians (especially now that the Cold War is over). Finally, we need patience. Modernism came to Europe from 1300 to 1900, and during that time there were wars, plagues, holocausts, ideological extremism, slavery and sexism. Even in the last Century we had 11 killed by Nazis under Hitler, 20 million by Communists under Stalin.
Their transition need not be so messy, we’ve shown one possible path to modernism. The Arab world and other Muslim states will choose their own path, not exactly like ours, but we can help avoid the extremes. But we shouldn’t expect it to be smooth, nor should we give up on them because they don’t quickly leap into modernity. We’re entering a new era, full of danger and promise.
Some pundits are comparing the situation in Egypt to the dilemma faced by President Carter when Iranians suddenly brought down the Shah in a revolt that virtually no one saw coming. At that time there was pressure on President Carter to support the Shah, even though the protesters wanted freedom and democracy, not oppressive dictatorship.
Iran, however, was a pillar ally to the US in the region. Bordering the Soviet Union, it was the regional power, receiving massive amounts of US military aid. It protected Persian Gulf oil from the Soviets or anyone else who might want to control or disrupt the oil fields. Iran is not Arab, and though Islam is the primary religion, the Shah was anti-religious, thinking only the weak minded needed such a crutch. As such he brutally put down religious extremists, and was a good friend to Israel. Losing Iran meant that suddenly Persian gulf oil was vulnerable and the regional powerhouse upon which US Mideast foreign policy depended became a potential adversary.
We know what happened next. The Shah fell, and the Ayatollah Khomeini, the most prominent face of the opposition, became leader. The Iranians stormed the US embassy and took the Americans there hostage. Khomeini used anti-Americanism to grip power even tighter (one of the first things the Obama Administration did when Egypt fell into disarray is to greatly reinforce security at the US embassy in Egypt). In 1980 Iraq under Saddam Hussein invaded Iran, and that sealed the deal. The religious fundamentalist government could say “you may disagree with us, but we have to come together to defeat the Arab invaders.” In the eight years that war went in, the clerics coalesced power and shaped what we now know as the Islamic Republic of Iran.
In Egypt there is another foreign policy priority at stake: Mideast peace. When Israel was formed in 1948 the Arab peoples were angry. They didn’t mind Jews living there, but they didn’t want what they considered to be Arab land taken and turned into a Jewish state. Four wars and 25 years later Israel had expanded its borders, and was occupying the West Bank (formerly controlled by Jordan), Gaza and the Sinai pennisula (formerly held by Egypt). At that point Egyptian President Anwar Sadat decided that just or not, Israel existed and that fact could not be overturned with military power. Rather than to condemn young people to continual (and pointless) war he made a deal: peace for land. Egypt got the Sinai back, Israel promised to work on a deal for the West Bank and Gaza, and Egypt formally recognized Israel and became an ally.
Since Egypt was the dominant Arab military, this made another Arab-Israeli war impossible, ending that cycle of wars. Israel couldn’t annex the occupied territories because that would give Arabs a majority in the Jewish state — they could vote it out of existence. But they haven’t been able to figure out what to do, and the situation has festered for nearly 45 years.
The alliance with Egypt took pressure off Israel to make a deal over the West Bank and Gaza. In the ensuing years frustration at being occupied and denied basic rights turned into anger, hate and violence. Groups like Hamas formed against the corruption in the Palestinian authority, and neighboring Syria joined with Iran to back the Lebanese group Hezbollah, creating new dangers for the Israeli state. Suicide bombers terrorized Israelis, as Palestinians lashed out against their occupation. But as long as Egypt and Israel are allies, total war is impossible. For 35 years Israel and Egypt have gotten the lion’s share of US foreign aid, most of it military. This year’s share for Egypt is $1.5 billion.
As was the case with Iran, there is an Islamic fundamentalist opposition in Egypt. In Egypt it is Islamic Brotherhood. Started in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, it sought to promote the creation of a pure Islamic state. Islam was not a strong political force in the early days. Egypt’s first President, Abdul Nasser, came to power by joining other military officers in overthrowing King Faruk in 1952. He espoused a kind of Arab Socialism, a non-Marxist non-aligned ideal of promoting Arab values. He died in 1970, and replaced by Anwar Sadat. Sadat was assassinated by an Islamic extremist in 1981 because of his deal with Israel. Hosni Mubarak has been in power ever since.
Most foreign policy elite are used to the Egypt of Sadat and the early days of Mubarak. Egypt’s government allows people to live relatively free lives and do business as long as they do not threaten political instability. The Muslim Brotherhood was banned (though some members do run as independents and get into the parliament). Most citizens were satisfied that elections were being held, and though dominated by the ruling National Democratic Party, some opposition was allowed. But in the last election, in 2005, the NDP got 80% of the votes and Mubarak near 90%. Effective opposition is not allowed.
The demographic trends I talked about two weeks ago conspire with the increasing ease of gaining information and organizing opposition to make this Egypt very different than the one foreign policy elites are accustomed to. This is a new generation, a new century. They are not satisfied with relative stability, and given rising food costs and increasing poverty (in part because of the population growth), there is a desire for change that goes far beyond groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. Mubarak’s government — like those in much of the rest of the Arab world — has become obsolete. Obsolete governments can hang on, sometimes for quite awhile, but sooner or later reality gets to them. Trying to maintain the status quo by helping Mubarak will at best succeed for only a short time.
Yet the idea that Muslim Brotherhood will come to power like the clerics in Iran and set up a radical Islamic state is not a probable outcome. Egyptians do not want to be like Iran, or like Saudi Arabia, and there is no reason to expect that the Muslim Brotherhood can do there what the Ayatollahs did in Iran. Sunni Islam has a different sense of politics than does Shi’ite (Egyptians are Sunni, the Iranians are Shi’ite), and the Muslim Brotherhood does not provide the ‘face of the opposition’ by Khomeini did. Indeed, the protesters are mostly unaligned with the Muslim Brotherhood. Moreover, Iran has oil, it had the resources to be more independent. Any new government in Egypt has to deal with the problems of poverty and economic weakness. The US and the EU will be in a position to make deals that the Egyptians cannot simply reject.
If one reads the alarmists, something which I labeled in my last post a “worst case scenario” gets put forth as if it’s likely. War will break out, oil prices will skyrocket, a new Islamic state will emerge and further radicalize the Arab world! Perhaps, but not likely. Those who want to fear Islam see the worst case scenario as more likely than it is, just as those who yearn for change in Egypt see the best case scenario as more likely than it is.
Egypt is not Iran. History has yet to be written. The US can’t shape events, but how we and our allies react to them will help guide the trajectory of history. So far the Obama administration has done the right things and adopted the right tone — President George H.W. Bush’s former Secretary of State James Baker made that point publicly. The test, however, is yet to come. As protesters and “pro-Mubarak thugs” fight it out in Tahir square, the diplomats have to get ready to be creative and innovative as they move into uncharted territory. That’s probably something they’ll need to get used to.
We still don’t know where the protest movement in Egypt will go. Word is that the Obama Administration doesn’t think Mubarak can last, but also doesn’t want American fingerprints on the transition. They are taking a wait and see approach, as is the world. People are drawing comparisons to the Iranian revolution in 1979, and some say that the US should take a stand to support Mubarak or Obama will have “lost Egypt.”
This is no longer the 20th Century. The idea that the US can prop up dictatorships and treat third world states as pawns in power political games is obsolete. That simply won’t work. As I noted last week, demographics and the information revolution make change in the Arab world inevitable. So what if this is a start of a great transformation in the Mideast, the start of a process of modernization that at some point could yield democratic, modern societies? How will this unfold?
Alas, just as the US can’t simply prop up Mubarak and hold back the change, neither can the US or anyone wave a magic wand and dictate that Egyptians will peacefully go to the polls and vote in a reasonable moderate government. Forces of Islamic extremism, secular modernism, moderate Islam and democratic human rights advocacy co-exist. They may unite against Mubarak, but will fight with each other.
Moreover, if Egypt is a canary in a coal mine, the first of the authoritarian post-Ottoman states to throw off the shackles of an oppressive government (Iran was never part of the Ottoman Empire), what will happen if this spreads? Already Jordan and Yemen have growing protests, while tensions exist in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis’ oil money can buy them support Mubarak could not afford, but no government will likely last. Much as Communism fell virtually overnight in Eastern Europe, change may come more swiftly than people realize in the Arab world. What will it be like?
If Europe’s modernization process is any guide, it may be very messy. To be sure, the Europeans modernized at their own pace, with no one ahead of them either pushing them faster than they wanted to go, or showing them the way with aid and advice. The Arab world is modernizing in a global interdependent system which itself is undergoing transition. When Europe modernized there was blowback. The Church fought capitalism and modernism, ideologies like communism and fascism emerged to offer new threats. There were civil wars, holocausts, purges and ultimately two world wars engulfing Europe, taking countless millions of lives, before the Europeans found something that works — a stable cooperative economic and political arrangement known as the ‘European Union.’
A new political culture needs to emerge; a new set of norms, understandings and shared values upon which a stable political system can be built. There is no “right” political system or government, only ones which work because the underlying culture fosters values that promote stability. To build that from an authoritarian state where dissent is violently repressed is very difficult and usually follows a rocky path.
This opens the real possibility that this wave of protest could unleash a war against Israel fought not by Arab armies easily defeated by the IDF, but rather waves of terrorism and fighting by young people — again, the population of the Arab world is almost half under 23 and the population keeps growing. One can imagine Iran challenging the Arab world and a potential war between the Arabs and the Persians, this time with Iraq as a battleground (and host to a civil war).
A best case scenario would be for Egypt to model a kind of “government of national unity” that would forge compromises between the various groups. Moderate elements of the Muslim Brotherhood would need to have considerable influence to make that happen, though there is evidence that even Muslim fundamentalists are dubious of the violence and desire for conflict against the West that drives groups like al qaeda. In a “best case” scenario, Egypt’s turmoil convinces other states to proactively reform, trading power for a comfortable future (no violent overthrow, but instead protection of wealth in exchange for giving up power).
The US and the West walk a tightrope. Intervention and support for dictators makes it more likely the extremists can exercise influence by playing the anti-Americanism card. If the West is generally supportive and non-interventionist, letting events work themselves out as they will, a quiet role of helping create stability could be played. This would be at the invitation of Arab governments, not through a forceful desire to create “regime change.”
If it weren’t for two issues — Israel and oil — the West could probably just sit this out and let that region change on its own. The Israelis were shocked by the 2006 war with Hezbollah. Hezbollah’s continuing strength in Lebanon along with the possibility of a resurgent, nuclear Iran, has already unnerved the Israelis. The possibility that their Egyptian ally could totter likely brings them close to panic. The good news is that confronted with the possibility of all out war with a nuclear Israel, the Muslim Brotherhood, which contains moderate elements, might join Hamas to hammer out a peace deal with Israel. The logic of this view rests with the fact that right now Israel has no reason to truly compromise, they are in a position of relative strength. If that changes, then perhaps Israel will be forced to compromise in ways that can lead to an effective solution.
Another possibility is all out war — with Israel’s survival in doubt. When these changes sweep the Arab world, something will give in the Israeli-Arab conflict. Either there will be war, perhaps involving nuclear weapons and the end of the Israeli state, or there could be a move towards peace. It’s impossible to accurately set the odds for either outcome. If there is war, then oil supplies will likely suffer dramatic cuts. Even if there is some turmoil in Saudi Arabia oil prices will rise. This could usher in another recessionary wave, perhaps bad enough to push the global economy into clear depression.
So the stakes are high, yet the US is not and can not control how things develop. We are in a position of having to react. Iraq taught us the limits of our military power, Iran in 1979 showed the impact of being too closely associated with the former dictator, and though President Obama has restored some prestige to the US in that part of the world, we are mostly spectators in this historical transformation of the Mideast.
And what if Mubarak pulls through, and the protests die out? That will mean that the leaders in the Mideast have been served notice — there is a storm brewing below them if they don’t make clear and consequential changes. I get the sense that something big is starting, something that will shift the course of history in ways we cannot yet know.
As the industrialized West fights with declining birth rates, threatening the capacity to maintain pensions and adequate health care as life spans expand and families have less children, a different phenomenon is taking place in the Arab world and northern Africa. In Egypt half the population is under 24. In Saudi Arabia the median age is 25, 22 in Jordan, 20 in Iraq, 21 in Syria, and in non-Arab Iran it’s 26. For comparison, the median population age is 37 in the US, 44 in Italy and Germany, and 40 in France and Great Britain.
And in the Arab world population has grown dramatically, and will continue to do so as those entering their twenties start having children. The population explosion and massive shift to youth in that part of the world has profound political implications.
For the past forty years, the US has pursued good relations with authoritarian leaders in northern Africa. After Anwar Sadat made peace with Israel, the US has heaped aid upon Egypt, even as Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak, rules with an iron fist (and a faint illusion of democracy). He is currently grooming his son to take his place. Egypt is more like North Korea than the US. The Saudi royal family maintains its deal with the extreme Wahhabi religious sect of Islam, to the point that before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 the Saudis were considered more repressive than Saddam’s Iraq. Syria’s Baathist regime also maintains a tyrannical iron grip.
If you look at rankings of democracy and human rights, the Arab world is last, making the least progress in moving to democracy or respect for human rights. Only Israel and Iran boast democratic governments, though Iran is really only a semi-democracy due to the power of the clerics in the Guardian council. The US learned how resilient such authoritarian repression can be when after overthrowing Saddam, massive amounts of aid and support could not build a functioning democracy in Iraq. Iraq is now less democratic than Iran, riddled with corruption as more often than not local thugs run things on the ground.
The reason is obvious. The Ottoman Empire, which came to power in the wake of numerous attacks on the Islamic world from the outside, put together a ruthless military dictatorship. To support it they pushed aside Islamic rationalism — an interpretation of Islam which, if followed, could have catapulted the Islamic world into the modern age, and brought back a rigid, fundamentalist doctrine. To be sure, the Islamic rationalists did reach the West, studied by Thomas Aquinas, laying the ground work for Europe’s move to modernism.
This took what had been a progressive, tolerant civilization and put it in the deep freeze, with religious fundamentalists deifning Islam in a way that arguably veers wildly from what the Koran teaches. In exchange for granting them that religious clout, the clerics gave unconditional support to the Ottoman Empire. When the “young Turks” tried to reform it in the 19th Century, even as it was evident the empire was anachronistic and collapsing, they couldn’t. It took World War I to finally bring the Ottomans down.
The corrupt and ruthless culture (by the end assassination was a common form of advancing ones’ career) they left behind is evident in the styles of Saddam, Assad, and even the Saudi royal family. It is a very conservative, traditional and repressive approach to politics and life, rationalized with religion and custom. It has continued despite globalization and outside pressure, in part because oil wealth gave the rulers the capacity to buy support.
However, modernism is a force that is hard to halt. The youth of the Arab world (and in Iran) are not satisfied with their corrupt governments, and as their population swells, the old corrupt elite are not going to be able to maintain power. After events last week in Tunisia surprisingly brought down a corrupt and brutal government, calls started to mount for Egypt to have its own revolution.
These weren’t calls from radical anarchists or anything, but included Mohammad El-Baradei, former head of the IAEA, and partial winner of a Nobel Peace Prize. Whether or not this will lead to anything, it’s clear that change is going to force itself onto the Arab world, and the youth will not be kept down forever. They are inundated with modern ideas, and the pace of change in such rapidly growing societies has already weakened tradition and custom. It is only a matter of time until something gives, and it’s unlikely the corrupt leaders will have the capacity to hold back the storm. In retrospect, the Arab elites of today may look a lot like the European aristocracy of the 18th Century – apparently on top of the world, but doomed by the trajectory of history.
What will this mean? Although people like Osama Bin Laden have tried to feed off the discontent and the inherent anti-Americanism in that part of the world (our support for their corrupt leaders is pretty well known), he’s anti-modern. He’s trying to fight against change. Symbolically he’s fighting against the French revolution and the rise of reason and rational thought. For him Medina in 622 AD is a model of how life should be today, western secularism, liberty and moral laxity are evils to be rejected.
Most young Arabs don’t think that way. A few extremists will join that kind of cause, but what’s really impressive in the years since 9-11-01 is how little traction Islamic extremism has gotten in the Arab world. The youth are unlikely to embrace puritanism and religious devolution as their future, especially as modern influences grow.
There is a danger, though, that if the US remains too associated with the hated regimes that have created this stagnant mess, anti-Americanism could be a unifying force, and that could prove harmful to US interests down the line. If that isn’t tempered, anti-Israeli sentiment could be a unifying factor for these young people, as Arabs tend to see their defeats to Israel as humiliating and unjust. Certainly the Israelis realize that the ticking demographic time bomb could be a real threat to their existence as a state if radicalism of any sort unites the Arab world against them.
We should find a way to get on the right side of history here, recognizing the inevitability that change and modernity will sweep the Arab world. One clear way is to embrace respect for Islam; President Bush had the right tone when he proclaimed Islam “a religion of peace,” realizing that opposing and dissing a peoples’ faith is not a way to win friends.
President Bush also had one thing right in his choice to go to war in Iraq. The old order cannot survive, and it would be best if democracy and markets could flourish. He and his advisers under estimated the difficulty of pushing for change, ignoring both the power of culture and the inability of military power to effectively shape political and cultural outcomes. But if war isn’t a way to bring positive change, then perhaps engagement and cooperation will be. Moreover, this need not be governmental, it can be through citizens groups, non-governmental organizations and interfaith communities.
Because change is coming. There will be revolutions of some sort. The current order cannot last. Perhaps if we can play a positive role we can repay an old debt. Not only did Islamic rationalist philosophers point Thomas Aquinas to Aristotle, starting the move to modernism in the West, but Islamic ideas from Moorish Spain sparked the renaissance in Italy. If not for Islam, the West might never have modernized.
Pundits left and right are falling over themselves to make what seems to be a no-risk prediction: the Mideast peace talks President Obama has initiated will fail. For almost twenty years success has been elusive in Mideast negotiations, and after the failure of the Clinton talks in 2000 the region has become riveted by war, uprisings, and now the threat of a nuclear Iran. Many on the right are all but begging Israel to strike Iranian nuclear sights, while many on the left want President Obama to dump Israel if it doesn’t change its tune.
It is always darkest before the dawn, and I think that perhaps now the time is right for a major turn around in the Israeli-Palestinian saga. Perhaps a move towards peace is closer than we realize. A few reasons:
A) Only Nixon could go to China. One problem in Israel is the ability of the Israeli hardliners to scuttle efforts by those who want serious negotiations to succeed. Any Hamas attack is turned into a reason why compromise is futile, and emotional themes push Israelis away from reconciliation. Current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, has won his credentials as a hard core Israeli hawk. He has constantly opposed negotiations on anything but Israeli terms, and has been harshly critical of doves both in Israel and the US. He is a hero to conservatives in the US who are pro-Israel, steadfastly defending the Jewish state against criticism. He has the “street cred” to deal with the Palestinians, and perhaps create a two state solution. The ground work has be laid by other hawks — Yitzak Rabin, the general hero of the 1967 war who later made peace with the PLO, and Ariel Sharon, the hard core militarist who unilaterally withdrew from the West Bank.
B) Israel needs American support. Israel is concerned about the fact that Iran is likely to become a rival nuclear power in the region. On the one hand, most Israelis recognize Iran is not going to simply attack Israel to destroy the Jewish state — that kind of rhetoric is used to get public support, but they know the Iranian leadership isn’t suicidal. Rather, it alters the regional balance, especially as Iran directly backs Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hezbollah fought Israel to a draw (something Israel’s not used to) in the summer of 2006, and could pose serious threats to Israeli security. If the US sets the price of unequivocal support against Iran as working hard towards peace with the Palestinians, Netanyahu is likely to see it worth the cost.
C) Arab states want the conflict settled. Most Arab states have resigned themselves to co-existing with Israel. The days of wanting Israel “wiped off the map” are over. In fact, Arabs are more concerned about Iranian power than Israeli power, and the leaders of most Arab states are adamantly opposed to extremist movements that want to disrupt the system. They know that peace in Palestine would undercut the most emotional strain of the radical Islamist movement. Pressure from Arab states (even if they rhetorically remain anti-Israel) will be for compromise from the Palestinian side. They may also offer private assurances to Israel.
D) Palestinian impatience with Hamas. Hamas won elections in Gaza because of widespread anger over corruption and incompetence in the Palestinian Authority. They did not win because of their radical anti-Israeli stance. Most Palestinians are ambivalent about the existence of Israel, they simply want to make a living and have economic opportunity.
Add to that the wane in anti-American sentiment due to the US withdrawal from Iraq (and the lack of headlines of dead Arabs at the hands of western forces) and Palestinian rejection of the radical agenda, and conditions are ripe for a real move towards long term peace. Ironically President Obama, seen by many as having a questionable commitment to Israel, and Benjamin Netanyahu, seen by many as having no desire to reach a two state agreement with the Palestinians, may be poised for a dramatic and unexpected breakthrough in the Mideast. Stay tuned!