It’s truly amazing what some people say about the Middle East without anyone noticing the inaccuracies and contradictions. An interview former President Bill Clinton gave to the ABC news’ program “This Week” is a wonderful example of this situation.
As a friend of mine who’s a policy analyst just put it in evaluating another, roughly similar article: “Everyone should have views that approximate reality. There’s still plenty of room for argument within that space.”
I will now show, point by point, how almost everything Clinton said, however, is outside that space. Still, Clinton—who was an okay president—is savvy enough to make one terrific argument which shows he really does understand the shortcomings of Obama Administration policy.
Of course, as a fellow former president, a Democrat, and husband of a certain secretary of state, Clinton isn’t going to trash the current government’s stances. But his statements force him into saying some very silly things. I will give you one point for each of them you spot. Read each paragraph, think of one or more major problems with it, and then read my analysis.
“If [Obama] decides to [issue his own peace plan], I will support it,” said Clinton, suggesting that such an action would be like what he did at the Camp David meeting and later in the Clinton peace plan, both in 2000.
What’s wrong with this?
Answer: Clinton did not really present his own peace plan in either case. On both occasions, he was presenting a plan which he had cleared with Israel’s prime minister. This was appropriate since the Israeli government had agreed to make some major concessions if it received certain things in return. In sharp contrast, however, Obama would be proposing a plan demanding Israeli concessions which not only hasn’t been approved by Israel’s government but which the president knows it would oppose.
Incidentally, as we will see in a moment Clinton knows—despite his support—that this is a serious mistake. If the president puts forward a plan both sides will reject he does no good and ends up looking very foolish. Moreover, what about Clinton’s own experience: offering a great deal to the Palestinian Authority (PA) and watching them turn it down. Shouldn’t he be warning Obama–and his spouse–more about how the PA is unwilling or unable to make peace?
Next, what’s wrong with this:
“We need to do something to deprive both sides of any excuse not to engage in serious negotiations.”
Answer: If the goal is to get talks going, the way to do so is not to propose a comprehensive peace plan which both sides will certainly reject but to start with small things on which they can agree. To put forward such a plan would be the best “excuse not to engage in serious negotiations” of all!
But, by the way, might it be relevant that the PA has refused to talk for 15 months while Israel’s government has been ready to meet during this entire period? So Clinton knows Israel is not looking for any excuse not to engage in serious negotiations. The PA is. But to be “even -handed,” Clinton is covering up for PA intransigence. And who should know better about PA intransigence then the man who was humiliated by Yasir Arafat’s refusal to make peace in 2000?
At this point, Clinton does give some good advice: “The current Israeli government, with its current coalition, almost certainly would reject it. And the argument is that that makes us look weak.” Right. Why put forward a plan that’s going to be rejected. The Obama Administration already looks dangerously weak. Once both sides reject its plan, things will really be at a dead end.
But soon we are back in fantasyland. So what’s wrong with this:
Clinton said that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would vastly reduce the level of terrorism in the region: “Half of the energy coming out of all this organization and money-raising for terror comes out of the allegations around the unresolved Palestinian issue.”
What’s wrong with this?
Answer: Suppose you are the kind of Arab who supports terrorist groups politically and gives them money. Would a two-state compromise agreement make you stop doing that? Of course not, you would say that the Palestinian Authority had betrayed the Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims, while the United States was a horrible enemy that had destroyed the chance for destroying Israel and creating a Palestinian Muslim Arab state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean.
Consider Hamas. If an agreement was made leaving it aside, would it fold up? Stop terrorism? Cease receiving money? Lose all popular support? Forfeit the backing of Iran, Syria, and the Muslim Brotherhoods? And how in Hades are you going to have and implement such a solution without the Gaza Strip?
See if you can spot the pattern: King Abdallah of Jordan made a deal with Israel and was assassinated. President Anwar al-Sadat of Egypt made a deal with Israel and was assassinated. President Bashar Gemayel of Lebanon made a deal with Israel and was assassinated. Ah, “President” Mahmoud Abbas, please just sign right here and terrorism will just disappear. Nothing to worry about!
What planet is Bill Clinton living on if he believes this? Well, he probably doesn’t believe it.
“If there were a Palestinian state working in partnership…it would be a whole different world. All the Arabs would identify with Israel. They’d have a political and economic partnership. The whole economic basis in the Middle East would shift from oil to ideas.”
What’s wrong with this? (This is an easy one.)
Answer: First, it assumes a Palestinian state would be at total peace with Israel and would want to cooperate with it. This ignores Palestinian politics, public opinion, the composition of the Fatah leadership, and the large minority of those supporting Hamas and other radical groups (25 percent in the West Bank at minimum) who’d reject any such thing. It is quite possible (and that’s putting it conservatively) that the Palestinian government would support (or even sponsor) continuous incitement to destroy Israel and view it as an enemy; cross-border raids; and requests for foreign Arab military aid. To analyze an Israel-Palestinian agreement as operating perfectly is a leap of faith far beyond any Olympic record.
Then there is the equally awesome assumption that a bilateral agreement would make all that cultural-economic mistrust and hatred disappear overnight in Arab states. Egypt has been at peace with Israel for more than three decades with attitudes not changing. What about Muslim hatred of a Jewish state in the region and Arab nationalist horror at the idea of Israel’s continued existence? Arab states would still fear Israeli strategic and economic domination. The naïve idea of a Middle East shifting from oil to ideas, of the Arab rulers or masses “identifying” with Israel is not something that a former president should suggest as serious. It’s not something any rational adult should predict.
Here’s another one:
“Look at what the Saudi Arabians are doing — building six new towns. The UAE wins the international competition for the clean energy agency, and they’re going to build a carbon-neutral city in the UAE. And nobody thinks about this. Dubai is the only country, with huge amounts of imported workers, that’s actually passed legislation to give these immigrant workers a better deal in the Middle East. And they’ve got women in the government; they have a joint public-private decision-making process. Nobody knows anything about it. Why? Because of the Palestinian-Israeli thing.”
What’s wrong with this?
Answer: Before saying anything else, it should be noted that Clinton has reportedly received a lot of money from Dubai, including millions for helping the ruler make investments and advising Dubai on its controversial attempt to buy a company managing U.S. ports. Isn’t that a bit of a conflict of interests for him to talk about how great that place is and not even mentioning its recent financial collapse?
But back to the political issues. Well, of course people do know about events in the Gulf. But these are wealthy states rolling in oil dough. There’s a lot of poverty in other Arab countries and developments in the Israel-Palestinian issue will have no effect on that. Equally, there’s a lot of dictatorial regimes holding down populations which are not ready–to cite the words of a Jordanian king decades ago–to act like the Swiss. And in each country there’s a life-and-death battle between regimes and revolutionary Islamists.
If anything, an unpopular peace agreement–and that’s what it would be–is going to inflame these internal conflicts rather than soothe them. Indeed, if we see how Arab regimes use the conflict to distract passion and attention from getting rid of themselves, removing the conflict would increase instability in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other places.
No, the Israel-Palestinian conflict is not the only problem, nor is the idea that if Arabs read more about how great Dubai is they would want to spend their time building nice environmentally cool cities instead of engaging in radical rhetoric or activities.
So what is Clinton talking about when he says, “Nobody knows anything” about this stuff? Is he implying that the Israel-Palestinian conflict will go away and millions of Arabs are going to say: Wow! Now I get it! Let’s have democracy, moderation, and equality for women!
But what about the Islamism thing, and the dictatorship thing, and the nationalist thing, and the Sunni-Shia thing, and all those other little things? Is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the only factor keeping the region from being a utopia? Clinton suggests that it is.
Another one: If there was an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, “How could the Syrians stay out there alone—cooperating with the Iranians, and letting Hizballah people travel through Syria, and doing all the things they do?”
What’s wrong with that?
Answer: Where to begin! There’s no real reason that the Syrians can’t “stay out there alone.” One reason is that they’ve been doing so for decades, regarding their siding with Iran against other Arab states. Another reason is that they won’t be alone even among Arab states and political forces. They have Iran on their side, the strongest single Muslim-majority state in the region and soon to be a nuclear power. They have Hamas (which rules the Gaza Strip) and Hizballah (which runs much of Lebanon and has veto power over the government) and many other allies in that country. They sponsor the Sunni Iraqi insurgents and can depend on a huge slice of Arab and Muslim opinion. They also would have Qatar, Yemen, and Libya, while the Egyptian and Jordanian Muslim Brotherhoods would join forces with them, too.
The Iranians, Syrians, and many others would all denounce the agreement as treason. Oppositionists would try to assassinate any Arab leader who went along with it. There would be riots in every Arab capital.
Clinton seems to speak here as if he has no idea what makes Arab politics different from those in Western Europe.
If you think six of Clinton’s statements were right you can be a high-level Western policymaker; five right, a leading mainstream media pundit; four right, a professor of Middle East studies.
If, however, you understand why the six points made by Clinton which I highlighted were wrong you can write a blog just like this one, have no influence, and receive no honors whatsoever. None of the points you make will be repeated on television or in the most prestigious newspapers.
But there’s a consolation prize: History will prove you to be right.
Optional note: Please understand that there is absolutely nothing about any of the above arguments that is liberal or conservative, left or right. It is all sheer analysis of regional politics and political culture. These are conclusions that everyone should be able to reach no matter what their personal viewpoint, party affiliations, or nationality. There is no greater disservice one can do to one’s people (or audience) than to feed them nonsense which will lead to serious strategic indigestion later.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.