By Barry Rubin
Mass media editorials are worth analyzing not because they influence government policy—they don’t—but because they reflect current thinking in elements of the elite and sometimes precisely what high government officials are thinking.
Nowadays the New York Times gives us the loony concepts that dominate America’s government. What is shocking—the equivalent for an analyst of coming upon some amazing geographical feature like the Grand Canyon—is the massive craters of logical contradiction. You can’t believe that these could possibly go unnoticed by their authors but they do. Once you have an ideology that doesn’t conform with reality anything is possible.
In contrast, the Washington Post reflects the most enlightened elite thinking. To read a Post editorial is almost to be persuaded that there is something approaching a normal situation in Washington, where policymakers still live by such things as national interests, credibility, rewarding friends and punishing enemies. Far from perfect, mind you, but sane. A good measure of the credit, at least when it comes to the Middle East, should go to one man, Jackson Diehl, who—to use current slang—“gets it.”
When one reads Post editorials it is usually possible to feel hope. When one reads the Times editorial one often feels like buying Iranian war bonds and hiding in a cave in New Zealand.
Recently, the Post had an excellent editorial asking the simple question: Why is the U.S. government acting as if Syria’s dictatorship is a good guy and its ruler a “reformer” when it is far more repressive than its Egyptian counterpart was, not to mention anti-American, an ally of Iran, opposed to Arab-Israeli peace, and a huge sponsor of terrorism including killing Americans in Iraq?
These are the kinds of points one would expect to be made daily rather than once in a blue Ban Ki Moon. And so while it is understandable that I was concerned when I saw the headline—“Will the Arab Spring bring a peace agreement with Israel?”—the Post came through. The answer is basically “No.”
The opening paragraph is very good:
“ONE OF THE MOST remarkable aspects of this year’s Arab uprising has been the absence of the Israeli-Palestinian issue from the agenda of protesters. It turns out that the rising generation of Arabs is preoccupied not with Palestinian statehood but with political freedom and economic opportunity in their own countries. It follows that for the United States and other Western democracies, the most critical challenge in the region in the coming years will be guiding Arab states toward liberal democracy and preventing the rise of new authoritarian or extremist Islamic regimes.”
Note the two key basic points that are the most important concepts for understanding the contemporary Middle East:
–The Arab-Israeli conflict ain’t everything.
–While liberal democracy is better, new authoritarian (I read that as radical nationalist) or extremist Islamic regimes are a threat to be combatted.
If this part of the Post editorial ran for president, I’d vote for it.
The editorial goes on to say that “Western diplomats and politicians nevertheless remain preoccupied with creating a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and the issue is likely to return to center stage in Washington in the coming month.” Indeed, there is a desperation to push the issue by U.S. and European leaders that has nothing to do with reality.
The editorial actually points out—gasp!—that the Palestinian leadership is largely responsible for the impasse:
“The problem with this policy is that Palestinian leaders have little interest in negotiating with the current Israeli government. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has met with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu just twice in two years and has conditioned further talks on concessions that he knows Israel will not make — such as a freeze on all housing construction in Jerusalem….As President Bill Clinton learned a decade ago, such interventions won’t succeed if the parties themselves are not ready to deal.”
With amazement, this reminds me of how rare it is to find such logic and accuracy in mainstream media coverage of the issue, which usually just says the problem is Israeli intransigence, ignoring the history of the last two decades and more.
The editorial then proposes “a more practical approach” in which the administration presses “both Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Abbas to begin taking unilateral steps to lay the groundwork for two states.” In other words, a process. The suggestion is that Israel withdraws from more of the West Bank while Abbas is pressured “to begin talking to Palestinians about why peace with Israel is desirable and what concessions will be necessary—something he has never done.”
While well intended this approach runs into the usual problem that Israel is asked to make a material and irreversible concession while the other side is merely asked to alter its words. And this is being proposed at the very moment when Egypt’s new regime is openly talking about tearing up the Egypt-Israel peace treaty! At any rate, Abbas won’t do what is being asked even if Netanyahu were to fulfill fully the good-faith action requested of him.
And here we come to the real problem between media, expert, or policymaking opinion and reality. The Palestinians can’t make a deal because their leadership is too weak. They won’t make a deal because most of their leaders are still radical. And they are even less inclined to make a deal since recent developments strengthen their Hamas rival. Moreover, the West has taught them that the more the Palestinians can seem to suffer the greater the international support for them.
All of these points come together to answer the question: “Will the Arab Spring bring a peace agreement with Israel?” The answer is that it makes a peace agreement less likely.
The other part of the editorial I don’t like is the one about the Palestinians not wanting to negotiate with this Israeli government. Let’s pose a hypothetical. What if the biggest dovish Israel party and leader of the time became prime minister and offered an independent Palestinian state with its capital in east Jerusalem and more as a starting point for talks. Let’s say that the United States under a liberal Democratic president offered full support and $21 billion as an opening compensation offer. Surely, the Palestinians would conduct serious negotiations with that government?
Oh, no, that was Prime Minister Ehud Barak in 2000.
OK, try this one. An Israeli prime minister desperate for a deal and willing to give away even more because otherwise he will fall from office offers additional concessions. Surely, they would negotiate seriously for a comprehensive agreement then?
Oh, no, that was Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2008.
Beginning to get the picture? Why then is it so hard for Western elites to do so?
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). The GLORIA Center’s webside is: http://www.gloria-center.org/. His blog is on PajamasMedia: http://pajamasmedia.com/barryrubin/