By Barry Rubin
If you want to understand how the debate goes in the Arabic-speaking world and the ways liberals there try to get across their message, there’s nothing better to read than Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed’s article, “Erdogan…Fulfill Your Promises.” It’s also very easy to misunderstand this kind of talk so let’s go through it together.
Rashed is one of the Arab world’s best journalists and is a liberal-minded reformer, as much as one can be while working for media owned by Gulf Arab shaykhs. He is now general manager of al-Arabiya television network, set up by the United Arab Emirates partly to counter the more radical (and Qatar-owned) al-Jazira network. He is also former editor-in-chief of the Saudi-owned al-Sharq al-Awsat which may be the best Arab-language newspaper nowadays.
Yet so powerful is the dominant radical ideology that here’s what Rashed has to do in order to express his views:
He must pretend to champion the radical argument: Yes, Israel is a terrible aggressive state. We must be ready to fight! But, wait a minute. Who are the real cowards here, the ones who won’t stand up against the enemy? They are the ones who promise to be brave warriors and don’t do anything! Let us not listen to these people and be lured into battle only to be betrayed and defeated by their hypocrisy and treason.
I’ve put the argument into my own words but it’s an accurate reflection of his writing. How do I know Rashed is pretending to believe this? Because I’ve followed his work carefully and the note of sarcasm is also clear to me.
OK, let’s go through the article. He begins:
“We have gotten used to hearing Iran and the eager Arab countries threatening Israel whenever there is a glimmer of a threat to Lebanon or the Palestinians….We have been driven to despair from this; these slogans have been exhausted and we have never seen – not even once – any application of this on the ground to the point that some people believe that the objective of these slogans is to revive the conflict, rather than deter Israeli aggression.”
In other words, people are telling others to go out and fight Israel. We will help you, they say. But then they stand by and do nothing.
While this is true in terms of direct involvement, of course, Iran and Syria do give large amounts of money and weapons that make it possible for Hamas and Hizballah to fight Israel. That’s why radicals won’t pay attention to people like Rashed, and that’s also why Western states need to understand the role of Tehran and Damascus in destabilizing the entire region. But to make his case Rashed must ignore this point.
Notice, however, something very important Rashed says: the phrase “revive the conflict.” A conflict can only be revived if it’s inactive. As I’ve pointed out, none of the Arab states except Syria really is actively involved in conflict with Israel today. As I’ve been pointing out for years (and is now confirmed by Wikileaks) almost all of them are more worried about Iran than Israel. Rashed’s phrase demonstrates that fact.
Something here stirred my memory. Let me repeat the key phrase from Rashed that did so:
“We have been driven to despair from this; these slogans have been exhausted and we have never seen – not even once–any application of this on the ground….”
I flashed back to this statement:
“Declarations fall lie bombs from the mouths of officials at the meetings of the Arab League, but when action becomes necessary, the fire is still and quiet….”
That was written by Constantine Zurayk in his 1956 book on the Arab defeat in the 1948 war. How little has changed in the regional discourse and world view!
Back to Rashed. His specific complaint is the provocative remark made by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which I’ve already written about HERE, implying Turkey would fight in any war between Israel and Hizballah or Hamas.
“We are worried that the frustrated Arabs who cling to any hope with regards to confronting Israel will be fooled again. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad repeated such slogans many times but did not lift a finger when Lebanon and the Gaza Strip were attacked….[Erdogan] will not lift a figure in the event of any Israeli attack.”
From an Arab point of view, and this is an undertone in Rashed’s article, the Arabs have reached the point where they are being pushed by non-Arab Iranians and Turks to fight the Jews. This might conceivably insult Arab nationalism.” In fact, given the ideological hysteria, it has merely made Ahmadinejad and Erdogan more popular among Arabs.
Rashed calls Erdogan’s bluff. If he means what he says about sending his army to fight Israel, Rashed remarks, that’s great because it would deter Israel from attacking. Maybe the Turkish threat would also:
“Create a new reality for the Arabs that will force the current hard-line Israeli leadership to accept negotiations.”
Actually, Rashed knows better than this. Israel has been seeking negotiations for two years and the Palestinians have been refusing. But if Rashed says this he would be too far outside the Arab consensus and he’d be denounced as a Zionist agent. Come to think of it, a lot of the Western media reports the same falsehood about Israel blocking negotiations.
Rashed then goes on to taunt Erdogan who, despite all his tough talk, didn’t even take revenge for the Turks killed in the Gaza flotilla. In the event of war, then, the Turkish regime would merely denounce Israel, warns Rashed. But all the Arab countries, Rashed says, do that every day and this rhetoric does them no good.
Here is Rashed’s main point, such “verbal support” merely “encourages more adventures, and results in huge loses for the Arab side….The Arabs are tired of visitors coming to see its destroyed homes, hospitals full of the injured, and its cemeteries and graveyards.”
Yet Rashed no doubt knows all too well that a large number of Arabs–most importantly the revolutionary Islamists–are by no means tired. They are eager for more destruction and martyrs. And the majority can either be mobilized to cheer them or intimidated into silence. This–not Jewish settlements on the West Bank, not U.S foreign policy, not Islamophobia–is the great Arab tragedy of our time.
At least, though, people like Rashed and those in Arab leadership who see reality (even if they never admit it publicly) can keep Arab countries from being dragged into war with Israel. That is, unless they are overthrown by revolutionary Islamist movements some day.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict, and Crisis (Palgrave Macmillan), Conflict and Insurgency in the Contemporary Middle Eastand editor of the (seventh edition) (Viking-Penguin), The Israel-Arab Reader the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria(Palgrave-Macmillan), A Chronological History of Terrorism (Sharpe), and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).