Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Not Primary Middle East Problem – Updated Apr. 27, 2011

“I’m of the belief that had God appeared in front of President Obama in 2009 and said if he could do one thing on the face of the planet, and one thing only, to make the world a better place and give people more hope and opportunity for the future, I would venture that it would have something to do with finding the two-state solution to the Middle East.” So said Gen. James Jones (USMC, Ret.) President Obama’s national security advisor in 2009 – 2010, at the annual Herzliya Conference in Israel (“Jones: Israeli-Palestinian strife still core of ME ills,” Jerusalem Post, Feb. 8, 2011)

“‘This is not about Israel,’ [former Jordanian foreign minister, Marwan] Muasher said. ‘I wish for once the United States would just leave Israel out of this and look at it for what it is. People are fed up with corruption, and they want a better government” (“U.S. seeks swift transition in Egypt; Reassurance To Arab World,” Washington Post, Jan. 31, 2011).

The Arab world, Muasher wrote in a separate Post Op-Ed (“The Arab road to democracy,” February 2), has an unsustainable status quo for several reasons. One is that it “suffers from an entrenched political elite …. These ossified elites, not wanting to give up their lives of privilege, are resisting political reform from below.’”

In addition to fairer elections and more representatives legislatures “another area in dire need of reform is education — not so much the quantity but the quality. Arab children are not taught to question or consider different ways of thinking, leaving entire generations raised to believe that … diversity and critical thinking are treasonous.”

News reports of unrest and upheaval in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan and Algeria rarely if ever referred to the Arab-Israeli conflict as a cause. Yet superstitions, like Gen. Jones’ belief in the centrality of an Israeli-Palestinian “two-state solution” to Middle East progress, let alone world-wide improvement, often resist evidence.

So it was in 1990, when some — including National Security Council Middle East specialist Richard Haass — linked the need for Iraq’s Saddam Hussein to withdraw his occupying forces from Kuwait to Israel ending its presence in the Gaza Strip, West Bank and Golan Heights. But the Iraq-Kuwait/Israel-and-the-territories linkage was a non sequitur: Iraq seized Kuwait in unprovoked aggression, Israel gained and retained the territories in successful self-defense and was committed to U.N. Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 calling for, among other things, a negotiated resolution of their status.

In continuing to assert the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’s putative centrality to Middle East and even world problems, Gen. Jones and those who echo such views misread both current events and their causes. For example:

Of the rebels who ousted former Tunisian strongman Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali after 23 years in power, The Washington Post reported (“A lost generation rises up; Young people of Tunisia discuss the grievances that led to their revolution,” Jan. 21, 2011): “They were highly educated and ambitious, but frustrated about job shortages and low wages. They were infuriated by corruption, the human rights violations and the government’s unchecked abuse of power.” Nothing about Israelis or Palestinian Arabs.

“Arabs brandishing people power, Joblessness, corruption provoke protests from Tunisia to Egypt,” headlined a February 1 Washington Times article. “Economic grievances, including high levels of unemployment and rampant corruption, have been a key driver of protests erupting across the Arab world in recent weeks,” the newspaper reported.

Egypt, with more than 80 million people, generates an economy the size of Alabama’s, which has just five million residents. Nearly half of all Egyptians live just above or below the U.N.-set poverty line of $2 per day.

But, “the problem is much bigger than just economic grievances,” former U.S. diplomat Arthur Hughes told The Times. “‘The underlying issue is respect,’ Mr. Hughes said. “He recounted how on his trips to Egypt he was witness to Egyptians having to beg and bribe government officials to get things such as a driver’s license and marriage certificates. ‘In a culture in which personal dignity and respect is so important, this treatment has just ground them down and forced them to take matters into their own hands,’ Mr. Hughes said.” Again, no Israelis or West Bank and Gaza Strip Arabs here.

Tens of thousands of demonstrators were “fed up with the poverty, high unemployment, and alleged corruption and sham elections that have marked [President Hosni] Mubarak’s 29 years of rule,” USA Today reported (“Egypt’s ‘Tipping Point’; Massive protests aim to turn up heat on Mubarak,” February 1). “In Cairo, some protesters said they were angry that President Obama’s administration had not called for Mubarak to quit.” Not that Washington has not be able, so far, to broker an Israeli-Palestinian deal.

Yemen, one of the poorest of the Arab world’s 21 states and the Palestinian Authority, is beset by multiple separatist movements and a “particularly virulent branch of al-Qaeda.” But it’s not atypical. “Many of the diseases that exist in the Arab world exist in Yemen, from tribalism to poverty to corruption,” Khairi Abaza, “a Middle East expert and a senior fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies,” told The Washington Post (“Protest movements swelling in Mideast; From Egypt to Yemen, uncertainty ahead for U.S.-allied regimes,” January 28). Lack of an Israeli-Palestinian settlement did not cause the problems identified by Abaza, reaching one would not cure them.

Demonstrations in Jordan, which helped induce King Abdullah II to fire his cabinet, “reflect growing discontent stoked by the most serious domestic economic crisis in years and accusations of rampant government corruption” (“King remains the unifying force even as political challenges grow; Demonstrations remain peaceful amid calls for a new government,” Washington Post, February 1). A majority of Jordan’s estimated six million people are Palestinian Arabs and Jordan comprises 77 percent of the land originally intended for the League of Nations’ Palestine Mandate. Nevertheless, Israeli-Palestinian issues did not fuel the protests.

There were demonstrations in the Gaza Strip and West Bank too. In Gaza, thousands of Hamas supporters protested against concessions the Fatah-based Palestinian Authority in the West Bank reportedly was prepared to make to Israel to reach an agreement. In the West Bank, PA President Mahmoud Abbas reportedly told security forces to prevent any demonstrations in favor of Egy ptian protesters, and one rally was disrupted.

It’s worth remembering that in 1980, Iraq began an eight-year war against Iran, the biggest conventional conflict since World War II, one that caused an estimated 1 million casualties. It had no connection to Israeli-Palestinian matters.

In 1992, the Algerian military blocked an apparent electoral victory by Islamic extremists. The resulting civil war, marked by wide-spread atrocities, also inflicted more than one million casualties. An Israeli-Palestinian link was nonexistent.

Such examples are numerous, from Egypt’s brutal intervention in Yemen in the 1960s to current Syrian-Iranian domination of Lebanon (Lebanese Sunnis rioted recently against the Iranian-backed Shi’ite Hezbollah’s growing power). The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which Arab autocrats often have prolonged, casting Israel as an external threat necessitating internal repression, served as a distraction.

For “root causes” of Middle East problems, the U.N. Arab Human Development Reports offer more reliable insight than Gen. Jones. The 2002 and 2003 editions found that the Arab world suffers from “deficits” of freedom, education, women and minority rights, religious tolerance, economic growth, research, knowledge, artistic output and so on, and that one reason was religious (Islamic) fundamentalism.

The 2005 report noted, among other things, that Palestinian Arabs’ standard of living was higher than that of Algerians, Syrians, Egyptians, Moroccans and Yemeni. Using statistics for 2003 — when the Palestinians’ “al Aqsa intifida” terror war against Israel undercut previous economic growth — the report ranked the Arabs of the West Bank and Gaza Strip at 106 of 177. Israel placed 23; the highest ranking Arab state was oil rich, population poor Qatar, at 40.
The phrases “the Middle East conflict” and “the Middle East peace process,” as applied to Israeli-Palestinian affairs, always have been more exaggerations than synonyms. The Iraq-Iran war and civil war between Algeria’s military and Islamic extremists are notable but by no means the only examples of inter-Arab bloodshed that dwarfs the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Others include the Lebanese civil wars from 1975 to 1990, with hundreds of thousands of casualties and Syrian and Palestine Liberation Organization involvement; Syria’s annihilation of the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama in 1982, with an estimated 10,000 – 40,000 fatalities; and Libyan interventions in Chad and Sudan in the 1970s and ’80s that contributed to death counts in the millions.
It took this spring’s unprecedented upheaval for news media to remind their audiences  that “nearly half of Egypt’s 80 million people live under or just above the poverty line set by the United Nations at $2 a day,” as the Associated Press reported (“Egyptian protesters condemn Mubarak; 3 killed,” USA Today, January 26). A march in Alexandria “was dubed a ‘Day of Rage’ against Mubarak and lack of political freedoms under his rule.”
Two articles and one commentary in the January 28 edition of The Washington Post highlighted the issues generating turmoil in Arab countries, with Israeli-Palestinian matters conspicuously absent:
* “But it was fatigue – with the daily corruption, the detached ruling clique” that brought hundreds of thousands of Egyptians into the streets, wrote correspondent Griff Witte. Demonstrators were concerned that the “world has passed Egypt by” and resentful  because “money and power have become hopelessly entrenched in the hands of the few” (“In Egypt, deep resentments are at heart of unrest”).
* Egypt’s ills were those of many Arab states, according to Post reporter Joby Warrick. “With few exceptions, the countries have been under autocratic rule for decades, and are virtually devoid of traditions, experience and political infrastructure on which to build stable new governments.” Warrick quoted Khairi Abaza, a Middle East specialist and senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies as saying “many of the diseases that exist in the Arab world exist in Yemen, from tribalilsm to poverty to corruption.”
It was not only poverty and widespread corruption that the uprisings compelled media with Israeli-Palestinian blinders to look at more closely in covering Arab affairs. Tribalism, another prevalent condition hobbling democratic and economic development, forced itself into the news.
* Arab dysfunction predates Israeli-Palestinian and Arab-Israeli conflicts, an Op-Ed by Post syndicated columnist David Ignatius acknowledged in passing. Citing a Saudi journalist, Ignatius wrote that “the Arab world has been seeking a renaissance for the last hundred years.”
In Syria, more than 400 people had been killed in repression by the forces of dictator Bashar al-Assad by late April. Demonstrators did not care about the government’s anti-Israel stance, USA Today reported.
“On foreign policy as well, the opposition strays from Assad’s regime, which relies on a tight alliance with Iran and the Lebanon-based Hezbollah, which the United States designates a terrorist organization.” Special correspondent Mona Alami noted that one opposition leader, Bashar Ayssami, son of one of the founders of Syria’s ruling Ba’ath Party, “denounced the alliance and others lilke it that come at the expense of liberty and prosperity. Even Israel is looked at differently.
“‘This issue is not our current priority. However, the Syrian people are tired from the continuing conflict and bloodshed in the region,’ Ayssami says” (“Syrian opposition unites in face of oppression; Despite government crackdown that’s been fatal for many, protests continue,” April 19).
Nevertheless, al-Qaeda tried to hijack Arab-world protests for its recruitment efforts. The fifth edition of its glossy, English-language magazine Inspire, published in Yemen, focused on the Egyptian protests.
“Discounting the real reasons behind the revolution, as voiced by the demonstrators, which was to end a 30-year dictatorship, editor Yehya Ibrahim instead linked the uprising to the demand for the liberation from Israel of the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. The mosque, run by Palestinians but within Israel’s borders, is one of the main rallying points of the terrorist organization” (“Al-Qaeda magazines mask message; Glossy periodicals target young jihadists and offer lifestyle and terror tips,” by Alami, April 20).
Contrary to Gen. Jones, and al-Qaeda notwithstanding, in the Middle East it’s not always, or primarily, about Israel. But if only one thing could be done to give people of the  region more hope and opportunity it would be to help their countries become more like Israel. That might assist, along the way, in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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