Middle-Eastern Myths

'If peace is to be attained in the Middle East, six mistaken assumptions must first be discarded'

Western policy responses to the growing Middle Eastern turmoil in the last two years have ranged from delusion to paralysis. After prematurely welcoming democracy, Western powers have by and large disengaged. This is not without merits — the region’s momentous historical changes are largely beyond the reach of Western influence. 

Unfortunately, the West has still not come to terms with reality when it comes to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Despite decades of failed diplomatic efforts, Western leaders are still obsessed with finding a lasting solution, thus appearing oblivious to the daunting challenges such a goal faces in the increasingly ebullient regional environment.

Whether peace is attainable remains to be seen. In any case, it requires discarding the following six mistaken assumptions that have driven successive diplomatic efforts to complete failure.

The contours of the solution are known — all we must do is try harder.

Wrong. Twenty years of diplomacy have failed to achieve peace between the two sides. That must mean that the gap is still too wide for a successful bridging compromise. It is all too easy to play the blame game in this context, ascribing failure to “extremists on both sides” — one of the most frequently uttered asinine phrases in Middle East commentaries. In fact, neither side is prepared to settle for what a bridging proposal would look like. In 2000 and 2008, two Israeli prime ministers signed up to a comprehensive solution to the conflict that entailed expansive concessions on Israel’s part. A third proposal — the Geneva Initiative — pushed those terms even farther, with the support of Israel’s dovish opposition at the time. None was enough for the Palestinian leadership. In a laboratory environment, the repetition of a failed experiment would demand a change of the ingredients and the conditions. In the Palestinian-Israeli dispute, Western diplomats have forgotten their science.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is central to the region’s ills.

Wrong again. Regional challenges are quite unrelated to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Iran’s nuclear pursuit is a function of that country’s aspirations for regional hegemony. The wave of Arab revolts has nothing to do with the lack of Palestinian independence. Syria’s grim body count would not have been avoided by peace next door.  The conflict is marginal to the region, increasingly so since the wave of Arab revolts began.

Israeli occupation of the West Bank is corrupting Israeli society.

Based on what evidence? Israeli society is much more diverse, pluralistic and multicultural than it was before Israel conquered the West Bank. Israel’s government is much more transparent and less corrupt than it was before 1967. Israel’s press is a lot less party-controlled and much more inquisitive than it was then. By what standard is moral erosion being measured, other than the pangs of conscience of Western elites who do not even live there — and often know little about the place? Israelis are far from being morally corrupt. They are keenly aware of the moral dilemmas posed by the status quo and wish they had a way to make peace with their neighbours. The problem is not that their society has been corrupted — it is that Palestinian and Arab societies have not matured enough to come to terms with the price required to make peace.

Unless Israel withdraws, it will become an apartheid state.

Demography is not destiny. When the argument that Palestinians would eventually vastly outnumber Israelis entered the debate during the Oslo years, the expectation was that, in the absence of peace, Israel would become a binational, non-Jewish state or have to abandon democracy. 

This notion has been proved wrong by the unexpected twists and turns of history. Despite dire predictions, Palestinians by and large are not asking for Israeli nationality — the sophisticated intellectualism of their Westernised, largely London-based elites has so far failed to awaken their political imagination. They do not want to be on a par with Israelis in the same state — they want a state of their own, and that has not changed. Besides, numbers are not squaring well with the claim: by withdrawing from Gaza with its high population growth out of the equation, Israel has gained 20 years, if not more, even assuming that growth remains the same.

This is the last chance to make peace.

Show me your crystal ball. How many times has this silly proposition been voiced since 2000? It is not even clear there has ever been a genuine chance of peace since the late Yasser Arafat rejected the Clinton parameters dealing with settlements, Jerusalem and refugees in late 2000, but the point, surely, is that it will take years for the dust to settle. 

Why should it be  assumed that the new regional order which will emerge from the Arab revolts and Iran’s nuclear quest is going to preclude peace for ever? And why should Israel make any concessions until that new order has emerged?

Peace is the only way forward.

Is this a Miss World cliché? In fact, conflict management has been very successful for the last 40 years. If Cyprus can accede to the European Union while its ethnic conflict is managed but unresolved, why does the Palestinian-Israeli conflict not have at least the same chances to be kept within reasonable levels of nuisance until a new opportunity arises? The US Secretary of State John Kerry may like to shuttle back and forth — and no doubt cheerleading European politicians will see a redeeming value in the new diplomatic attempts to bring peace to the lands of the Bible. Unless the above assumptions are first discarded, however, this round will be another futile distraction from the real challenges of the region.

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