By Victor Davis Hanson, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is the
author, most recently, of A War Like No Other. How the Athenians and
Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War.
December 15, 2006.
These are strange times.
Perennially beleaguered Israel, for instance, was hit all summer long with
rockets from Lebanon and Gaza, as the world watched and kept score in an
absurd new game of proportionality: Israel was to be blamed because its
hundreds of air strikes against combatants were lethal, while Hezbollah was to
be excused for shooting off thousands of rockets aimed at civilians because of
its relative incompetence.
This week Iran hosted an international conference on Holocaust denial. The
gathering was as bizarre as a bar out of Star Wars, a collection of every
crackpot anti-Semite the world over, all there for a scripted, tightly controlled
hatefest advertised as a ‘free’ exchange of ideas unknown in Europe.
Jimmy Carter, silent about Iran’s latest promotion for its planned holocaust, is
hawking his latest book – in typical fashion, sorta, kinda alleging that the Israelis
are like the South Africans in perpetuating an apartheid state, that they are
cruel to many Christians, and, as occupiers, are understandably the targets of
suicide bombers and other terrorist killers. Sadly, all that shields this
wrinkled-browed, lip-biting moralist from complete infamy is sympathy for a
man bewildered in his dotage.
Meanwhile, some members of the Iraqi Study Group apparently think that since
Israel’s neocon surrogates got us into Iraq, their puppet master must pay the
price for getting us out. Thus, Israel must give up the Golan Heights, or perhaps
the West Bank, since that would make the Islamic nations so collectively happy
that they would join us in ridding Iraq of the terrorists whom many of these
nations have subsidized, trained, and sheltered.
The surprise is no longer that the cretin Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calls for the
destruction of Israel, but only that his serial threats have still not become banal.
In any language, there can be only so many synonyms and idioms for
“wipe-out” and “vanish”, yet Ahmadinejad always finds some fresh way to
express his fundamental desire.
In Washington, realists are back, and they have a point: Israel really does
remain at the heart of the furor of the Middle East – just not in the way they
It is not “stolen” land, or “Zionist” killings, or Jewish “aggression” that gnaws
at the Arab Street. And the solution is therefore not to be found in short-term
Israeli land-concessions, but only in the now caricatured and apparently waning
policy of supporting democratic reform inside the Middle East.
The real problem is that Israeli success ,and the resulting sense of failure in the
surrounding Arab world, fuels much of the rabid hatred. Many of us have been
writing exactly that for years and have been dubbed novices – and worse – who
don’t understand the complex undercurrents of the Middle East. In January
2004, for example, I suggested in passing the following on these pages:
Instead, [Israel] stoked the fury arising from Arabs’ sense of weakness and
self-contempt. In the world of the Palestinian lobster bucket, Israel’s great sin is
not bellicosity or aggression, but succeeding beyond the wildest dreams of its
neighbors. How humiliating it must be to be incapable of even muttering the
word “Israel” (hence the need for “Zionist entity”), but nevertheless preferring
an Israeli to a Palestinian ID card.
To suggest primordial envy as a cause of the present conundrum is to be
written off as a reductionist by the realists and Arabists of the State
Most instead insist that the return of the Golan Heights and the West Bank
would at last inaugurate the missing peace in a way the unilateral Israeli
withdrawal from Lebanon and Gaza so far have not.
As with the writings and rantings of bin Laden and Dr. Zawahiri, these experts
should perhaps listen to what is actually being said by the prominent
Palestinians themselves – not what we keep thinking they should say.
They might examine, for instance, an excerpt from the recent statements of the
Palestinian-born Al-Jazeera editor-in-chief, Ahmed Sheikh, who granted an
interview this month with Pierre Heumann, the Middle East correspondent of
the Swiss weekly Die Weltwoche. He is not a mere propagandist, but a keen
and influential observer of the current Arab temperament.
“Sheikh: In many Arab states, the middle class is disappearing. The rich get
richer and the poor get still poorer. Look at the schools in Jordan, Egypt or
Morocco: You have up to 70 youngsters crammed together in a single
classroom. How can a teacher do his job in such circumstances? The public
hospitals are also in a hopeless condition. These are just examples. They show
how hopeless the situation is for us in the Middle East.
Heumann: Who is responsible for the situation?
Sheikh: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the most important reasons why
these crises and problems continue to simmer. The day when Israel was
founded created the basis for our problems. The West should finally come to
understand this. Everything would be much calmer if the Palestinians were
given their rights.
Heumann: Do you mean to say that if Israel did not exist, there would suddenly
be democracy in Egypt, that the schools in Morocco would be better, that the
public clinics in Jordan would function better?
Sheikh: I think so.
Heumann: Can you please explain to me what the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has
to do with these problems?
Sheikh: The Palestinian cause is central for Arab thinking.
Heumann: In the end, is it a matter of feelings of self-esteem?
Sheikh: Exactly. It’s because we always lose to Israel. It gnaws at the people in
the Middle East that such a small country as Israel, with only about 7 million
inhabitants, can defeat the Arab nation with its 350 million. That hurts our
collective ego. The Palestinian problem is in the genes of every Arab. The
West’s problem is that it does not understand this.”
How strange that Mr. Sheikh, if for the wrong reasons, has inadvertently
echoed the neoconservative thesis that only with fundamental reform will come
Arab prosperity – a progress that in turn will bolster the “collective ego” enough
for Arabs to forget an Israel that seems to “gnaw” at the Middle East.
Elsewhere in the interview Ahmed Sheikh, who enjoys a prominent role in
forming recent public opinion throughout the Arab world, is largely prescient
about the West’s misunderstanding of the “genes of every Arab”. As we see
with the latest return of the surrealists to foreign policy influence, we surely do
not understand the depths or causes of Arab and Muslim psychological
exasperation with Israel.
Thus Jim Baker & Co. or a Jimmy Carter apparently assumes that Ahmed
Sheikh’s dreamlike Arab version of middle class tax cuts, No Child Left Behind,
or Open Enrollments for HMOs will usher peace to the region if only Israel
would concede what its enemies demand or disappear entirely.
This is utter nonsense, precisely because Arab detestation of Israel is a
symptom, not the malady, of the current Arab crisis of the spirit. Ahmed Sheikh
himself stumbles onto that truth. To gain the necessary maturity and
self-confidence that would mitigate scapegoating Israel, the Arab Middle East
would have to make vast structural changes in traditional Islamic society that
would usher in freedom, prosperity, and security.
In other words, new Arab consensual societies would have to create the sort of
landscape that they see elsewhere in Europe, Asia, North America, and Israel
when they turn on their satellite TV’s and browse the internet – and also
understand that such success came from within, not merely from foreign aid or
the accidental discovery of oil beneath their feet.
And what would that landscape look like?
Something along the lines of what the West has been attempting in both
Afghanistan and Iraq: freedom of the press, alliance to the state rather than to
the tribe, constitutional government, tolerance for diverse opinion and belief,
equality of the sexes, an open economy, and government transparency to
ensure the protection of capital and investment.
Meet even a partial list of all that, and soon an economy would prosper without
oil; schools would teach knowledge rather than hatred, bias, and religious
superstition; and clinics might have their own competently trained and equipped
Palestine really is the touchstone of the Middle East, insofar as it is a valuable
window into the minds and hearts of Middle Easterners. The sources of Arab
anger about Israel should remind us of the need both to keep pressuring Middle
East governments to reform and to continue trying to stabilize Iraq in hopes that
something can emerge there different from the theocracy to its south, the
autocracy to its west, and the monarchies to its east.
Finally, there is yet another irony to Mr. Sheikh’s lamentations (which we will
apparently soon be privileged to hear, when al Jazeera goes live in English
throughout the West): Where alone in the Middle East is there his dream of an
Arab middle class of sorts? Where do Arabs have good schools? And where is
there adequate medical care?
Ask the over one million Palestinians who live in a democratic Israel.