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The Death of an Illusion
It’s tempting to think the Middle East’s problems are all Israel’s fault.


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Rich Lowry

In the great Middle East whodunit, the verdict is in: The Jews are innocent. They aren’t responsible for the violence, extremism, backwardness, discontent, or predatory government of their Arab neighbors.

The past few months should have finally shattered the persistent illusion that the Israeli-Palestinian question determines all in the Middle East. In an essay in Foreign Policy magazine titled “The False Religion of Mideast Peace,” former diplomat Aaron David Miller recounts the conventional wisdom running back through the Cold War: “An unresolved Arab-Israeli conflict would trigger ruinous war, increase Soviet influence, weaken Arab moderates, strengthen Arab radicals, jeopardize access to Middle East oil, and generally undermine U.S. influence from Rabat to Karachi.”

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Behind these assumptions has long stood a deeply simplistic understanding of the Arabs. Professional naïf Jimmy Carter insists, “There is no doubt: The heart and mind of every Muslim is affected by whether or not the Israeli-Palestinian issue is dealt with fairly.” This is reductive to the point of insult. Carter thinks that Muslims have no interior lives of their own, but are all defined by a foreign-policy dispute that is unlikely to affect most of them directly in the least. He mistakes real people for participants in an endless Council on Foreign Relations seminar.

The Israeli-Palestinian issue certainly has great emotional charge, and most Arabs would prefer a world blissfully free of the Zionist entity. But the Israelis can’t be blamed — though cynical Arab governments certainly try — for unemployment and repression in Arab countries. Monumental events in recent decades — the Iranian revolution, the Iran–Iraq War, and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait — were driven by internal Muslim confessional, ideological, and geo-political differences. Israel has nothing to do with the Sunnis hating the Shia, or the Saudis hating the Iranians, or everyone hating Moammar Qaddafi.

Adam Garfinkle muses in his book Jewcentricity: “Imagine, if you can, that one day Israelis decided to pack their bags and move away, giving the country to the Palestinians with a check for sixty years’ rent. Would the Arabs suddenly stop competing among themselves, and would America and the Arab world suddenly fall in love with each other?”

Yet the pull of the illusion is so powerful that even those who don’t profess to believe in it, like George W. Bush, eventually get sucked in. Barack Obama came into office ready to deploy his charm and fulfill the millennial promise of the peace process once and for all. He couldn’t even get the Palestinians to sit down to negotiate with the Israelis, in an unintended “reset” to the situation decades ago.

According to the illusion, the region should have exploded in rage at Jewish perfidy and American ineffectualness. It exploded for altogether different reasons. We witnessed revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt without a hint of upset at the Israeli settlements or America’s continued failure as a broker of peace. We’ve seen the Arab League petition the United States — whose sole function is supposed to be monitoring Israeli housing developments and paving the way for a Palestinian state — to undertake a military operation against another (recently suspended) member of the Arab League, Libya.

It’d be easier if the key to the Middle East really were sitting around a negotiating table with a couple of bottles of Evian, poring over a map adjudicating a dispute so familiar that people have built diplomatic, academic, and journalistic careers on it. The current terrain of the Middle East as it exists — not as we assume it should be — is hellishly disorienting by comparison: What to do when an ally invades another ally to knock around protesters in violation of our values? When a tin-pot dictator thumbs his nose at us and the rest of West and crushes his opponents with alacrity despite our earnest protestations? When popular uprisings threaten our allies more than our enemies?

It makes the old peace process seem alluringly comfortable and manageable. No, the illusion will never die.

— Rich Lowry is editor of
National Review. He can be reached via e-mail, [email protected]. © 2010 by King Features Syndicate.



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