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 suppose.
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 Department.
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 TVs 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 medical personnel.
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.
– Victor Davis Hanson is 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.