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Tuesday, March 03, 2009

What the other side means

In a JPost op-ed, Michael Bar Zohar - a biographer of David Ben Gurion and Shimon Peres and a former Knesset member from Labor's predecessor party (i.e. someone with Leftist credentials) - warns Israelis that we have to be careful to consider how our actions will be viewed by the other side, and not assume that they will view them the same way as we do.
In 1997 the Four Mothers organization was founded. Its goal was the full pullout of the IDF from south Lebanon. Every year, Four Mothers said, we are losing 25 to 30 soldiers in the battle with Hizbullah. Isn't it a pity to sacrifice these young lives? Let's pull out of Lebanon, and the Lebanese will leave us in peace. The Four Mothers won and in 2000 prime minister Ehud Barak evacuated every single inch of Lebanese territory.

But the result was the opposite. Nobody in the Arab world believed that Israel had pulled out of Lebanon because of its concern for 25 casualties a year. The retreat was perceived in the Arab world as a victory by Hizbullah over the IDF, and the logical conclusion of Hizbullah and other extremist organizations was that they should continue fighting till Israel's final defeat. The late Faisal Husseini, a respected Palestinian leader, once told me openly: "Michael, if you don't agree to our demands [about Jerusalem], we'll talk to you in Lebanese." Even the sophisticated Husseini thought that the Hizbullah formula was the one that brought results.

The same misconception guided prime minister Ariel Sharon when he carried out the unilateral disengagement from Gaza in 2005. He was right in pulling out the settlers who shouldn't have been there in the first place. But Sharon also believed that the military pullout from the entire Gaza Strip would convince the Gazans of our goodwill. Their perception, though, was different. "Israel retreated because it was defeated by us," a Hamas spokesman said, "therefore let's intensify our battle, and we'll destroy the Zionist entity."

The United States made a similar mistake when in 2006 it insisted on carrying out free elections in the West Bank and Gaza. Washington, intoxicated with the mantra of free elections, failed to understand that Western democracy does not always work in Arab lands. The American experts wouldn't listen to the warnings of their Israeli colleagues who predicted a sweeping victory of the Hamas extremists. That was what finally happened.


We have to understand that the Middle Eastern nations don't think the same way as the Western nations do. They have their own logic, and their perception of events is different from ours. Words and promises and commitments don't have the same meaning to them as they have for us. This is not a judgment, but a statement of fact. Therefore, we should make an effort to understand their way of thinking and of reacting to our moves before we engage in negotiations with them.

But as long as we keep trying to project our way of thinking on millions of Muslims, or analyze their words and deeds with Western logic, we'll not achieve any progress in our relations with them.
Read the whole thing.

One of the problems with the 'peace process' is that its biggest supporters insist that the solution is 'obvious' and that no other way of looking at the situation is possible. They insist that the only possible outcome is 'two states for two peoples' with Israel occupying the same indefensible borders that it had from 1949-67. They fail to see that the other side may not look at things the same way.

And it's not just Israeli policymakers who have this form of tunnel vision. Consider what Hillary Clinton said yesterday at Sharm el-Sheikh:
"It is time to look ahead," she said, with an eye to the human aspects of what years of regional conflict have meant for the Palestinians and others.

"The United States is committed to a comprehensive peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and we will pursue it on many fronts," she said.

"We cannot afford more setbacks or delays - or regrets about what might have been, had different decisions been made," she added, in an apparent reference to the failure of previous peace initiatives, including those pushed vigorously by her husband Bill Clinton's administration.
Is a comprehensive peace possible? Is it a realistic goal to pursue? Recall that Elliot Abrams - a senior policymaker in the Bush administration proposed scaling back the goal. So have John Bolton, Daniel Pipes and Nathan Brown. And so, in an article in today's Yedioth Aharonoth (the Hebrew version of YNet, but as of now it's not online on the Hebrew site - let alone the English one) did Giora Eiland, the former chairman of Israel's National Security Council.

Eiland was interviewed this morning by Israel Radio and said that two states based on the 1967 borders is no longer possible because the most any Israeli government can give and hope to survive is far less than any 'Palestinian government' can accept and hope to survive. Eiland was talking about 'creative solutions' like confederations with Jordan, the 'United States of Palestine,' and other concepts that are probably pie in the sky. But the key is that he - like the others - sees the necessity of thinking out of the current box. What Ehud Barak offered in 2000, said Eiland, is no longer possible. Binyamin Netanyahu likely sees that much. Will Hillary Clinton? Will she understand that the 'Palestinians' will pocket every concession, view it as a victory, offer nothing in return, and not keep any agreement they make?


At 2:43 PM, Blogger NormanF said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 2:45 PM, Blogger NormanF said...

Arab psychology is different from that of Jews and that's why negotiations go nowhere. The styles, the expectations and the vision each side brings to the table are very different. That's why there's no meeting of the minds on issues of principle. And because of this, Israel pays the price in not understanding the Arabs in their own terms. In Islam, one can live with the infidel as long as he is subdued and in an inferior position. There is no accepting the infidel as one's moral and political equal. The Arabs oppose Israel less because its a Jewish State than that its an infidel state that has inverted traditional Islamic understandings about the place of Muslims and infidels in the human order. That is why Hamas will never accept Israel. Any one in Israel and the West who thinks these are just bargaining points to be traded later for other concessions doesn't seriously appreciate the Muslim mind. For the other side, its a statement of principle.

Hopenchange, anyone? That's looks a long way off.

At 3:36 PM, Blogger NormanF said...

There's a cultural provincialism, a kind of tunnel vision that leads Westerners to assume that because other people drink Coca Cola, wear Levis and speak English, that they think the same way they do. Its an assumption founded on the belief the Western system is the best one for every one. And not every one else necessarily shares that view. Israeli Jews have long assumed that given progress and modernity, the Arabs would come around to the Israeli way of thinking. Not only has that not happened, the opposite has occurred.

Michael Bar Zohar is right that there's not going to be any progress towards peace in the Middle East. I'm not even sure, given that the Palestinians killed the peace process, that any other solutions will make them accept Israel as a part of the region, Its not that long ago that the Crusaders inhabited the Levant and they survived there less than two centuries. Carl and I have no way of knowing if Israel's fate is going to be any different than that of the Crusaders. My point goes further and that is the other side looks at things in terms of a long sweep of history, what the French historical school called the longue duree and Westerners and Israeli Jews largely think in the terms of the present - the here and now.

Jews need to be prepared for the fact that peace with the Arabs may never happen and they have to adjust themselves to lives under such circumstances and have the fortitude to just endure. If they keep deluding themselves with the false hope that they can be a truly "normal" people, they will perish quickly from the region. History is not kind to those unwilling to face things as they are rather than what one wishes they could be.

It is wonderful to hope for peace and its the noblest aspiration of the human heart but reality has a way of thwarting and frustrating it. The Middle East is a place where pious hopes of a "comprehensive peace" die aborning because the Arabs refuse to accept Israel has a legitimate place amongst them. In other words, Jews may long for peace but the other side wants a world without Israel in it and with such profoundly different conceptions of tomorrow, there is no common ground to bring the two sides together and the only way the Arab-Jewish conflict ever gets brought to end is if one side is finally vanquished.

Diplomacy then can't bring about a change in Arab views towards Israel but it can help to manage the conflict and that is about the best that can be arranged for the foreseeable future because for the various reasons just stated, peace is not in the cards. Its not Utopian, its not going to win any one Nobel Peace Prizes but its going to help Israel survive in a part of the world in which the "end of history" is nowhere to be seen on the horizon.

At 7:36 PM, Blogger LB said...

Israel has placed itself on the in an impossible situation within an East-West dichotomy.

On the one hand, we're European, wonderfully enlightened, progressive, liberal and western.

When it comes to food, culture, language, history, origins - then of course we're Middle Eastern.

The problem is, that if we want our neighbors to take us seriously (aka if we want to stick around) - we need to act like we're Middle Eastern - not talk about peace and parallel narratives, and all of that. We need to talk and act from a position of power. In other words - whatever Israeli policy is - it needs to be enacted powerfully. Not in order to proceed towards negotiations, but actually SAY "This is what we're doing. We don't care what you think. If you shoot us - we will kill you. If you want to do business - we're not calling you. Get in line."

Israel has the potential to be a regional superpower - but superpower is not something the Europeans would like. Oy vey.

Also, I read somewhere (don't remember now), that colloquially, when the word 'peace' is used in Arabic, it implies 'justice.' Our neighbors, however, that our existence is unjust, that for justice to occur we need to disappear (not to mention that our Muslim neighbors think that only Islam is justice). My Arabic is not good enough to delve this deeply, but if this is accurate then yes, they want their version of peace - just not with us.


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