The Middle East for Expert Dummies
Jonathan S. Tobin
Nothing seems to be able to displace Fareed Zakaria from his current perch in which he is treated as one of the country’s leading foreign policy experts. In August, he survived a brush with what should have been professional disgrace when both CNN and Time magazine reinstated him following his suspension for blatantly plagiarizing an article in The New Yorker. His employers decided the star’s misdeed was “unintentional” and an “isolated” incident. So Zakaria continues on his merry way, promoting conventional wisdom about the world and calling it insight. But his latest column for the Washington Post undermines what little is left of his credibility. In a piece titled “Israel Dominates the Middle East,” Zakaria demonstrates again that being labeled an “expert” by the mainstream media has little to do with actual expertise.
The conceit of Zakaria’s piece is that recent events demonstrate again that Israel is the superpower of the Middle East. From there he jumps to the conclusion that because Israel has a prosperous economy and is strong enough to defend itself from dangerous foes who wish to destroy it, it therefore follows that all that is necessary for there to be peace in the region is for Israel to wish for it. That such a prominent member of the foreign policy establishment should espouse such magical thinking says a lot about what passes for expertise these days. But more than that, it shows that being an expert doesn’t require one to have even given a passing glance to the events of the last 20 years in the region.
Zakaria is, of course, right that Israel is stronger than any of the surrounding states. Though the population of Egypt, the largest Arab state, is almost 12 times that of Israel, its military is no match for that of the Jewish state, leading even the Muslim Brotherhood government in Cairo to be wary of formally abrogating the peace treaty between the two nations. Israel’s economy, the product of the country’s democratic system of government, is also unmatched in the region.
That means that although enemies can terrorize its population — as Hamas did last week as it forced millions of Israelis into bomb shelters — and carry on a propaganda campaign aimed at denying its legitimacy, nothing short of an existential nuclear threat such as the one that is being built in Iran can threaten its existence. But it does not follow from there that Israel’s strength can create peace merely by the Israelis demanding it.
Peace between the Palestinians and Israelis will come only when Israel decides that it wants to make peace. Wise Israeli politicians, from Ariel Sharon to Ehud Olmert to Ehud Barak, have wanted to take risks to make that peace because they have worried about Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state. This is what is in danger, not Israel’s existence.
The problem with that formulation begins with the characterization of Sharon, Olmert and Barak as “wise.” If there is anything the average Israeli has learned again in the last week, it is that those risk-takers have undermined their country’s security, not enhanced it.
As any political observer of the country knows, the overwhelming majority of Israelis would back any plan, including more territorial withdrawals, if they thought it would end the conflict. But every such initiative, beginning with the Oslo Accords and especially the withdrawal from Gaza that facilitated a Hamas takeover and the conversion of the area into a terrorist missile launching pad, has made peace less, not more, likely.
Parties that still back more concessions to the Palestinians have little support among Israelis not because they are right-wingers but because they have observed the events of the last two decades and understandably concluded that the other side doesn’t want peace. That’s why three Israeli offers of an independent state to the Palestinians in 2000, 2001 and 2008 were not accepted.
Israelis do want a two-state solution, but Palestinians have shown time and again that they are not willing to accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. The rise of Hamas and its Islamist supporters in Egypt and Turkey make this trend even more obvious. And there is nothing that Israel’s economic or military might can do to persuade them otherwise. That leaves Israel and its backers with an intractable problem that can only be managed, not solved.
But Zakaria hasn’t noticed any of it. Instead, he and other liberal “experts” continue to blame Israel for the fact that the Palestinians can’t take yes for an answer. Part of the reason for this is the delusion that someday the West will hand Israel over to them on a silver platter. Rather than writing about the need for a sea change in Palestinian political culture that will make peace possible, Zakaria blames the Israelis for paying attention to the history of the last 20 years. Too bad such a basic skill isn’t required to make a person a mainstream media foreign policy expert.