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Drowning in Solutions

Written by Barry Rubin

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June 9, 2008
Barry Rubin 

Suppose that debate over the world's most obsessive issue is based on nonsense. Consider if the policy options of governments, discourse of universities, and rivers of word in the media on this matter are clearly illogical. What if thousands of diplomats, journalists, and professors are racing down the wrong path and billions of dollars are being tossed away in a futile pursuit?

To make matters worse, if all that time, attention, energy, and resources is being devoted to the wrong things, they cannot be used to solve real, pressing problems that might be better handled.

That's a pretty horrendous scenario, right? But that is basically the situation we face regarding the absurd belief that the Arab-Israeli, or more immediately, the Israeli-Palestinian, conflict can be resolved at this time.
So let me say it again: despite the mountains of speeches, conferences, articles, committees, foundation grants, projects, currencies of every description, and policies expended on it, there is no solution in sight for the conflict. It will continue for decades, Hamas is not about to become moderate, even Fatah and the Palestinian Authority (PA), which few reporters can even mention without inserting the word moderate before their names, isn't anywhere near moderate enough to make peace.

If you examine in detail the composition of the PA or Fatah, the nature of its leadership, the articles in its newspapers or the talking heads in its television shows, the slogans at its rallies, the contents of its textbooks, the themes of its officially appointed clerics sermons, and so on, the combined inability and unwillingness to make peace could not possibly be more obvious.

Yet, no, it is not obvious at all, I guess. For some it isn't obvious because they know nothing about the region, its history or politics. For others they simply don't want to pay attention because their goal of peace is too precious to have to take facts into account.

In fact, they have no shortage of explanations why they are repeatedly proven wrong and no lack of solutions--a long list of things that are not going to happen. That list includes: believing in Hamas moderation; negotiating with Hamas; asking Jordan to step in to govern the West Bank; Egypt talking sense to the Palestinian leadership; extending Gaza into Sinai; back-channel dialogues (I've been to those, the Israelis apologize and the Palestinians blame Israel for everything); person-to-person contacts; making an agreement to sit on a shelf until there is an agreement; making an agreement in principal until there's an agreement; a one-state solution; a two-state solution; a three-state solution; changing the shape of the table; giving more concessions (Israel, that is, funny how you never hear about the Palestinians making concessions); economic development; and so on ad infinitum.

The real point is that Hamas (along with Iran, Syria, and Hizballah) doesn't want a solution (except one through total victory after decades of Islamic revolutionary warfare) and the Fatah/PA side is incompetent, disorganized, and still too radical to accept one. Fatah and the PA prefer a deal with Hamas, not Israel. They are fostering an ethos which basically says, Blessed is the suicide bomber for he is a national hero. Their alternative solution is still the destruction of Israel, though many people in various Arab states know that is a disaster not for Israel but for the Arabs.

Yet the idea of finding the solution and a speedy one at that--the opiate of the policymakers? holy grail? philosopher's stone?--negates both all of our previous experience plus any sensible analysis of the current situation.

Why is this? Ignorance is an important factor, as is arrogance (I will make peace!), and opportunism (there's a lot of money, fame, and career advancement in the peace industry!). There is also a baffled rationalism--why wouldn't the Palestinian or Arab leaders make peace when it is so much in their interests? (Answer: they don't think it to be in their interests, as well as believing it to be unnecessary and immoral.) Finally, there are just plain old good intentions, which have killed almost as many people in history as bad intentions.

It would be better to devote ourselves--and governments, their time--to real issues and policy alternatives. But the starting point must be based on one simple admission: There is no solution in sight and no gimmick that will bring such an outcome. Let's begin the discussion there.

Don't worry! There's plenty to talk about and even more to do: the politics of Fatah/PA; will Hamas destroy them and how to prevent it; how can Lebanon be kept from being a state dominated by Hizballah-Iran-Syria; the best strategy in Iraq; stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons; defeating Tehran's ambitions; promoting a positive stability in Jordan and Egypt; keeping Islamism from destroying what's left of the region; reducing terrorism; and you can add another twenty issues to that.  Why, people could even figure out how they should support Israel, which has to deal with constant attack attempts by those who refuse peace and embrace--at least when they aren't being interviewed in English by the Western media--extremism and violence.

But as long as we spend a disproportionate amount of our time pretending there's some imminent Arab-Israeli solution (or attending to the ridiculous notion that the failure is Israel's fault), we won't give enough attention to the real threats, issues, and options.

And, yes, that's one of the reasons why the Middle East is often such a mess, the Western attempt to deal with the region is usually such a shambles, and the effort to understand the area is generally such a disaster.
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Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal(MERIA). His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East

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