Written by Barry Rubin
A former senior Canadian diplomat, Robert Fowler, made the main foreign policy speech to the Liberal Party convention there. He voiced the most common myth about the contemporary Middle East. In fact, it is a myth now returning to favor in the United States after many years in the shadows. (The last thing that killed it was the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait which indicated there were a few other problems in the region.)
Regarding Fowler, let me quote from the Ottawa Citizen editorial about the speech:
"Fowler singled out Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East, as the primary source of instability in the region. Meanwhile, a country like Iran -- a totalitarian theocracy bent on obtaining nuclear weapons, which it has already threatened to use -- didn't get a mention. Is that Fowler's idea of an "even-handed" approach to the Middle East?
"By externalizing blame for Arab-Muslim dysfunction--pinning it on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and on Israeli intransigence in particular-- Fowler is playing into the hands of all the Muslim dictators, autocrats and mullahs who use the "Zionist" threat to win popular legitimacy and to justify their refusal to embrace modernization, democratization and economic reform.
"As eminent Middle East scholar Barry Rubin has put it, attributing the Arab world's problems, including the rise of Islamic extremism, to Israel serves only to prevent "the kind of reappraisal necessary to fix the internal factors at the root of the problems and catastrophes" that have crippled virtually every single Arab country."
By the way, Fowler also blamed the expansion of Islamism into sub-Saharan Africa on Israel and dropped dark hints that Canadian foreign policy was currently so pro-Israel because Canadian Jews--who Fowler implies are somehow interlopers in any position of authority in the country--have too much power in the government. Funny how nobody would dare talk about any other religious, racial, or national-origin group that way. Indeed, if the name of any other such community were substituted in a similar speech, the speaker's career would be over.
Returning to the quote above, I admit I liked the "eminent." But the editorial makes the point well. The Arab-Israeli conflict is far less important to the region than it was in the past, it is one of many issues, and it is used as an excuse by regimes who want to change the subject and by Islamist revolutionaries who want to manipulate it to help them seize state power.
Again, though, it is only one of many issues and a rather minor source of instability. Let me try to explain it this way. In the United States, for example, health care, abortion, and the economy are very hot issues that stir passions.
First, though, they are so hot and passionate because they relate to daily problems that come very close to people's lives. It's the equivalent of the famous Carter campaign slogan: "It's the economy, stupid." In the Arabic-speaking world, the hottest issues are those that also affect people's daily existence. These are also the main issues that revolutionary Islamists try to use as the centerpiece of their campaign to overthrow the regimes.
Yes! "Even" Arabs have issues like jobs, housing, standard of living, freedom, whether they are satisfied with their society (which is one place religion comes in as very important).
Second, to attribute to any one issue such an overwhelming importance is silly. There are in the Arabic-speaking world, too, the equivalents of "single-issue voters" but they focus on a variety of single issues.
Third, but if there is a single most important issue it is this: should an ethnic (Arab or local) nationalism or Islam be the prime factor in governance and the organization of society? That didn't exist as an issue from the 1950s through the 1980s, a time when the conflict with Israel was closer to center-stage (but still didn't fill the whole stage).
I would say that an issue that has led to massive terrorism from Morocco through Iraq, a bloody civil war in Algeria, a serious civil war in Egypt, a civil war among Palestinians, a bloody civil war and continued strife in Lebanon, and a bloody civil war in Iraq, a revolution in (non-Arab) Iran, and an Iran-Iraq war with about one million casualties-and that's not the whole list-is a bigger cause of instability in the region.
Imagine that the Arabic-speaking world is faced with an onslaught from a soon-to-be-nuclear Iran, insurgents in Iraq, Hizballah in Lebanon, Muslim Brotherhood groups, and even Hamas among the Palestinians, but people are really mainly worried about Israel? This is irrational. And even leaving a margin for religious and nationalist passions plus manipulation by regimes and Islamists, the gap between socio-economic and nationalist-versus-Islamist issues on the one hand and Israel on the other is still huge.
Why do people in the West still keep accepting this myth? Well, for one thing, it is a propaganda line and it is what they hear from the Arab elite members that the Western elite talks with:
If only the Palestine issue were settled we'd have....stability, freedom, pro-Western sentiments, and a chicken in every pot, a car in every garage, and so on.
But this is a rationale for the regime's policies and failures as well as for not doing things the West wants. The point is that after about a half-century, those who have been paying attention should see through this con-game.
Finally, the strongest argument that can be made for this view is that a settlement of the conflict would undercut the support for revolutionary Islamism. This makes sense if you don't know much but it's still flat wrong. Here's why briefly:
--The compromises necessary to make a peace agreement would open the Palestinian Authority and others to claims that they are traitors, spurring on Islamist activity and enlarging their base of support. The issue of peace is being used by the Muslim Brotherhoods in Egypt and Jordan as effectively as they used the conflict when it was still in a state of war for their countries.
--Consequently, the remaining regimes-notably Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon in particular-don't want to make peace, while the Palestinian Authority is in the same situation. Jordan and Egypt keep the peace as limited as possible. All of these places not only face Islamist enemies but hardliners within their own establishment who would seize on any sign of peacemaking as treason. Moreover, why should the regimes give up the great propaganda opportunities offered by the continued conflict, especially since they don't hve to fight any wars or even spend any money.
--The Islamists would then merely launch the second stage of the campaign for the elimination of Israel. A "peace agreement" would not be the dawn of permanent peace but merely initiate a new stage of conflict.
So the idea that all the region's problems spring from Israel's policies (or even Israel's existence) is simply bogus. It is easy to show that this is so, which is why those who maintain that fiction never even engage with the arguments to the contrary discussed here.
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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 (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.