The perils of wishful thinking on the Middle East

The art of self-delusion

The art of self-delusion

As every sensible person knows, a problem cannot be solved or even tackled unless and until the problem itself is acknowledged.  Thus the Middle East crisis, in particular the war between the Arabs and the Israelis, lurches on endlessly.

Evelyn Gordon, writing in Commentary Magazine, addresses this issue from the standpoint of the US State Department and its attitude towards the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.  I’ll let her words speak for themselves:

What do the State Department​ and the Arab League have in common? Both believe in wishful thinking. But while the Arab League version is farce, the State Department version could well end in tragedy.

Last week, the Arab League asked Hamas leader Khaled Meshal​ to convince Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to stop slaughtering Syrian protesters. After all, an organization that kneecapped opponents and threw them off rooftops during its 2007 takeover of Gaza is the obvious choice to convince Assad to treat his own opponents more gently. Were it not already amply clear that League efforts to stop the violence in Syria are mere lip service, this might be tragic; as it is, one can only laugh.

But the State Department’s wishful thinking is far more troubling. Last Thursday, department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters that the Muslim Brotherhood​, which won Egypt’s recent elections, positively won’t abandon the peace treaty with Israel. How does she know? Because the group has given Washington private assurances to that effect – and private assurances in English are obviously far more reliable than Brotherhood leaders’ numerous public pledges in Arabic to scrap the treaty.

Earlier last week, for instance, the party’s deputy leader, Rashad Bayoumi, told the Arabic daily Al-Hayat that for a Muslim Brotherhood government to recognize Israel “is not an option, whatever the circumstances, we do not recognize Israel at all. It’s an occupying criminal enemy.”

Experience has repeatedly proven that what Arab leaders say in Arabic to their own people is a far better guide to their intentions than what they say in English to Westerners. Yasser Arafat​, for instance, repeatedly told Westerners he wanted peace with Israel even as he promised in Arabic to continue pursuing terror; only after the second intifada erupted in 2000 did Western leaders finally realize the Arabic statements were the truth.

The tragedy is that Washington does have leverage with Egypt, thanks to the $1.3 billion in annual aid it provides. But you can’t use leverage to try to head off a problem unless you acknowledge the problem exists.

An article on a parallel subject, this time on the danger of self-deception regarding the root causes of antisemitism, was written by Colin Rubinstein and appeared in Jewish Ideas Daily (h/t CifWatch).

The US Ambassador to Belgium, Howard Gutman, addressing a conference on antisemitism on November 30, controversially insisted that Muslim “hatred and indeed sometimes… violence directed at Jews generally [is] a result of the continuing tensions between Israel and the Palestinian territories” and should therefore not be seen as the same thing as “real” antisemitism. He went on to insist that a Mideast peace deal would see a “huge reduction of this form of labeled ‘antisemitism’.”

Aside from the immorality of, effectively, rationalising a form of racism as due to the alleged behaviour of its targets, Gutman’s comments were factually indefensible. There are clearly elements of strong, even eliminationist, antisemitism within the Muslim tradition predating Zionism by centuries.

A good example is the hadith [a saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammed] which was quoted by various figures associated with the Muslim Brotherhood at an election rally in Cairo on Nov. 26. It states: “The Hour [of judgement] will not come until the Muslims fight the Jews and kill them. When a Jew hides behind a rock or a tree, it will say, ‘O Muslim, O servant of Allah! There is a Jew behind me, come and kill him!’”

This hadith is among the most quoted passages about Jews in certain Islamic traditions. It is certainly part of the Hamas Charter and utilised by al-Qaeda as well as the Muslim Brotherhood.

It is true that, in medieval times, Jews in Muslim societies tended on the whole to be better off than in Christian Europe, but this is hardly to suggest that their human rights were fully respected. Further, Muslim antisemitism became more vicious and dangerous in the 19th and 20th centuries primarily due to the influence of modern European ideologies, including Nazism, which often came to be perceived through the lens of problematic anti-Jewish Islamic sources.

To imagine this ugly and pervasive amalgam of traditional regional and European antisemitism is all going to evaporate if Israel signs a peace deal with the Palestinians is fantasy. So why do people like Ambassador Gutman utter such fallacies?

Perhaps because it would make reality so much easier if it were true. The pervasiveness of Muslim and Arab antisemitism is a significant barrier to a lasting peace between Israel and its Arab neighbours. If we can fantasise that it will all disappear the minute a deal is signed, advocating a peace deal becomes so much more urgent, straightforward and uncomplicated compared to preparing a basis for peace by eradicating the inculcation of hatred and building an ethos of coexistence and compromise.

A similar phenomenon appears to be occurring today with respect to the increasing Islamist takeover of the Arab Spring democratisation movements, in Tunisia, in Libya and above all, Egypt.

So editorialists, commentators and columnists are rushing to reassure Western publics that the election of the Muslim Brotherhood and even more extreme Salafists in Egypt is nothing to worry about – they will be tolerant democrats respecting human rights, and keen to encourage peaceful coexistence. These states will be democratic Turkey, not theocratic, revolutionary Iran, we are assured.

These predictions are neither certain, nor, if true, that reassuring. The states in question – Egypt, Libya and Tunisia – have none of the recent democratic traditions that Turkey has developed over decades.

Authentic change and maintaining realistic hope for a better future are vital. But pinning hope on a refusal to face reality – on blinding oneself to the existence and prevalence of both antisemitism and totalitarian worldviews – amounts to self-delusion. Western policymakers cannot develop effective policies to encourage Middle East peace and much-needed democratisation across the region without understanding and confronting, unflinchingly, the real barriers to progress.

I recommend you read both articles and then forward them on to your local Congressmen, MPs, MKs and newspapers. Who knows? Perhaps someone with influence will start to rethink their stance.

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