British Prime Minister Tony Blair has shown both political courage and statesmanship by committing British troops to the deeply unpopular war in Iraq. He has consistently done a far better job of articulating the reasons for allied military action and a continued presence in Iraq than his American counterpart.
Nevertheless, it must be said that Blair has of late been speaking a great deal of rubbish about the Arab-Israel conflict, and dangerous rubbish at that. In his message of congratulations to President Bush, Blair reiterated his oft-made claim that "the need to revitalize the Middle East peace process is the single most pressing political challenge in our world today." And he has pledged to make "kick-starting" that process his government’s most important foreign policy priority. Meanwhile senior British government sources not only claim that resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict is the key to stopping terrorism, but that the conditions for a Middle East settlement are in place.
None of these propositions will bear a moment’s scrutiny. The Arab-Israeli conflict does not rank near the top of the world’s most important concerns, unless the measure of importance is the amount of time the U.N. devotes to debating and passing condemnations of Israel. Nuclear weapons in the hands of the Iranian mullahs and/or the North Koreans are far more pressing challenges, for the simple reason that they could trigger a nuclear holocaust. Death-seeking Islamists are danger enough; death-seeking Islamists with nuclear weapons and a long enemies list are too horrible to contemplate.
Islamic terrorism also poses far greater danger to the world. A few successful terror attacks on the scale of Madrid could plunge the world into depression and turn Western countries into national security states.
Nor can a credible claim be made that Islamic terrorism is an outgrowth of the Arab-Israeli conflict, with the exception of Palestinian terrorism, which, in any event, is of little concern to the world. In light of the Arab world’s complete failure to keep pace with the West, it is pointless to ask why Arabs hate the West. As the great Orientalist Bernard Lewis notes, "It is very natural that they should. You have this millennial rivalry between two world religions, and now, from their point of view, the wrong one seems to be winning. Those who are rich, strong, and successful are always likely to be despised by those who are the opposite."
Israel’s existence cannot explain the complete failure of Arab nations to provide the vast majority of their citizens with either a modicum of freedom or material well-being, despite being blessed with the world’s most valuable natural resources. The 2002 Arab Human Development Report (AHDR), produced by a group of Arab intellectuals under the auspices of the U.N., identified three areas of deficit that characterize the Arab world: knowledge, democracy, and the status of women.
Arab states rank lowest on the freedom scale of the world’s seven regions. Arab despots are so terrified of their subjects that they fear to grant them access to knowledge. Internet connectivity in the Arab world ranks behind that of sub-Saharan Africa. The entire Arab world translates 300 books annually. Greece alone translates five times as many.
Arab expenditures on research and development as a percentage of gross national product are one-seventh of the world average. From 1980-2000, Arab countries registered 370 patents; Israel with less than one-fortieth the population registered 7,652. Any Arab who does manage to acquire a decent education quickly flees for the freedoms of the West, creating a massive brain drain. The result: the total GNP of 22 Arab nations, with a combined population of 280 million, is less than that of Spain, with a population of 40 million.
At most, Israel provides Arab regimes with a means to divert their populations’ attention from their own chronic failures. But if Israel ceased to exist, the failures of the Arab world would not be reduced one bit. Neither would the hatred that has turned the Arab world into a breeding ground for terrorists abate.
Even in the context of the broader Middle East, the Arab-Israeli conflict is only one small aspect, and has had nothing to do with the majority of mayhem and slaughter in the region. Israel had nothing to do with Saddam Hussein’s decision to invade Iran, at the cost of more than a million lives on both sides, or with his decision more than a decade later to invade Kuwait. Similarly, Israel did not cause the brutal decade-long civil war in Algeria, or the civil war that has cost hundreds of thousands their lives in Sudan. Israel did not provoke Hafez al Assad to wipe out 25,000 of his own citizens as Homa. The mutual loathing of Sunni and Shiite Moslems, chillingly on display in Iraq, precedes the creation of the state of Israel by 1200 years.
The myth that all the problems of the Middle East run through Jerusalem has diverted attention from far more pressing problems. After the suicide attack on the USS Cole in 2000, for instance, the Clinton administration refrained from responding forcefully against Al Qaeda for fear of rousing the mythical Arab street during the most intense period of Palestinian-Israel peacemaking. From that lack of response and many more like it, Osama bin Laden concluded that America was a paper tiger. Meanwhile the peacemaking efforts resulted only in triggering a four year war.
In addition to greatly overstating the global significance of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Prime Minister Blair deludes himself as to the chances of securing a peaceful resolution to the conflict within the foreseeable future. With respect to the Palestinian problem, he is, unfortunately, at one with the other pillars of Old Europe. In the current European view, all problems are capable of resolution by rational bureaucrats sitting around a table, given just a dash of good will. And those bureaucrats have taken out their maps and determined that the "fair" solution lies with a territorial division along the 1949 armistice lines.
All that is left is to move the process towards the predetermined end – a Palestinian state in all the territory seized by Israel in 1967. That is why Old Europe – Blair included – were rooting for a Kerry triumph: American pressure is needed in order to force Israel back into an Oslo-like process of Israeli territorial concessions in return for stale Palestinian promises already broken repeatedly.
The so-called "peace process" never had much to do with peace, but only with the achievement of a Palestinian state. It is questionable whether the Palestinians themselves really seek a state, as opposed to removing the Jews from theirs. But what is uncontestable is that the vast majority of Israelis crave peace. The only difference is that today, as opposed to twelve years ago, they are much wiser about the conditions for obtaining that peace.
President Bush has largely adopted the Israeli position about the inverse relationship between "peacemaking" and peace. In his view, peace, not the creation of a Palestinian state, is the ultimate goal. A Palestinian state is but one aspect of the hoped for peaceful resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict, not the goal itself. And the Palestinians must earn the right to a state by demonstrating the desire and capability of living in peace.
For peace to be achieved certain pre-conditions must exist. First and foremost, the Palestinians must accept the existence of a Jewish state. As Yossi Klein Halevi puts it in the current New Republic, "The Oslo process failed because Palestinian society denies the legitimacy of a Jewish state in any borders. Israel’s Oslo architects believed legitimacy would result from peace; now, Israelis realize that legitimacy is a precondition for peace."
Acceptance of Israel’s legitimacy implies the renunciation of terror and the uprooting of the terrorist infrastructure. It also requires that the Palestinian media and textbooks stop teaching Palestinian children that all of present-day Israel will ultimately belong to them. And it requires the painful acknowledgement that there can be no Israeli recognition of a Palestinian "right of return," for such recognition would spell the end of the Jewish state.
After more than a decade in which an entire generation of Palestinian youth have been taught that their highest aspiration is to be a shahid giving up one’s own life to kill as many Jews as possible, the conditions for peace between Palestinians and Jews have never seemed further away. To pretend otherwise is not only naïve, it is lethal. No sane person should seek to restart a process that conditioned Palestinians to believe that violence would always be rewarded and which led directly to the killing of more than 1,000 Jews over the past four years.
One need not doubt Mr. Blair’s good intentions towards Israel. But in politics good intentions are seldom enough. What is needed is a clear-eyed recognition that conferences and peace talks in the absence of the basic conditions for peace can only render the desired peace harder to attain.