I've never counted myself a Middle East aficionado. In a kind of journalistic triage, my own avocation has been the middle group of countries--Turkey and especially Mexico--where I might be able to advance understanding and do a bit to promote progress. The Middle East fell among the hopeless cases.
I've been musing about the Arabs and Israelis, though, since joining the chat with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that Seth Lipsky wrote up in The Wall Street Journal. We are clearly at some kind of turning point, with Mr. Sharon replacing Ehud Barak, George Bush replacing Bill Clinton, Yasser Arafat presiding over another intifada and the Arab League holding a landmark summit meeting in Jordan. If the moment looks no less hopeless, at least it promises to be clarifying.
In particular, the "land for peace" formula, the heart of Middle Eastern diplomacy for a decade or more, has been reduced to a heap of shards. Mr. Barak offered previously unimaginable concessions at the Camp David summit last July, but Mr. Arafat spurned them and instead chartered a new round of violence. (His information minister keeps having to retract statements that the new intifada was preplanned and had next to nothing to do with Mr. Sharon's Temple Mount excursion.) As a new formula Mr. Sharon offers the thought that Jews and Arabs first need to learn to live together as neighbors and after that have a peace treaty.
In truth, "land for peace" was a pretty feckless notion from the first. An ingenious combination of concessions is seldom a key to anything. In this case, Israel is not about to abandon the fruits of a 120-year old Zionist enterprise. And despite his repeated promises, Mr. Arafat has not effectively renounced his ambition to occupy Israel, and never will.
Indeed, never could. "Do you want to attend my funeral? I will not relinquish Jerusalem and the holy places," Mr. Arafat told Mr. Clinton, according to the Palestinian rapporteur at Camp David. "Jerusalem is not a Palestinian city only; it is an Arab, Islamic and Christian one. If I am going to take a decision on Jerusalem, I have to consult with the Sunnis and the Shiites and all Arab countries."
That is to say, the grievance here is much more than a dispute over land. Ultimately, too, it is also about much more than Israel. It's fed by Muslim resentment at being displaced in history by the West, currently embodied in the United States. Scholars such as Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami keep reminding us that to understand the contemporary Islamic mind, you have to remember that at one time Islam was the center of civilization and Europe a barbaric backwater. It is bad enough that Israel is a Jewish state, but even worse that it is an outpost of the West, powerful with industrialization and subversive with democracy.
This is why the Arab world has gone to such lengths to preserve the Palestinian grievance. In 1948, around 650,000 Palestinian refugees were resettled in camps; in many Arab nations they were legally banned from certain lines of employment. About the same number of Jews fled the Arab lands for Israel, where they were incorporated into society. Today, some four million Palestinians claim refugee status. And of course, Arab nations went to war to destroy Israel not only in 1948 but in 1967 and 1973.
Despite invocation of the Arab "street," it's not clear that the ordinary Palestinian or Arab puts this historic grievance above his personal well-being. All of the Arab nations are either traditional kingdoms or modern dictatorships. The interests of ordinary people are quite secondary, as when youths are indoctrinated to throw rocks at Israeli paratroopers. Objectively, the material interests of the Palestinian people lie in cooperation with Israel, indeed in evolving into an industrial democracy. But the myths of Arab history serve to entrench Mr. Arafat and strongmen from one end of the Middle East to the other.
For American policy, the lesson is that peace depends not on negotiation but on the reality of power. "The land-for-peace" formula asked Arabs to accept Israel not as a matter of realpolitik, but as morally legitimate. As former CIA agent Reuel Marc Gerecht wrote in the New York Times last October: "We have in essence been demanding that they in broad daylight forsake their history and their faith as they have come to understand them." By contrast, "If the United States had moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem at the end of the Gulf War, we would have sent a crystal-clear signal to both our enemies and our friends that America's writ and Israel's legitimacy are non-negotiable and indomitable."
Instead, the frenetic compromises of Prime Minister Barak and President Clinton have projected an image of weakness. So today, with Egypt receiving $2 billion a year in U.S. aid, a columnist for a government-sponsored newspaper there writes that Secretary of State Colin Powell has "the brain of a bird." An editorial in another Egyptian newspaper reads, "Don't be misled by your false power, because among us there are people who are not afraid of death. These are the same people who forced you to withdraw humiliated from South Lebanon, from Vietnam, from Somalia and from the Sinai."
The Vietnam-Lebanon-Somalia line was "a litany I encountered everywhere," Princeton's Prof. Lewis reports of a recent visit to the region. This is a "dangerous misreading of Israel and the U.S." Dictators have trouble understanding democratic politics, have convinced themselves that casualties will force withdrawal, and see concessions as weakness. "Their religion doesn't teach them to turn the other cheek."
The political understandings above are why The Wall Street Journal has long supported the Israelis. In 1981 one and all condemned them for bombing Saddam Hussein's atom-bomb plant, the Osirak nuclear reactor. We wrote: "We all ought to get together and send the Israelis a vote of thanks." Especially on behalf of the GIs, then in grade school, who met Saddam in 1990.
The Bush administration has begun to assert self-respect, with the president rhetorically calling Mr. Arafat to account and with the veto of U.N. observers to succor the Palestinians. But before the image of weakness fades, more Palestinian youths and Israeli babies are likely to die.
Mr. Bartley is editor of The Wall Street Journal. His column appears Mondays in the Journal and on OpinionJournal.com.
©2001 - The Wall Street Journal.