Tuesday, December 09, 2003

Can the Arab world get over its Palestinian complex?

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The following article was written by Michael Young, Opinion Editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut, and was published there. It is reprinted here with permission and thanks.

It is odd that Geneva counted among its admirers the Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges, an inveterate reader of Kipling, Lovecraft and Swift. That this consumer of adventure should have developed a fondness for that grand anesthetic among cities merely illustrates just how paradoxical, too, seemed the effort of Palestinians and Israelis on Monday to disarm the high passion of their struggle on the sedate shores of Lake Leman.
The Geneva Initiative will continue to arouse interest, even as Israelis and Palestinians sink further into obstinate conflict. However, what the unofficial plan has done is highlight a deeper Middle Eastern pathology: For all its centrality to the Arab experience during the past half-century; for all the legitimate grievances it has aroused, the Palestinian national struggle has figuratively rendered the Arab world impotent. In their devotion to their Palestinian brethren, the Arabs have catastrophically impeded much-needed progress in other domains, so that deliverance may require transcending this Palestinian neurosis.
Nowhere was this better illustrated recently than in the reaction of many Arabs to US President George W. Bush’s speech before the National Endowment for Democracy. Bush stated that the United States had for too long backed autocratic regimes in the Middle East, and defined a vision for the future where such habits would, presumably, be abandoned. Skepticism is reasonable when politicians make promises, and Bush merits his share. However, what mainly greeted the speech in the Arab world was resentment, as if it were preferable to disown the American president than to make him practice what he preached.
The main justification for the ambient derision was the fate of the Palestinians. “How can Bush be sincere on democracy,” went the standard template of reaction, “when he continues to sanction Israeli abuse of the Palestinians?” The question was, and is, a fair one. But those asking it miss a fundamental point that has also eluded them in Iraq: It is far more profitable for America’s Arab critics to demand that the Bush administration fulfill its pledges, and use this as leverage to bring about Palestinian (and Iraqi) self-determination and democracy, than to fall back on futile and perennial doubt.
The Palestinian problem has also allowed countless Arab regimes to validate despotism and the over-militarization of their societies. While some might argue that this is natural when facing the reality, or possibility, of direct Israeli attack, the explanation is insufficient. For one thing, representative governments are even more adept than dictatorships at defending themselves; for another, open-ended autocracy has usually been implicitly justified, and accepted by Arab citizens, not because of an imminent threat from Israel, but because the Palestinian problem has yet to be resolved.
In so many words, the conveniently open wound of the Palestinian tragedy has allowed Arab regimes to exploit the ensuing outrage felt by their peoples, and to transform this into tolerance for authoritarian, security-obsessed systems perceived as necessary to fight (without ever fighting) a militarily superior Israel.
Specific states have also paid a heavy price for the sanctity of the Palestinian struggle ­ none more so than Lebanon. In fact, the country has had to cough up on two occasions: first, when the Lebanese were denied a chance to defend their sovereignty against the Palestinian national movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s, since the Arab world saw this as an affront to the holy cause; and second, today, because the region’s fixation on the Palestinians has taken the spotlight away from an issue that anywhere else would have provoked profound concern: Syria’s indefinite military presence in Lebanon.
So, Lebanon’s civil war began because the Arabs were too enraptured by Palestinian militancy to see the destructive impact this was having on the country’s society; and today the Lebanese are told that a Syrian departure must await a resolution of the Arab-Israeli, or, more specifically, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
The Palestinians themselves have fallen victim to the inviolability of their cause. Witness the reaction to the Geneva Initiative, as Palestinians have assailed the plan on the grounds that it sells the refugees down the river. Ultimately, any plan, to be endorsed by both Israelis and Palestinians, will have to at least partly do just that, and the Palestinian leadership knows this. Yet it has opted for vagueness, peddling the story that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat rejected a deal at Camp David because the refugees would have been wronged. This has only raised expectations among refugees that they will someday return to Haifa and Jaffa ­ expectations that will doubtless be dashed for a majority of them.
That the Israelis and Palestinians should be reduced to negotiating virtual agreements would seem as good a sign as any that it is time for the Arab world to get on with its other priorities ­ democratization, a new, mutually-beneficial rapport with the United States, economic development, reasonable demilitarization, not to mention ending the glaring anomaly of Syria’s presence in Lebanon. The invitation is not to abandon the Palestinians, nor is this morally reasonable; it is to encourage Arabs to cease contemplating their region solely through a lens dating back to 1948.