Bush Cannot Succeed in the Holy Land

By July 23, 2007

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 32

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: US President George Bush’s new plan for Middle East peace is inadequate. The plan rests on several faulty assumptions including the belief that outside influences can change Palestinian society, economic assistance will alleviate political problems, Abu Mazen is the leader to bring about change, the Palestinians will be “good” neighbors towards Israel, and Fatah can bring Hamas back under its control. However, the realities of Palestinian society reflect a different picture.  Israel’s best bet is to wait for a better opportunity to attain stability.

Introduction

On July 16, US President George W. Bush announced yet another plan to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The plan includes convening an international gathering of moderate states, to be chaired by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Bush’s initiative calls for additional diplomatic and financial support for Abu-Mazen and suggests an oversight mechanism in the West Bank, to be led by the special envoy of the Quartet, Tony Blair. In this capacity, Blair’s main goal is the creation of a democratic Palestinian state, free of corruption and militias. The Americans assume that this course of action will weaken the appeal of radical Hamas in Gaza, which will fall into Abu-Mazen’s hands, and this in turn will lead to the realization of the two-state paradigm.

Underlying Fallacies

Unfortunately, the American recipe, as well as the typical West European approach, rests on several widespread fallacies that make success unlikely.

The first fallacy is that “Palestinian society can be reformed by outsiders.” Middle Eastern societies have already proven their resistance to attempts by Western powers to change their old habits of doing business. It is naïve to believe that political and social dynamics rooted in centuries-old traditions can be easily manipulated by well-intentioned, but presumptuous Westerners. President Bush should have learned this lesson from his experience in Iraq.

Change among Palestinian and other Middle Eastern societies can only originate from within. If such a positive evolution were to take place, it would be implemented only by autocratic rule, rather than by exporting democracy. Moreover, American power to change the foreign policy of even small international actors must not be exaggerated. Hafez al Assad said no to President Clinton in Geneva (March 2000), and Yasser Arafat did the same at Camp David (July 2000).

The second fallacy is that “economic assistance to the Palestinians can alleviate political problems.” Since the Oslo Accords (September 1993), the Palestinian Authority (PA) has received the highest amount of economic aid per capita in the world. Yet, billions of euros transferred to the PA have been squandered and misused. The PA, like other Third World countries, was quite ingenious in siphoning parts of the aid to those members least in need of outside support.

Maimonides, the great Jewish scholar of the 11th century, established a clear hierarchy of philanthropic acts. In his view, the most valuable philanthropic deed involves aid directed at enabling the recipient to become economically independent. His insight is validated by the history of humanitarian aid in the last century, which shows that outside economic aid is only as good as the ability of a recipient’s economy and government to use it prudently and productively. Therefore, it is doubtful whether sending more money to the dysfunctional Palestinian economy, as President Bush proposes, will do any good.

The third fallacy is that “Abu Mazen can become the agent for change” and therefore he deserves the support of the West. Abu-Mazen’s record as leader is dismal. He failed to unite the security services under one organ as pledged and has not followed through with his anti-corruption election campaign promises. The chaos within the PA increased under his presidency. Additionally, the Hamas takeover of Gaza is another indication of his weakness. The American bet on Abu-Mazen is even more intriguing than past American support for Chiang Kai-shek or Batista. The Palestinians have suffered from bad leadership for almost a century, and are in need of a strong leader, such as Ataturk, to rescue them from the crisis they have brought upon themselves. Unfortunately, such a courageous and visionary leader does not appear to be in sight.

The fourth fallacy is that “Palestinian society can be quickly transformed into a good neighbor of Israel and that a stable settlement is within reach.” Since the Oslo Accords, the PA’s education system, media, and dramatic militarization process has done great damage to the collective Palestinian psyche. A society mesmerized by the use of force and accustomed to the shaheed (martyr) ready to blow himself up among the hated Israelis will not change overnight. Numerous facets of Palestinian society have been radicalized and the widespread influence and popularity of Hamas is a clear indication of such a process.

Foreigners underestimate the role of education in the maintenance of anti-Israel views among Arabs. Even countries that have signed peace treaties with Israel, such as Egypt and Jordan, have not changed the content of their educational messages concerning Israel. Moreover, people-to-people interactions, which could contribute to better understanding, are very limited. Therefore, in absence of a radically changed socialization system in the Arab countries, Israel will continue to be viewed as a foreign implant in the region. If national interests or power differentials dictate reluctant coexistence with Israel so may be it. But such accommodation is subject to change in accordance with fluctuating circumstances.

In contrast to Egypt and Jordan, where pragmatic politics led to agreements with Israel, Palestinian politics are not pragmatic and are increasingly radicalized by Hamas and a young militaristic generation. What they expect to get from Israel is totally unrealistic. The differences between Israel and the Palestinians are unbridgeable. After being subjected to a terror campaign beginning in 2000, Israelis are unlikely to take risks for an uncertain settlement. Palestinian demands for bringing refugees into Israel and for control over parts of old Jerusalem are not acceptable in today’s Israel. Moreover, Israel has already received American acquiescence for holding on to the large settlement blocs near the 1967 borders and will not give up the Jordan valley for strategic reasons.

The fifth fallacy is that “Hamas control of Gaza can be uprooted by intra-Palestinian politics.” While the Hamas takeover of Gaza is correctly identified by the US as a victory for the radical Islamic forces in the Middle East and inimical to Israeli-Palestinian rapprochement, a Fatah led by Abu Mazen cannot bring the Hamas back under the PA umbrella. The West Bank Palestinians are too weak to impose their will on Gaza and without territorial contiguity, as they have little leverage on Gazan politics.

Only Israeli military pressure and effective Egyptian cooperation in isolating the Hamas regime in Gaza can bring its fall. While Israeli military action is probable due to the continuous Qassam attacks on Israeli population, Egyptian participation in establishing a cordonne sanitaire around Gaza is less certain. So far, the Egyptians refrained from ostracizing Hamas and even strengthened their status versus the fledgling PA, despite the fact that the ascendance of Islamic elements seemed dangerous to the stability of the Mubarak regime. Only strong American pressure can force Cairo to play a more constructive role in Gaza, primarily by hermetically sealing the border to weapon and funds smuggling.

Conclusion

The Americans are not likely to attain their noble objectives and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will continue to simmer because the Palestinians cannot get their act together. Egypt and/or Jordan may decide to increase their involvement among the Palestinians in order to limit the repercussions of the Palestinian failed state. For Israel, containing terrorism and waiting patiently for better times is probably the best course of action.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Littauer Foundation

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Prof. Efraim Inbar
Prof. Efraim Inbar

Prof. Efraim Inbar is professor emeritus of political studies at Bar-Ilan University and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.