Edition 22 Volume 2 - June 10, 2024

Inside looking out: why the Middle East is hard to understand

Why you don't understand Israel - by  Yossi Alpher

This support sometimes does more harm than good in terms of understanding Israel's behavior.

Dynamics of distrust - by  Rami Khouri

Most of the world other than the United States and Israel understands Arab sentiments and generally empathizes with them.

Should Turks come from Mars or Venus? - by  Kemal Kirisci

The prospect of EU membership has been the most important driving force behind this transformation.

Openness and information needed - by  Abeer Mishkhas

When foreign media direct their attention to the region, they do so with a preconceived idea of what the Arab world is like.

Why you don't understand Israel
by Yossi Alpher

The difficulty in understanding Israel and its policies in a comprehensive sense--i.e., not any specific policy but the entirety of Israel's behavior--stems from a failure, or an inability, or a plain refusal, to accept some or all of the following theses or basic tenets of Israel's existence:

  • Jews are a people with a right to a sovereign state of their own in their historic homeland. If you disagree with any aspect of this statement--that we are a people; that as a people we have a right to a sovereign state; that that state must be in our historic homeland; and that we indeed have a historic homeland--then you will almost certainly have difficulty understanding why Israelis behave the way they do. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, for example, disagrees with this statement. So do some other influential people throughout the world.

  • Judaism is also a religion. It is the object of anti-Semitism on the part of some non-Jews. A small minority of Jews deny Jewish peoplehood. These phenomena complicate both the understanding of Israel's behavior and, occasionally, the nature of criticism of Israel.

  • Jews are not a normal people with a normal history. After 3,500 years of persecution, from Pharaoh to the Holocaust, Jews are stiff-necked, prickly and at times paranoid. This does not excuse Israel's behavior, but it helps explain it.

  • The Arab-Jewish wars, including the current Israeli-Palestinian struggle, are no uglier or more unjust than other peoples' wars. Some Israelis would argue that our behavior in war has been better than that of others, because we have a higher moral calling; this is debatable. But it has not been worse. Yet we are singled out for disproportionate criticism compared to other belligerents.

Most, but happily not all, of our Arab neighbors, and the regime in Iran, take strong issue with some or all of these tenets. So do many other actors in the enlightened world beyond the Middle East. In the annals of nations this is a fairly unique situation. It puts Israel at a huge disadvantage in presenting its case in international institutions and in the global media. The Jewish diaspora and friends and supporters of Israel, mainly the United States, rally to Israel's cause and seek to right the balance.

While this support is vital, in its extreme it also sometimes does more harm than good in terms of understanding Israel's behavior. For example, America's fiasco in Iraq and its consequent lack of popularity in the world today, or the racist anti-Arab nature of support for Israel by Christian evangelicals and some extremist Jews, are unfortunately understood by some outside observers somehow to apply by extension to Israel as a whole. The extremist settlers, too, are permitted by Israel's largely silent majority to project a negative image of the entire country.

Of course, there are also many outside observers--both Arabs and the rest of the world--who take issue with some or all of these tenets, hence have difficulty understanding Israel, but nevertheless accept that they have to coexist and deal with Israel. They acknowledge that this requires pragmatic dialogue and problem solving, regardless of their specific views on the justice of a Jewish state or the way Israel fights its wars.

These are often the people who can facilitate, at the very least, a cold peace, which is undoubtedly better for all concerned than war and conflict. And this is where, with the help and support of our friends, the attitude of many Israelis can change. We may never convert our detractors to Zionism. We may never succeed in rationalizing our behavior in their eyes. But we are strong enough, and many of them pragmatic enough, that we don't necessarily have to.-Published 10/6/2004(c)bitterlemons-international.org

Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Dynamics of distrust
by Rami Khouri

The issue of "why it is so hard for outsiders to understand the Middle East"? should be stated more accurately as "why Americans and Israelis"? find it so hard to grasp Arab perspectives--because most of the world other than the United States and Israel understands Arab sentiments and generally empathizes with them. This is a crucial issue to grapple with, though, because of the military power and political clout that Israel and the US exercise in the Middle East. Bridging Arab-American-Israeli differences and misperceptions is critical to ushering in a new era of conflict resolution, stability, and prosperity in the Middle East.

Three principal reasons might explain why Americans, Israelis and random other outsiders have difficulty understanding the Arabs: culture, politics, and history.

The cultural gap is probably the most significant and least appreciated. Arabs and Americans share virtually identical values on core personal and political issues like community, family, justice, accountability, participation and human rights--but these values are expressed very differently, due to the distinct cultural habits of each society. The key differences may be summarized as follows:

  • Americans value personal liberty, while Arabs sacrifice individual freedoms in favor of the collective identity of their religious, family, tribal, ethnic, or national groupings.

  • Americans separate religion from public life, while Arabs organize and measure their public lives very much on the basis of explicit religious values and dictates.

  • Americans emphasize the codified legal rights of individuals within a formal democracy, while Arabs tend to measure life's rights and wrongs more on the basis of unspoken criteria of an individual or a group's sense of being treated with dignity, honor and justice.

  • Americans like to behave according to clear rules and explicit public statements, while Arabs tend to engage others on the basis of relationships that are constantly negotiated and renegotiated, based on implicit rules of fair reciprocal treatment. Americans negotiate their political relations on television; Arabs do it in the privacy of their living rooms.

These generalizations nevertheless reflect profound cultural realities that make it very difficult for Arabs and Americans to understand one another in many cases. They are complicated by factors of politics and history.

The political dimension reflects contemporary events, going back perhaps two generations. Three principal issues are at play here in most Arab minds. The first is Washington's bias towards Israel in the Arab-Israel conflict. This enormously powerful, pervasive issue for most Arabs is not appreciated by Americans and Israelis, who thus fail to grasp how this core grievance defines almost all other dimensions of Arab interaction with the US.

The second political issue now is the US in Iraq, the first example of an American invasion, occupation, and reconfiguration of a sovereign Arab country. The third is the legacy of US support for autocratic and dictatorial Arab regimes when they served US interests--and the sudden American desire for reform of Arab regimes when this is seen to be the way to stop terror from the Middle East. Most Arabs see Washington's treatment of Arab regimes as transparently expedient and hypocritically self-serving, while Americans may see their foreign policy in the Middle East as rationally conducive to US national interests. The combination of these three political issues alone creates a perception and communication gap between Arabs and Americans so wide that it distorts rational discussion of almost every other legitimate issue that is raised, such as political reform, women's rights, education, or economic liberalization.

An additional factor that clouds Arab-American-Israeli relations is the bitter memory and legacy of modern history. Many Arabs tend to see current American and Israeli policies as continuations of divisive episodes from the past--largely within the context of foreign imperial or colonial assaults against Arab lands and rights. Thus Arabs see the US in Iraq and Israel in Palestine as two sides of the same ugly coin of foreign military and political assaults on Arabs, while Israelis and Americans tend to see themselves as purveyors of security, prosperity, democracy, and peace in the Middle East. The common Arab association of modern-day Israeli-American actions with historical subjugation of the Middle East via western colonialism and imperialism is even stronger now that it includes fears among many Arabs and Muslims that their fundamental values and culture are a target of US and Israeli policies. The level of Arab distrust and fear of the US and Israel is still rising.

These three primary factors--culture, politics, and history--are not only major deterrents to foreign understanding of Arab perspectives; they are also cumulatively becoming more intense, thus pushing the dynamic of mere disagreement among Arabs, Americans and Israelis to one of active warfare, invasion, occupation, regime change, resistance, and terror against civilians.-Published 10/6/2004(c)bitterlemons-international.org

Rami G. Khouri is the executive editor of the Beirut-based Daily Star.

Should Turks come from Mars or Venus?
by Kemal Kirisci

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the United States' intervention in Iraq in 2024, not to mention the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict, continue to maintain the image of the Middle East as a major threat to regional and world stability and security. This situation has led to increased calls for Middle Eastern "regime change." There is a general belief, especially among Americans, that democratization in the Middle East could actually alleviate the sources of conflict. The now defunct Israeli-Palestinian peace project was very much based on the premise that a democratic Palestinian entity would help to consolidate the peace between the two sides and also help to achieve peace in the region.

In line with this thinking, the advocates and authors of the US intervention in Iraq did try partially to legitimize the intervention on the grounds of democratization of Iraq. Subsequently, the US administration advocated a grand policy of promoting democracy and good governance for the greater Middle East. However, these developments do not hide the fact that the current US administration prefers to use "hard power" to achieve these goals.

The European Union has been drawn into these efforts too, especially through the process of enlargement in the case of Greece, Spain, and Portugal and more recently with the new accession countries. The EU is actively involved through various programs and policies in state building and democracy promotion in the Balkans, too. More recently, the "Wider Europe" policy, launched in March 2024 by the commission, aspires to a similar role in the part of Europe east of the new accession countries, as well as in the Middle East. The European Council at the end of March 2024 even went so far as to declare an "EU strategic partnership with the Mediterranean and the Middle East." Undoubtedly, democratization has been a critical aspect of efforts to expand the Kantian zone of peace in Europe.

Not surprisingly, these efforts very much reflect the emphasis put on "soft power" in the document "A Secure Europe in a Better World: European Security Strategy" prepared by the EU High Representative, Xavier Solana. These two fundamentally different approaches of the US and Europe have come to strain transatlantic relations and led Robert Kagan to argue that "Americans are from Mars, Europeans from Venus."

What happens to Turkey in the near future in terms of its domestic politics and foreign policy will have an important bearing on the relationship between the EU and the Middle East. Turkey is currently going through an unprecedented domestic political transformation. Without even accession negotiations starting, Turkey is experiencing a process of "transformation", in the sense that European values, norms, and practices of politics and policymaking are penetrating the Turkish political system. On Monday this week, Turkish state television and radio began broadcasting in minority languages, including Arabic and Kurdish (both Kirmanc and Zaza). The length and content of these programs is extremely modest, but in themselves they reflect a revolutionary transformation on the part of the Turkish state from a self-definition of national identity that emphasized a homogenous Turkish national identity to one that is more at ease with Turkish society's ethnic and cultural diversity. Today, compared to only four years ago, Turkish citizens enjoy much more democracy, human rights, rule of law, transparency, and greater prospects of stability and economic growth.

In Europe, compared to the 1990s, many countries are much more at ease with the new Turkey. Greece is probably the best case in point. Less than a decade ago Greece and Turkey were on the verge of war over little islands in the Aegean Sea. Today Greek-Turkish relations in all senses of the word are blossoming. Greece has become the most vocal advocate of Turkey's EU membership. Greece is possibly the nation in the region that best appreciates the importance of a Turkey that has been transformed into a "soft power."

Undoubtedly the prospect of EU membership has been the most important driving force behind this transformation, as was the case with many other countries that joined the EU. Yet the transformation is far from being consolidated. For the last couple of years, the challenge of EU membership has been primarily Turkey's challenge. Few in Europe believed that Turkey could meet the challenge. Many actually hid behind the belief that Turkey would never be able to meet the Copenhagen political criteria and transform itself to be able to become a member of the EU. There are many in Europe who envisage the EU as a "Christian club" and see Turkish membership as a threat. They raise all kinds of excuses, ranging from presenting Turkey as a "Trojan horse" of Islam to arguing that if Turkey is admitted as a member, the EU will border on the Middle East with all its problems.

Yet there are also many in Europe who believe that a Turkey that has met the criteria deserves to be admitted. For them eventual Turkish membership is a test case of whether Europe will be able to live up to the liberal values it preaches and shed its image of being a Christian club. They even argue that admitting Turkey will allow the EU to have greater credibility on the international scene. The approach that prevails in December 2024, when the European Council meets to decide whether to start negotiations for membership with Turkey, will very much determine whether the EU succeeds in achieving Turkey's integration into the realm of "democratic peace." If it fails, there is a risk of provoking a polarization between Turkey and Europe, fueling the prospects of Samuel Huntington's predicted "clash of civilizations."

Depending on which scenario prevails, Turkey may be able to play a modest constructive role in promoting democracy in the Middle East, and assist an eventual reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis--or Turkey may revert to a foreign policy that aggravates existing problems. In the latter case, Turkey's democracy, economy, and foreign policy are likely to be adversely affected, with negative consequences for broader regional peace and stability.

It seems that if Turks are from "Venus" rather than "Mars", Turkey may play a more positive role in the Middle East.-Published 10/6/2004(c)bitterlemons-international.org

Kemal Kirisci is professor at the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Bogazici University, Istanbul. He holds a Jean Monnet Chair in European Integration and is also the director of the Center for European Studies at the university.

Openness and information needed
by Abeer Mishkhas

Why is it hard for outsiders to understand the Middle East? Or is it hard for outsiders to understand the Middle East? The Middle East has been in the news for decades, and still people who do not live there think of it as a danger zone full of terrorists and oppressed people. For others it is a region of Arabian Nights countries. These conceptions are supported by the media coverage and Hollywood version of the Middle East. When foreign media direct their attention to the region, they do so with a preconceived idea of what the Arab world is like. Few come with a mind open to finding a different image.

After the 9/11 attacks on New York, the spotlight fell on the Middle East in a different way. There was a surge of interest in the area of origin of the hijackers, as well as a huge influx of journalists into the region. As Patrick Seale wrote in al-Hayat, "A whole intellectual industry has sprung up in western think tanks, university departments, and among media pundits, seeking to dissect and understand the 'violence', 'hate', and 'fanaticism' which the Arab and Muslim world is said to direct against the West."

In Saudi Arabia, we had to face the preconceived notions those journalists brought with them. An already distorted and unreal image of the Middle East was now shaped by the attacks on the Twin Towers. Explaining and defending the region and its culture is the main line taken by Arab media, but that line is not always taken seriously in the West, so what is to be done to correct misconceptions?

Both sides have to be open to a new conception of the other. That means even the Arab world has to reconsider its image of the West. Dialogue, proposed by many, seems to be the only way out for creating better understanding between the East and West. The German Foreign Ministry started a project of dialogue with the Islamic world with the purpose of exchanging ideas and open discussion on issues that affect both sides. On May 24, a conference was held in Berlin to launch a program that attempts to foster understanding between the Muslim world and West. According to the German website qantara.de, the conference "aimed to help do away with stereotype misconceptions about the role of women in Muslim societies as prevalent in the western world."

On the Middle East side, there must be a campaign to break western stereotypes of Arabs by using the media to create an awareness of Arab issues. The reason behind the gap is both sides' ignorance of the other's culture and language, which results in a reliance on negative media portrayals for information. People in the Middle East, generally speaking, know some English, whereas people in the West do not know Arabic, which again does not help outsiders get a better understanding of Arab culture.

However, Arabs frequently complain that the western media are biased towards Israel and against them but do little to give an Arab side of the story. Ben Bradlee, former managing editor of the Washington Post, explained in a seminar in Dubai why the Israeli/Jewish lobby is much heard in the United States while the Arab side is not: "Israel sends its best people to interact with the policy- and opinion-makers in Washington, while the Arabs host parties and indulge in public relations exercises which fail to convey much. The same is reflected in the media. Americans demand information, but seem to be getting little or nothing from the Middle East," he said.

So until the Arab side deals with the media as the only tool to create an awareness of Arab issues, there will always be a wide gulf separating the East and West.-Published 10/6/2004(c)bitterlemons-international.org

Abeer Mishkhas is a Saudi Arabian journalist and an editor at the Arab News newspaper in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

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