Edition 23 Volume 2 - June 17, 2024

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

Dilemmas in Jewish-Arab relations in Israel - by  As'ad Ghanem

The Jewish-Zionist nature of the state of Israel renders full equality for Arabs an unattainable goal.

Regime survival: the natural priority - by  Musa Keilani

The Arab masses consider their regimes to be weaklings, unable to pressure the US and, through it, Israel.

Middle Easterners understand each other - a conversation with  Rifaat al Said

The elites become hypocrites in order to earn their salaries.

Distorted mirrors and misleading images - by  Gerald M. Steinberg

Both sides maintain highly distorted views of each other, based in part on cognitive dissonance.

Dilemmas in Jewish-Arab relations in Israel
by As'ad Ghanem

In Israel today there are about one million Palestinian citizens, constituting one-tenth of the Palestinian people worldwide and some 17 percent of Israel's citizens. While both Jews and Arabs accept that Arabs are citizens of Israel, a dilemma in this regard stems from two asymmetries. The first is that both sides are aware, to differing degrees, of the existence of systematic and prolonged discrimination at various levels of the community and state authority, generally supported by the Jewish public, in favor of Jewish citizens. The second asymmetry is the substantive difference in the attitude of Jews and Arabs toward the symbols and values of the state, to the extent that these symbols lose their function of uniting the citizenry.

The primary dilemma at the strategic level derives from the Jewish-Zionist nature of the state, which renders full equality for Arabs an unattainable goal. The practical possibility that Arabs will be integrated into society and national life on the basis of equality is not accepted by the state itself. At the most basic existential level, the Arabs cannot adopt a full Israeli identity because that identity is woven into the Jewish fabric of the state. The situation is further exacerbated by virtue of the fact that in each of the two communities there is a different consensual view regarding the desired solution to the Palestinian problem.

The vast majority of Arab citizens approach their citizenship rights very seriously. Their struggle for equality is the best indication that the Arabs do not take their citizenship for granted. But their understanding of the substance of citizenship generally does not correspond with the usual Jewish interpretation of loyalty to the state. At many crossroads of life, the Arab citizen discovers that the Jewish establishment and majority do not treat him/her as an equal citizen, and that the state's Jewish nature and security needs dictate its attitude toward him/her to a greater extent than does the state's declared democratic nature.

Nor do Arab and Palestinian culture and heritage receive the same degree of attention or recognition as the Jewish ones. While Arabic enjoys the same official status as Hebrew, this theoretical equality finds almost no practical expression and is usually totally ignored. The state and Jewish public discourage Arab culture and heritage--and Palestinian identity--and frequently suppress them. The country's Jewish roots are emphasized, while Arab history is deliberately ignored. The extent to which the official curricula for both Jews and Arabs emphasize Hebrew language and literature and downplay Arab language and history has been widely documented.

Turning to discrimination at the level of state symbols, Jews treat the symbols and values of state institutions as part of their heritage and a source of identity, whereas Arabs are alienated by these exclusively Jewish and Zionist symbols. The quandary in this regard is further exacerbated by the clear disagreement between the country's Jews and Arabs regarding central social and political aspects of Israel's regional and foreign policies and domestic politics. This reinforces the Arab community's sense that it would be difficult to reach a common denominator.

The discrimination policy stems from the authorities' official approach and enjoys Jewish public support. The explanation provided for this policy and the support it enjoys among the Jewish public can be summarized in the following points: (1) the Arabs are a hostile minority that must be watched closely; (2) the Arabs should be grateful for the progress they have enjoyed since 1948; (3) Israel is the state of the Jewish people, a Jewish-Zionist country in which the Arabs should suffice with limited individual rights and not demand recognition as a national minority; (4) the Arabs are a new minority, devoid of any connection to the Palestinian people; and (5) the Arabs must accept that they are not part of the country's centers of power and decision-making.

The vast majority of Arabs rejects these arguments, and struggles in the Knesset and beyond to change this approach and the policies based on it. Most call for total equality and a solid anti-Zionist policy; they seek communal equality that finds expression in equal treatment by the state, full integration, and cancellation of the state's official ideology, which they believe is the decisive cause of their mistreatment. In other words, they want to turn Israel (within the green line) into a binational state.

There is also an important and dynamic perceptual gap between Arabs and Jews, in the public and the leadership, concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, its underpinnings, emergence, and desired solutions. Jews and Arabs each claim exclusive historic rights to the country. They each have their own explanation of the sources of the conflict, with each blaming the other for starting it and for the violence, killing, and aggression that have accompanied it. The solution accepted by the Arabs calls for all the lands occupied since 1967 to be returned to the Arab countries and for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, including East Jerusalem. For their part, the Jews mainly argue the need for border alterations in Israel's favor along the 1967 lines, and the impossibility of giving Arabs and Palestinians control over any part of Jerusalem.

Thus the negative status of Arab citizens is rooted at the strategic level. Under the existing constitutional structure, it is impossible to achieve equality, whether individually or communally, for Arabs in Israel. Nor can the diametrically opposed political and ideological concepts regarding the most central issues be resolved between the Arab and Jewish publics. Most Arabs recognize that they will not be able to achieve equality for themselves or future generations as long as the state exists in its current configuration.- Published 17/6/2004 © bitterlemons.org

As'ad Ghanem is a lecturer at the School of Political Science at the University of Haifa and the head of Ibn Khaldun: The Arab Association for Research and Development.

Regime survival: the natural priority
by Musa Keilani

The Middle East is difficult for many to understand if only because of the many intertwining complexities and undercurrents that control the various players. To gain insight into the roller coaster events of the region requires a fair understanding of the Arab nature, culture, traditions, and way of political life, as well as the links between the Arabs and the West--particularly the United States.

Furthermore, a line has to be drawn between the rhetoric and behavior of Arab rulers, on the one hand, and the feelings of Arabs on the street on the other. Most Arab regimes are heavily dependent on the US for survival, and indeed, some of them are terrified of becoming American targets if they don't toe the US line. Therefore, most of the time, they end up being hypocrites for the sake of survival. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a classic example. While Arab regimes, like the man on the street, sympathize with the Palestinians, the regimes manage to achieve little politically to pressure the US into acknowledging and respecting the legitimacy of the Palestinian cause or to make a dent in the US-Israeli strategic partnership that renders impossible a just solution to the conflict.

The Arab masses, by and large, consider their regimes to be weaklings, unable to form a realistic, unified position to pressure the US and, through it, Israel. The perception of weakness is reinforced by the fact of massive Arab oil wealth and international dependence on the flow of Arab oil.

The masses question why the oil-rich Arab regimes have not come up with a strategy to use their wealth and clout in a manner that would force the world to listen and accept the legitimate Arab viewpoint on regional and international issues. They have the answer themselves: the Arab world is fragmented and unable to take decisive collective steps that would make a difference.

On the other hand, Arab regimes have found themselves meeting not only strong resistance whenever they have tried to pressure the US but also explicit and implicit hints that any economic or diplomatic measure against Washington could lead to serious crises for themselves. When looking from within, the scenario is clear: for Arab regimes, the natural priority is survival; pan-Arab issues come later.

Arab regimes cannot be expected to make any move that will expose their vulnerability. Therefore, their diplomatic and political options on the foreign policy level are restrained, and this is seen as the cause of Arab ineffectiveness in addressing the Palestinian problem in a manner that would protect Palestinian rights.

Because the Arab masses have realized the facts of the situation, there is growing resentment against their leaders. But they find little space to vent their frustrations, given the security clampdowns and restrictions imposed on them.

Most Arabs blame their governments for the failure to make the Arab world a strong and united force that can challenge the outside world on Arab causes. That is why Saddam Hussein became relevant. The Arab masses were willing to overlook Saddam's brutality and oppression of his own people because of what they saw as his courage to challenge the US.

A view from the outside world would raise the question: why were the Arabs not willing to understand that their support for Saddam and their desire to see him continue in power in Iraq were at the expense of the human rights, freedom and dignity of the people of Iraq?

That is the very paradox of the Arab world. A partial explanation is that repression of dissent is a dominant feature of most Arab countries, and the Iraqis had suffered only a little more than other Arabs.

Today, the US is loathed in the Arab world. It started with the transparent American support for Israel at every level, worsened whenever Washington used its UN veto to protect Israel, and hit its peak when--brushing aside decades-old UN resolutions concerning Israel--the US used new resolutions to justify its war against Iraq.

Most Arabs believe that they can see through the various arguments of the Bush administration to justify the war against Iraq. They do not believe a single word coming out of Washington, since their experience has been one of being lied to by their own regimes. For them, the images of American soldiers abusing Iraqis at Abu Ghraib prison became a weapon to hit back at Washington. They would never be convinced that President George Bush or any other administration official is sincere in asserting that the images of abuse hurt them as much as anyone else.

For them, no US official has any respect or consideration for Arab and Muslim rights, particularly given the implicit American position in support for Israel's claim to Arab East Jerusalem. They are convinced that it is only a fear of Arab and Muslim backlash that prevents Washington from endorsing the Israeli claim and recognizing united Jerusalem as the "eternal and indivisible capital" of Israel.

Indeed, US postures have kept Arab hostility towards Washington burning, but among themselves Arabs blame what they see as their ineffective political leadership for the troubles and crises they face today. And, as days go by, with Arab governments being unable to do anything about Israel's brutal crackdown on the Palestinians or the American occupation of Iraq, the masses are growing increasingly frustrated. It is no exaggeration to call it a powder keg that packs a lot of explosive power.-Published 17/6/2004©bitterlemons-international.org

Musa Keilani is the Editor-in-Chief of Al Urdon in Amman, Jordan. He is the former ambassador of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan to the Kingdom of Bahrain.

Middle Easterners understand each other
a conversation with Rifaat al Said

BI: Why is the Middle East hard to understand? Or is it hard to understand?

al Said: That depends. If you want to understand it, it is easy. But if you try to avoid a lot of elements composing the situation, it is hard to understand. The internal situation in the Middle East has been complicated from the outset.

Since the establishment of modern Egypt under Mohammed Ali, for example, the intelligentsia has encircled itself with some difficulties. First, all of them are government or ruling party employees in one way or another, such as working for a newspaper controlled by the ruling party. In the Middle East, a ruler cannot forgive any criticism. As a result, the elites become hypocrites in order to earn their salaries. Second, they try to use religion to justify their liberalism. It is very difficult to do this without making a lot of compromises.

When westerners look at the Middle East, they have to remember they are looking at a closed circle. You reach the same point from where you began, because the rulers refuse to give any concessions to the people. The reactionaries protect themselves with the law, police, and government contacts, fortified by support from religious leaders, so the reactionaries and progressives are not equivalent.

BI: As the leader of an Egyptian political party, how would you propose changing this?

al Said: How can one break a closed circle? Revolution? Courageous books? Demonstrations? Laws and a constitution? We must begin by respecting the mind (the free way of thinking), giving a chance to open-mindedness, and trying to get rid of the influence of closed-minded religious leaders.

BI: So you view a closed-minded interpretation of religion as part of the problem?

al Said: We need to renew our way of looking at religion. The Prophet Mohammed said that in each century God would send someone to update religious interpretation. We need to update to ensure respect for freedom, human rights, and free expression.

Without this, there is no way. If you changed otherwise--promulgated constitutions, held elections--it would be within the same closed circle. A person elected in that way would have a rotten understanding of religions and freedoms.

BI: How can foreign countries understand the Middle East?

al Said: I imagine the only foreign state that can understand the Arab world is Britain. France would be next and the United States last. Britain occupied the Arab world and created its elite, so the British know how to deal with these elites. Think about the difference between Earl Cromer, who represented the British occupation in Egypt [from 1883-1907], and Paul Bremer, who represents the Americans in Iraq. It is the difference between someone who knows the region and someone who doesn’t and is therefore approaching it in an extremely stupid way.

Take dissolving the army. Even though it was the army that began the revolution in Egypt, when the British occupied Egypt, they reconstituted the army and found some leaders willing to cooperate with them. In contrast, in Iraq the Americans destroyed the police, army, infrastructure, and state institutions. This helped the terrorists and criminals, a mistake compounded by the Americans blurring the difference between national liberation movements and terrorists.

The Americans are looking to build a new democracy in Iraq. I am not against one vote, one person, but a clever government can work with those who have been in power for a long time. In Abu Ghraib, why did the abusers photograph their crimes? Why did they create evidence against themselves? This is what I mean by stupid policies.

The US talks about human rights, democracy, and freedom while supporting Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. What Arab can follow this? Saad Eddin Ibrahim, the American University of Cairo professor considered head of the pro-American camp here, suddenly discovered that the Americans do not respect freedom, human rights, Arabs, or Muslims. Now he is totally isolated.

BI: To what extent do Middle Easterners understand each other?

al Said: We understand each other. We understand the Israelis very well, and they understand us very well. In my imagination, I just am asking what if the Sudanese had accepted the demands of the southerners in the 1970s. The stupid rulers refused them and went on to waste money, spill blood, destroy infrastructure, and damage the possibilities for democracy. Finally this year, they gave the South ten times what they had demanded in the 70s.

I think the same thing should happen in Palestine. The parties should realize that there is no way out of reaching an agreement. When they do reach one, they will look back to discover they lost time, blood, and money and got less than they would have before.-Published 17/6/2004©bitterlemons-international.org

Dr. Rifaat al Said is president of the National Progressive Party and a member of the Shura Council (the upper house of Parliament) in Egypt.

Distorted mirrors and misleading images
by Gerald M. Steinberg

When the Oslo process began in 1993, optimists declared that after living in close proximity for so many years, at least Israelis and Palestinians understood each other. Despite the history of conflict and acrimonious violence, and the competing interests and historical narratives, we were ostensibly able to recognize the goals, perspectives, fears, and vulnerabilities of the other side.

Now, over ten years after the first agreements and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, and four years after the process imploded into bitter warfare, this assumption appears to have been far off the mark. On the contrary, there are many signs that both sides maintain highly distorted views of each other, based in part on what academics refer to as mirror imaging, and misinterpretation known as cognitive dissonance. These distortions and misperceptions are central factors in explaining the events and erroneous assumptions of the Oslo negotiations, their catastrophic end, and the major obstacles in picking up the threads for future peace efforts.

From the Israeli end, in 1993 the dominant assumption was that most Palestinians, like most Israelis, were prepared to make major and pragmatic compromises in order to end the conflict on the basis of the two-state solution. In accordance with this mirror imaging, which was shared by many American and European officials and analysts, mutual compromises on the toughest issues--Jerusalem, borders, settlements, and refugees--would take a few years to reach, but were within the realm of the possible.

These assumptions were echoed by leaders such as the late Yitzhak Rabin, who assured Israelis that the struggles over legitimacy and historical narratives, and the bitter clashes over responsibility for decades of warfare, were now behind us. Palestinian leaders, they declared, were also committed to looking forward. The Israeli approach to Oslo was also predicated on the assumption that the Palestinian Liberation Organization leadership, and Yassir Arafat in particular, would deliver the concessions necessary for a permanent status agreement. If Arafat and others still used the language of conflict and delegitimization, and refrained from discussing the inevitable compromises in public, this was dismissed as no more than a temporary tactical decision.

What did the Palestinian side expect from Israeli society? For Israelis, it is very difficult to judge, but it appears that the political and intellectual leadership saw a society that was committed to what was known as post-Zionism. In the 1990s, Israel's newspaper of record, Ha'aretz, emphasized the theme of post-Zionism, and many secular academics joined the ranks of this movement.

In addition, from the outside and also from within, Israelis appeared to be deeply divided between religious and secular, rich and poor, left and right. In May 2024, major demonstrations against the Israeli military presence in Southern Lebanon resulted in the unilateral withdrawal of the Israel Defense Forces.

To the degree that these images reinforced the dominant perceptions of Israel among Palestinian and other Arab leaders, they were able to ignore the evidence that many of these themes were overdrawn and overemphasized in Ha'aretz, in broadcast media, and among some Israeli academics and intellectuals. The less visible but broader commitment to the core Zionist ideology of renewed Jewish sovereignty and independence, and to the common threads linking diverse groups, was largely overlooked in a manner that is readily explained by cognitive dissonance.

These systematic distortions were amplified by many of the interactions that took place during this period, including track two discussions, informal negotiations, and people-to-people meetings sponsored by third parties--which tended to include primarily like-minded Israelis and Palestinians. The majority of Israeli participants came from the self-declared peace camp of the Labor party and further to the left, and Palestinians tended to be part of or aligned with Arafat's Fatah organization. While a small group of radical Israelis were regular visitors in Arafat's headquarters, they were highly unrepresentative of the Israeli street. Similarly, Palestinians linked to Hamas and other groups were not particularly interested in talking to Israelis about compromise, and the Israelis in these discussions also formed a distorted image of the Palestinian street.

As a result, the Palestinians met relatively few Israelis from the center and right of the political spectrum who were skeptical about the negotiations and absolutely opposed to giving up Jewish historic claims in Jerusalem or accepting responsibility for Palestinian refugee claims. When these views turned out to reflect those of the majority of Israelis, who reported to their military units, avoided anti-government demonstrations, voted twice for Sharon, and demand unilateral separation, Palestinians appeared to be taken by surprise. At the same time, the Israelis involved in these activities were unprepared for the depth of Palestinian rejectionism, and the degree to which historic positions on the legitimacy of Jewish sovereignty, Jerusalem, and refugee claims remained dominant.

Now, after almost four years of bitter violence and incitement, the scale and impact of these misperceptions and their huge costs are at least visible. An intense debate is taking place in Israel about Palestinian and wider regional attitudes and objectives, and much of the accepted wisdom is subject to intense scrutiny. There are also some signs that Palestinians are questioning dominant but erroneous views of Israel. And although some dialogues and track two frameworks are still limited to unrepresentative groups of like-minded Israelis and Palestinians, the avenues for exchanging views are expanding. Compared to the myths and misperceptions that prevailed in the past, this is an improvement.-Published 17/6/2004©bitterlemons-international.org

Gerald M. Steinberg is the founder and president of NGO Monitor and professor of political science at Bar Ilan University.

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