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Listen Up

The arrogance of the advice-givers.

One remarkable thing about watching the Middle East is how what’s celebrated as brilliant in Europe or America is errant nonsense.

Writing such stuff makes people successful and gives them an audience of millions. What they say is so ridiculous that one wants to laugh, yet so totally accepted as true in Washington and European capitals that the laughter would be laughed at.

The article to which I refer is by Jacob Weisberg in the June 22 Newsweek, entitled, "A Friend in Need: Barack gets tough on Bibi." It is far more terrible because Weisberg is neither leftist nor anti-Israel but has simply imbibed what "everyone says."

Let me quickly add that while I don't know Weisberg personally, I'm confident in saying he has no serious training in the Middle East, speaks neither Arabic nor Hebrew, spends little time researching the region, and has no real qualification for making the judgments he does. Here's the theme: Israelis are so stupid about their country, situation, and region on the life-and-death issues which they have been dealing with for decades that they must be saved in spite of themselves by people who have no knowledge or experience on any of these things. No other country in the world is so frequently told this kind of thing which I hear all the time from Europeans, too.

Is it so hard to comprehend that our views and behavior are based on years of experience and study? That we know best how to save ourselves and have been doing a far better job of it, against tremendous odds and unhelpful kibbitzers, than many others? That heeding their prescriptions would be disastrous, in fact have already proven so? After all, the tragic history of the last 20 years has largely resulted from listening to the same advice he gives now.

When one tries to explain these things in conversations, however, you can see their eyes go blank and their ears close up.

Weisberg’s article follows this pattern. The United States, he says (and these are main elements in the rhetoric among supporters of the Obama administration and several European governments) must show Israel "tough love," lean "harder on Jews and the Arabs to get serious about a deal," and stop "fostering Israeli illusions that there [is] an alternative to trading land for peace."

All three of these arguments are based on false premises.

Tough love: This derives from the late 1980s and early 1990s when the left side of the Israeli spectrum was pushing the land-for-peace and negotiate with the PLO arguments against their rivals on the right. A little U.S. pressure, they argued, would help get talks going.

A lot has happened since then, however, notably the 1992-2000 Oslo process. This proved to the vast majority of Israelis that the Palestinian leadership (and Syria, too, for that matter) wasn’t ready or interested in peace. Disillusioned, a lot of these people supported Ariel Sharon and the disengagement from the Gaza Strip, the results of which (Hamas takeover, rocket fire) made them even more disenchanted.

That's why the Labour party­ which invented the land-for-peace argument in the first place and made the Oslo agreement and offered a two-state solution in 2000 ­is now in a coalition government with the Likud party. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not a "right-wing" or "hard-line" leader but someone who speaks for the national consensus, a consensus based on education through painful, bloody experience.

Israel also faces a more hostile Europe, an Iran racing toward nuclear weapons, an intransigent and incompetent Palestinian Authority, plus Hamas and Hizballah.

Today the last thing Israelis need or want is pressure to make more concessions to the Palestinians. They’ve already made a lot; these didn’t lead anywhere good. What Israel needs today is not "tough love" but real support.

Push "harder on Jews and the Arabs to get serious about a deal": The false assumption here is that getting an agreement, any agreement, is a desperate need of the two sides and of the region as a whole.

In fact, Israel is doing very well without any comprehensive peace agreement. The economy is doing fine; morale is high; security improved. Moreover, this concept pays no attention to the idea that a deal can be a bad one, inherently instable and leading to more violence.

It never enters the minds of these people that a "peace" agreement that was broken or had dangerous provisions (giving up strategic territory; east Jerusalem; empowering a radical regime in a next-door Palestinian state; opening the door to foreign Arab or Iranian armies entering; bringing in millions of Palestinian Arabs to Israel) could leave Israel far worse off.

As for the Palestinian leadership, far from being desperate for a deal it is desperate to avoid one on anything other than its own unrealistic terms.

Stop "fostering Israeli illusions that there [is] an alternative to trading land for peace." This one makes me laugh. Everyone in Israel knows that there can be no comprehensive agreement without trading land for peace. The question is, however, whether any comprehensive agreement on decent terms is possible at this time.

In addition, the question is also which land. Israel has focused on three to five percent of the West Bank that is strategically important and has large concentrations of Israeli population.

Finally, if someone doesn't understand that the barrier to peace is the Palestinians and not Israel, any advice they give Israel is going to be worthless.

As for those giving advice, here’s what we’ve seen in the last six months from those who want to "save" others by imposing their own vision:

--The idea that stopping construction on Jewish settlements would bring some Arab concession has already proven wrong.

--The idea that engagement with Iran would work has already proven wrong.

--The idea that the United States could successfully engage Syria in a set of mutual compromises has already proven wrong.

--The idea that an Obama charm offensive would bring higher levels of Arab support has already proven wrong. And that's just in six months!

Let’s have a little humility and readiness to listen, please, from those who would play with the lives of other people.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).

Originally Posted at GLORIA Center