Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Negotiating in the Middle East: How The Other Side Sees It

Mark Silverberg

In his latest speech at the UN, President Obama stated what, in the West, is considered to be the obvious solution to the Arab-Israeli “problem”. He said: “Those who have signed on to the Arab Peace Initiative should seize this opportunity to make it real by taking tangible steps towards the normalization that it promises Israel.”

If only it was that simple. Our media, talking heads, academics, and even our government strategic thinkers have been dealing with the Arab and Muslim world based on the politically-correct paradigm of even-handedness, engagement, dialogue, attributing “problems” in the Middle East to poverty, misunderstandings, rectifying historical grievances, and, in the case of Israel, not enough “land for peace” - while ignoring or underplaying key elements, such as the importance attributed in Middle Eastern culture to honor and shame, the overwhelming sense of victimhood that permeates Arab societies, conflicting clan loyalties, the importance attributed to retaining absolute power, and frustrated Islamic imperialism.

As Harold Rhode, recently of the Pentagon's Office of Net Assessment, wrote for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, it is crucial to understand the mindset of our enemies – something the current US Administration and the leaders of the European Union appear loathe to do. Dealing specifically with Iran, but implying that the Arab dictators and despots of the Middle East move to the same beat, Rhode concludes that the paradigms that govern US foreign policy in the Middle East today are totally at odds with the paradigms that actually govern the actions of our enemies.

The Western concept of demanding that a leader subscribe to a moral and ethical code does not resonate with Iranians or the Arab world in general. As Rhode notes: “One coming from a position of strength will only make a concession if he is absolutely sure that doing so will consolidate and therefore increase his power. If one believes that his adversary will gain even the slightest advantage through such a measure, he will never concede an inch.” The attitude, quite simply, is: “rule-or-be-ruled.” As such, compromise, as we understand the concept, “is seen as a sign of submission and weakness” that brings shame and dishonor on those - and on the families of those - who concede. This was made abundantly clear in Hamas’s violent reaction to Mahmoud Abbas’s direct negotiations with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and in Hamas’s insistence that Israel never be recognized as a Jewish state.

Much the same point is made by Richard Landes in Augean Stables: “Arab leaders view any compromise with Israel as a catastrophic loss of face, since such an agreement would mean recognizing as a worthy foe an inferior (religious) group that should be (a) subject (people). Such a blow to Arab honor cannot be tolerated for cultural and political reasons: losing face means to feel utter humiliation, to lose public credibility, and to lose power.” The only way to restore such lost honor is not through compromise, but to shed the blood of this enemy - especially one whose state they consider an abomination. As one member of the Arab League said: “If it takes ten million of the 50 million Arabs to destroy Israel, it would be a worthy sacrifice.”

In this kind of war, negotiations will not work as the solution is in rigid zero-sum terms: ‘If we win, they lose; if they win, we lose’. The zero-sum nature of this mentality rules out a negotiated settlement for the foreseeable future. During and after the Oslo “Peace Process”, Arafat could not bring himself to make peace with Israel despite eight years of direct negotiations with the Israelis. “Arafat”, Landes writes, “acted with enormous reluctance, taking what he could, offering no concessions in return, and promising his honor-shame constituency that the concessions were not real - merely a Trojan horse”. For the same reason, at Taba (2001) and Annapolis (2007), the Palestinian leadership rejected statehood on more than 95% of the West Bank and Gaza rather than accept peace with Israel.

Adding insult to injury, Landes notes, “Successful Zionism in the heart of the Islamic world represents not only an indignity (but) a shame so staggering, that it could only herald the death of the dominant culture that allowed it to happen.” In effect, the success of Zionism illustrates both the power of modernity (technology, democracy, mass education) and underlines the impotence of Islamic and Arabic culture in the modern world. Although Israel is the only nation to go from third world status to first world status in the course of the 20th century, the ruling Arab elites prefer their peoples living in misery and poverty rather than sharing in the wealth that would flow from recognition of a Jewish state.

The Palestinians cannot recognize Israel without suffering an unbearable, catastrophic loss of honor; while Israel cannot cede any further territory without absolute security guarantees and its recognition as a Jewish state. Given these two opposing realities, the idea floated by the US and the Europeans of “two states for two peoples” is a fantasy reinforced by recent polls that continue to show most Palestinians support a zero-sum solution to the “problem” of Israel.

Further, while Iranians, and the Arab world cope with adverse situations by being “warm, gracious, polite, and obsequious,” and whereas Americans place a high value on “candor, straightforwardness, and honesty,” we in the West fail to realize, to our detriment, that we are easily deceived by our enemies’ effusively friendly, kind, generous, and engaging behavior - as were the Europeans by Hitler’s magnanimous promises of peace to European leaders immediately preceding World War II. As Hitler later stated to his General Staff: "Our enemies are worms. I saw them at Munich".

Our efforts at compromise, contrition, accommodation and appeasement are perceived as symbolic of our weakness; and our attempts to find common cause with our enemies merely reinforce their belief that we are “paper tigers,” to use bin Laden’s term, and easy prey. “It is for this reason that good-will and confidence-building measures should be avoided at all costs,” he says, as our Western cultural biases make it easy to misunderstand the true intentions of our enemies.

Our adversaries - Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah - see “negotiations” and our desire for dialogue as opportunities to “best others, to demonstrate power,” and to make certain that we know who is in control. Under such circumstances, goodwill and confidence-building measures by the West are interpreted as a lack of strength or resolve. Israel should not have been surprised when, in return for withdrawing from southern Lebanon in 2000 and Gaza in 2005, it received terror in the form of increased suicide bombings and missile attacks on its civilian population. Nor, for that matter, should President Obama have been surprised when his many overtures to our enemies were seen as symptomatic of American weakness, vulnerability, lack of resolve and an opportunity for conquest in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere - which is why American foreign policy in the Middle East is in shambles.

As Rhode writes, such regimes are prepared to “negotiate” only after they have defeated their enemies and established their superiority - at which point they need only dictate terms rather than negotiate them. Contrary to the view of Western diplomats, “signaling a desire to talk before being victorious is [interpreted as] a sign of weakness or lack of will to win,” and, in the view of our enemies, can only lead to an escalation of violence against them and invite demands for further concessions from them.

Understanding this mindset, and adding frustrated religious imperialism (jihadism) into the equation as Landes does, explains why Hamas and Hezbollah are not prepared to negotiate any settlement with Israel, and are adamant in stating their intention to destroy the Jewish state. It also accounts for the reason why Ahmedinejad, despite numerous US attempts at accommodation, feels secure in threatening the Sunni regimes of the region; continues his quest for nuclear weapons despite global censure; openly assists al Qaeda and the Taliban in killing Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan; funds terrorist organizations throughout the Middle East, and has no qualms in stating his intention to wipe Israel off the face of the earth. It also explains why Hamas continues to fire missiles into Israeli towns and cities and to maintain, in its charter, that its war against the Jews will continue until they are returned to d’himmitude [official second-class status] in the new Arab state of Palestine that will replace Israel; why Hezbollah, in violation of several UN Resolutions, is now stronger and better armed in southern Lebanon than they were prior to the 2006 Second Lebanon War; why Syria continues to establish and strengthen its military ties with Iran despite American protestations; why Hamas and Hezbollah have no hesitation in committing war crimes by using civilians, schools, ambulances and mosques as shields, firing missiles into Israeli cities and towns, and believe absolutely that Israel and the West lack the resolve to stop them; and why Fatah, the power behind the Palestinian Authority, feels free to hold a Congress in Bethlehem that openly proclaims its intention to pursue “resistance” [terrorism] as a strategy until Israel has been vanquished - while the US and EU continue to pour millions of dollars and Euros into its coffers.

In each case, we have conveyed to our enemies the belief that we are weak, fearful, indecisive, irresolute and do not represent an immediate threat to their power. Our diplomats may argue that dialogue is necessary to clarify “misunderstandings” and to “make amends for past injustices” real or imagined, but our enemies see it otherwise: we have created a credibility problem with our friends, and whetted the appetites of those who smell victory based upon our perceived weakness.

As Rhode writes, in the wake of the Iranian hostage-taking crisis “Iran put the hostages on a plane less than an hour before Ronald Reagan became president. The hostages left Iranian airspace when Reagan raised his hand and took the oath of office. The Iranian “students” believed Reagan was a cowboy and feared he would “level” Tehran…… Interestingly, during the hostage crisis, a group of Iranian terrorists also occupied the Soviet embassy in Tehran. But they quickly left, because Moscow informed Tehran that if the Iranians did not leave the Soviet Embassy within hours, Tehran would be bombed,” and they knew the Russians meant it.

Only when Israel restores its deterrent power and re-establishes its aura of invincibility will it be in a position to achieve security and establish a true and lasting peace with its former enemies. Similarly, only when the US re-establishes its dominance as the most powerful military force in the region and shows the strength and resolve expected of a superpower in dealing with the Iranian threat and the threat posed by Iran’s Middle East proxies will those who threaten the West be discredited.

As power, honor and humiliation cannot be separated from Iranian or Arab political cultures, it may become necessary to destroy both the military forces and the political infrastructures of our enemies to such an extent that the mullahs of Iran and the jihadist foot soldiers of Hamas and Hezbollah will be utterly defeated and humiliated. Only when they are convinced that we are serious in protecting our interests in the region, and show the strength of resolve expected of a superpower, will those who threaten us come on board.

Neither Hitler nor Tojo would have stood before their nations at the end of World War II and proclaimed that “this was just a temporary setback.” In both cases, national recognition of the humiliation and shame that flowed from their defeats allowed moderate elements in both Germany and Japan to assume the mantle of power and provide for a better future for their people - including both nations subsequently being among the closest allies of the United States.

A shorter version of this article was originally published by www.hudson-ny.org

FamilySecurityMatters.org Contributing Editor Mark Silverberg is a foreign policy analyst for the Ariel Center for Policy Research (Israel), a Contributing Editor for Family Security Matters, Arutz Sheva (Israel National News) and the New Media Journal and is a member of Hadassah’s National Academic Advisory Board. His book “The Quartermasters of Terror: Saudi Arabia and the Global Islamic Jihad” and his articles have been archived under www.marksilverberg.comand www.analyst-network.com. This article was originally published by www.hudson-ny.org.

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