For years, those obsessed with forcing Israel to make all kinds of concessions to the Palestinians—on territory, on settlements, on refugees, on Jerusalem, on security, on water, on air space, on everything, in fact—argued that the occupation was the powder keg on which the kings and colonels of the Arab world sat waiting for it to explode. This was and is a curiously Judeo-centric perspective on the world. Now, it seems that the insecurity of Al Aqsa and the plethora of other complaints about the Zionists had exactly zero to do with what occurred in Cairo, Tunis, Sanaa, Benghazi, Amman, Bahrain, Rabat, and God only knows in which other metropolis the anger of powerless people will strike next. If, indeed, the crowds had chanted curses at Netanyahu, one would have thought them nuts since, at last look, neither Colonel Qaddafi nor Ali Abdullah Saleh were in Israel’s corner. The most you could say about Mubarak—and the only good thing—was that his diplomacy kept the Sinai as part of Egypt and prevented the army from losing once again its troops, and its tanks and its advanced fighter aircraft, from being vanished and vanquished by the Israel Defense Forces. If I were an Egyptian general this would be the nightmare with which I could not sleep.
Israel was supposed to be the combustible element on which the entire region teetered. It now turns out that Israel actually had not the slightest allusive presence among the protestants of Tahrir Square. Nor in the successor outposts of the other rebellions. Some of us intuited this all along. Whatever popular conflict there was with the regimes—the kind of conflict that could and would actually undermine and overthrow them—it was not over Israel, because almost all of the regimes had no contact with Israel and hewed closely to the generalized Arab line against it, that even Mubarak and his regime also embraced. There was plenty of raw anti-Semitic claptrap coming from Egyptian official media, much of it comparable to Der Sturmer.
So what of the agenda of those earnest folk who said that the Zionists were endangering stability in the region? Did they really want the regimes to remain stable? Maybe some, like the reactionary Zbigniew Brzezinski, whose entire viewpoint about the Jewish state reeks of traditional Polish Catholic anti-Semitism but is somehow neutralized by his “realism.” My guess is, though, that the folk who signed (which Zbig did not) the oddly timed and strangely worded emergency appeal asking the president to vote in the Security Council to condemn Israeli building in the territories (and even in Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem) were exercising their reflexes, not making a logical appeal. (I’ve written about this before.) And, with Walt and Mearsheimer, Chas Freeman, John Esposito, James Zogby, and Juan Cole, plus two handfuls of clients of the Arab countries to which they were diplomatically posted (with a very few Jews added in, like Rabbi Leonard Beerman—whoever he is—and Jerome Segal of the Jewish Peace Lobby—whatever that is—and Peter Beinart now completing his journey from hawk—he initiated and wrote the TNR editorial endorsing Joseph Lieberman for president in 2004—to syrupy dove) signed on, we know their reflexes express contempt for Israel and its people who would truly make enormous sacrifices for a settlement if they could be persuaded that their immediate neighbors and those rim neighbors, as well, would only leave them alone. In any case, the United States vetoed the Security Council resolution about the very settlements issue that President Obama had puffed up in the first place. Indeed, it was primarily his issue since both the Palestinians and Israelis actually knew exactly (with perhaps two or three exceptions) which settlements would remain Israeli territory and which would not. That is not the difference which sunders Israel and the Palestinian Authority apart. In fact, the settlements are a relatively easy matter.
Still, let’s imagine that at long last Israel and Palestine had securely split the land between the river and the sea. And were living in cross-border comity—OK, relative comity—with Israeli investments in Palestine, Palestinian trade with Israel, tourism, cultural exchange, etc. (They already share many significant police functions and cooperate on environmental and economic policies.) What difference would that have meant for the stability of Egypt, of Tunisia, of Libya, of Bahrain? Would the stability of these countries have been good for their people, for the region, for the world? Of course, we don’t know what will ultimately by the finale in the states now in turmoil. But we know what we would like to see: these polities moving in the direction of democracy, tolerance, and comity.
I am convinced that, aside from the internal ramifications of the dispute between Zion and the Arabs of Palestine, nothing that has occurred in the Maghreb or the Levant or Mesopotamia has ever been affected by Jenin or Hebron or Al Quds with its Noble Sanctuary and its tens of thousands of Friday worshippers. It is, moreover, a brazen confection to argue otherwise. There is no evidence of it and there is no logic to it. As it happens, it is those peddling this fantasy who share culpability in the diplomatic disaster which is now the consequence and circumstance of the longtime American suck-up policy in the Middle East. Those, like myself, identified as props of the “Israel lobby,” at least took the side of a humanistic democracy fighting for its life. All those former ambassadors to Riyadh and Tunis, Cairo and Sanaa and other Arab capitals, all those deputy secretaries and assistant secretaries of state for the region were so intensely committed to Palestine because they were pimping for regimes that had the survivors’ instinct to fix scrutiny on another altogether alien matter, the matter of the Jews and their poor Palestinian victims.
Not a one of these states is other than an absolutist dominion. Not a one. This is true even of Morocco—excitedly experienced by fashionable visitors (W. Somerset Maugham, Jane and Paul Bowles, Jack Kerouac, for example) and a tourist favorite generally—which in essence is little different from Egypt, save that it is a monarchy like Bahrain. I’ve been reading about up-to-date events in Rabat. Only 5,000 people were in the streets of the capital in a demonstration that ostensibly began as a protest against high utility prices. But the protest moved to other locales and metamorphosed into one against the king. In the last days it has taken on the more general character of a revolt for reform. Maybe it will be contained, and we will once again visit Marrakesh with an untroubled, even empty conscience.
But the rest of the Arab world will give us no solace. And, I am afraid, its leaders—some softer, some more brutal—will grant no solace to their own people. These leaders may again take up the Palestinian cause as a lightening rod to inflame their subjects with the irrelevancies of the Holy Land. It is a trick they’ve used for more than half a century.
This morning I received an e-mail from the great scholarly journalist Edward Jay Epstein. It was about the something-or-other dictator of the Libyan state. Read for yourself:
My confusion about the leadership of the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya: No one has his name right.
Does anyone know who is the head of the so-called Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya—or even if the first letter of his surname name is A, E, G, K, or Q?
According to the New York Times, he is “Muammar el-Qaddafi,” to the Wall Street Journal he is “Moammar Gadhafi,” to the L.A. Time he is “Moammar Kadafi,” to the Washington Post, he is “Moammar Gaddafi,” to Reuters, he is “Muammar Gaddafi,” to Bloomberg, he is “Muammar Qaddafi,” the AFP, he is “Moamer Kadhafi,”, to the English edition of the Xinhua News Agency . he is “Muammar Khaddafi,” to the US State Department, he is “Mu’ammar Abu Minyar al-Qadhafi,” to the CIA, he is “Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi,” and to his official site he is “Muammar Al Gathafi”.
Can this be a single person, or some kind of transliteration junta? And what is his—or their—job in the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya (which means “masses” in Arabic)? CNN calls him “President,” the Boston Globe calls him “strongman,” the Sun (London) call him “dictator,” the Daily Mirror calls him “Mad Dog,” while the CIA factbook, somewhat understatedly, says that he “holds no official title, but is de facto chief of state.” Can Any (other than his voluptuous Ukranian nurse) clarify this issue?
Martin Peretz is editor-in-chief emeritus of The New Republic.