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It's Not About Israel

It's Not About Israel

The destabilizing factors in the Middle East run far deeper than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.


A number of voices in the international community have recently identified the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the root cause of many of the Middle East's problems. British Prime Minister Tony Blair and outgoing UN Secretary General Kofi Annan have been among the most prominent of these voices.

In his article "A battle for global values," (Foreign Affairs, January/February 2007), Tony Blair reiterates what he has expressed in previous public statements: "How can we bring peace to the Middle East unless we resolve the question of Israel and Palestine?" Achieving peace, he continues, "would not only silence reactionary Islam's most effective rallying call but fatally undermine its basic ideology."

Kofi Annan, addressing the UN Security Council on December 12, said, "The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not just one regional conflict amongst many. No other conflict carries such a powerful symbolic and emotional charge even for people far away."

True, genuine peace between Israel and the Palestinians would remove one of the long-standing conflicts in the Middle East. Moreover, to state the painfully obvious, peace would serve the best interests of those involved.

But to suggest, as Prime Minister Blair in particular does, that such a settlement is a necessary precondition for peace in the Middle East and would take the wind out of radical Islam's sails is unsupported by the facts.

Let's assume for a moment that Israel did not exist. Would that have changed the basic story line of the bulk of recent events in the Middle East?

Would Iraq and Iran have chosen not to pursue an eight-year war that cost more than a million fatalities? Would Iraq have decided not to invade Kuwait in 1990? Would it have rethought its use of chemical weapons against both its own Kurdish population and Iran?

Would Syria have refrained from slaughtering over 10,000 of its own citizens in Hama in 1982? Would it have relinquished its hold on Lebanon, as demanded by multiple Security Council resolutions?

Would Saudi Arabia have stopped exporting its Wahhabi model of Islam, with its narrow, doctrinaire view of the world and rejection of non-Muslims as so-called infidels, across the globe? Would al-Qaida not have attacked the US in 2001, when, it should be remembered, the Israeli-Palestinian issue was never even mentioned among Osama bin Laden's main "grievances"?

Would the danger posed by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Jordan magically disappear absent the Israel factor? Would Iran today abandon its hegemonic ambitions in the region? Would the Shi'ite-Sunni split, with its profound political and strategic ramifications, evaporate into thin air? Would the Sudanese government stop its collusion with the Arab Janjaweed militias to end the massive murder and displacement in Darfur?

Political, intellectual and gender oppression are the Mideast's chronic difficulties.

Would the desperate poverty and widespread illiteracy that dampen hope and create a fertile recruiting ground for radical Islamic movements suddenly be alleviated? Would Saudi women instantaneously have the right to drive, would non-Muslims finally enjoy equal rights in all those Arab countries where Islam is the official religion, and would the Baha'i no longer experience persecution at the hands of the Iranian government?

In reality, the destabilizing factors in the Middle East run far deeper than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Strikingly, while most Western political leaders mince their words, the courageous Arab authors of the annual Arab Human Development Report have not. They have spoken of three overarching explanatory factors for the region's unsatisfactory condition: the knowledge deficit, the gender deficit and the freedom deficit.

Unless these three areas are addressed in a sustained manner, the Middle East, which ought to be one of the world's most dynamic regions, is likely to continue suffering from instability, violence and fundamentalism, irrespective of what happens on the Israeli-Palestinian front.

Consider some of the important findings in the Arab Human Development Report and related studies:

  • The total number of books translated into Arabic in the last 1,000 years is fewer than those translated in Spain in one year.
  • Greece, with a population of fewer than 11 million, translates five times as many books from abroad into Greek annually as the 22 Arab countries combined, with a total population of more than 300 million, translate into Arabic.
  • According to a 2002 Council on Foreign Relations report, "In the 1950s, per-capita income in Egypt was similar to South Korea, whereas Egypt's per-capita income today is less than 20 percent of South Korea's. Saudi Arabia had a higher gross domestic product than Taiwan in the 1950s; today it is about 50 percent of Taiwan's."

As Dr. A.B. Zahlan, a Palestinian physicist has noted, "a regressive political culture is at the root of the Arab world's failure to fund scientific research or to sustain a vibrant, innovative community of scientists." He further asserted that "Egypt, in 1950, had more engineers than all of China." That is hardly the case today.

According to the 2005 UN Human Development Report, only two Egyptians per million people were granted patents (and for Syria the figure was zero), compared to 30 in Greece and 35 in Israel.

In the 2005 UN report the adult literacy rate for women aged 15 and older was 43.6 percent in Egypt and 74 percent in Syria, while for the world's top 20 countries it was nearly 100 percent.

And finally, according to the current Freedom House rankings, the only country in the Middle East that is listed as "free" is Israel. Every Arab country is at best "partly free" or, worse, "not free."

The sad truth is that it is precisely political oppression, intellectual suffocation and gender discrimination that explain, more than other factors, the chronic difficulties of the Middle East. To be sure, there exist no overnight or over-the-counter remedies for these maladies that would allow the region to unleash its vast potential, but they are at the heart of the problem. It would be illusory to think otherwise.

This article originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post.

January 6, 2007

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Visitor Comments: 15

(15) Rex, January 13, 2007 3:15 PM

The Root Cause for Middle East Problems

The root cause for the Middle East problems has nothing to do with education or anything else David Harris wishes to portray. His assessment is good in that he shows that there are just too many restrictions on the Moslem people because of their religion. The root cause of the problems of the Middle East is what happened thousands of years ago. Esaw lost his birthright, and the blessings went to Israel instead. With Israel in the picture the Arabs are left out in the cold. They wish to eliminate Israel because of their lust to be in the same seat as the nation of Israel. Too bad, for the Islam fascists they'll NEVER get the birthright! HaHa

(14) Wayne Hankins, January 12, 2007 3:48 PM

a different viewpoint on the article "It's not about Isreal"

Dear Mr. Harris,

I enjoyed the clarity of this article and found all arguments valid and well expressed, and yes it is not about Isreal. I agree on that! In March of 2006 I visited Isreal,Jordan and a small part of the West Bank as an Ambassador for Peace and returned to America more convinced than ever that a true, lasting and Godly solution for peace is on the horizon.
Thirty years ago I left college on a quest to learn the origin of evil that could fully explain the contradictions that all humanity has had to endure since humanity began on it's long and tortured journey so long ago. This answer, I firmly believe holds the real key to solving this issue. It is not the politicians, or the military that can solve it but the religious leaders of the different faiths!
If I were to show you a time line of when the various religions emerged an obvious fact stands out, all religions came about after the first human ancestors departure from God. From this point forward until today our history has known conflict upon conflict and murder upon murder seemingly without end. It seems to my simple mind that, that ancient event ought to be the focus point to understanding how such disharmony came into the human heart and mind. Until that is clearly expressed in a way that is supported by fact, history, and even common sense the reasons for hating and killing will never end. Yes, you are so right, it is not about Isreal. The incredible thing is that now in our time there is a cure for this ancient disease because the real cause has been discovered!!!

Most sincerely Wayne Hankins

(13) Howard, January 12, 2007 10:33 AM

A good summary but misses some points

This is a well-done summary. It does miss some relevant points. If you compared 1992-1999 with 2000-2007, you would find more peace and stability in the former. Clinton was reducing successful at reducing tensions with mediation, negotiation, carrot as well as stick. Radical Islam had far less power. Sadly doing that period, conservatives said, wait till we get in control, we'll don't have to negotiate or mediate- these are the things weak and unprincipled people do.

2000-2007 saw the rise of Radical Islam, with Ariel Sharon and George Bush as galvanizing forces. The decision to isolate and imprison Arafat was a mistake; the no negotiation unless you agree to our parameters a failure. If Arafat was a corrupt, dishonest, and inefficient leader, the decision to isolate him galvanized support for him and against the US and future leaders would no betters for Israel or the US. Five US adminstrations who encourages peace talks, negotiation and mediation were right, and George W. Bush's no peace talks was a colossal mistake.

The notion that Islam is inherently anti-semitic and anti-Israel is a mistake. Historically there have been far more Christian persecutions than Moslem; it is the Christian bible that posits Jewish avarcie and betrayal as central themes. The reduction of Christian anti-semitism shows that views and beliefs can change.

Do note on a related point, if we had George W. Bush in power in 1938 he would have said. You don't work with evil, you don't partner with evil, and you don't counterance it. We reject any notion that the US should join forces with Joseph Stalin who has imprisoned and murdered millions of his own people. We declare war on both Russian and Germany.

(12) Vivian Corey, January 11, 2007 8:19 PM

Education? I think not!

Relating to MS Beverly Kurtin PHD-newsflash-the 9/11 terrorists were well educated,they were in this country on student visas remember?Osama Bin Laden-rich kid -lots of education there too.Does this remind anyone of a different time-maybe -The Nazis-all well educated-even cultured you know land of the Blue Danube and Goethe et al. The idea that it is the lack of education and political rights that creates thisproblem is not a new one-it certainly doesn't explain what happened in Nazi Germany.It's a simplistic and naive idea-give them education and you'll have moral,peace loving people.It's time we put this dinosaur of an idea to rest.Might I add, by the way that the "Palestinian Arabs" are the most highly educated in the Arab world thanks to the generousity of Israel) as a matter of fact,as I recall, afew years back, at Beir Zeit University they had a life like display of the Sbarro Pizzeria Bombing ON CAMPUS complete with pizza and body parts.This is something that intellectuals can't wrap their minds around -can you spell I-M-M-O-R-A-L-I-T-Y and now can you spell E-V-I-L?

(11) Norma Fares, January 11, 2007 5:49 PM



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