Strategic Challenges in the Middle East
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Strategic Challenges in the Middle East

Strategic Challenges in the Middle East

To attain peace, we must look reality squarely in the eye, no matter how difficult that may be.

by

The following speech was given June 9, 2009 at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, by Moshe Yaalon, Israel's Minister of Strategic Affairs

Once the mainstream media starts to believe something is true -- or, more troubling, where it fails to even investigate, but simply parrots someone else's narrative -- and then refers to this as fact or uses it as an underlying assumption, it becomes extremely difficult for anyone to ever thereafter question the veracity of that purported "fact" or the assumption, let alone to uproot and replace it with a different concept. Simply put, it becomes conventional wisdom.

The media is pervasive. It affects our perception, and nowadays perception is a major component of the complicated, asymmetrical conflicts in which our weaker foes depend primarily on cognitive warfare, especially in the changing Middle East.

There are three examples of this phenomenon that I want to discuss today. One relates to the Iranian issue, the second relates to tensions between pragmatists and radicals in the Middle East, and the third, to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The Iranian Issue

There are two problems with the way the media frames the Iranian issue.

The first one is the notion that the Iranian problem is first and foremost a conflict between Iran and Israel. Here we can see, for example, the setting of Fareed Zakaria 's discussion on Iran on CNN. Look at the definition of the subject on the bottom of the screen: "Iran vs. Israel".

The second troubling manner in which the media frames the Iran issue is the recurring suggestion in the media that a combination of a sincere dialogue and non-military sanctions will peacefully persuade the Iranians to change their policy and give up the military nuclear program. Unlike the previous example, which has some relationship to reality, this mistaken assumption is based primarily on wishful thinking.

If, as much evidence suggests, dialogue and non-military sanctions will not work, then there may indeed be a need to resort to the military option in order to halt the Iranian project. Yet, those in the media who frame the issue as one that requires negotiations and diplomacy do the world a disservice by failing to present to their audiences the evidence that such a strategy in fact won't work.

The media approaches this issue with the assumption that Iran is a rational actor, very much like Western states, and that its primary concern is American behavior towards it.

While I believe this is unlikely, let's assume that it may be true. But shouldn't the media nonetheless inform their public of an alternative view?

That alternative view suggests that the Iranians have a completely different agenda and set of motivating factors. Those facts will not only sound strange, but very uncomfortable to the Western ear, yet there is substantial basis for them. All the media has to do is take note of them and report them to the public.

 

Many key Iranian players consider the destruction of Israel as just a step on the way to changing the entire world order.

 For example, many key Iranian players, in particular the Mullahs, consider the destruction of Israel as just a step on the way to changing the entire world order. The Iranians want to bring about this change, and they have many allies who, though they may not share Iran's Shiite goals, nonetheless share its desire to bring down American-led global liberalization. Syria and Chavez are of course key active partners in this. The goal of such an alliance is not just the conquest of Israel, but the entire Western world as well.

To appreciate the fallacy of this notion of Iranian "rationality," it is crucial to understand that the Iranian leadership, just like all the other radicals, is not interested in contributing to stability. On the contrary, they are interested in turbulence and instability -- as long as it doesn't threaten their survival and their ability to stay in power -- because stability would shore up the very world order they want to replace. Furthermore, the Iranians view the West's reluctance to use force against them as a lack of will and proof that Iran is moving in the right direction.

There are so many examples of this mindset in the rhetoric of the Iranian leadership that it is quite amazing to consider how little of that affects the way the media refers to the Iranian issue.

Let me just mention some of President Ahmadinejad's declarations in recent weeks. For example when he paid a visit to his Syrian counterpart, President Bashar Al Assad, in early May he said that "Alongside the resistance and steadfastness, we must also strive to create a new world order; otherwise new oppressive regimes will emerge." He called the West's fundamental values "inhuman and belonging to past decades," and insisted that "The philosophy and order that emerged after World War II have come to the end of their road, and [the West] is unable to offer solutions for the world's problems."

Now granted, this may sound silly to Western ears – that we are inhuman and oppressive in comparison with Syria and Iran. But the media censors this material because they either don't take it seriously, or they don't want people to draw the wrong conclusions from it.

Ahmadinejad also added: "today the circumstances in the world and in the region are rapidly changing. Those who, for many years, said that Iran and Syria must be pressured, and wanted to prevent [them] from defending the rights of the peoples in the region, now openly declare that they require the help of Tehran and Damascus in solving their problems. Today we are beginning to move on the path of triumph, and even greater victories lie ahead." Note how Ahmadinejad interprets US desire to negotiate as a sign to press their own advantage.

In a recent speech in Kerman Ahmadinejad announced that Iran was drawing up a new package of proposals for negotiations surrounding the country's nuclear program. He emphasized that the West was weak, and could not force anything on Iran. "If the United States wants dialogue, there must first be a withdrawal of all Western forces, the destruction of the West's entire nuclear arsenal, and respect for Iran's right to its nuclear program," he said, and added. "Nearly 7,000 centrifuges are spinning today at Natanz, mocking you."

"The Iranian nation will not accept domination from oppressive powers," said Ahmadinejad, dressed in his trademark lightcolored jacket and dark trousers as young men and women chanted "Ahmadi! Ahmadi!" "We have to build an Iran that will have a role in directing the future of the world," he added as the crowd kept shouting. Again, some may wish to dismiss this as "mere rhetoric," but is the media acting responsibly when it suppresses the public's awareness of the problem?

There are so many examples of this mindset in the rhetoric of the Iranian leadership that it is quite amazing to consider that none of this gets reported to the Western public in the mainstream media and, more troubling, that the media doesn't even stop to reevaluate their positions.

How can the American public intelligently discuss major policy decisions that could have major consequences for the entire world, when the mainstream media withholds basic information that would enable them to conduct a serious analysis of the problem?

Moderates vs. Radicals

The second area that deserves our attention, where the mainstream media misrepresents the evidence, is in addressing the tension that exists between the radicals and the pragmatists in the Middle East. The mainstream media almost unanimously adopts two basic approaches.

One is the dramatically unempirical notion that the radicals are but a tiny minority, while the vast majority of Muslims embrace the same moderate principles of peace, prosperity and coexistence that we exalt in the West.

The second, perhaps more realistic approach, rests on the following principles: (1), Radicals are the true representatives of the Middle Eastern society while the pragmatists are too weak to be expected to do anything; (2), the reason for this unfortunate situation is because of the Western policy of confrontation; and, therefore (3), the way to stop the radicals is to engage in dialogue with them and simultaneously strengthen the pragmatists by giving them concessions.

This approach does begin correctly by recognizing that the radicals have succeeded to a large extent in influencing the way Middle Easterners perceive themselves and how they relate to the rest of the world. But then it errs by suggesting that the radicals are ascendant primarily because of the behavior of the West which has supposedly alienated a potentially moderate public. This type of reporting works to the advantage of both the radicals and the pragmatists. Indeed, it turns the weakness of the pragmatists into their most valuable asset.

Both the radicals and the pragmatists take full advantage of the Western response to avoid accountability and expect the West to keep feeding them with more and more money and concessions, especially those that come at Israel's expense. Since this policy has proven quite successful in recent years and since Middle Easterners consider the new administration even more committed to this set of assumptions than its predecessors, the Middle Easterners have bigger expectations and less readiness to change their way of action.

The reaction in the Arab world to President Obama's reconciliation speech last week was very indicative of this approach. The audience was very receptive and supportive to those words they considered a move towards them but very cold at any mention of the need to give up the use of violence or to accept Israel's right to exist. The pragmatists show no intention to adopt these advices but expect the administration to follow up on its demands from Israel.

In fact, the pragmatists constitute quite a large part of the Middle Easterners and, with proper encouragement; they can play a major role in controlling the radicals. This was proven again in the impressive victory of the opponents of Iran, Hezbollah and Syria in the Lebanese elections. I would like very much to see the Lebanese leadership follow this achievement, that reflects their understanding that Israel is not their enemy, with an initiative towards normalizing the relations with Israel, but I doubt if this is going to happen, bearing in mind that the main reason for the pragmatists' animosity towards the United States and to some extent even towards Israel has very little to do with the reality of the way they are treated by the Americans or the Israelis, and much more with their being persuaded by the radical's propaganda which portrays all shortcomings of Muslim society as the outcome of a Western plot against them.

 

It is counterproductive for the West to make more and more concessions and to continue to express regret and contrition.

Thus, despite the best of intentions, it is counterproductive for the West to make more and more concessions and to continue to express regret and contrition, since this "mea culpa" attitude just plays into the hands of the radicals and strengthens their claim about the plot. In the West, we expect that concessions and apologies will lead to reciprocal moves on their part. In the Middle East, it just strengthens their convictions of victimhood and their resolve to restore their honor.

One case which illustrates the dangers of this media-promoted approach is the claim that the Palestinian Israeli conflict is the most important issue for Middle Easterners and that it has to be solved in order to convince the pragmatists to overcome the radicals and help the West and Israel in confronting Iran. But let's seriously look at that claim. In fact, radicalism in the Middle East began long before the establishment of the state of Israel, and was always characterized by anti-Western feelings and was the reason for many wars between rival Arab and Muslim camps that had nothing to do with the Israeli Palestinian conflict.

To sum up these issues, Iran is the main reason for instability in the region. The combination of the strengthening of the radicals and progress on the Iranian nuclear project, both of which are emboldened by the media's selective coverage of these issues, are the main threat to Israeli and American security and other interests. As long as the radicals feel that they are marching towards victory we can not afford to show signs of weakness. They will only make our job harder.

The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there is again a set of so-called facts that have become a conventional wisdom that largely goes unchallenged.

The first is that this is primarily a territorial conflict and therefore there must be a solution for this conflict that can be achieved within a short period of time. The media, and with it most Western politicians, wish to believe that if the obstacle for achieving this solution will be removed – such as by conceding territory – a solution will be easy to reach.

Second, the only possible solution is a ‘two state solution' – in which one state is a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank, or Judea and Samaria as we call it, and the other is the state of Israel.

And third, the Israeli "occupation" and settlement activity are major obstacles for moving towards this inevitable solution and – as I mentioned before - for mobilizing the pragmatic states to the fight against the radicals.

 

There's asymmetry between Israeli recognition of  Palestinian self determination and  Palestinian recognition of Israel's existence.

 These assumptions stood behind the Oslo process, and its failure indicates that they deserve to be reexamined. Such examination will reveal that, whereas the Israelis were really ready for this kind of a solution, including myself, the Palestinians do not accept that ‘the two state solution' refers to two states for two peoples. In their view one state should be the Palestinian state and the national identity of the other state should remain undefined, so that in the future it can become a Palestinian state as well. Abu Mazen's public statement a few weeks ago that he would never recognize Israel as a Jewish state, (just as he refused to recognize a Jewish state before Annapolis), was but another, more recent manifestation of this approach.

This means that there's an asymmetry between the Israeli recognition of the Palestinian demand for self determination and the Palestinian recognition of the existence of Israel. As professor Bernard Lewis has put it before the Annapolis summit: "What is the conflict about?" There are basically two possibilities: that it is about the size of Israel, or about its existence. If the issue is about the size of Israel, then we have a straightforward border problem, like Alsace-Lorraine or Texas. That is to say, not easy, but possible to solve in the long run, and to live with in the meantime. If, on the other hand, the issue is the existence of Israel, then clearly it is insoluble by negotiation. There is no compromise position between existing and not existing, and no conceivable government of Israel is going to negotiate on whether that country should or should not exist."

It is obvious that a solution cannot be realized before there is a change in the Palestinian position and the Palestinians accept Israel's right to exist in peace and security as a Jewish state. The reason the Palestinians refuse to accept this is because for them this is not a territorial dispute, but an existential conflict. The media's failure to report this most basic point, the evidence of it, and the implications of it, creates a dangerously misleading portrayal of the situation and prospects for its resolution. Peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan were signed without addressing this fundamental issue because unlike the case with the Palestinians, we do not share the same land with them. Regarding the obstacles that prevented the implementation of ‘the two state solution' I would argue that the settlement activity was never a serious obstacle to peace. Israel proved several times that it is ready to reverse its settlement activity both in the framework of an agreement or unilaterally. In contrast, the Palestinian reaction to Israeli withdrawals has demonstrated time and again that the dismantling of Israeli settlements or the Israeli withdrawal from territory does not yield peace, but rather more warfare.

Instead of using the implementation of the Oslo agreement as an opportunity to prepare the state institutions, Arafat preferred to establish an authority of gangs, without accountability, allowing freedom of action to terror organizations, and so did Abu Mazen, who turned his weakness into a strategic asset that enabled him to escape accountability.

 

Palestinians need to address their lack of preparedness in assuming the responsibilities of a state.

 Following Israel's unilateral disengagement from Gaza, which uprooted nearly ten thousand Jewish people from more than twenty living communities, leaving not a single Israeli settlement or person remaining on Gazan territory, Palestinians had another opportunity to prove that ending the Israeli occupation would lead to fundamental change and bring peace. Yet, the opposite occurred. Terror activities continued and proved that the problem is not the occupation or the settlements. The lessons that we can learn from all of this are that a permanent settlement of the conflict is not easy to achieve as long as the Palestinians do not remove the real obstacles to peace: namely, by accepting Israel as a Jewish state, by stopping terror activity and incitement, and by addressing the lack of preparedness of the Palestinian authority to assume the responsibilities of a state – governability, monopoly over the use of force, security and economic stability. Without these issues being fully addressed, the creation of a Palestinian state will lead to the establishment of an unstable terror entity on the border of Israel that will threaten not only Israel's security but the stability of moderate states in the region, especially Jordan and American interests in the Middle East.

So, what is the Israeli policy in view of these realities? First, Israel considers itself a part and parcel of the free world and is committed to its strategic friendship with the United States. Just like the new administration, we too believe that friends should be candid with each other. We also believe that since we are living in the Middle East and that we will face the consequences of any policy most directly; it is our duty to explain to our American friends our concerns.

Practically we believe that the radical threat to the world order is the most dangerous challenge of our time. North Korea is a big challenge but the repercussions of a nuclear Iran are much more severe. We consider the prevention of this dangerous development a necessity. If this can be achieved through negotiations and dialogue it's wonderful, but since we doubt it very much we believe that the free world, under the leadership of the United States, has to prepare all the options to deal with this problem and make it clear that it will be ready to use them if it deems it necessary. A credible threat is probably the only effective way to make the Iranians carefully reconsider the direction of their project, and may make them choose another course.

We believe that the pragmatists in the Middle East should, and are ready to, contribute to halting the Iranian nuclear program and to countering the strengthening of the radicals, and that Western concessions are counterproductive toward that process. Likewise, the Palestinian issue has no relationship to it either.

On the other hand, we do believe that such pragmatists have an important role to play in the Palestinian context by adopting the solution of two states for two peoples' and helping to promoting the preparedness of the Palestinians to assume responsibility. Finally, in regard to the Palestinian issue, we have no intention or will to govern the Palestinians and run their daily life. We want to have a stable peace and for that purpose we are ready to consider further ways to disengage and contribute to the ability of the PA to control the territories under its responsibility in a way that does not threaten the state of Israel. At the same time we believe that an almost exclusively top down approach that characterized the way the Palestinian issue was handled under the Oslo and Annapolis processes should be replaced by a determined performance based, bottom up approach that characterized the road map, which would focus first on building the necessary infrastructure for peace. We have spoken much over the past few years about dismantling the infrastructure of terror. Let us begin to talk about building an infrastructure for peace.

This should include five reforms within the Palestinian authority, which at this stage can be performed only in the West Bank:

1. Educational reform, whereby the PA will stop educating its people to deny any connection between the Jewish people and the land of Israel, stop treating Zionism as a colonialist movement and every Israeli town or village (including Tel-Aviv) as an illegal settlement. This reform has to include stopping the incitement in the media, the mosques and the public discourse as well as an end to raising kindergarten children to hate Israelis and to carry out suicide bombing attacks against the infidel.

2. Economic reform that would focus on strengthening the role of the private sector in the economy and fight corruption. The irresponsible system in which money collected from poor people in rich countries helps rich people in a poor area to become even more rich has to stop.

3. Political reform that would promote an adequate governing culture by strengthening civil society and emphasizing the values of free speech, human rights, and other universal values.

4. Law and order reform which should lead to the implementation of the concept of "one authority, one law, one weapon" – namely, the existence of a strong police and law enforcement system. We fully approve and support in this respect the efforts led by General Dayton.

5. Security reform under which there will be a unification of the security apparatuses and a full range of activities against terrorism including: intelligence collection, thwarting activity, investigations, putting to trial of suspects and imprisonment of convicted terrorists. It's not clear whether this process is going to be successful. Its success depends first and foremost on the Palestinian leadership, which until now failed in establishing an accountable political entity. The international community should encourage the Palestinians to make progress in this direction through the use of carrots and sticks and not via the provision of unconditional economic aid and blanket political and diplomatic support. Only when the Palestinians give up this hope of destroying Israel and accept Israel's right to live in peace as a Jewish state will there be a chance to have peace between us and the Palestinians. This is the essence of the change that Prime Minister Netanyahu is trying to promote.

Conclusion

But if we are to succeed in bringing about this change and advancing peace, we must all be ready to challenge the conventional wisdom. I know that challenging conventional wisdom is not easy and that there is a price to pay for it. But I do not demand of others what I do not demand myself.

As head of military intelligence, I, a member of the Kibbutz movement, was a believer in Oslo, a believer that it could bring about the peace for which we have waited so long. But when I looked at the evidence, at all the facts, I could not turn my back on the truth. And when I saw the dangers that the disengagement from Gaza would pose to Israel's security, I could not turn my back on the truth.

I believe that we always have to look reality squarely in the eye and that we must let the evidence lead us to our conclusions, however difficult those conclusions might be.

The reality may be difficult for us to accept. It does not lend itself to simple answers. But if we are prepared to face it honestly, then I am convinced that we can begin to change it for the better -- and we can start heading down the path to a genuine and lasting peace.

 

Published: June 13, 2009


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Visitor Comments: 12

(12) Paul Tait, June 19, 2009 5:22 AM

Education is the key

It is paramount that the material taught to Palestinian children is changed to remove the hate filled invective it currently contains. This can only be achieved however when other so called moderate Arab states take the lead. A quick look at the Saudi educational system betrays the same level of anti-semetic thought. The young hold the key.

(11) Sean, June 18, 2009 3:17 AM

They are your neighbours, whether you like it or not.

I applaud the men and women, who helped Israel carve out its international borders, and secure a homeland. However, every winner generates sore losers and the anti-israel retoric is a popular political mantra and helps cover up the lack of effective Arab leadership. They will probably never love you, but they can learn to respect you as a fair neighbour. The whole Arab world including Hamas, have made overtures. Now you need leaders who can deliver peace and security. The only question is where are you going to find them, the current lot are a sorry bunch. Obama's crew are making positive noises for a change, let's hope some change is in the air.

(10) Anonymous, June 17, 2009 2:58 PM

The Iranian/Palestinian Issue

The Arab nations have said for many years that they wanted to annihilate Israel & Jews & send them into the sea. Prior to Arafat the Israelis & Arabs got along very well. When Arafat & his cohorts promised to destroy Israel & train children hatred & suicide bombings he stopped a chance for peace. The more land Israel gives up the stronger the hatred becomes. Isn't it ironic that all the surrounding Arabic coiuntries have never offered any land to their own people. They don't care about their people suffering they only care about the destruction of Israel & Jews.

(9) Andy, June 17, 2009 10:06 AM

Sean you need to start living with reality

"You start with the premise that the majority of Palestinian are normal non-radical human beings" If that was the truth it seems to me this conflict would have been solved long ago. Keeping that in mind most Israelis try and do treat Arabs with respect.It's a challenge since their national heros are murderers [they say freedom fighters] and their democratically elected leaders continue to persue the dream of eliminating the Jewsih State.

(8) Sean, June 17, 2009 5:38 AM

Peace begins with respect.

Nice words but same ole, same ole.

Israel has had 42 years to resolve the Gaza/West Bank issue and 60 years to attempt an answer to the refugees. The reality is that actions such as settlers, military excess, bias, lack of compassion and respect, are the main educational policies for the other side.

Its obvious that Israel''s security is the major issue for Israel, and obviously a bigger Gaza on the West Bank is unacceptable. So how do you turn an adversary into a good neighbour.

You start with respect, show them respect and compassion. Help them lead normal lives, remove the injustices, help build their economy, help build the institutions, help to get the most blatant corruption out of their society. The US, EU and oil states will fund it, you need to help together, with other acceptable parties, to manage the process.

You start with the premise that the majority of Palestinian are normal non-radical human beings. Treat them as such.

Israel, you are powerful militarily and economically, you don''t need their recognition, you need to earn their respect. They are not going away, but you jepardize your future if you ignore the injustice of your current approach.
Good luck


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