WASHINGTON -- In recent literature and film, myth, legend and grandiose fancy dominate the scene. From "The Return of the King" to Harry Potter at his magical school, we seem to be searching for some wondrous release from the cool and complicating realities of our world.
A similar reliance on fantasy has spilled over into foreign policy, nowhere more so than in the fictitious scheme the administration is calling the "Greater Middle East Initiative."
In the last few weeks, American diplomats have fanned out across the Middle East to sell this plan. Secretary of State Colin Powell has been talking with Arab leaders. The United States is building new TV stations to broadcast to the Arab world to back up the initiative. Might we really be at the moment of true historical change? I would advise you not to get too excited.
First of all, the Greater Middle East Initiative has been promoted by the Bush administration as a comprehensive effort, loosely coordinated with the Europeans through the G-8, to help bring economic growth and more tolerant, democratic governments to Muslim societies. The first draft, which was released in February through the Arab newspaper Al-Hayat in London (to the irk of the administration), is simply a nice list of nice things for Arabs to do: liberate women, create jobs, have transparent economies, encourage small businesses and in general, be nice.
It intelligently calls for a greater Middle East Development Bank modeled on Europe's postwar model, for translating Western classics into Arabic, and for $500 million to be given in loans to small entrepreneurs, especially women. (Nothing wrong with that!)
The entire initiative is based upon a ground-breaking report by respected Arab scholars such as Professor Clovis Maksoud of American University two years ago, essentially calling upon the Arab world to reach into its glorious past and reform for the future. (And surely, nothing wrong with that!)
You might well ask, then exactly what is wrong with it, Miss Complainy-Puss? I talked about it the other day with a prominent Persian Gulf ambassador here, from a progressive country that has even supported the U.S. in Iraq. "I went to the White House to talk to the National Security Council about the initiative," he told me, "and there is nothing at all -- at all -- about Israel and Palestine. And while it includes Arab countries from Marrakesh to Bangladesh and Turkey, it excludes Iran and Syria! So, nothing can come out of it."
That means that once again, the Bush people, backed up by the pro-Israeli Likud Party bloc in the administration, are still considering that Iran and Syria should be next for attack after we get out of Iraq and Afghanistan; and it means that they have conveniently (and in some cases, cynically) taken the Israeli-Palestinian conflict out of the pot.
On top of that, many Arab leaders are enraged because they say the Bush administration did not originally consult the countries it is supposedly seeking to reform. The New York Times just reported that "conspicuous by its absence in the draft is any significant increase in financial aid to the region, which might be used as leverage for effecting such changes." And European Union leaders are nonplused because they had already announced their own more complex program to push for democratic reforms in the region, while at the same time calling for tough measures to solve the Palestinian problem.
The absence of any mention of Israel/Palestine in the initiative is not accidental. This pro-Likud administration from the very start has defined the problem in the Middle East not as rooted in the cruelty and humiliations (on both sides) of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, but as a "clash of civilizations," Great American Democracy under attack by Evil Islamic Fundamentalism.
Remember when we went to war in Iraq? Not only were we going to "democratize" Iraq overnight, not only were we going to rout al-Qaida from the nurturing bed of Saddam, not only were we going to redraw the lines of the Middle East in the European-colonial style -- but all of that would make it possible for Israel, finally feeling safe, to make peace with the Palestinians. But the opposite has happened.
Today, the once sophisticated mercantile Palestinian community on the West Bank and Gaza is reverting to earlier, more primitive stages: militias, gang rule, clan breakdown. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has made sure that nothing has been done by his administration (despite the fact that this goes against the will of the majority of Israelis) to strengthen moderation among the Palestinians. How else could one possibly analyze his recently giving up 400-some Palestinian prisoners in an exchange, not to the moderate West Bank leaders at a critical moment when such an act could have saved them, but to the militant, virulent Hezbollah of Lebanon, which vows to wipe out Israel?
Ron Ben-Yishai, the defense and national security commentator for the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot and one of the most respected journalists in Israel, recently wrote this analysis for the Israeli Policy Forum here:
"Sharon now seeks to execute his plan of unilateral disengagement, which involves giving up most of the Gaza settlements and a few isolated West Bank settlements. He hopes that in so doing, Israel will secure U.S. approval for a long interim period during which a de facto annexation of most of the West Bank will take place. In other words, unilateral disengagement is just another name for Sharon's old plan of creating Palestinian enclaves on 24 percent to 45 percent of the West Bank while annexing the rest to Israel."
With this American house-of-mirrors involvement, that solution is rapidly moving toward critical mass. But as every serious analyst knows, there will be no Middle East peace -- and, perhaps even more serious, there can and will be no real development -- until the core questions of justice and humiliation in Israel/Palestine are solved. Until then, that "Greater Middle East Initiative" is just another mirage on the great Middle Eastern desert.
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