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It’s democracy, stupid

Peace in the Middle East cannot occur until Arab dictatorships are abolished

HAS THE STATE Department learned nothing from last summer’s failed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations at Camp David?

Violence in the Middle East has escalated since that fiasco, in which former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak offered to share control of Jerusalem and much of the West Bank and Gaza with the Palestinian Authority, only to hear Palestinian chairman Yasir Arafat reject it. But the State Department has recently condemned Israel in heavy-handed terms — saying it "deplored" Israel’s rocket strikes on Hamas leaders and calling the attack a "new and dangerous escalation of violence." This language is much harsher than that used toward Arafat for his inability to prevent terrorist attacks such as the June suicide bombing at a Tel Aviv nightclub (which killed 21 Israeli teens), the wounding of 10 in Tel Aviv by a Palestinian gunman, and a July suicide bombing at the start of the Israeli Olympics, the Maccabiah. Under President George W. Bush, the State Department seems to believe it can intimidate more concessions from Israel than it can from Arafat. But what more can the State Department hope for than what Israel offered last summer?

At worst, Bush’s policy reflects the same fundamental insensitivity to Israel — motivated by the administration’s pro-oil tilt — that prevailed under the last President Bush. The State Department is slavishly promoting the plan proffered by former senator George Mitchell in May as a solution to the current impasse: the Palestinians end violence and the Israelis end settlement activity in the West Bank. There is nothing wrong with Israel’s ultimately ending its settlement activity — or uprooting its settlements altogether (it has shown willingness to do this in the past) — as part of a comprehensive peace agreement. But the Mitchell Report disingenuously equates the Palestinian violence with the Israeli settlements. This rewards Arafat for refusing Barak’s generous offer at Camp David.

Such a strategy will not work.

The Bush administration must apply pressure to all nations in the Middle East. It’s true that some Arab countries are allies of the United States. Egypt, for instance, receives over $2 billion in American aid annually. But many Arab nations — including Egypt, which signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1977 — have fanned the flames of war, especially over the past year. Shortly after Arafat rejected Barak’s offer — when he famously asked then-president Bill Clinton, "Do you want to attend my funeral?" — Arafat traveled directly to Egypt to visit with President Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak praised Arafat for refusing to make a deal involving Jerusalem. "No single person in the Arab or Islamic world can squander East Jerusalem or al-Aqsa mosque," Mubarak said at the time. "In this context, even Arafat himself will not dare to sign a deal to give up these Muslim sanctities."

Mubarak’s voice is considered one of moderation in the Arab world. He hasn’t gone nearly as far, for example, as Bashar Assad, the young president of Syria. When Pope John Paul II visited Syria in May, Assad had this to say about Israel and Jews: "They tried to kill the principles of all religions with the same mentality in which they betrayed Jesus Christ and the same way they tried to betray and kill the Prophet Muhammad." Even Saudi Arabia, the reportedly moderate Gulf state allied with the US, has been fomenting hatred. Recently, the Saudi ambassador to the United Kingdom, Ghazi al-Quseibi, urged the need for war with Israel in the pages of Al-Hayat, an Arabic daily published in London, according to the Middle East Media Research Institute. (Al-Quseibi signed the column in his unofficial capacity, whatever that means.) "What could be better than a repetition of what happened in 1973," wrote the ambassador, referring to the time Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Israel during Yom Kippur. "What we need is Egyptian-Syrian cooperation, with the back-up of the oil states and their oil."

It’s important to know that all this rhetoric is used amid a climate that sees Egyptian newspaper columnists routinely invoke the Protocols of the Elders of Zion — an anti-Semitic document forged by secret agents of Russia’s Tsar Nicholas II almost 100 years ago — to support their anti-Israel tirades. Nobel Peace Prize recipient and noted dove Shimon Peres is compared with Adolf Hitler in the Egyptian press. And columnists promote the old blood-libel charges that have provoked persecution of Jews for centuries — that Jews use the blood of Gentile children for religious rituals and the preparation of matzoh.

Incredibly, these nations are pushing their agenda at an upcoming United Nations conference in Durban, South Africa, dubbed the "Conference Against Racism." During the meeting, Egypt, the Palestinian Authority, Iraq, Iran, and Libya, among others, will make a mockery of anti-discriminatory ideals by trying to reintroduce UN language condemning Zionism as racism. Such excoriation in an international forum pits Israel against the world — at a time when it should be made to feel secure enough to pursue peace.

The tough language and the talk of war — much of it encouraged by Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein — is meant primarily to do one thing: distract citizens of Arab nations from the fact that they live in dictatorships, rather than democracies like those in the United States and Israel (which includes members of its Arab population in its parliament). Mubarak may be a "president," but he is consistently elected by margins in the mid-to-high 90s, with no opposition. The young Assad inherited his mantle from his father, Hafez al-Assad, and the new Hashemite king of Jordan, Abdullah II, inherited his power as well.

The Bush administration should pull away from its focus on Israel and the Palestinians — a focus that has dominated Middle East peace discussion for decades — and promote democracy everywhere in the Middle East. If America is going to criticize Israel with any credibility, the same sharp eye should be cast on the non-democratic institutions that permeate the entire Arab world — and that includes the Palestinian Authority, the so-called Arab moderates, and the elder Bush’s erstwhile nemesis, Saddam Hussein.

Only then will peace have a chance.

Note to our readers:

With this issue, the Boston Phoenix and its sister publication, Stuff@Night, will no longer be available by news box in the Back Bay. Last April, the Back Bay Architectural Commission voted to ban news boxes from its district. As we’ve noted in the past (see Editorial, News and Features, April 26), we think this ban is wrong: all the news boxes in question were situated not in the more historically pristine residential areas, but in commercial zones — primarily the bustling thoroughfares of Newbury and Boylston Streets. We are also disheartened by the complete lack of opposition to this ban from the city council and state legislature, as well as by the lack of action to put in place "street furniture" as a substitute means of distribution. But we have complied with the new policy and have redistributed news boxes formerly located in the Back Bay throughout the surrounding area.

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Issue Date: August 9-16, 2001

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