Sunday, July 16, 2006

Chibli Mallat vs. Rami Khouri on the Lebanese/Israeli crisis (Daily Star)

It is interesting and instructive to compare two recent pieces on the Lebanese/Israeli crisis in Lebanon's premier English-language newspaper, the Daily Star. Each is illuminating in its own way.

=> The first is an intelligent and sensible piece by Lebanese lawyer, political analyst, and human-rights activist Chibli Mallat. I reproduced his piece in a previous post, Chibli Mallat on the Lebanese/Israeli crisis . As I said there, the title given to Mallat's article, "Nasrallah has dismissed international law", is misleading--not because it's inaccurate per se, but because it captures only one part of his argument. Actually, he has harsh judgments and plausibly constructive proposals for the whole range of actors involved in the current crisis. I don't agree with Mallat in every detail, but I do think that both his analysis and his overall package of proposals point generally in the right direction. These proposals, alas, will almost certainly have no practical influence ... but they're worth considering nevertheless.

=> The second is a piece by the Executive Editor of the Daily Star, Rami Khouri, "The 4 pairs in the Middle East's death dance". Khouri is definitely not a propagandist or a wild-eyed ideologue. He is a serious, well informed, and generally sober journalist. In this case, however, the difference between Mallat's analysis and Khouri's is quite striking, despite some superficial similarities. Mallat's analysis is mostly realistic and perceptive (even though his proposals are probably too sensible and reasonable to be viable), whereas Khouri's analysis is ultimately quite misleading and even delusional--unfortunately in representative and typical ways.

As one would expect from Rami Khouri, the analysis is intelligent and sensible up to a point ... but only up to a point. Then, at key points in the argument, it suddenly swerves away from any contact with reality. For example:
Israel has this to show for its track record of being tough: It is now surrounded by two robust Islamist resistance movements [Hamas & Hizbullah] with greater striking power and popular support; Arab populations around the region that increasingly vote for Islamist political movements whenever elections are held; immobilized and virtually irrelevant Arab governments in many nearby lands; and, determined, increasingly defiant, ideological foes in Tehran and Damascus who do not hesitate to use all weapons at their means, however damaging these may be to civilians and sovereignty in Lebanon and Palestine.
It's worth examining this passage carefully, because it is typical and emblematic.
Israel has this to show for its track record of being tough: It is now surrounded by two robust Islamist resistance movements with greater striking power and popular support; [....]
OK, so far the causal connections being suggested are quite plausible, whether or not one agrees completely with Khouri's conclusions. But then Khouri goes on ...
[....] Arab populations around the region that increasingly vote for Islamist political movements whenever elections are held; immobilized and virtually irrelevant Arab governments in many nearby lands; and, determined, increasingly defiant, ideological foes in Tehran and Damascus who do not hesitate to use all weapons at their means, however damaging these may be to civilians and sovereignty in Lebanon and Palestine.
All those are consequences of Israeli policies? The rise of political Islam, "immobilized and virtually irrelevant Arab governments," Iran's foreign policies, and so on? Is that how Khouri would explain, for example, the murderous Algerian civil war of the 1990s between Islamist fanatics and the military dictatorship? Yes, I know that millions of people in the Arab world sincerely believe that Israel and "Zionism" are somehow the cause of all their problems (not just the cause of the Palestinians' problems, but the cause of bad government faulty sewer systems in their own countries). This belief is a social fact with real consequences. But it is delusional. People like Khouri do no one any favors by continuing to promote this delusional world-view.

In his final paragraph, Khouri repeats this swerve away from reality most dramatically. Again, he starts out plausibly:
As long as these four pairs of main actors persist in their intemperate policies, the consequences will remain grim. The way to break this cycle is for all actors to negotiate a political solution that responds to their legitimate grievances and demands.
I agree completely. Then he goes over the edge.
Everyone involved seems prepared to do this, except for Israel and the US, who rely on military force, prolonged occupations, and diplomatic sanctions and threats. What will Israel and the US do when there are no more Arab airports, bridges and power stations to destroy?
Everyone "except for Israel and the US" is ready to do this? Hamas, Hizbullah, Damascus, Tehran? Only "Israel and the US" are "intemperate" and unreasonable? What planet is Khouri living on? (And what, precisely, are the "legitimate grievances" that Hizbullah has against Israel? Name one.) Sorry, but to describe all this as pure fantasy would be overly generous.

But this is not just Khouri's personal fantasy. What is most striking, illuminating, and depressing is the fact that this sort of drivel sounds plausible and common-sensical to so many people--including serious, intelligent, and basically well-intentioned analysts like Rami Khouri. Unfortunately, that helps to explain some reasons (though of course not the only ones) why the problems of the region are so intractable.

Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub

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