No sensible person is against peacemaking in the Holy Land. Applause and hopefulness would seem the reasonable reaction to the Iraq Study Group's recommendation that the Bush Administration "act boldly" and "as soon as possible" to resolve the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians. But as a front-row observer of similar efforts over the past 15 years, I could muster neither response. In lumping the Iraq mess in with the Palestinian problem--and suggesting the first could not be fixed unless the second was too--the Baker-Hamilton commission lent credibility to a corrosive myth: that the fundamental problem in the Arab world is the plight of the Palestinians.
It is a falsehood perpetuated not just by the likes of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, who came late to the slogan after their actual beefs--Saddam with his neighbors; bin Laden with the Saudi royals--gained insufficient traction in the Arab world. The mantra is also repeated like an axiom in the U.S.--in parts of the State Department, in various think tanks, by editorial writers and Sunday talk-show hosts.
Yes, it was a great disturbance in the Arab world in the 1940s when a Jewish state was born through a U.N. vote and a war that made refugees of many Palestinians. Then the 1967 war left Israel in control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and thus the Palestinians who lived there. But the pan-Arabism that once made the Palestinian cause the region's cause is long dead, and the Arab countries have their own worries aplenty. In a decade of reporting in the region, I found it rarely took more than the arching of an eyebrow to get the most candid of Arab thinkers to acknowledge that the tears shed for the Palestinians today outside the West Bank and Gaza are of the crocodile variety. Palestinians know this best of all.
To promote the canard that the troubles of the Arab world are rooted in the Palestinians' misfortune does great harm. It encourages the Arabs to continue to avoid addressing their colossal societal and political ills by hiding behind their Great Excuse: it's all Israel's fault. Certainly, Israel has at times been an obnoxious neighbor, but God help the Arab leaders, propagandists and apologists if a day ever comes when the Arab-Israeli mess is unraveled. One wonders how they would then explain why in Egypt 4 of every 10 people are illiterate; Saudi Arabian Shi'ites (not to mention women) are second-class citizens; 11% of Syrians live below subsistence level; and Jordan's King can unilaterally dissolve Parliament, as he did in 2001. Or why no Middle Eastern government but Israel's and to some extent Lebanon's tolerates freedom of assembly or speech, or democratic institutions like a robust press or civic organizations with independence and clout--let alone unfettered competitive elections.