No sensible person is against peacemaking in the Holy Land. But 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 in parts of the State Department, in various think tanks, by editorial writers and Sunday talk-show hosts.
But the pan-Arabism that once made the Palestinian cause the region’s cause is long dead. 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.
One might argue that if the Arab dictators were deprived of the Great Excuse, they might begin to rule with greater concern for their constituents’ needs. But why should they be allowed to wait – in the meantime cynically selling their people the Israel Myth – especially since the wait is apt to be long?
The Baker commission report’s airy prescription for frog-marching Israelis and Palestinians into new peace talks perpetuates another persistent fiction: that U.S. involvement is the key to a breakthrough. That contradicts the real-life story of all three of the major peace agreements Israel has signed, with the Egyptians, Palestinians, and Jordanians. Each was the result of bold initiatives not by Washington but by local leaders, when conditions were ripe. In all three cases, the accords were the product of negotiations begun in secret behind the backs of the Americans.