Monday, March 9, 2009

Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick

Roger Cohen, a columnist at the New York Times, has a political agenda. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with that, of course. I've got a political agenda; most people who care about the unfolding story of humanity do. Being open about it is important, of course; holding up your positions and sources to scrutiny is even better.

Recently, Cohen visited some Jews in Iran, and deduced all sorts of far-reaching things from his visit. Jeffery Goldberg facilitated a visit for him with a community of Jews from Iran, now in Los Angeles; one assumes the narrative he'll hear in LA will be mildly different than the one he heard in Teheran, and we hope Cohen will tell us about this in a reasonable manner. You can follow this story as it unfolds either at the New York Times or at Goldberg's place, whichever.

Yesterday, Cohen published what he called a "reality check" about things in the Mideast.

The United States should follow the British example. It should initiate diplomatic contacts with the political wing of Hezbollah. The Obama administration should also look carefully at how to reach moderate Hamas elements and engineer a Hamas-Fatah reconciliation.

A rapprochement between the two wings of the Palestinian movement was briefly achieved at Mecca in 2007. The best form of payback from America’s expensive and authoritarian allies — Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan — would be help in reconciling Gaza Palestinians loyal to Hamas with West Bank Palestinians loyal to the more moderate Fatah of Mahmoud Abbas.

Now, I'm going to surprise some of you, or perhaps not, by being in favor of talks with Hamas. I don't think enemies need to pretend they aren't there, and if they can find anything to talk about: by all means, why not. Perhaps they'll stop being enemies, which would be great. If not, there's always the possibility one can wrangle some practical benefit from talking. The Zionists wrung some interesting concessions from the Nazis in the mid-1930s Haavara agreement; in 1944 and 1945 there were some marginal things that could have been achieved from talking to the SS, and even were achieved in April 1945.

No talking to the Nazis, however, would have prevented the Shoah. The Nazis murdered millions of Jews because they wanted to, not because the Jews weren't talking to them or weren't being nice.

I've got some arguments with Cohen about his facts, but my real argument with him is about this:

Israel, from the time of Ben Gurion, built its state by creating facts on the ground, not through semantics. Many of its leaders, including Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni, have been on wondrous political odysseys from absolutist rejection of division of the land to acceptance of a two-state solution. Yet they try to paint Hamas as irrevocably absolutist. Why should Arabs be any less pragmatic than Jews? (my italics)

Why indeed? That's the fundemental question, indeed, one of the most important questions facing mankind in the early 21st century. Cohen believes the answer is that Arabs aren't any different from Jews (or Americans, or Brits, or even Chinese far that matter). Since they're just like us, yet some of them behave so nastily, it must be because we're doing things to them that make them nasty; since we're responsible, we need to be better.

I, on the other hand, am stuck with the question. Why is it, indeed, that Arabs (or at any rate, many of them, and many of their regimes), are less pragmatic than Jews (or Americans, or Brits, or even Chinese, for that matter)?

So, while I'm in favor of talking to whomever is willing to talk to us, I insist on keeping the big stick within easy reach. Some of the people we'll be willing to talk to, after all, won't be willing to talk back. With others, there's nothing we can talk about. What could the Cambodians with eyeglasses have talked about with their Khmer Rouge murderers? (Yes, wearing eyeglasses was a capital offense). What could the Armenians have talked about with their Turk murderers 90 years ago? What could millions of Ukrainians have talked about with their Soviet murderers 8 decades ago?

Speak softly, but carry a big stick, as Teddy said.


Anonymous said...

Yaacov, you've hit on one of my major complaints about the Middle East, the absence of pragmatism everywhere except Israel.

The contrast is especially bleak with respect to Asia. Look at Vietnam. We devastated their country in an unnecessary war, and now we have great relations and the Vietnamese can't get enough trade and investment with the U.S. Look at China. The Chinese have spent decades threatening Taiwan with their powerful military - but at the same time they've welcomed Taiwanese investment in China and are signing travel agreements and other agreements to facilitate two-way trade and tourism. Beijing still considers Taiwan part of the PRC but is willing to put that issue on hold because of the economic advantage it can gain.

Then there's the Mideast. Sigh. Israel's neighbors are more than happy to sacrifice their and their children's future to an unwinnable war against the most economically and technologically successful country in the region, the one that would be happy to provide investment and educational opportunities to their Arab neighbors, that could propel the region to greater prosperty and well-being, all for the price of stopping the rocket fire and bus bombings. But that is too much to ask.

If the Arabs of the Middle East had a fraction of the pragmatism of the Chinese and Vietnamese, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would have been resolved decades ago.


Jack Steiner said...

The incessant need some people have to infantilize the Palestinians has done immeasurable harm to the prospects of bringing peace.

I don't have a problem with interaction with enemies as long as we understand what we are doing and why.

Anonymous said...

A full fisking of this article can be found here

Anonymous said...

from Robrt Graves' telling of Lawrence and the Arabs I learnt that Lawrence had to keep certain tribes separate by inserting another group between them when attacking a train because even the prospect of rich and desperately needed bounty would not keep them from forgetting about the attack and instead resorting to fighting eachother - sounds like irrational behaviour to me but could have become the custom only if it was useful in their time and place - therefore I think that today there must be someone (Iran? Shiites?) who profits from keeping the tradition of strife alive and - by the way - so much about that saying of I and my brother against our counsins, we and our cousins against ... - at least with Lawrence it didn't work

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