October 11, 2000

Imperial Meddling in Jerusalem

The most striking thing about the current violence in the Middle East is the manic meddling by various elements of the "international community," that floating craps game of diplomats, bureaucrats and experts who consider themselves the avatars of good sense and acceptable international behavior. Whether itís President Clinton frantically working the phones as if this were an election, Madeleine Albright summoning the principals to Paris and getting miffed that not everybody followed to Cairo, or UN Secretary General Kofi Annan sticking his two cents in and making appearances wherever a TV camera was in evidence, the fixers have been out in force.

Now I remember learning the theory of international relations in a nation-state system when I was in college. The theory is that each nation-state is sovereign in its own territory, with full authority to manage domestic affairs, while dealing with other sovereign states as at least theoretical equals. Obviously, some nations will be more powerful and influential than others, but to observe the forms properly even the powerful are supposed to pretend to respect the rights of smaller nations unless theyíre actually in a war or other overt conflict. And theoretically there are supposed to be rules for conducting wars properly as well.


But Bill Clinton, for example, is acting as if he were not simply elected President of the United States, but King of the World. He has treated the Middle East as if it were Arkansas or South Dakota. He has let it be known that he really, really wants a summit meeting on the Middle East, that heís terribly disappointed that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak doesnít seem awfully eager to host such a meeting.

In essence, then the President of the United States handles other countries as if they were imperial satrapies, subdivisions of the world government he heads rather than independent, sovereign entities whose leaders have supposedly the same authority and legitimacy he has. Instead of any pretense of treating other national leaders as equals whose rights and prerogatives are to be respected, he treats the leaders of the Middle East as something analogous to provincial governors who owe allegiance, loyalty and obedience to the President of the United States, who is in essence the worldís emperor.


To be sure, whether he has thought the matter through completely or not, there are some possible reasons for Mr. Clinton to believe he should be able to snap his fingers and have other leaders fall into line. He intervened heavily in Israeli politics, even dispatching campaign consultants, to defeat former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and support current prime minister Ehud Barak. The U.S. has provided substantial funding for Yasser Arafatís Palestinian Authority and has generally been solicitous of Palestinian demands.

So perhaps it is only natural for Mr. Clinton to figure that he who pays the piper calls the tune, and that the leaders of both sides owe him big-time and should pay respectful attention when he finds himself pondering deep Middle Eastern issues, as he does fitfully. Even so, the sheer arrogance with which Mr. Clinton and Ms. Albright even as they publicly acknowledge that these are difficult issues and the leaders must be attentive to their main constituencies and weíre just trying to help think they can swoop in and order people who have been struggling with deep-seated hostilities for centuries to straighten up and act like Americans or responsible World Citizens.


The appalling aspect is that in all likelihood all the well-meaning meddlers in the Middle East have made matters worse rather than better. It is becoming increasingly obvious, especially as larger-scale geopolitical considerations have receded, that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is a local matter, perhaps even a classic tribal dispute. The likelihood that Bill Clinton, Maddie Albright, Kofi Annan, and all their horses and men can solve it through will and veiled threats is close to nil.

To many it was clear at the time that Julyís Camp David meeting, where Mr. Clinton went through numerous gyrations (and came close to kidnapping the participants) to get any sort of paper agreement to burnish his legacy, was misconceived. It is becoming increasingly clear that by trying to force an agreement before its time, the process may well have exacerbated tensions and made the violence the world has deplored for the last two weeks more likely.

As Deborah Sontag of the New York Times wrote Monday, the violence of the past 10 days in Jerusalem and other disputed territories in the Middle East left many Israelis "staggered by this swift tumble from what seemed to be the brink of resolution back down into the depths of the elemental ethnic hatred at the root of their blood-soaked conflict." Many observers fear, as Ms. Sontag put it, that "from underneath, the longer the battle rages, a more primal conflict surfaces, too, tribe against tribe."


This notion of elemental tribalism coming to the fore after decades of what international leaders have chosen to call a "peace process" is certainly tragic and definitely unsettling. But as Leon Hadar, a scholar at the Cato Institute, teacher at American University, Washington correspondent, and author of "Quagmire: America in the Middle East," wrote here a few months ago, it might be most accurate to think of the current conflict as a tribal conflict and to recognize that outside observers and forces face extremely limited options until the two tribes get together and work out a practical means of living together.

The likelihood of a permanent, comprehensive peace characterized by mutual respect and amity might be low, but avoiding war is possible, especially if Kofi Annan, Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright and European leaders back off and reduce their frantic machinations.

In other words, Mr. Hadar told me in a conversation Monday, it would be prudent to lower our expectations and hope for the best without illusions.


For many decades most world leaders viewed the Middle East through Cold War lenses, with the area seen as a potential prize in the superpower struggle. The United States backed the Israelis (while lecturing and sometimes hectoring them) while the Soviet Union sought to curry favor with various Arab states. Every twist and turn in Middle Eastern politics seemed to carry life-and-death superpower implications.

"For many in the foreign policy and media establishments this new conflict seems almost like the old days coming back again, with familiar, almost comforting themes of great threats to world peace," Leon Hadar noted. "But how much can the United States and the United Nations really do, especially if they donít understand that this isnít like the old Cold War days but more like those much older, more deeply rooted conflicts that still have not been resolved."

It seems very much to be the case that the "international community," by raising expectations and by applying pressure at the recent Camp David meetings for an agreement the two parties werenít ready to accomplish, has contributed to this most recent outburst of killing in and around Israel.

Text-only printable version of this article

Alan Bock is Senior Essayist at the Orange County Register and a weekly columnist for WorldNetDaily. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995). He is also author of the forthcoming book Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press). His exclusive column now appears every Wednesday on Antiwar.com.

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I talked also with Laurie Brand, Director of the Center for International Studies at the University of Southern California. She reminded me that the issues on the table now are much more complex than was the case when President Carter sequestered Begin and Sadat at Camp David in 1979 a feat that seems to have become the model for conspicuous success among American politicians, and which virtually every American president since but especially Our Bill has tried to duplicate The issues revolving around a peace that has turned out to be a "cold peace" but a stable one between Egypt and Israel were fairly tough, involving military logistics and confidence-building gestures. But they were limited in scope. This was essentially a formal cease-fire at a time when no active hostilities were taking place. The Sinai was there as a buffer between the two countries. A modus vivendi was already in place on the ground.

Now the final status of Jerusalem, the most emotional, difficult, and possibly irresolvable question, is out there. There are religious sites sacred to both Jews and Muslims to consider. The protagonists are not separated by a huge desert but are right on the border. Thousands of Arabs live within the borders of Israel. There is little love lost and little trust between Israelis and Palestinians the recent outbursts seem more honest than the rote expressions of mutual respect but they are expected to move toward joint authority over certain territories and sites.

Laurie Brand notes that there are times to leave the protagonists alone in the Middle East and times to be available to help but Bill Clinton seems to do the opposite of what the situation on the ground calls for. He campaigned for Barak in Israel, then ignore the whole area for 18 months or so until he saw a main chance to build a legacy. But he picked a time when intervention was more likely to be harmful than helpful.


It is possible for an outsider to recognize legitimate grievances on both sides. Israel has occupied the West Bank since 1967, sometimes suppressing violence arising from Palestinian resentment of that fact brutally. Palestinian leaders dragged their feet on abandoning the old PLO resolution to destroy Israel utterly, and many Israelis doubt they have done so yet. Both sides have proceeded craftily and have broken promises.

While an outsider might understand or even empathize, none can become Israelis or Palestinians; outsiders canít apply a magic formula to erase centuries of distrust. As has become obvious in recent weeks, we canít buy peace with aid and promises. This is a tribal conflict, not a political campaign in a country with a long legacy of democratic rule. Working the phones and trying to broker an agreement, as an American Speaker of the House might have done to pass a highway bill, wonít get results here.

As outside forces maneuver frantically, facts on the ground might reduce some potential threats. The end of Yom Kippur marked the deadline imposed by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to stop violence by Palestinians. Mr. Barak decided to extend his deadline to formally declare the "peace process" over. As Mr. Hadar pointed out, what other options did he have? Israel could discover that its powerful military is unsuited to guerrilla war in neighboring territories and even inside the country, as the Russians have learned in Chechnya. But the Israelis probably know this already.

Meanwhile, although Egyptís President Mubarak and Saudi Arabiaís Crown Prince Abdullah may talk of supporting their Palestinian brethren, will they actually go to war with Israel for Yasser Arafat? Mr. Mubarak, after talking tough on Saturday, urged calm from Arab leaders on Sunday.


The United States and other powers might have a limited role to play once the two parties have decided to live in uneasy peace which, sadly, might not be for years. For now, the best bet is to recognize that a tribal dispute is unlikely to yield to outside pressure and perhaps take modest steps to reduce the chance of the conflict spreading as is certainly possible in Jordan and Lebanon.

Thatís not the "decisive action" international leaders might think is essential. But it could be the least harmful available option.

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