November 6, 2001

Muslim Hearts and Minds
Our Al Jazeera problem

This weekend I received a letter from an old friend, a retired American ambassador with long service in Europe and the Arab world. He was returning from several weeks spent in Morocco. Conversations with Arab friends had convinced him that Al-Jazeera has changed Arab life as much as the September 11 attacks has changed America's.

The Arab TV network is bringing into homes two potent sets of images: one conveying the destructiveness of the American war in Afghanistan, the other the injustices of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. As my friend put it:

"They see miserable Afghans struggling to escape our bombs; and maimed children without hospitals [are] being shown repeatedly on Al-Jazeera TV. The Palestinian plight is brought home by shots of Israeli bulldozers destroying West Bank olive orchards that took generations to grow. It really is not a pretty picture on their screens and there is no visible sign of hope."

Nor is it an encouraging indicator for the United States war on terror either, since success against the Al-Qaeda requires intelligence sharing and diplomatic cooperation with Arab governments who are sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and conscious of the mood within their own populations. No authoritarian ruler can safely ignore the sentiments of "the crowd" – a lesson from Europe's history as well as that of the Middle East.

To improve the picture, my friend recommends that the United States re-ignite the Arab-Israeli peace process – and then take firm steps to follow up on President Bush's comments about the desirability of a Palestinian state. Simply urging both sides to "restart" the peace talks isn't enough. Washington must make sure that the talks actually proceed until a settlement – a "just and lasting peace" based on UN Resolution 242 – is finally reached.

The ongoing peace process would thus become an element in the daily story about the Middle East, part of the televised mix on Al-Jazeera. That would do much to counter the current image of the United States as an anti-Arab, anti-Muslim bully.

Several objections came to mind. First: how much does the existence of a widespread anti-American terror network in the Muslim world really owe to the Israeli and Palestinian problem? After all, the Saudi hijackers began enrolling in "flight school" when the Palestinian-Israeli talks were still a going concern.

Second: might renewed American effort to push Israel towards a settlement actually become a goad to more anti-American terrorism? Might a peace initiative be perceived as a sign of American weakness, and of an impending victory for the most anti-American Arabs?

Third: Israel, or at least that country's right-wingers, wouldn't like it at all, and some of Israel's friends in the United States would certainly resist it.

But none of these objections is that formidable. To the last, my correspondent would reply that the war crisis gives President Bush tremendous scope to make requests and demands – that as a war President he holds the leverage to insist that a just Mid East peace is crucial for American security. My guess is that my friend is right about that, and that fraction of the American Jewish leadership inclined to oppose Israeli concessions to the Palestinians would be reluctant to pull out all the stops against President Bush.

As for the others: there are people in the Arab world with a genuine "the worse, the better" attitude – who would fight against any peace that leaves a secure Israel in place, and would interpret renewed American commitment to the peace process as a sign that their future victory over the "crusaders" is right around the corner.

There are crazies in every country. But political choices must be based on the fact that most people aren't mad. There are many voices in the Arab world, but virtual unanimity among all the leadership groups that a solution must be found to the Palestinian problem. They are the people in the Arab countries whose cooperation and support the United States needs now, and we may finally have to listen to them about Palestine.

The alternative hardly looks more promising. William Safire floated a version of it in today's New York Times – using an imaginary "conversation" with the ghost of Richard Nixon to air his preferred agenda. We should, wrote Safire, encourage Turkey to attack Iraq and seize its oil rich northern provinces. Meanwhile we should give Sharon a green light to annex parts of the West Bank.

It's useful to have the opposite view right out there. While my correspondent urges Bush to reshuffle the diplomatic deck, and make the peace process an integral part of the anti-terror campaign, Safire wants to use the current crisis to restructure the Middle East by starting a war against the Arab states, initially through the use of proxies. He compares this to Nixon's playing the "China card" against the Soviet Union – as if Nixon had actually prodded China to start a war over disputed Soviet territory.

On ethical grounds, there is no competition between the two views: one, an effort to reinforce American diplomacy by more energetic pursuit of a peace process, a process based on United Nations resolutions drafted and signed by American diplomats; the other, a gambit to ensure American security by spreading a conflagration throughout the Mid East.

But both writers are probably correct about the one assumption they each share: the scope of the current conflict will expand, one way or another, very soon.

Text-only printable version of this article

As a committed cold warrior during the 1980’s, Scott McConnell wrote extensively for Commentary and other neoconservative publications. Throughout much of the 1990’s he worked as a columnist, chief editorial writer, and finally editorial page editor at the New York Post. Most recently, he served as senior policy advisor to Pat Buchanan’s 2000 campaign , and writes regularly for NY Press/Taki's Top Drawer.

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