Foreign Policy

Unraveling the Middle East’s Zero-Sum Cultural Mindset

The Arab and Islamic worlds have been seething in anger and humiliation from the moment of Israel’s rebirth. They have initiated and lost seven wars to annihilate her and have incited hatred against her for decades through their mosques, media and educational systems. So intense is their hatred; so humiliating is Israel’s presence in their midst, that any compromise on the core issues of settlements, borders, Jerusalem, a Palestinian right of return, and especially Israel’s recognition as a Jewish state would be seen by the Arab street as a betrayal of such magnitude that it would threaten their credibility, their honor, their power and their lives and no one is more aware of that than PA President Mahmoud Abbas.

Sixty-six years after Israel’s establishment, the Palestinian refugees of 1948 and their descendants now numbering over five million, remain in the squalid camps of Lebanon, Syria and Jordan where they are used as political pawns by their Arab masters who preserve UNRWA as a permanent reminder to them of their “right” to “return” to “Palestine”. Over the decades, these Palestinians have been nourished by a hatred of Israel and fed the illusion that their “return” is a “right”. So successful have Arab leaders been in convincing them of this, that any compromise of that “right” would be seen as a betrayal of the Palestinians’ ultimate hope – the destruction of Israel.

Given that no Israeli government would allow such a massive influx of Palestinians into its country (which would mean demographic suicide), Arab leaders have used Israel’s refusal as a pretext for continuing the conflict. The more the Palestinians are victimized by their Arab host countries (who refuse to integrate them and deny them citizenship as well as access to many jobs and economic, health and educations services), the more Israel can be scapegoated and the better it serves Arab interests by re-directing Palestinian rage against Israel. For that reason, at Taba (2001) and at Annapolis (2007), Palestinian leadership, supported by the Arab world, rejected Palestinian statehood on more than 95% of the West Bank and Gaza rather than recognize Israel and forego its “right of return” to “Palestine”. Even the Fatah Revolutionary Council, the ruling PLO Authority in the West Bank recently declared: “No to Israel as a Jewish state, no to interim borders, no to land swaps.”

But the “right of return” issue hides a much larger cultural dynamic that has consumed the Islamic world for centuries. Richard Landes, writing in Augean Stables suggests that power and honor are intertwined in Islamic culture and that this relationship is not understood by Western policy-making elites. “Islamic leaders”, he writes “view any compromise with Israel as a catastrophic loss of face, since such an agreement would mean recognizing as a worthy foe an inferior (religious) group that should be (a) subject (people). Such a blow to Islamic honor cannot be tolerated for cultural and political reasons…..Losing face means to feel utter humiliation, to lose public credibility, and to lose power.” The only way to restore such lost honor is not through compromise, but to shed the blood of this enemy – especially one whose state they consider an abomination.

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