Why All Middle Eastern Politics Can’t Be Reduced Merely to the Arab-Israeli Conflict

By Barry Rubin | 16 August 2010

I simply cannot comprehend why so many in the West refuse to see that Arabs can be revolutionaries. It is remarkable that so many who claim to be experts don’t incorporate the idea that Arabs, like other peoples, might dislike their existing societies or be motivated by ideologies claiming to be the blueprints for utopias.


After all, if Africans, Asians, Europeans, and Latin Americans think and behave this way, why aren’t Arabs going to act the same?

The two paragraphs above are written in response to yet another book, by a very experienced expert on the region, saying that al-Qaida is almost completely motivated by the Palestinian issue as well as a couple of articles claiming that the only reason why the United States or President Barack Obama isn’t popular in the Middle East is due to Israel.

In fact, al-Qaida, Hamas, Hizballah, Muslim Brotherhoods, and other Islamist groups, have been overwhelmingly motivated by a desire to revolutionize the entire Muslim-majority world (and even the whole world) in line with its interpretation of Islam. Al-Qaida’s original cause was to overthrow the Saudi royal family, followed by an effort to help Iraq against Western pressure. In al-Qaida documents before and after the September 11 attacks, the Palestinian issue was not mentioned among the questions that motivated the group more than about ten percent of the time. It was never highlighted, unlike the Saudi and Iraqi issues.

In addition, radical Arab nationalists, including many intellectuals and several Arab regimes (Egypt, 1952-1970; Syria, 1949-present; Iraq, 1958-2003; Libya, 1973-present), have sought to unite the Arab world under their leadership, overthrow neighboring governments, and expel Western influence in line with their ambitions and ideology.

And a recent poll showing that Obama was unpopular, the United States seen as an enemy, and tremendous popular support for revolutionary Islamists was also attributed by its sponsor to this cause. For my analysis of this poll, see here.

Yet why should this be so? Something fishy is going on here.

A while ago when my wife and I edited a book of readings on anti-American terrorism in the region—which showed decisively how little Usama bin Ladin ever talked about Palestine—the (ironically positive) review in one of the main American newspapers said the book showed how September 11 was all about Israel.

About two years ago, a Swiss reporter interviewed a high-ranking official in the oil-rich United Arab Emirates and asked why the school system wasn’t better. Ah, explained the man, this was all due to Israel.

While the following are generalizations they are generally true. Arabic-speaking people live in terrible, unfree societies marked by massive injustice and poor prospects for improvement. Their lives are increasingly governed by restrictions based on religious interpretation, large-scale segregation by gender, a contrast of which they are well aware between the repression and stagnation of their own countries and the relative freedom and progress in other parts of the world.

They know there are high levels of violence and instability in their societies. There is ethnic and communal strife. There are wars over who will rule Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, Yemen, and Algeria. There are political values everywhere else. There are contending ideologies, radical Arab nationalism and Islamism, promoting utopian expectations, while three worldviews that would bring more calm (traditional conservatism, liberalism, and nation-state patriotism) are far weaker than anywhere else in the world.

There is deep resentment of the West for past imperialism; its relative power and wealth; and cultural and religious differences.

All of these factors are systematically fed on a daily basis by mosques, schools, leaders, opposition politicians, media, and just about every other institution.

And yet we are to believe that this problem is entirely or almost entirely caused by Israel’s existence, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the situation of the Palestinians.

That’s it?

Why do people say this? One reason is ignorance. The conflict is all they know about the Middle East and this answer is what they are constantly told by most experts and some media.

Another reason is politics, as it is a talking point by those who for various reasons want to wipe Israel off the map or weaken it.

A third factor is a subtle West-centric view (with elements of the kind of psychic thing that causes racism): that only what the West does matters and that local peoples don’t have minds of their own. So since Israel is considered Western and the West has generally supported Israel, that is “real” while Arab societies don’t really exist, Arabs don’t really have political ideas, and so on. They are merely blackboards on which we, the West, writes its ideas and records its deeds.

This same mentality also arises from the human desire for easy answers. No, they say, we don’t have to battle terrorists and revolutionaries for decades, just give them the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (or perhaps all of Israel) and they will be happy, peaceful, and love us. Rejecting such a beautiful dream, such a “no-cost” solution isn’t easy.

There are also those who, motivated by their desire to change their own Western countries, want to persuade people that the existing capitalist democratic system is responsible for all the world’s ills and can repair them by literally a snapping of the fingers.

Then, too, it is a very reassuring answer for Westeners: They don’t hate us. They don’t want to kill us or kick out our countries from having a role in the region. They’re just angry at the Jews and if we stop helping them then everything will be all right. We don’t even had to make concessions in our own right, just force concessions on Israel that cost us nothing. What a simple solution!

Of course, a fifth reason is that this is what Arabs so often say. There is indeed an obsession with the Israel/Palestinian issue, though less so than is generally believed in the West. What one often sees is that there is a big debate within the Arabic-speaking world but when the spokesman is interviewed by a Western media outlet he attributes everything to Israel.

Part of this is indeed used by governments and movements to further the resentment, anger, and violence. For the regimes, it is also useful for distracting attention from their own rule and channeling revolutionary energies against someone else.

Note also how, in fact, the Israel issue does function, never as an end in itself. For the radical Arabs and regimes, it was a step toward Arab unity and the expulsion of Western influence. For the Islamists, destroying Israel is a step toward establishing a caliphate, Islamist rule in every country, and defeating the West.

In short, a victory over Israel and its destruction would trigger more radicalism. A two-state solution would trigger another round in attacking Israel and a struggle over who would control Palestine (Fatah, Hamas, Iran, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia) just as there is a battle over controlling every Arabic-speaking state.


Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is at http://www.gloria-center.org and of his blog, Rubin Reports, at http://www.rubinreports.blogspot.com.

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