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Monday, June 16, 2008

Don't be Fooled by Good Reviews

Barry Rubin June 16, 2008

Golda Meir once said that a bad press was better than a good epitaph. In other words, pragmatic considerations must take precedence over public relations.
Sometimes it seems as if contemporary Israeli governments have forgotten that concept. Yet in general, especially where it counts, this principle continues to prevail in Israel.
Not so in the Arab world. There, maintaining a rhetoric of war, militancy, and refusal to compromise--as proof of the regime's impeccable Arab nationalist and Islamic credentials--has always been a powerful factor in governance. This method has great benefits by mobilizing popular support for dictators and a high cost because it blocks their making peace and leads them into costly foreign adventures.
For rulers, the good news is that they remain perpetually behind the steering wheel; the bad news, at least for their citizens, is that the vehicle never gets anywhere good. But this is not to say that the masses are mere dupes in this process. Tempting as it is to say, dictators bad; people good, the fact is that even if the masses don't (in the words of George Orwell's classic on modern dictatorship, 1984) love the ruling Big Brother, they at least like what Big Brother says.
What Big Brother, and all his helping little brothers, says, however, has changed internationally if not locally. The old script, still used in Arabic, was very macho: We'll fight forever, spill oceans of blood, and win completely in the end.
The new script, available only in English, is: we're poor victims who want peace and. In tune with current world thinking, this generates much sympathy.
But the resulting public relations' victories avail them not.
First, let's ask: what, in material terms, has the shift in Western opinion and media coverage actually cost Israel? It's easy to say Israel has been restrained from triumphs by Western pressure as a result of this change. Yet that situation dates back to the early 1970s, before the public relations' blitz, and has more to do with geopolitics than public opinion.
One can argue that there have been some costs to Israel (beneficial advantages from the European Union) and some benefits to the other side (more money to the Palestinian Authority). There's been a lot of personal discomfiture for Israelis treated as pariahs and Jews abroad dismayed by waves of hatred and misunderstanding.
Yet this has amounted to relatively little material disadvantage for Israel and not much real benefit for its adversaries. After all, there's still no Palestinian state, Palestinians are more divided than ever, Hamas is isolated, there's not much pressure on Israel for concessions, the Israeli presence on the Golan Heights remains, Israel's economy thrives, Israel's relations with the major European countries are good, the international campaign against Iran's nuclear drive is as strong as can be expected, and so on.
In short, the radical Arab nationalists, Islamists, Arab regimes, and Palestinian movement have squandered their public relations' victories in the West. The main reason for this is their extremist goals. They are like a bettor who wins at the gambling table but never cashes in his chips since defeat makes him more determined and success makes him over-confident.
If, for example, Palestinian leaders had wanted a deal to get an independent state or Syria had preferred to get back the Golan Heights in exchange for full peace they would have succeeded. A good press and favorable Western opinion, reflected through government policies, would have helped them make a better deal. As it is, however, they are merely enabled to continue their endless struggle with a smile on their faces.
A second way they have lost is by failing to be constructive. Aid given Palestinians was thrown away rather than used to build a productive stable society. The same principle applies to many Arab countries, with a partial exception for high-income, low-population Gulf Arab oil-producing states. Fickle fortune doesn't favor one forever. If you don't grab an advantage it flies away. The moving finger writes and having writ moves on, as Omar Khayyam put it. And sometimes, within a very short time, the very same finger that once praised you gives you, so to speak, the finger.
Third, specific actions undermine temporary popularity. Such events as September 11, the London subway bombings, the Islamist specter, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's demagoguery turn off the Western audience.
Finally, what Arab nationalists and Islamists often cite as their strongest card that time is on their side--because of high birth rates, which also mean lower living standards, or due to Israel's impending miraculous collapse--is among their worst mistakes. You could call it the vulture strategy, wait around in hope your adversary will die. They go on fighting and suffering--postponing peace, progress, and prosperity--while Israel, despite costs, prospers and its people live much better lives.
Rather than being used as part of an integrated strategy to obtain the best possible deal, public relations' successes act as morale builders to keep fighters going in the belief that victory is inevitable. In short, the more sympathetic stories about suffering victim Palestinians, the stronger the impetus to continue policies ensuring Palestinians continue in that status.
One reason for this malady is that most Arabs and Muslims are misled by a history often characterized by the cycle famously described by the historian Ibn Khaldoun. City-centered civilizations grown rich and decadent were destroyed by warlike tribes who reveled in battle. Sheep-like peasants were preyed on by nomadic warriors who raided them like wolves, killing and pillaging.
This was before, however, developed societies built technology, organization, discipline, and identity which gave them real military superiority beyond the strong right arm of individual hero warriors who courted death in battle. Now would-be conquerors sacrifice all for a future that'll never come. A strategy based on loving death and hating life reaps the commensurate result.
Jews know well from history that it is wrong to say "sticks and stones" are physically damaging while "words will never hurt me." Experience has shown that one day, blood libel; next day, pogrom. Yet Golda Meir was in fact right: progress trumps propaganda; quality triumphs over quantity; building beats destroying; and pragmatism is superior to ideologically-based wishful thinking.
Having a nice scrapbook of press clippings doesn't equal victory. Indeed, it can spell defeat.



Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). Prof. Rubin's columns can be read online.
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