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Thursday, January 9, 2003

Symbolic Palestinians.

Michael Scott Doran carefully unpacks the symbolism of Palestine in Arab politics in Foreign Affairs, although you'll have to pick up a copy to read his article ("Palestine, Iraq, and American Strategy," January/February 2003). His main point — which Western pro-Palestian activists often seem to forget — is that "although Palestine is central to the symbolism of Arab politics, it is actually marginal to its substance."

There are many reasons why Washington should distance itself from misguided Israeli policies such as the building of settlements in the occupied territories, but among them should not be the hope that such a move would greatly affect the broader sources of resentment and despair that Palestine-as-symbol encompasses.

If that strikes you as counter-intuitive, consider this:

Since the foundation of the Arab League in 1945, the states of the region have been split into two camps: one supportive of the status quo and aligned with Western powers, and one hostile to it and them. The anti-status quo states have inevitably played the Palestinian card in order to deny the Western powers loyal allies in the region. In the Middle East today, three major actors (Iraq, Iran, and Syria) and two minor ones (Hizbollah and al Qaeda) are all doing something similar. Their primary goal is to drive a wedge between the United States and Saudi Arabia. They fear the imposition of a Pax Americana in the region and regard Israeli-Palestinian violence as a tool for keeping the United States at bay. For them, in fact, the revolt in Palestine is, among other things, a proxy war against the United States.

This is the reason that Islamist groups — and anti-American but secular regimes like Saddam Hussein's — actually pour fuel onto the fire in Palestine, sending suicide bombers when the Palestinian Authority calls for a cease-fire (in the case of Hamas and Islamic Jihad) or sending cash to families of suicide bombers (Saddam's method). The upshot, as Doran sees it, is this:

The sad fact is that with the possible exception of Jordan, alleviating the suffering of the Palestinian people is not a primary policy objective of any Middle Eastern state. For Washington to mistake symbol for substance and tie itself into knots trying to resolve the Palestinian problem before tackling other matters would thus be a sucker's move, providing its enemies with even greater incentives to incite violence there while avoiding other arenas where it has greater freedom of action and chances for success.

Could Bush's dangerous gamble — that upsetting the cart in Iraq is in the long-term interests of not only the West but also the Middle East — actually help resolve the Palestinians' real plight? Doran thinks it might.

Copyright © 2003 by Philocrites | Posted 9 January 2003 at 8:57 AM

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