Zogby on the Middle East
Jude Wanniski
May 6, 2003


Memo To: Website Fans, Browsers, Clients
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Dr. James Zogby Interviewed

Over the weekend, we ran “Another Lebanon?” from the May 5 American Conservative and mentioned that the number was the best yet from Pat Buchanan’s new magazine – with no weak spots in its table of contents. Today we run another of the excellent pieces from that issue, courtesy of executive editor Scott McConnell. Instead of asking Dr. James Zogby, the president and founder of the Arab-American Institute, to write an article on the Middle East, McConnell decided on a Q&A, and it works beautifully. As we pull up our chairs to watch the travels of Israelis and Palestinians down the Bush administration’s “road map,” the Zogby interview gives us a running start by going over the road traveled in recent years, at least since the Oslo Peace Accords of 1993. Zogby is one of the few Arab-Americans who can get to see the President now and then.

An Arab-American Perspective

The Israeli-Palestinian question is still paramount

Shortly before the war began, AC spoke with Dr. James Zogby, president and founder of the Arab-American Institute, a Washington-based organization devoted to making the views of Arab-Americans resonate more strongly in American politics. With the U.S. now committed to indefinite military involvement in the Middle East that will affect American ties with the Arab world at every level, it seemed appropriate to hear from one of the country’s most prominent Arab-Americans.

After the Oslo Peace Accords were signed in 1993, Zogby was asked by Vice President Gore to head Builders for Peace, a private partnership promoting economic development on the West Bank. In 1994, Zogby, along with former Congressman Mel Levine (D-Calif.), led the U.S. delegation to the signing of the Israeli-Palestinian agreement in Cairo. Following are excerpts from our conversation:

AC: What do you think are the likely consequences of war? Will it unlock the door to democracy in the Arab world and be some springtime for peoples of the Middle East?

Zogby: I call that the neo-conservative infantile fantasy. But theirs is not the only movement with infantile fantasies. Trostkyism was like that. Maoism was like that. Anarchism was like that. Religious fundamentalism is like that. The notion that out of upheaval good things fall in place is the apocalyptic vision of good spontaneously coming out of chaos. I’ve always thought that we need to put these people on a couch and take notes.

Democracy is never formed out of a war. There have to be pre-conditions for democracy. In fact, I think the war’s more likely outcome is that some countries in the Middle East, allies of ours, will become more repressive because their people will internalize the anger brought on by the war, and in order to stabilize the situation, the governments will have to crack down more. And sadly, we will probably support that crackdown.

AC: Let’s assume the U.S. wins easily. Do you think that would open possibilities to restart the Israel-Palestinian peace talks?

Zogby: I think our allies in the region are worried that what we are going to do is establish military hegemony and leave them with the consequences. The question is are we going to stick around as all of these feuds begin, as all of these problems unfold, as all of these countries become destabilized? Can we have one foot in Afghanistan? One foot in Iraq? One foot in Pakistan and Jordan and maybe in the Gulf, in the North with Turkey and the Kurds, and still focus on the Israeli-Palestinian issue?

AC: What ramifications or consequences do you see this having on the peace process?

Zogby: There is no peace process anymore. This administration abandoned it early on and let the parties move on this downward spiral to unending violence that has poisoned the well on both sides. American leadership is nowhere to be found.

When the explosions began last year, the president had an opportunity and gave a speech that laid out some conditions to both sides: Sharon must do this and Arafat must do that. But two weeks later, after hearing public protests from Gary Bauer, Bill Bennett, and Ralph Reed, the president got scared off. To protect his base vote, he announced two weeks later that Sharon is a man of peace, and Arafat has got to go.

The result is that Sharon has been emboldened, Arafat has been discredited, and the policy that Likud laid out five years ago has practically been implemented. There is no Palestinian Authority on the ground. The only thing that remains is that while the Israelis have virtually devastated the West Bank and its infrastructure and Gaza and its infrastructure, they have not fully occupied the cities for a callous reason: they don’t want to be paying for the civil administration. So what they’ve done is dig trenches, put their troops around them, periodically make entrances and demolish more houses and create more havoc while absolving themselves of the responsibility of providing for human needs.

AC: About a year ago you wrote that if it were possible for the Palestinians to change tactics in a kind of Gandhian-Martin-Luther-King direction and use the tools of civil disobedience and public protest, that would probably be more effective for them both internally and in world opinion than suicide bombings. Do you think the social conditions on the West Bank and Gaza have so deteriorated that kind of strategy is no longer possible?

Zogby: To understand the conditions that these people have lived under for the last 35-40 years is to understand that when the first intifada broke out, it was an extraordinary movement, and the hope that was created by Oslo transformed opinion literally overnight in the territories. People were willing to put aside their pain.

I remember, three days after Oslo was signed, I had one of the architects of Oslo on my TV show, and the question came up about violence. I asked, “What are you going to do when the bombs start?” And he said, “You know, if this works, and I hope it does, and I believe it will, two years from now our young people are going to have jobs, and our cities will be being built.” (They have no infrastructure in the West Bank and Gaza because Israel had done nothing to develop those territories for three decades.) He then went on to say that with that in place and the future Palestinian state being shaped before their very eyes, when the bombs start, the people will turn to the Authority and say stop them because they threaten to take everything we want.

He was on my show two years almost to the day later, and a bomb had gone off in Tel Aviv, and there was a picture of 25,000 young men in Gaza shaking their fits in support of the bombers. And I said, “What happened?” He said, “Let’s go through the numbers: unemployment is double today what it was when peace was signed. Settlement size has increased 50 percent since peace was signed. Roads are being built throughout the West Bank physically dividing towns from one another, connecting settlers to Israel proper, and orchards are being uprooted, etc. The infrastructure that is being built is that of continued occupation, and people are looking at us and saying, what have you done? We are poorer. We have fewer jobs. We have less land and less hope. And so the bombers are winning and the Authority has nothing to offer.” Ten years later, 70 percent unemployment, 70 percent poverty, and the employment that exists is all internal. It is people selling their poverty to each other. With that despair, and in that despair, has developed a cult of suicide. If we look at it and understand it as in fact a social movement, we’ll see how difficult and tragic this consensus has become.

One lesson I learned in comparative religion is that basically we are one species. People are no different. What is different are the circumstances in which they develop. Young people in the West Bank and Gaza, like young people here, like young people everywhere, think of their futures. They want to bring home to their parents things that make their parents proud. My children get married, have grandchildren, have careers and futures, and that is what kids in the West Bank want as well. When you have no future, when you have no prospect of a job, no prospect therefore of marriage and children, what has come to replace all of that, in a pathetic and evil way, is killing yourself and bringing honor to the family through suicide and taking some of the enemy with you. How do you unwind that? The only way is to create hope by radically transforming the circumstances on the ground.

That will not come from the Sharon government. The Palestinian Authority cannot do it. Therefore, what the world has to look to is an external factor, and the only one available is the United States of America. But every step along the way we have denied ourselves the opportunity to play that role.

AC: Your answer, because it goes back to the first two years after Oslo was signed, seems to imply that it was flawed —that even as conceived by Rabin and Peres, it was flawed. That seems to coincide with Edward Said’s criticism of it.

Zogby: No, and I disagreed with Edward because I believed that Oslo had the prospect of making peace. The failure of Oslo was the failure of the United States because if you read Oslo carefully, it was not a road map to peace. It was two sides coming together saying we can go so far. We recognize each other’s right to exist with legitimate rights. What we can’t do is go any further. It was, in effect, a cry for help.

What America did, at that point, was that the president’s advisors effected the same thing as a marriage counselor who, having a couple come to him and say, “We’ve been fighting for 20 years and know we need help,” responds to them by saying, “Why don’t you stay here in the room and work this out. I’ll be in the next room, and I hope you make progress.”

The notion coming from [President Clinton’s top Mideast negotiator] Dennis Ross and others was that the parties have to work this out themselves, and all we can do is sit on the sidelines. Partly borne of domestic politics, partly borne of a sense that the asymmetry that existed between Israel and the Palestinians would best play out with Israel continuing to drive it, they ignored the reality that Israel wanted at that point to do the right thing, and the Palestinians wanted to do the right thing, but neither leadership had the ability to do it given the weakness of the hold over their constituencies.

Rabin could not stop settlement-building and could not make the concessions he needed to make. And Arafat couldn’t be the sheriff that Rabin needed him to be either. What needed to happen early on was for the United States to step in and say, here is what you agreed to, here is the outcome we are going to push for, and here are the steps we are going to take. Both sides were ready.

Remember the old Mennen commercial? Where the guys slapped themselves and said, “Thanks, I needed that.” What both sides needed then was a slap. Historically, only the Palestinians have gotten the slap, and the Israelis have been coddled. That has not been in Israel’s interest nor has it been in the Palestinians’ interest.

Even as late as Camp David, I was pushing President Clinton to put his plan on the table first and spend a year selling it. Because I went with him to Gaza and Bethlehem and Jerusalem in 1998, I saw his ability to sell peace to both sides. Instead, listening to the other crowd around him, he said, let’s let Barak do it. Barak came in, put his plan on the table, and said, “This is it. Take it or leave it.” Arafat wasn’t going to deal with that. The arrogance of Barak and the fact that his plan was not as attractive as it got sold in the narrative that has been accepted here—95 percent, which if you let people blather on long enough becomes the whole thing. It was in reality only about 95 percent of 80 percent of the West Bank. The rest was largely going to stay in Israel’s hands, including: the Jordan Valley, the huge swath around Jerusalem, and a few blocs of settlements. The West Bank was going to be carved up into little pieces with no free access or egress to the outside world. When Clinton called me into the Oval Office at one point and said, “This is it, what do you think?” I said, “Mr. President as long as there are checkpoints, there are flashpoints. As long as Palestinians have no freedom to move in and out of Jordan or Egypt and do business and commerce with their neighbors and have to always go through Israeli checkpoints to do that, there is not going to be peace.”

AC: Wouldn’t it have been wise for the PA and Arafat to put forward a counter-proposal?

Zogby: They did. Part of the narrative that has been accepted by the conventional wisdom here ignores that. But there was a Palestinian plan on the table at the time, and there were Palestinian plans all the way up to Taba. This process didn’t stop at Camp David; it continued. There were Palestinian plans that were offered. How did we get to the point that we got if not for the fact that they were actively negotiating neighborhoods in Jerusalem and plans for what we were going to do with the various competing sovereignties over the city of Jerusalem if the Palestinians weren’t talking?

What Arafat, in effect, did was say, “You’ve done your bit and I’m doing mine.” The Arafat plan was ’67 borders with some modifications but said there had to be discussion about the refugees. And the Israelis refused to talk refugees at all. Frankly, what the Palestinians were at least hoping for as a minimum was accepting the right of return with a negotiation over how to implement the right. When the Israelis said, we won’t talk about it at all, they were the ones who didn’t put a counter-plan in. This is not just about acres and orders. When the Israeli argument was, we won’t surrender water, we won’t surrender the Jordan Valley, we won’t surrender the areas around Jerusalem, and we are not even talking about refugees, I think that …

Look, Clinton had promised me something after Peres lost and he went back on his promise. I remember meeting him after Peres lost the election and we said that what Peres did in Lebanon cost him that election. It was 80 percent of the Arab vote staying home that cost him the election. Clinton said, “I know I made a mistake. I was trying to help the guy get elected. That is why I didn’t criticize him. I won’t do that again.” But that is exactly what he did with Barak. He was trying to help Barak get elected, and so began to create and spin the narrative about Barak’s generous offer. The problem is that the myth of the “generous offer” got so locked in place that everyone ended up believing it. Barak was deified, Arafat was demonized, and people lost all sense of what really happened at Camp David.

May 5, 2003 issue
Copyright © 2003 The American Conservative