Is Palestine the Pivot?

"Palestine, Iraq, and American Strategy" attacked the school of analysis that identifies the Palestine question as the fulcrum of Middle East politics. Washington's pro-Israel bias, this school argues, alienates Arabs and feeds support for radicals such as Osama bin Laden. The school's adherents were so myopically focused on Israel as the "root cause" of the region's problems, I claimed, that they failed to appreciate the diversity and significance of various inter-Arab conflicts. Events over the past two years have largely borne out my thesis.

Many commentators warned, for example, that there would be dire consequences if the Bush administration set out to topple Saddam Hussein without also pressuring the Israeli government to do more for the Palestinians. The administration chose to ignore this advice, and -- thanks partly to the passing of Yasir Arafat -- Israeli-Palestinian relations are now the warmest they have been in years.

Similarly, many commentators warned that the invasion of Iraq would produce a powerful nationalist backlash in that country. They were taken by surprise, accordingly, when millions of Iraqis turned out to vote in the recent elections, putting the lie to the notion that the insurgency represents anything like the will of the people.

And they have been shocked by the recent developments in Lebanon, because the spectacle of teeming Lebanese crowds protesting Syria's occupation -- rather than Israel's -- was beyond their imaginations.

What all these "surprises" have in common is that they can be traced to local issues. They came as a shock because they put paid to the concept at the heart of the "root cause" school's thinking: a monolithic pan-Arab public opinion driven by an obsessive concern with the Palestinians and their supposed Israeli and American oppressors.

Recent events should make it clear to all that it is extremely difficult to know what people are really thinking on the ground in Arab countries. And it should also be clear that Arab dictators do not want us to know. Here the Saudi case is instructive.

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