REMOVE THE WEDGE?
When toppling Saddam Hussein rose to the top of the Bush administration's foreign policy agenda, a chorus of voices protested that Washington had misdiagnosed the root cause of its Middle Eastern dilemmas. "It's Palestine, stupid!" was the refrain heard not only from European and Arab capitals, but from some quarters in the United States as well. These voices argued that attacking Iraq while the Israelis were reoccupying Palestinian lands would substantiate the claim, already widespread in the Middle East, that the United States had declared war against all Arabs and Muslims. The ensuing backlash would undermine the American position in the region and wreak havoc on American interests. What Washington really needed to do was postpone or abandon a showdown with Saddam and focus instead on achieving a breakthrough in the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations.
Unqualified U.S. support for Israel, the critics reason, drives a wedge between Washington and the Arabs, most of whom support Palestinian aspirations; for the United States to improve its regional position, it must remove the wedge by tilting somewhat toward the Palestinians. The problem with this argument is that it rests on two hidden and faulty assumptions: about how much Washington would have to change its stance, and about how much goodwill that change would produce.
Unfortunately, Americans and Arabs nurture such different conceptions of what constitutes a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that it is hard to imagine Washington ever adopting a policy toward it that would be truly popular in the Arab world. The most "pro-Palestinian" policy realistically conceivable would look something like the Clinton plan presented in late 2000, but even this would entail major Palestinian compromises (such as the renunciation of the right of pre-1967 refugees to return to their homes inside Israel proper). Under the right conditions, a handful of Arab leaders might be induced to endorse such a settlement, but they would be denounced by others as puppets of Washington and the Jews. Suicide bombings would very likely continue, and the United States would still find itself entangled in a passionate communal conflict. The Palestine wedge would thus remain in place -- smaller and less troubling, perhaps, but a wedge nonetheless.
Even if the United States were somehow able to broker a stable Palestinian-Israeli settlement that met many Arab aspirations, however, this would not necessarily generate a great deal of goodwill. Those who argue the opposite see Palestine as the primary obstacle blocking an American-Arab rapprochement. They claim, correctly, that Arab political discourse revolves around Palestine and that a great many Arabs hold the United States responsible for Palestinian suffering. But what they overlook is that although Palestine is central to the symbolism of Arab politics, it is actually marginal to its substance.
Palestine-as-symbol has a protean nature, a capacity for expressing grievances wholly unrelated to the aspirations of the Palestinians themselves. In Northern Ireland last summer, for example, the Irish Republican Army raised the Palestinian flag over Republican strongholds. Why? Because for many around the world, this pennant now expresses simple anticolonial defiance, the protest of those who believe their native rights have been trampled under the boots of foreign rulers. (Not to be outdone, Unionists countered by flying the Israeli banner over their neighborhoods.)
The migration of Middle Eastern symbolism to a remote corner of Christian Europe would hardly be noteworthy were it not for the fact that the Palestinian flag plays a similar role throughout the Arab world itself, where it often expresses grievances unrelated to the specifics of Palestine-as-place. In addition to serving as a front for venting anger at local repression, unemployment, and inequity, Palestine-as-symbol expresses the resistance of Arabs and Muslims to Western political and cultural hegemony.
Palestine has acquired this broad meaning because in Arab political discourse the maltreatment of the Palestinians signifies the prejudice of the West toward all Middle Easterners. Palestine is the only Arab land successfully colonized in modern times, a fact that rankles deeply. According to a commonly held version of history, the Western powers (especially the United Kingdom and the United States) planted Israel in the Arab world and then nurtured it with the intention of using the Jewish state as an "imperialist base," a bridgehead for dominating the entire region. For most Arabs, the history of Palestine is thus not simply the story of two peoples struggling for the same land, but rather evidence that unmasks the true and nefarious intentions of the West toward Arabs and Muslims in general.
As a sign of anti-Western defiance, Palestine-as-symbol resonates beyond the Arab lands -- in Iran and, to a lesser extent, throughout the entire Muslim world. Precisely because it invokes a version of the history of relations between the Middle East as a whole and the West, Palestine is one of the few communal symbols that crosses religious, ethnic, and national lines. An Iranian Shi`ite, a Moroccan Sunni fundamentalist, and a Syrian Alawite who would never brush elbows at home can all stand united under the banner of Palestine. Although particularly well suited to Muslim immigrants living in the West (who frequently encounter shabby and discriminatory treatment from the majority populations in countries that also maintain good relations with Israel), the symbol's universalism works wherever Middle Easterners engage in mass politics. But, of course, it speaks most directly to Arab aspirations. To call for justice in Palestine is to decry the debasement of the entire Arab world in the modern period, to long for a more just and authentic political order in the Middle East, and to demand a change in the balance of power between Arabs and the West, represented today chiefly by the United States.
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 coupled with a stand-down on Iraq, moreover, dramatic pressure on Israel now might even inflame matters further, by calling into question American willingness to support its friends and oppose its enemies in the region.
What the Bush administration seems to understand better than its critics is that the influence of the United States in the Arab-Israeli arena derives, to no small extent, from its status as the dominant power in the region as a whole -- and that this status, in turn, hinges on maintaining an unassailable American predominance in the Persian Gulf. It is worth remembering that Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 came on the heels of the first Palestinian intifada, which also provoked much Arab hostility toward the United States. It was Saddam's defeat that cleared a space for the Madrid Conference and eventually the Oslo peace process. Then as now, defeating Saddam would offer the United States a golden opportunity to show the Arab and Muslim worlds that Arab aspirations are best achieved by working in cooperation with Washington. If an American road to a calmer situation in Palestine does in fact exist, it runs through Baghdad.
FUNDAMENTALISM HITCHES A RIDE
After the September 11 attacks, many in the West wondered how important a concern Palestine was for Osama bin Laden and his followers. Some argued that undermining the United States and the dynastic regime in Saudi Arabia were bin Laden's top priorities, with Palestinian nationalism coming almost as an afterthought. Others saw Palestine as crucial. Citing bin Laden's frequent references to the issue, they argued that even if he personally had only limited interest in the matter, the prominence he accorded it demonstrated how greatly he felt his audience cared. To blunt the edge of radical Islamism, in this view, the United States must successfully address Palestinian concerns.
For this second camp, al Qaeda's political intentions possess all the subtlety of a laundry list: (1) expel Crusaders from the Holy Land, (2) remove Jews from Jerusalem, and so on. Viewing these concerns in the context of Islamic fundamentalism and inter-Arab politics, however, leads to some skepticism about the role Palestine plays in the al Qaeda phenomenon.
Bin Laden is a product of a radical Islamic reform movement that originated in the early twentieth century. In the eyes of its adherents this movement represents true religion itself and dates back to the Prophet Muhammad and, before him, to the dawn of human existence. Looking at the state of the Islamic world today, radical Islamists bemoan the degradation of their lands and ask, What went wrong? In formulating their answer, they hark back to a utopian view of early Islamic history -- a time when, as they see it, the companions of the Prophet marched successfully against the greatest empires of their day. In that golden age, the rulers were united in values with the virtuous among the ruled, and both obeyed God's laws.
The comparison between the idealized past and the ugly present leads them to conclude that Muslims fell into their current state of degradation because they abandoned their true religion. This abandonment, in turn, is held to have two causes: the political, economic, and cultural rise of Western civilization; and the slavish subservience to the West by local, nominally Muslim rulers who use the power of the state to propagate Western values inimical to true Islam. The first is considered the "far enemy" and the second the "near enemy." Both present mortal threats to the umma, or universal Islamic community, that cannot be ignored.
From the 1970s through the advent of al Qaeda in the 1990s, radical Islamists focused mainly on the near enemy, trying to launch revolutions against local rulers. They calculated that defeating the West required the creation of a base, a bastion of true Islam that could serve as the staging point for spreading their message throughout the Muslim world and beyond. Israel was placed firmly in the category of the far enemy; the struggle against Zionism was seen as a distraction from the essential goal of revolution at home. Israel, moreover, was considered an offshoot of the West -- a particularly ugly and irritating offshoot, to be sure, but not an independent element in the struggle.
Bin Laden's own statements, including his 1998 fatwa against Crusaders and Jews, clearly portrayed Israel as a derivative factor. To al Qaeda, Palestine's travails were irrefutable evidence of hostile Western intentions toward Muslims. But they were hardly the only example of these intentions and were often mentioned alongside, say, the vast numbers of Iraqi babies the United States had allegedly starved by imposing sanctions on Saddam Hussein.
After al Qaeda merged with Egyptian Islamic Jihad in the late 1990s, however, Palestine moved to the center of its propaganda. Gone now from al Qaeda's statements were the long, rambling discussions of internal developments in Saudi Arabia, the ills of the Saudi dynasty, and the justification in Islamic law for attacking infidels. In one of the organization's first video statements released after September 11, for example, bin Laden's close associates Ayman al-Zawahiri and Sulayman Abu Ghayth held forth at length on Palestine. Bin Laden himself also had something to say on the matter, and his words were typical of the tone and content of his associates' message:
That which America is suffering today is an insignificant thing compared to what we have been suffering for scores of years. ... In these very days, Israeli tanks and armored troop carriers have entered Jenin, Ramallah, Rafah, Beit Jala, and elsewhere ... in order to wreak havoc in Palestine, and we do not hear anyone who will raise his voice or lift a finger. ... Neither America nor anyone who lives in America will ever dream of peace until we experience it as a reality in Palestine.
To interpret this statement properly, one needs to understand that the cause of Palestine is so deeply wrapped up with fundamental questions of identity in the Arab and Muslim worlds that a simple reference to it reveals almost nothing about the speaker's political agenda. A call to action over it, on the other hand, especially when accompanied by implied or overt criticism of government inaction, does reveal something: the speaker's opposition to the status quo. What the statement above shows, therefore, is bin Laden advancing his candidacy as an avenger, an opponent of the West and the corrupt Arab regimes that do its bidding. But it says nothing about his specific goals, nor does it even indicate that he has any practical concern for the fate of actual Palestinians. If anything, quite the opposite: Palestine-as-symbol works best when Palestine-as-place is burning.
Bin Laden may have moved Palestine to the center of his propaganda on the advice of al-Zawahiri, who brought to the organization years of political experience and considerable acumen. Or he may have recognized that the outbreak of the second intifada created a regional atmosphere conducive to a message couched in Palestinian terms. Whatever the trigger, what matters is that in Palestine-as-symbol he found the perfect vehicle for his propaganda.
Al Qaeda had been seeking to topple near enemies (such as the Saudi dynasty and the Hosni Mubarak regime in Egypt) by sparking a conflict with the far enemy (the United States). To achieve this, bin Laden needed a war that would polarize Arab countries between ruling elites allied with the United States and societies sympathetic to him and his cause. If he and his associates had gone before the world proclaiming that they had carried out the attacks in order to, say, raise up the shari`a, they would have alienated potentially valuable constituencies for whom questions of religion are not the main grievance. By spinning the attacks as retribution for crimes committed against Palestine, however, al Qaeda benefited from the symbol's universalism, the fact that it represents all grievances in the Middle East against the West and its local agents.
In order to foster the broadest possible popular identification with the September 11 attacks, furthermore, the leaders of al Qaeda avoided taking direct responsibility for them, implying that the attacks expressed the collective will of the Islamic world itself. In their imagery, September 11 did not reflect the agenda of a specific political organization with its own parochial interests, but rather a belated counterattack in response to a prolonged war that the United States had been waging against Muslims everywhere -- a natural, even inevitable backlash against the oppressive status quo.
Given such an ideological framework, it is hard to conceive of any plausible change in American policy with respect to Palestine that would appease bin Laden and his ilk. Radical Islamists are by nature revolutionaries, enemies of the prevailing order and enemies of the West. A practical solution to the Palestine question would solidify the status quo and further legitimate the presence of the United States in the region. Far from welcoming such developments, radical Islamists would consider them a catastrophe.
THE JAWF INTIFADA
Al Qaeda invoked Palestine as a trump card in a game of Arab nationalist one-upmanship, trying to delegitimize the Saudi regime and weaken its grip on power. It was a kind of political theater that invited audience participation. When a figure such as Osama bin Laden attacks the United States, he hopes to energize disaffected groups and create cadres that, although mobilized in the name of Palestine, will actually work on behalf of local agendas.
A similar phenomenon has been taking place recently in Al Jawf, a region located in northern Saudi Arabia east of the Jordanian border. In the two years since the second intifada broke out, Al Jawf has earned the distinction of being the only place in the Saudi kingdom repeatedly and consistently to defy laws criminalizing popular demonstrations. Matters reached a head last April 5 in the town of Sakaka, where about 4,000 angry young men congregated in town squares, burned Israeli and American flags, and called on Arab states to take action on behalf of the Palestinians. To restore order Saudi authorities had to dispatch three transport planes carrying 500 riot police, and for weeks afterward these forces continued to patrol the area.
As extensive reporting in the London-based Arabic daily Al-Quds al-Arabi has made clear, the demonstrations "were organized in solidarity with the Palestinians and in protest over the neglect which the region is suffering at the hands of the government." Al Jawf is one of the most backward places in Saudi Arabia. Many towns in the region, including Sakaka, lack electricity and the basic amenities of modern life. Located far from ports and oil revenues, lacking access to the corridors of power, the residents of Al Jawf feel deprived. They secretly quote lines from their poet laureate, Dabis al-Murkhan, who immortalized the region's anti-Saudi sentiments: "By God, were the skies to rain sheikhs and agencies ffi the tyranny that has been heaped on us would not pass away."
Like bin Laden, in their protests the people of Al Jawf chose to express their grievances by playing the Palestine trump card. By decrying the "shameful Arab silence" in the face of Israeli military operations, they telegraphed to their government a simple message: prove that you are authentic Muslims and Arabs by taking meaningful action on Palestine. Of course, the protesters knew that the government, given its strong economic and security ties to the United States, would do no such thing, thus tacitly admitting its complicity in the oppression of fellow Arabs. What was really at issue in Al Jawf, therefore, was less Israeli-Palestinian relations than the legitimacy of the Saudi government -- something that can be seen from the details of the protests themselves.
The demonstrations were organized by a group called the Popular Committee of the Jawf Region for the Support of the Palestinian People. Although on the surface there might seem to be little seditious about such an organization, in context it represented a direct challenge to the Saudi government, which had already established a number of its own official committees for supporting the Palestinians -- the most notable of these being the Saudi Committee for the Support of the Al-Aqsa Intifada, chaired by the interior minister, Prince Nayif bin Abdulaziz, who among other duties runs the police and the secret police.
In a limp attempt to undermine the protestors, Nayif stated that "those wanting to show support to their Palestinian brothers must do it with money, not words." And sure enough, three days later the Saudi government ran a telethon to raise money for the Palestinian cause. (This latter event was widely reported in the United States but rarely presented in its proper domestic, as opposed to international, context.)
But the fund raiser did not satisfy the aspirations of protesters in Al Jawf, nor would more criticism of Israel and more diplomatic engagement in the Middle East by the United States. The wedge that separates Washington from Al Jawf and its sister regions throughout the Arab world does not depend primarily on whether Israel is prepared to yield 85 percent or 100 percent of the West Bank and Gaza, or even on whether Palestinians are fighting or living in peace. It stems more from the poverty, repression, and frustration that fuel the region's symbolic politics, and will remain until those larger issues are somehow addressed.
Using Palestine as a trump card is not a new gambit. 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 Palestine 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.
Recent developments in the Saudi-Iraqi relationship show how the game is played. Saddam Hussein first resorted to the tactic against Saudi Arabia in 1990. In preparation for the invasion of Kuwait, Baghdad expressed its casus belli in terms of Kuwait's alleged participation in a Zionist-imperialist conspiracy to destroy Iraq. Saddam accompanied this rhetoric with bellicose anti-Israel statements, such as his famous threat to burn half of the Jewish state with chemical weapons. When the American counterattack began, Saddam backed up his threats by targeting Israel with Scud missiles, trying to foster such unrest inside Saudi Arabia that it could not host the American troops required to oust the Iraqi forces from Kuwait. At the time, Saddam's gambit failed. Over the last dozen years, however, he has continued to pursue the same strategy, and finally it is starting to pay dividends.
Social changes inside Saudi Arabia since the Persian Gulf War have created a constituency that responds more readily to Saddam's lures. Today, two in five Saudis are under 15 years old. The country's population has exploded while its economy has stagnated, with the result that its per capita income has dropped. Under these conditions, a new generation of disaffected Saudi youth has come of age. Fifteen young Saudis attacked New York and Washington on September 11, approximately 80 more are in captivity in Guantanamo, and untold others are moldering in shallow graves in Afghanistan or filtering back home after the fall of the Taliban. These numbers alone suggest that more is going on inside Saudi Arabia than just the fact that, as official spokesmen would have it, a few suggestible young men fell in with the wrong crowd.
Many from this generation hold the United States responsible for their plight and for the sad state of affairs in the Arab and Islamic worlds more generally. For its part, Riyadh has no ideological resources or public vocabulary with which to counter them and justify its dependence on the United States. Saddam plays the Palestinian card to exploit this gap between ruler and ruled. For the ploy to succeed, the disgruntled young need not admire Saddam personally, nor find the Iraqi model attractive, nor care one iota about the suffering of the Palestinians. Baghdad wins simply if a significant number of Saudis, for whatever motive, reject cooperation between Riyadh and Washington and hitch a ride on the Palestine issue as a means of expressing that rejection.
Saddam's campaign enjoyed its greatest success at the Arab League summit in Beirut last March. The official symbolism of the meeting had Riyadh and Baghdad putting aside their differences in order to demonstrate unity at a moment when Israel, their putative common enemy, was at war with the Palestinians. The assembled leadership of the Arab world even raised a cheer when Iraqi Vice President Izzat Ibrahim received a kiss from Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah.
If Palestine provided the symbolism for this Iraqi-Saudi rapprochement, however, it had little to do with the substance. The real story at Beirut was neither the Israeli incursion nor the peace plan that the Saudis floated as a response. It was the battle over Arab authenticity and regional order in the Persian Gulf. Riyadh and Baghdad were negotiating the fate of the Iraqi government, which stood uncomfortably under Washington's sword. Wrapping themselves in the Palestinian flag, Saudi Arabia and Iraq arrived at a quid pro quo: Iraq pledged to "respect the independence, sovereignty, and security of the state of Kuwait and safeguard its territorial integrity," and the other Arab states called for "lifting the sanctions on Iraq and ending the tribulation of the fraternal Iraqi people" while expressing their "categorical rejection of attacking Iraq." Saddam, meanwhile, granted Crown Prince Abdullah the pan-Arab legitimacy that he needed to prove to his own people that he was not a puppet of foreigners, in return for a Saudi pledge to reject any American plan to topple the Iraqi regime.
The Beirut summit diminished the overtly abusive propaganda coming from Baghdad, but it did not end the Saudi-Iraqi conflict. Immediately after the summit adjourned, Saddam continued to make mischief. On April 6, the day after the riot in Sakaka, thousands of Saudi protesters marched on the U.S. consulate in Dhahran, chanting slogans calling for the government to turn off the flow of oil to the West. Saddam was clearly listening, and out of feigned concern for the Palestinians he obeyed the command. Two days later he announced his decision to stop the export of oil for 30 days "or until the armies of the Zionist entity withdraw unconditionally from the Palestinian territories they have occupied, and respect the will of the people of Palestine, and the will of the Arab nation." This was not a serious attempt at an economic embargo but a challenge to the Saudis either to follow suit or be seen as puppets of the Americans. And in fact, sandwiched between Saddam and their own public, the Saudis have continued to be leery of American invasion plans.
Many saw the Saudi peace plan presented in Beirut as a beacon by which the United States could chart a new, more "evenhanded" Mideast policy. That plan calls for an Israeli withdrawal to the June 4, 1967, borders in return for full normalization between Israel and the Arab states. The fact that all of those Arab states signed off on the idea is certainly significant, marking as it does the first explicit suggestion of a potential all-Arab recognition of Israel. But the boldness of Riyadh's move has been greatly overrated.
The Saudi plan was not about Palestine-as-place, but rather about balancing the demands of cultural authenticity against the need for an alliance with the United States. In Washington, the Saudis depict it as the work of peacemakers carrying water for American interests. At home, however, Riyadh can point to the plan and depict it as an ultimatum to Washington: "You Americans roll back the Israelis, or else!" The plan requires no practical action by the Saudis or, for that matter, by any Arab party until the far-off time when the Americans will have returned the situation in Palestine to its early 1967 status quo, at which stage Riyadh claims it will stand up and be counted. Far from getting themselves dirty with peace-processing, the Saudis cleverly devised a way to avoid touching Palestine for as long as possible, recognizing that in the end it can only burn them. When it comes to managing the conflict the United States is largely on its own, and Washington should plan accordingly.
The dance between Baghdad and Riyadh demonstrates that for Arab states the Palestinian issue is a game of four-dimensional chess. When an Arab leader announces a policy toward the issue, he makes a move directed simultaneously at critics at home, Arab rivals abroad, the United States, and the Palestinians and Israelis themselves -- with the last being by far the least important audience. 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.
FIRST THINGS FIRST
The United States' present dilemma stems directly from its role as guarantor of the contemporary Middle Eastern order. This order serves several important interests of the United States, regional governments and elites, and the international community at large. But it also fails to serve the interests of many of the people who actually live under it. Those who seek to overturn the regional status quo, such as al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, may be thought of as America's own "near enemies"; they represent clear and direct threats that must be countered firmly and effectively. But factors that contribute to the region's popular anger and despair constitute "far enemies" and must eventually be dealt with just as firmly and effectively if the American-sponsored order is to last and thrive over the longer term.
The United States must indeed help address the festering wound of Arab-Israeli conflict, for so long as several million Arabs chafe under unwanted foreign rule the realities of Palestine-as-place will continue to help fuel the disruptive power of Palestine-as-symbol. But those who say that it should be tackled before or instead of Iraq and al Qaeda have their strategic priorities backward. The near enemies must be met first, both because the danger from them is more urgent and because countering them successfully will actually ease the drawn-out task of addressing the far enemies of occupation, tyranny, and social and economic malaise.
The uneasy, decade-long stalemate with Iraq and halfhearted attempt to contain Iran have raised a question mark over the future of American power in the Persian Gulf. Policies that were intended as patchwork solutions to temporary problems have remained stuck in place even when the problems persisted, thanks largely to inertia and lack of attractive alternatives. Unpleasant for the United States, this has proved far more so for its local allies, especially the Saudis. The presence of large numbers of American troops on Saudi soil irritates nationalists and Islamists alike and eventually may come to threaten the stability of the Saudi regime.