The New Middle East, by Shimon Peres
Faith & Fantasy
The New Middle East.
by Shimon Peres.
Holt. 224 pp. $25.00.
Elise Boulding, a mother-figure in the 1960’s peace movement in the United States, used to urge her followers to “Imagine Peace.” The idea was that if you imagined hard enough, and in enough detail, the image would become reality. This book by Shimon Peres, Foreign Minister of Israel and chief architect of the peace agreement with Yasir Arafat, is based precisely on such an exercise; having “imagined” a political paradise, Peres proceeds to confuse it with reality.
The book is a blueprint for a reconstructed, democratic Middle East. After introductory sections on the secret negotiations with the PLO—Peres says he embarked on them when it became clear that the PLO controlled the Palestinian delegation to the talks begun at the Madrid conference over two years ago—and on the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, he sets forth his vision of the future. He foresees a new regional superstructure, providing security and economic prosperity “for all people and all nations of the Middle East.” To this end, there are chapters on “Sources of Investment and Funding” (Peres wants Europe, the U.S., and Japan to make “large-scale, concentrated” investments); on agriculture (the Middle East will “change color from brown to green”); on water (canals, pipelines, and containers will provide a regional system); on transportation (railroads, free ports, an Israeli-Jordanian Red Sea-Dead Sea Canal); and on tourism (open borders will foster a huge increase of visitors).
The book concludes with Peres’s political solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict: a confederation of Jordan and Palestine for political matters and “a Jordanian-Palestinian-Israeli ‘Benelux’ arrangement for economic affairs.” The problem of the Arab refugees will be solved within the confederation’s framework.
It is a very pretty picture, as pictures go. The trouble is that, much of the time, Peres treats the new Middle East as if it were already here, or mostly here, or at least visible to the initiated. Thus, he writes of the need for leaders able to see “the new, burgeoning reality.” “Fate,” he writes, “has now brought us from a world of territorial conflict to one of economic challenge. . . . The Middle East is now a winner.” And: “The transition from the economy of strife to an economy of peace has set the stage for the Middle East.”
All this is based on what are, to put it mildly, highly questionable assumptions about what is going on in the wider world. As Peres sees it, with the end of the cold war, nationalism is fading; economic competition has replaced military and political conflict; missile technology has made the old need for strategic depth irrelevant; deterrence is an “outdated concept”; and the information revolution has turned the conquest of territory into a useless enterprise. Yet the list of nations and movements to whom all this would come as rather surprising news begins with Kuwait and stretches as far as the mind can reach.
With regard to the conflict in the Middle East, missing from this book is any sense either of Jewish national rights or of what the Arabs believe and want for themselves. Unlike earlier Zionist Labor leaders, Peres seems to have no conception of Jewish claims to the Land of Israel. In 1967, following the Six-Day War, Moshe Dayan could speak of returning “to the cradle of our people, to the inheritance of the Patriarchs, the land of the Judges. . . .” For Peres, by contrast, “the West Bank” is simply 30-50 kilometers of strategic depth which, to his mind, has no value because missiles can pass over it. He disposes of Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria with a patent absurdity: “Just as Arab settlements could live under a rule that was not Arab, so also Jewish settlements could live under a rule that was not Israeli.”
If Jewish rights go unacknowledged in this book, even as something that might have to be painfully sacrificed, equally unacknowledged is the fact that the Arabs are independent actors with their own attitudes and values. Peres subscribes to a vulgar Marxism which essentially assumes the Arabs can be “bought” by means of greater prosperity. He paints the prospect of Israeli know-how making Arab deserts bloom, in rhetoric painfully reminiscent of the 1950’s when Abba Eban, then Israel’s Foreign Minister, regularly infuriated the Arabs with similar visions. To the Arabs, what Israel fondly conceived of as economic cooperation seemed instead a particularly insidious form of imperialism. And so, to many Arabs, it still seems today.
Which brings us to the issue of Muslim fundamentalism. Peres recognizes this as a threat to the “prosperity, honor, and plenty” he envisions, but argues that poverty is the “father of fundamentalism,” and money will make it go away. He ought to take a long hard look at Egypt, where the $20 billion the U.S. has supplied since the treaty with Israel has had no visible effect either on poverty or on the growth of Islamic fundamentalism; or, for that matter, at (non-Arab) Iran, comparatively wealthy and insulated from the Arab-Israeli conflict, where fundamentalism has had its most stunning success.
But what is perhaps the largest missing element in this book is the Arab-Israeli conflict as anything other than a local struggle between Jews and Palestinians. Peres writes: “It was clear to me that at the heart of this wearying, 100-year-old conflict—a conflict exacerbated by the establishment of the State of Israel 45 years ago—stood the Palestinian issue.” In Peres’s view, “Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan—and even Iraq, which has no common border with Israel— declared war on us because of the Palestinian issue. These were the only real grounds for our terrible wars.”
This is astonishing stuff. The “Palestinian issue” the center of the conflict for 100 years? In 1946, Philip Hitti, probably the most famous modern historian of the Arabs, testified before the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry: “Sir, there is no such thing as Palestine in history, absolutely not.” In 1947, protesting the UN partition plan, Arab representatives asserted in a formal document presented to the General Assembly that Palestine was part of Syria and “politically, the Arabs of Palestine [were] not independent in the sense of forming a separate political entity.”
This can hardly be news to Peres. Indeed, elsewhere in the book he himself points out that Palestinian identity dates back no farther than 1967. But pretending that the Palestinians are at the core of a “100-year conflict” helps to obscure the historic refusal of most of the Arab world to accept an independent Jewish state in, as the Arabs like to put it, “the heart of the Arab homeland.” Of course, to acknowledge that fact would mean confronting the real possibility that the enterprise Peres is engaged in might well result in a truncated and more vulnerable Israel that will invite further Arab aggression. In any event, so committed is Peres to his revisionist notions that, even in writing about the past, he now speaks of an “alleged” Arab desire to push Israel into the sea. For the sake of the new era, even historically verifiable aggression is no longer real to Peres.
In all these ways, Peres’s exercise in imagining a “new Middle East” ultimately represents a failure of—imagination. He cannot imagine Arabs motivated by anything but a desire to improve their economic condition. He cannot imagine political currents in the Arab world independent of Israel and not subject to Israel’s influence. He cannot imagine Islamic fundamentalism feeding on anything beyond “poverty” and the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Most importantly, Peres cannot imagine that PLO leaders may have targets different from those of the Israelis with whom they negotiate. Thus, he declares that his method is to “start by defining the ultimate goal and then work backward, establishing interim goals and allocating the proper tools to reach them.” It evidently does not occur to him that the PLO may be engaged in the same enterprise but with a different ultimate goal. For example: on the very day of the ceremony on the White House lawn last September, Arafat said on Jordanian TV that in signing the Declaration of Principles he was carrying out the “phased plan” endorsed by the PLO in 1974. That plan calls for obtaining whatever territory can be wrested from Israel as an interim step, and using it as a base to liberate all of “Palestine.” Peres, significantly, never so much as mentions the “phased plan.”
In this book, Shimon Peres advocates tossing away the strategy of deterrence on which Israel has historically relied in favor of a dream. More than that, he shows us that Israel has already embarked on such a policy, one based on “fewer weapons and more faith”—faith, that is, in Yasir Arafat.
And how has that faith been rewarded? Peres himself writes that in Oslo, Israel “got concessions without which we would never have been able to sign an agreement.” The most important, he says, was “that the PLO nullify the 33 articles of the Palestinian Covenant, which call for . . . the destruction of Israel.” But the Covenant has not been nullified; nor has the PLO ceased employing terrorism, let alone, to cite another “concession” mentioned by Peres, engaged in a “fight against terror and terrorism.”
It may seem mind-boggling that an embattled country could stake its future on such flimsy fantasies. Yet as Hirsh Goodman, the dovish editor of the Jerusalem Report, and by his own account an enthusiastic supporter of the pact with Arafat, recently discovered, such is indeed the case. Goodman reports on a conversation he held with what he describes as “four architects of the [peace] process,” in which it emerged that they had worked out none of the important issues and did not have “the slightest idea of where [they] are heading or why.” Goodman writes: “I left utterly confused and dejected, fearful that we are marching along an unplanned, ill-conceived path that will only exacerbate the status quo.”
Peres’s The New Middle East does nothing to dispel and much to confirm this diagnosis. And it inadvertently holds out the even more alarming prospect of an Israeli territorial retreat that will be met not by Peres’s fantasy of large-scale democratization and cooperation but by the all too familiar Middle Eastern reality of renewed conflict and aggression.