What do the State Department and the Arab League have in common? Both believe in wishful thinking. But while the Arab League version is farce, the State Department version could well end in tragedy.
Last week, the Arab League asked Hamas leader Khaled Meshal to convince Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to stop slaughtering Syrian protesters. After all, an organization that kneecapped opponents and threw them off rooftops during its 2007 takeover of Gaza is the obvious choice to convince Assad to treat his own opponents more gently. Were it not already amply clear that League efforts to stop the violence in Syria are mere lip service, this might be tragic; as it is, one can only laugh.
But the State Department’s wishful thinking is far more troubling. Last Thursday, department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters that the Muslim Brotherhood, which won Egypt’s recent elections, positively won’t abandon the peace treaty with Israel. How does she know? Because the group has given Washington private assurances to that effect – and private assurances in English are obviously far more reliable than Brotherhood leaders’ numerous public pledges in Arabic to scrap the treaty.
Earlier last week, for instance, the party’s deputy leader, Rashad Bayoumi, told the Arabic daily Al-Hayat that for a Muslim Brotherhood government to recognize Israel “is not an option, whatever the circumstances, we do not recognize Israel at all. It’s an occupying criminal enemy.” A Brotherhood government would therefore “take legal action against the peace treaty” by putting it to a referendum –where polls show a majority would favor scrapping it. “We must return this agreement to the people and let them have their say about whether this agreement hurts Egyptian interests and sovereignty,” he explained.
Last month, party Secretary-General Mahmoud Hussein made similar remarks to Asharq al-Awsat. Denying the Brotherhood had reached any understanding with Washington on preserving the treaty, he said the organization in fact intends to ask the new parliament – where the Brotherhood and another Islamist party, Al-Nour, will together have a roughly two-thirds majority – to reconsider it.
Experience has repeatedly proven that what Arab leaders say in Arabic to their own people is a far better guide to their intentions than what they say in English to Westerners. Yasser Arafat, for instance, repeatedly told Westerners he wanted peace with Israel even as he promised in Arabic to continue pursuing terror; only after the second intifada erupted in 2000 did Western leaders finally realize the Arabic statements were the truth. Similarly, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait just days after promising the U.S. government that despite his repeated threats to do exactly that and the 30,000 troops he had massed on the border, he had no such intention. But Washington has learned nothing from its past mistakes: It would still rather believe what the Brotherhood says privately in English.
The tragedy is that Washington does have leverage with Egypt, thanks to the $1.3 billion in annual aid it provides. But you can’t use leverage to try to head off a problem unless you acknowledge the problem exists.
The Obama administration evidently prefers to pretend the peace treaty is in no danger. And by the time it wakes up to the truth, it may well be too late.