The Miss Universe Pageant is a rather silly made-for-television event owned by entrepreneur and celebrity Donald Trump. But this piece of junk food for the mind has nevertheless provided the universe, or at least the portion of it that includes this planet, a tutorial in the realities of the Middle East that one cannot get from reading, say, the editorials of the New York Times or the statements about the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians that come out of the mouths of people like President Obama or Secretary of State John Kerry. And all it took was one selfie from Miss Israel.
The controversy arises from an incident during a photo session before the Miss World festivities began during which the contestants were also talking photos of each other. Miss Israel, Doron Matalon, took a photo of herself and a few other participants, including Saly Greige, Miss Lebanon, in which the young ladies are all smiling while dressed in shirts with their country’s names. The photo was predictably circulated on social media but the reaction involved more than the usual appreciation for the sight of a few pretty girls. Lebanese who saw it were enraged at Greige, who was reviled for treason for being depicted as engaging in normal friendly relations with an Israeli.
This sort of thing had happened once before when the 1993 version of Miss Lebanon was pictured next to that year’s Miss Israel. She was subsequently stripped of her title and ostracized as a traitor.
So to save herself from such an ignominious end, Greige claimed that she had been photo-bombed by the Israeli and then posted a new version of the same picture with Matalon cropped out. Perhaps that lame story will be enough to keep her out of the soup in a country that is dominated by terrorist militias like Hezbollah and where hatred for Israel and Jews is endemic. In response, Matalon merely said she was “sad” that her Arab counterparts were not allowed to put aside official hostility for even the three weeks of the event.
But there’s more to this story than just an embarrassing and potentially dangerous moment of fraternization for one Lebanese woman.
The exchange encapsulated the essence of why peace in the Middle East has eluded generations of diplomats.
The problem between Israel and Lebanon, which is a more cosmopolitan place than many other Arab countries, isn’t a matter of borders or disputes over settlements. Many Lebanese may hold grudges about Israel’s intervention in their civil war and its occupation of a portion of that country that ended in 2000. But any umbrage about that must be tempered by the knowledge that the dispute was caused by the willingness of the Lebanese to let the southern portion of their country be used as a terrorist base of attack by the Palestinians, who operated a state within a state in the south, for many years. The same is true now of Hezbollah, which embroiled all of Lebanon in a pointless and bloody war against Israel in 2006 because of their cross-border terror raids.
Nor are the Lebanese particularly exercised about Israeli settlement policies or the plight of Palestinians in Hamas-run Gaza. Indeed, the Lebanese are, as a result of their own experiences with armed Palestinian militias and terror cadres during the civil war, even less sympathetic to the Palestinians than Israelis.
The problem is a spirit of intolerance and rejection for the idea of a Jewish state no matter where its borders might be drawn. That is a hatred so deep that it can’t be bridged by creative diplomacy or gestures of goodwill, such as those that infuse international events like the Miss Universe contest.
It is a cliché for contestants at such competitions to say they wish for world peace when asked for their opinions about the issues of the day. But what happened to Miss Lebanon illustrates that the divisions of the Middle East run so deep and are so primal that no amount of global hooey like a beauty contest is enough to make the Arab and Muslim world forget about their antipathy for Israelis.
That one picture was worth a million words of nonsense about the Middle East conflict being a misunderstanding or a problem that could be solved with enough good will on the part of both sides. The State Department should consider it a free “Middle East for Dummies” tutorial. Until Lebanese beauty contestants are not afraid to have their pictures taken with Jews, the diplomats should not bother trying to pretend their efforts will be enough to solve the problem.