Kicking Arabs in the Teeth?

By M.J. Rosenberg
Washington DC, February 24, 2006
Israel Policy Forum
Issue # 263

Kicking Arabs in the Teeth

The headline on David Brooks’ column in yesterday’s New York Times was certainly hyperbolic: “Kicking Arabs in the Teeth.”  Brooks was writing about the Dubai port deal, arguing that those expressing outrage over the emirate’s ownership of American ports are behaving like “xenophobic Know Nothings” who will force the Arab world to conclude that the “racist  West…imposes one set of harsh rules on Arabs and another set of rules on everyone else.”

Lay aside the merits of the argument about the ports, which is not a subject for this column.  My focus is on the issue of “kicking Arabs in the teeth,” which is something that concerns me as much as it does Brooks, especially with the situation in Iraq at a particularly dangerous stage and with 138,000 Americans still deployed there.

I differ with Brooks, however, in believing that the Arab world cares very much about Dubai’s business dealings with the port authorities of New York and Baltimore as compared with, say, the Palestinian issue, about which Brooks rarely gets exercised.  

According to every poll that has been taken in the Arab world in recent years, there are two primary reasons Arabs and non-Arab Muslims do not trust America. One of them is the Iraq war. The other is their belief that the United States supports the occupation of the West Bank and is hostile to the Palestinian people. 

In fact, it was widely reported that Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes, upon making her first official visit to Arab capitals last year, came home and told the President that virtually every Arab with whom she met wanted to focus their discussions with her on the Palestinian issue.  Hughes discovered, to use David Brooks’ metaphor, that it is US handling of the Israeli-Palestinian issue that is the kick in the teeth that pains the Arab world. 

This does not necessarily mean that the United States should change its policies to suit the Arabs but it does suggest that those who have legitimate feelings of concern about Arab attitudes toward America – and how these attitudes affect US security – might want to re-think some of their ideas about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rather than worry about hurt feelings resulting from a port contract dispute. 

In that context, it is far from surprising that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met so much skepticism this week when she visited Cairo and Riyadh to press the withholding of aid to the Palestinian Authority. Both the Egyptians and the Saudis have urged Hamas to moderate its position on Israel.  Nevertheless, the Saudis balked, telling Rice that they did not want “to link international aid to the Palestinian people to considerations other than their dire humanitarian need.”  They warned that isolating Hamas would likely lead to greater extremism.  The Egyptians said pretty much the same thing. 

In fact, the United States and Israel have very little company on the issue of withholding needed funds from the Palestinian people in response to the Hamas victory in the January 25th election.  As far as much of the world is concerned, withholding funds even before a Palestinian government is formed is to punish the Palestinian people for embracing the democratic norms we encouraged them to adopt. 

That may be a harsh way of putting it.  But crippling the Palestinian economy by withholding its tax revenues and customs duties (as Israel is doing) or by withholding pledged aid (as the United States is doing) is bound to hurt innocent people.  That is why these actions must be carefully weighed.

According to a report in Ha’aretz this week, the Palestinian Ministry of Health has been unable to pay contractors for food, medicine or equipment for three months and is $22 million in debt.  The Israeli government’s decision to withhold $50 million a month in customs duties – Palestinian funds collected for them by Israel as part of an agreement both sides accepted -- means that hospital workers may not be paid in March.  Similarly, 34,000 teachers will not receive their salaries.

Once, not very long ago, punitive actions directed at Palestinians were in response to Palestinian violence. Following a particular terror outrage, Palestinian workers were kept from their jobs in Israel and checkpoint procedures were tightened. The stated reason for these actions was that they were precautionary, designed to prevent further attacks by terrorists.

But the latest round of punitive actions is not in response to terror but rather to an election – an election pushed by the United States and Israel – that was democratic, free and fair.  We don’t like the results but in urging the Palestinians to adopt democracy, we never hinted that they would be punished for voting “wrong.”

This is not to say that we should simply ignore the election results and continue sending aid without any conditions.  Secretary Rice has every reason to try to garner international support for an approach that will move the new Palestinian government toward acceptance of Israel and of the agreements to which previous Palestinian administrations have committed themselves.

In an interview with Ori Nir of the Forward, Jon Alterman, Director of Middle East programs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, rejected the sledgehammer approach. "We should have a complex strategy, which bars certain kinds of money, allows other kinds of money and has enough just within reach that requires a policy change by the Palestinian government. By carefully constructing incentives and punishments, we can either change the nature of the organization or demonstrate more broadly that Hamas is implacably opposed to a negotiated solution,” he said.

Many Israelis agree.  According to the major Israeli dailies, National Security Adviser Giora Eiland told the Cabinet on Sunday that it was a mistake to withhold funds before a Palestinian government is formed and before anyone knows what its stance will be toward Israel.

Eiland said that acting precipitously could cost Israel international support if the new government breaks the ceasefire and resumes terrorism.

It’s a good point.  Hamas has observed the ceasefire with Israel for the past year.  If aid is cut off anyway, then what will the response be if the terror resumes?  It is as if the “calm” Ariel Sharon always demanded, and which has been in place for a year, is irrelevant.  Of course, it won’t seem irrelevant if it should end.

The question Israelis and Americans need to answer is what we want.  Is it to use every available means to overturn the results of the Palestinian election?  Or is it to use every available means to produce a pragmatic Palestinian Authority whose leaders, whether from Hamas or Fatah, are willing to do business with Israel and the United States?

Neither goal would be easy to achieve.  But at least the second holds out the possibility of achieving security for Israel and a strengthened regional position for the United States. 

It’s worth a try, especially when the alternative – even if successful – would likely bring chaos for Palestinians, terrorism for Israelis and, no doubt about it, the further deterioration of America’s standing in the Middle East. 
The views expressed in IPF Friday are those of MJ Rosenberg and not necessarily of Israel Policy Forum.