The tactic of winning hearts by catering to Muslim perception rather than objective reality is a sure loser.Â Update: Also read Claudia Rosett: Son of Hamas â€” Check Out the Book
So long as widespread suspicion exists, and it does exist, amongst the Arab population, that the economic depression … is largely due to excessive Jewish immigration, and so long as some grounds exist upon which this suspicion may be plausibly represented to be well founded, there can be little hope of any improvement in the mutual relations of the two races. â€”Â 1930 statement by the British government
What does this statement, following an inquiry into the 1929 Muslim attacks upon Jews in Mandatory Palestine, have to do with a recent disinvitation to speak at Britain’s Cambridge University for Israeli historian Benny Morris?
The statement marks the emergence of the Western phenomenon of making decisions on the basis of what Arabs and Muslims perceive, or are said to perceive, at the expense of the facts or the merits of the case.
Note the reasonsÂ offered by Jake Witzenfeld, president of Cambridge University’s Israel Society, for disinviting Morris:
I decided to cancel for fear of the Israel Society being portrayed as a mouthpiece of Islamophobia. … We understand that whilst Professor Benny Morris’ contribution to history is highly respectable and significant, his personal views are, regrettably, deeply offensive to many.
Morris, once the darling of anti-Israel radicals, is in recent years execrated by them for emphasizing Arab rejection of Jewish statehood as the origin of enduring conflict. Mr.Witzenfeld is clearly overawed by this. Note, in Mr. Witzenfeld’s words, the 1929 leitmotiv: the facts aren’t important â€” how they could be perceived or portrayed is.
This intellectually and morally bankrupt approach can be seen among those who urge an alteration of U.S. policy. Three examples from recent years:
January 2008:Â Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland, urged America to engage Iran over its nuclear weapons program because “most Arabs don’t see Iran as a major threat.”
March 2006:Â John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, in theirÂ neo-Nazi- and Islamist-approvedantagonistic paper on Israel and its American supporters, say that Palestinians resorting to suicide bombing “is not surprising … because the Palestinians believe they have no other way to force Israeli concessions.”
April 2004: Egyptian presidentÂ Husni Mubarak reportedly argued that “many Arabs perceive a sense of ‘injustice’ in the way the United States has offered strong backing for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel.”
Were these sorts of representations to be heeded, what would occur? We needn’t guess â€” Western governments have been listening for years to this sort of talk, with the following results:
Iran has replied contemptuously to Western diplomatic coaxing by turning up the uranium enrichment lever. Sunni Arab powers, far from yawning in their imagined security, are likely to engage in a nuclear arms race with Shia Iran.
Through much of the Oslo process (1993-2000), Israel was deeply attentive to the notion that Palestinian terrorists blow up Israelis because they are frustrated peace-seekers rather than jihadists â€” a theory still popular among policy analysts whoÂ call themselves “realists.” Yet unilateral concessions embolden rather than pacify jihadists â€” witness the 2005 Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, which produced aÂ dramatic increase in rocket assaults upon southern Israel and turned Gaza into a Hamas emirate clattering with imported arms.
In the past year, the Obama administration made ameliorating Palestinian perceptions of injustice a priority, strong-arming Israel to impose a ban on Jews moving to the West Bank and even parts of Jerusalem. Only the policy hasn’t helped the administration’s plan to reconvene peace talks. Far from it: the U.S. having raised the demand, Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority duly adopted it as a precondition and has refused to negotiate until Israel accedes to it.
The track record of policies designed to appease Arab and Muslim perceptions is provably poor, inasmuch as the irrationality, suspicion, and hatred that they seek to validate are impervious to facts.
Polls show, for example, that neither Egyptians nor Palestinians like America more despite being recipients of ever-rising levels of American largesse. Saudis have scant affection for the U.S. after decades of Washington’s fawning deference. Nor has Muslim opinion been perceptibly altered by the most striking examples of American aid and succor given to Muslims: in Bosnia in 1999, or in Indonesia after the 2005 southeast Asian tsunami.
Even Barack Obama is the partial exception that proves the rule: his popularity among Muslims after a year of strenuous outreach isÂ limited relative to the rest of the world. His approach has not translated into Iranian mellowing or Arab gestures to Israel, two objectives he publicly sought to achieve in return for emollient diplomacy towards Muslims coupled with pressure towards Israelis.
More to the point, such popularity as Obama enjoys in the Muslim world is likely to be deeply conditional. With Obama unable to deliver an Israeli-Palestinian agreement that does not lie in his gift, or to pull out of Afghanistan, or to ignore what occurs in neighboring Pakistan, Arab and Muslim perceptions of Obama can be expected to erode over time. At present, he reportedly hasÂ the confidence of just 13% of Pakistanis â€” hardly a significant improvement over his predecessor’s 9%.
Lying behind the recurrent urge to adopt policies conditioned on what Arabs and Muslims perceive are many things, both general (fear of Muslim groups with a proven track record of violence; political correctness) and particular (rationalizing anti-American or anti-Jewish hatreds). But fear and rationalizing hostility offer no outlet: as in Palestine in 1930, it is a low level of statesmanship that caters to these, one that dooms its practitioners.
Daniel Mandel is a Fellow in History at Melbourne University, Director of the Zionist Organization of America’s Center for Middle East Policy and author of H.V. Evatt and the Establishment of Israel: The Undercover Zionist