Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 December 2010
Issue No. 1026
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

James Zogby

Building a straw man

Israel has jumped on WikiLeaks' diplomatic disclosures to point to the threat of Iran, but the reality is that Palestine remains the heart and soul of the Arab struggle, writes James Zogby*

From the day the first batch of WikiLeaks US diplomatic cables appeared in the international press, the Israelis were crowing, "This is good for us." Seizing on documents demonstrating that some Arab leaders bear ill will towards Iran, the Israeli spin machine went into action. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu boasted that "Our region has been hostage to a narrative that is the result of 60 years of propaganda, which paints Israel as the greatest threat," claiming that Iran had, in fact, eclipsed the Palestinian issue as the number one concern of the Arab world.

Another prominent Israeli official gloated that "Iran is now 10 times more important than Palestine" and that it is now time to shelve the "peace effort" and focus attention on Iran.

My first reaction was "How silly, yet predictable." My second was "how dangerous."

The Israelis and their supporters in the US have been announcing the end of the Palestinian cause for decades. I recall back in the 1980s a piece that appeared in a prestigious US quarterly journal claiming that with the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) defeated in Lebanon and the Arabs focussed on the Iran-Iraq war, the Palestinian issue was as good as dead in the Arab world. The article had been written a month before the outbreak of the first Intifada, but because of lag time, the publication did not go out until a month after that revolt began. So much for that analysis! Equally flawed assessments were made at the time that an international coalition was being mobilised to liberate Kuwait from Saddam's occupation, and again a few years after 9/11 with the West Bank reoccupied by the Israelis and Palestinian president Yasser Arafat under siege in Ramallah. And here we are today with the same call to ignore Palestine being made yet again.

In each case, these predictions were wrong, born more of Israeli wishful thinking than a clear and thoughtful assessment of political realities in the Arab world. The desire to grasp at straws to wish away Palestine and Jerusalem and the importance of these issues to Arabs is par for the course for Israelis. It is also dangerous and short sighted.

It was true that in the 1980s the Arab world was consumed with the Iran-Iraq war. And it was true that with the occupation of Kuwait, there was deep concern with the aggressive ambitions of the Iraqi leader. There was also good reason for the Arabs to be deeply troubled by the threat of Al-Qaeda and the reactions of the Bush administration to the deadly 9/11 attacks on the US homeland, just as today there is growing concern with the aggressive and meddlesome behaviour of the Iranians in the Gulf and beyond. But to use these concerns to construct a notion that any or all of them nullify concern with the plight of the Palestinians or the fate of Jerusalem is sheer fantasy.

As our polling has consistently demonstrated, Palestine is not merely an issue, it is an existential concern that not only unites Arabs, it defines their sense of common history and their deepest feelings of betrayal by -- and their vulnerability in the face of -- Western machinations. In a real sense, the plight of Palestinians is to the Arabs what the Holocaust is to Jews worldwide. To ignore this reality is to invite disaster.

This most recent denial is based on a straw man, constructed out of bits of WikiLeaks disclosures that, in reality, are little more than hearsay and gossip -- memorandums of conversations reported without context or analysis. As such, they are not the stuff out of which one can base a policy or even construct a solid case. After a recent television show, a prominent former US official chided his interviewer who had been pressing him to evaluate some of the more controversial WikiLeaks revelations. The official asked his interviewer whether he would want the notes of the off- the-cuff conversations that had taken place before and after the show to be revealed -- asking how he thought they would sound and whether they would fairly represent the views of the network in question.

My point is that it would be wrong to attempt to build an argument on the content of these leaked documents. Of course, they provide an interesting distraction, but not much more.

Arab leaders are indeed deeply troubled by Iran's hegemonic ambitions and its meddling in Iraq, the Gulf States, Lebanon and Palestine. But to move from that to the assumption that for these same Arab leaders the Palestinian issue has been eclipsed or that it no longer matters to them or to their constituents is an unwarranted assumption built on a flimsy foundation.

For the Israelis to assume that Arab concerns with Iran now free them to build in Jerusalem, and to ignore their responsibilities to make a constructive move towards peace, is both dangerous and wrongheaded. But it appears that for the Israelis to build straw men that allow them to feel that they can ignore the consequences of their actions is just the same old story, playing out one more time. And as before, this distraction will pass, and reality will rear its head and remind us of fundamental issues that cannot and should not be ignored.

* The writer is president of the Arab American Institute.

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