Michael Totten

The Real Quagmire in the Middle East

The Middle East is a hard place for idealists, especially for the Western liberal variety. My feelings of optimism for the region have been ground down over time like rocks under slow-moving glacial ice.
Last time I visited Israel, at the end of the Gaza war this past January, I met Palestinian journalist Khaled Abu Toameh. He sounded no less despondent than the Israelis I spoke to. “Listen,” he said. “We must stop dreaming about the New Middle East and coexistence and harmony and turning this area into Hong Kong and Singapore…I don’t see a real peace emerging over here. We should stop talking about it.”
That’s what I hear from almost everyone I speak to over there now, whether they’re Muslims, Christians, Jews, or whatever. Arabs, Israelis, Kurds — most seem to have a dim view of the future. Optimists, for the most part, parachute in for a brief time and leave. I hate it. It depresses me. But that’s how it is.
Some writers and analysts are slightly less gloomy, and I frequently ask them to cheer me up and hope their relative optimism isn’t fantasy. Jeffrey Goldberg’s work at The Atlantic occasionally qualifies as less pessimistic than mine. His outstanding book Prisoners strikes just the right balance between world-weary pessimism and hope. He’s an American Jew weaned on Socialist Zionism who became an idealistic Israeli as a young adult. He sought out friendships with individual Palestinians with whom he could forge his own separate peace, if for no other reason than to prove to himself that peace was possible. It was much harder than he expected. But he managed, with some difficultly, when he worked as an IDF prison guard at Ketziot during the first intifada to kindle a rocky but enduring friendship with his prisoner Rafiq Hijazi.
I spoke with him a few weeks ago in Washington D.C.
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Jeffrey Goldberg
MJT: You don’t seem particularly optimistic that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be resolved any time soon, but I notice from reading your work that you seem slightly less pessimistic than me.
Goldberg: (Laughs.)
MJT: My view is pretty bleak and yours is slightly less so. And I’m wondering if you can map a way out that’s realistic.
Goldberg: I think there’s a great opportunity right now for a Sunni-Jewish convergence. The Sunni Arab states and Israel have, for the first time, a common adversary. There’s some promise in that. If the Israelis are smart, they’ll exploit Arab fears of Iran. And if the Arabs are smart, they’ll exploit Israeli fears of Iran. The common fear of Iran might produce some more flexibility on both sides, even flexibility on the part of Saudi Arabia.
MJT: That’s true at the state level, but not at the street level.
Goldberg: That’s true at the state level, yes. The people of the Middle East aren’t the ones who make the decisions. But you need the people ultimately, right?
This is the central question. The settlements aren’t the central question. They’re a tragedy in part because they obscure the central question of this conflict. The only question is: can the world of Arab Islam accept the idea of Jewish national equality? That’s the question, and I don’t know the answer to that.
Naturally, I shade toward pessimism on that question. I’m recalling, among other things, that the Six Day War wasn’t started because of the settlements. If you study the history of the last one hundred years, you’ll see that this is the central animating cause of the conflict. And I don’t see much evidence that Arab Islam can assimilate this idea right now.
On the other hand, actions can create new realities. So I’m not totally immune to the idea that Israeli concessions on certain points can create a positive cycle rather than a negative cycle.
The question of Israel is the question of what happens to all minorities in the Middle East. The Arab Muslim Middle East has 300 million people. It has a very hard time treating Coptic Christians with equality, treating Maronites in Lebanon with equality, treating Southern Sudanese in an equal way, treating Kurds in an equal way, and dealing with Jews — not only in their national expression, but even as minorities within their own countries. There was never a golden era for Jews who lived in Arab countries. It wasn’t as bad as living in Poland, but that’s no great shakes.
MJT: You have talked to Hamas people. Should the Israelis or Americans talk to them?
Goldberg: I don’t know what they’d get out of it.
MJT: What did you get out of it when you did it?
Goldberg: A first-hand understanding of how they think. People in the United States find it hard to understand how people in Hamas and Hezbollah think. It’s alien. It’s alien to us. The feverish racism and conspiracy mongering, the obscurantism, the apocalyptic thinking — we can’t relate to that. Every so often, there’s an eruption of that in a place like Waco, Texas, but we’re not talking about 90 people in a compound. We’re talking about whole societies that are captive to this kind of absurdity.
So it’s very important — and you know this better than almost anyone — to go over there yourself and tape it, get it down on paper, and say “this is what they actually say.”
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MJT: It’s shocking to hear.
Goldberg: Of course it’s shocking to hear.
MJT: Sometimes I can’t help but wonder if they really even believe it or if they’re just saying it.
Goldberg: I was in Afghanistan in 1998, a week after the first fatwa to “kill all the Jews and Crusaders” came out. I was with a bunch of Americans. They were making light of it because it seemed so ridiculous. They were making light of it, I suppose, partly as a psychological mechanism to allow us to continue staying in Afghanistan.
MJT: (Laughs.) Yeah.
Goldberg: People also made fun of it because it seemed so ridiculous. But it’s not ridiculous. Just because a belief sounds ridiculous to you doesn’t mean it’s not sincerely held.
MJT: Yeah. I know it.
Goldberg: So I think it’s best to err on the side of taking people at their word. That doesn’t mean you can’t analyze it and break it down on the politics, break it down on the psychology, and break it down on the religion. But take them at their word. I believe Hamas when it says it wants to eradicate Israel. Why shouldn’t I believe them?
MJT: They act as though they’re serious.
Goldberg: Yeah. I understand their world view. I obviously don’t accept it, but I understand it. In their world view, this makes perfect sense. So, why not?
Palestinians, over the years, have proven that they’re willing to sacrifice generations of people to achieve their goal of a Jewish-free Palestine.
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Children in Gaza
I understand that. I don’t agree with the goal. It’s extremist and self-defeating and racist and everything else, but I try to put myself in their shoes, and I can understand their arguments.
There’s two stages. One, collect the documentary evidence. That’s why I hung out at Hezbollah’s “Al Manar TV station for a couple of days and just listened”:http://www.jeffreygoldberg.net/articles/tny/a_reporter_at_large_in_the_par.php. There’s nothing insincere about their goals and their desires. I don’t think they’re motivated by poverty. If poverty were the motivation, Zambia would be the world headquarters of terrorism. So why not believe them?
It doesn’t mean that nothing changes. I think it’s true that a moderated Hamas would no longer be Hamas. If you’re a Muslim Brotherhood organization, or if you’re Hezbollah, if you’re an arm of the Iranian Islamic Revolution, and you begin to accept the idea of the presence of Israel in the Middle East, you’re no longer a part of that movement. So I don’t think the organizations are capable of changing, but individuals are capable of changing.
MJT: What percentage of the Palestinian population do you suppose might be flexible enough to change in the way you just described?
Goldberg: I assume it’s fluid like everything else. That’s what I meant when I said that new realities on the ground can shape public opinion.
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Graffiti in Tel Aviv, April, 2006
MJT: We have seen some who have changed their views, and there will always be hardliners who won’t until they die.
Goldberg: Look. Another thing people here don’t understand is that it’s a hot region. It’s an emotionally hot region. Israel, too. The amount of yelling in Israel over things that don’t have to be yelled about is extraordinary. Blood runs hot. Maybe it’s the desert. I don’t know. People are governed by their emotions.
In my book, I trace this relationship I had with one particular Palestinian. When things were going relatively well during the peace process, he was against suicide bombing. When things weren’t going well, he was for suicide bombing. This is the reality.
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That’s why I think there was a missed opportunity around the time of the Gaza withdrawal. To buttress the Palestinian moderates — moderates being a relative term — maybe Israel should have given them something so they’d have greater sway among the population. My point is that I don’t think we’re dealing with entirely immutable forces.
MJT: I don’t either, but it often looks that way with Hamas.
Goldberg: Yeah. (Sighs.) Do all Palestinians wish for the disappearance of Israel? Probably. But it doesn’t matter what you wish. It matters what you do.
MJT: There is a difference between wishing Israel would just go away and actively working to destroy it.
Goldberg: I have a lot of wishes, too, that I don’t act on.
MJT: A lot of Israelis wish the Palestinians would just go away.
Goldberg: Of course. Why would you want people who hate you around you? That’s fine. It’s all about what you do. And it’s about creating conditions so that people who have negative and violent impulses will be reined in.
MJT: Here, I think, is the big question: what should be done about Iran’s nuclear weapons? Would it be better to use military action — whether it’s American, Israeli, or both — or learn to live with the Iranian bomb?
Goldberg: I suspect we are going to be learning to live with the Iranian bomb.
MJT: Is that a good idea?
Goldberg: No. It’s terrible. But also striking Iran would be terrible.
This is an interesting question right now, at this moment in history. This might be a place where American interests and Israeli interests diverge somewhat. I think the Iranian nuclear weapons program does pose an existential threat to Israel. It doesn’t pose an existential threat to America. It poses a unique set of terrible challenges for America, but it doesn’t mean our existence here is in peril. So it might not be in America’s best interests right now to strike militarily — for any number of reasons, including the fact that it might not work. And if it does work, it would almost seem to justify, in a way, Iran seeking nuclear weapons. And the program might continue.
The thing we hope for is that Iran moderates itself, that the people of Iran who are more moderate than its leaders figure out a way to moderate this. The problem isn’t whether or not Iran has the bomb, it’s whether or not the mullahs have the bomb.
MJT: Sure.
Goldberg: As I wrote in a New York Times op-ed a few weeks ago, there are two Israeli strategic doctrines in confrontation right now. The first is: never do anything that harms the strategic relationship with the United States of America. The second is: prevent, at all costs, the possibility of a Second Holocaust. What if these two things come into conflict?
I tend to think that [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu understands better than almost anyone else the imperative of maintaining a strong strategic relationship with the United States of America. But I also think he’s governed by his understanding of Jewish history.
If you are the de-facto leader of the Jews in a post-Holocaust world, what is the absolute worst thing you could do? Allow the formation of an existential threat to half the world’s remaining Jews. It’s a hard job.
MJT: It is. Sometimes I wonder if there’s an agreement that we’ll never hear about between the U.S. and Israel, that Israel can go ahead and take out Iran’s nuclear weapons and we’ll pretend to be upset about it. Because look: Iran can retaliate against the United States inside Iraq and Afghanistan.
Goldberg: That’s the problem.
MJT: And it’s not in our national interests to provoke that. We have over 100,000 guys in Iraq and Afghanistan who can be retaliated against.
Goldberg: And here’s the thing. Netanyahu doesn’t want to endanger the lives of American soldiers. Not because he’s so great or moral or whatever, but because he knows that’s disastrous.
MJT: It could threaten the entire American project in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Goldberg: Yes. Exactly.
I imagine that if this situation gets more dire, America will say to the Iranians, secretly, in no uncertain terms, that “if you do anything to Israel, we will destroy you.” That just seems prudent to do. “Go ahead and have your dreams and desires, but don’t even think about transferring your nuclear technology to attack Israel in some way, because we will wipe you out.”
MJT: Do you think the U.S. would actually do that?
Goldberg: It depends on the president.
MJT: I can’t see Barack Obama nuking Tehran.
Goldberg: I didn’t say he has to nuke it, I said he has to threaten to nuke it.
MJT: Sure, but the threat has to be credible.
Goldberg: Right. So you make it credible.
MJT: Bush could have done that.
Goldberg: Bring the Iranian ambassador to the Strategic Air Command and show him all the missiles that are pointing at Iran. “This one is going to go here, and this one is going to go there. You’re wiped out. You’re finished. You’re done. You are exterminated.”
Obama doesn’t have to actually do it.
We’re getting into the realm of insanity here, but if Israel is ever attacked with nuclear weapons, I think there would be quite a demand from Americans as a whole to retaliate for it.
MJT: Probably.
Goldberg: It wouldn’t really matter, though, because the Israelis would already be dead.
MJT: They can retaliate themselves anyway. They have nuclear weapons in submarines out in the Mediterranean.
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Israeli submarine
Goldberg: And in the Persian Gulf. They’re German subs. History is great that way, isn’t it?
MJT: (Laughs.)
Goldberg: Jews are floating around in the Persian Gulf with nuclear weapons in German subs that are aimed at the new Hitler. If you step away from your personal feelings about it, it’s just fascinating.
MJT: Can you imagine the Israeli relationship with Palestinians evolving that much over the next 50 or 60 years?
Goldberg: If I were a Palestinian right now, I’d just wait. I’d keep the pressure up and not agree to a rump state. I’d just keep up the pressure for another few generations. They might eventually achieve it that way.
MJT: But look at how much things can change in a few generations.
Goldberg: All the leaders are ego maniacs by definition. All of them are soaked in history. Yasser Arafat wanted to be Salah ad-Din. Bibi Netanyahu wants to be Judah Maccabee. There is so much history there to exploit. These people are all measuring themselves against historical role models. And when you’re measuring yourself against a historical role model like Salah ad-Din, you wait, and you keep trying to devise new strategies to make the Jews leave, or to kill enough of them that the survivors leave.
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Khaled Meshaal, Chairman of the Hamas Political Bureau
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
MJT: Waiting is tricky, though. Imagine if Hitler had decided to wait a few generations to go after the Jews. Europe has changed. Hitlerism won’t fly in the Europe of 2009.
Goldberg: Now we’re really getting into the realm of hyper-speculation.
MJT: I wonder, though, if Palestinian society is really capable of evolving the way European society has in the last 60 years.
Goldberg: I don’t know. The argument is that Arab society is somewhat stagnant.
MJT: It is stagnant compared with Europe.
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Goldberg: It’s more static. It’s a region of the world that lags on a lot of the usual indicators for success and progress. But hell if I know. The whole idea is just so improbable. But so was the idea that the Jews, after 2,000 years, could reclaim their ancient homeland. There was nothing in history that suggested that would be possible.
And going back to the destruction of Israel — Arabs are misreading history if they believe Israel is a temporary phenomenon. Nothing like this has ever happened in history. A dead tribe came back and seized the land it had, and did so after a devastating tragedy. Jews are also good at waiting, apparently. They’re a small group, but there’s a survival impulse that’s embedded in many Jews, and certainly in the Jews of Israel today. It says: “You want to wait? We’ll wait, too.” Jews were an ancient people already when Mohammad appeared on the Arabian peninsula.
I wonder all the time if two people just like us will be having the same conversation a hundred years from now. “Well, what do you think? Will Israel make it?”
MJT: It’s possible.
Goldberg: Anything’s possible. Anyone who acts like they’ve figured out the entire Middle East doesn’t know anything.
MJT: Yeah. It’s a humbling place.
Goldberg: People who tell you they understand and know the answer? Demagogues. They’re either idiots or demagogues. Nobody can understand this. You can’t apply rationality to it either.
This is why I’m negative about the intentions of Palestinians. If their goal were statehood, they could have had statehood. Therefore, you have to give serious credence to the idea that their goal is not statehood, that it’s more important to rid the Arab world of Jewish nationalism than it is to have a Palestinian state that would improve the lives of individual Palestinians now.
MJT: Lots of them say that explicitly. They aren’t demanding a state in the West Bank and Gaza. They want to liberate all of Palestine, so to speak, “from the river to the sea.”
Goldberg: But just because they want that doesn’t mean it can happen.
MJT: Right. But it’s clear that some of them want the whole thing and won’t accept a state in the West Bank and Gaza. From their point of view, it’s like Israel being offered Tel Aviv and the beach. It isn’t enough.
Goldberg: Ben-Gurion was smart. He took what they offered him and hoped for better. He hoped for Arab mistakes that would allow him to get more territory. The Arabs provided the mistakes, and he took the territory.
Don’t you find this debilitating after a while?
MJT: Yeah.
Goldberg: The reality in Israel is that it’s a fun place, a great place. It’s a vibrant society.
MJT: I like being there.
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Tel Aviv, Israel
Goldberg: It’s not all as dreary as this. Maybe this is a story about individualism. The demand of the collective on the Palestinian side is such that it ruins the lives of millions spread over several generations.
MJT: You wrote during the Gaza war that Operation Cast Lead would probably work, but that nothing in the Middle East seems to work for very long. Why do you suppose that is? It seems to be true, but I’m not exactly sure why.
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Gaza City several years ago
Goldberg: I don’t know.
MJT: We’ll see progress for a while, but then the progress gets erased.
Goldberg: That’s progress by our definition of progress, by people who understand the world differently.
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Gaza City from Sderot, Israel, at the end of Operation Cast Lead
I think there’s a long strategy. And the long strategy of some Arabs is impervious to short term interventions. Short of packing up Palestinians and bussing them to Egypt, the impulse to defeat the Jews will remain there.
The reason American minds can’t really grasp the Middle East is because our minds are trained for concepts that are at variance with the mindset of Middle Eastern fundamentalists — and by that I mean both Muslims and Jews. The importance of today, the importance of pleasure, the importance of compromise, the importance of pragmatism, the relative unimportance of land. We have a house, we sell it, and then we move to another house. We don’t build our houses on top of our fathers’ houses.
As a sort of aside, you see how settlers talk about settlement freezes. There’s a kind of Middle Easterness to it. Part of it is manipulation. “If we aren’t allowed to add to our house, our children will have to move to Tel Aviv.” They’re telling me that it’s a punishment to have to move to Israel? It’s a tiny place. Their kids will be an hour away. Or a half hour.
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Maale Adumim settlement, West Bank
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Jewish Quarter, Jerusalem, an area considered a “settlement” by the United States government
But there’s also a sincere Middle Easterness to it. According to them, it really is a sin to force their children move a half hour away when they could live right next door or in the same house. It’s as if they have imbibed the Arab love for the place of their father and their father’s father. There are so many concepts we just can’t relate to because we’re Americans. It’s a barrier to understanding.
MJT: It is. Americans also believe there is a solution to every problem.
Goldberg: Yeah. Solutionism is an American religion. That’s the most dangerous one. The other aspects of this are the misunderstandings. We can’t understand why a Palestinian would want his son to become a suicide bomber.
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It’s because his son is not an individual in the same way Americans are. He’s a valuable instrument in the deliverance of salvation for his people. His desires, dreams, and goals are all selfishness. That’s just Western selfishness. I don’t know. I’ve been trying to work these things through for years.
There’s something admirable about Palestinian steadfastness.
MJT: We don’t have that sort of steadfastness.
Goldberg: No, we don’t.
MJT: But our society is better off without it.
Goldberg: Of course, it is! (Laughs.) What are they getting out of it? But our categories of success and failure are not their categories of success and failure.
It leads to the immorality of narcissism, that their collective need is so important that they can kill children with moral impunity. That’s one place it leads. The importance of remaining steadfast to the cause gives them license to do anything. Man, but when you’re licensed to do anything, it gives you power.
When I talk this way, when we think about it this way, I have a hard time seeing a Western-style state flourishing there over the long term in that climate.
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MJT: There’s only one that exists. Israel is the only one. None of the Arab states are. We’re over there in Iraq trying to help them build one, but I have my doubts that it’s going to happen. Lebanon is a hybrid. It’s only partly a Western-style state.
What do you think about Lebanon? The 2006 war was a disaster for everybody involved. But what if Hezbollah starts firing rockets again? What should the Israelis do? What would you do if you were prime minister?
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Hezbollah fires Katyusha rockets at Israel, July, 2006
Goldberg: If you’re the Israeli prime minister, or the leader of any country, you can’t accept conditions in which your enemy forces the depopulation of a third of your country. It’s not acceptable. It’s national suicide. And while there’s a record of national suicide in Jewish history, I don’t think the current Israeli leadership is going to acquiesce to that. So you do what you have to do.
Is that helpful? No. It will cause a lot of people in London to go demonstrate on behalf of Hezbollah. It will anger the United Nations. But what’s the choice? You’re not a serious country if you allow an enemy to fire rockets at your civilians and cause the depopulation of your territory. If you allow that to happen, you’re ceding sovereignty over whole chunks of your country.
Having Hezbollah in the Lebanese politcal process has some kind of utility in this regard. It knows full well that if it does launch some new adventure against Israel that Israel will retaliate against Lebanon as a whole. That won’t help Hezbollah’s position in Lebanese society.
But I’m not a military strategist. I don’t know how to stop the rockets.
MJT: There has been talk of shooting back at Syria instead of Lebanon. Syria has a return address. It’s a state and is therefore accountable.
Goldberg: This brings up an interesting strategic shift that might be coming in Israeli thinking, which is: forget the proxies. What is Hamas without its weapons suppliers?
MJT: Not much. And the same goes for Hezbollah.
Goldberg: So Israel says to the two states that supply Hamas and Hezbollah: “If you support these proxies, and if Hezbollah fires rockets at Haifa, we’re not going to attack Hezbollah. We’re going to attack Damascus.”
MJT: That’s what I thought they should have done back in 2006.
Goldberg: They can say “You’re the sponsors. So you either stop this or we’re going to destroy your military infrastructure.” Why have a proxy war? What do proxy wars get you other than bad publicity?
MJT: A bunch of dead people.
Goldberg: Were you there during the 2006 war?
MJT: Yeah.
Goldberg: There were a lot of dead bodies from Israeli air strikes, right?
MJT: I didn’t see any dead bodies. I was on the Israeli side of the border.
Goldberg: Right. I’m surprised we didn’t meet. I was there, too, traveling with Noah Pollak.
MJT: I was there with Noah Pollak, too, just on different days.
Goldberg: I was also there with Michael Oren.
MJT: Yep, so was I. On different days. We must have just barely missed each other.
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Michael Oren, Israeli Ambassador to the United States, author, historian, and former Israel Defense Forces Spokesman
Goldberg: Hezbollah is a proxy army of Syria and Iran. So why aren’t Israelis fighting back against Syria and Iran?
MJT: That’s what Michael Oren thought, too, after he was no longer working as a spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces. I talked to him about this during his book tour when he could say what he really believed.
You can’t defeat a guerilla army in six weeks with an air force. It’s absurd.
Goldberg: You can destroy its ability to fight.
MJT: Except the Israelis didn’t.
Goldberg: I mean, you can destroy its ability to fight by denying its weapons supplies.
MJT: Right.
Goldberg: Hezbollah can’t fight Israel without its rockets, right?
MJT: Right. I mean, they could fashion together home-made pieces of crap like Hamas used to. Hezbollah’s Katyusha rockets are much more formidable.
Goldberg: I think this is getting better now that Egypt understands the threat of Shia radicalism. And Israel can say “stop this smuggling completely, or we’ll have to do it ourselves on your territory. We won’t attack you, but you’re allowing your territory to be used as a launching pad for people who want to kill our citizens.”
I think the doctrine needs to be rewritten. Every time a rocket comes into Israel from Hamas, Israel should figure out who’s helping Hamas and deal with them.
MJT: But if Iran gets the bomb…
Goldberg: …everything changes.

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