Prism on Palestine

When Osama bin Laden spoke to his Middle Eastern audience after the U.S.-led attacks on Afghanistan commenced, he ended with a dramatic religious oath linking the lack of peace in America to the lack of peace in Palestine.

Yet we know that bin Laden and his terrorist followers are not motivated by love for Palestinians or their nationalism. Why, then, do they employ this issue to mobilize regional support? Because no other issue resonates more deeply with so many Arabs and Muslims, even among those majorities who reject bin Laden’s means and fear his real aims.

As I reported in The Post last July, a survey I commissioned in five Arab states—Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Lebanon—showed that most of their publics consistently ranked the Palestinian issue as “the single most important issue to them personally.” These results seem puzzling: How can nearly 60 percent of Kuwaitis deem the Palestinian issue to be so important, given that they resent Yasser Arafat for his 1991 Gulf War stand, and that Kuwait expelled thousands of Palestinians after that war? How can the Lebanese have similar opinions, given their troubled history with Palestinians?

The role of the Palestinian issue in the consciousness of the region is more profound than is readily recognized: It has been central to the collective identity of many Arabs and Muslims over the past half century, in a similar way that Israel has become an integral part of contemporary Jewish identity. Many Jews around the world, for example, may dislike Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel, and blame him for some of the troubles with the Palestinians, but they will still support Israel if it’s attacked or threatened. Many Arabs and Muslims look at the world through the prism of the Palestinian issue: They pass subconscious judgments on countries or groups they don’t know well, largely on the basis of their positions on this issue.

In every decade since the 1940s, except for the 1990s, the region witnessed a major war related to Palestine. Two of these wars, in 1948 and 1967, led to such devastating Arab defeats that they affected the collective consciousness of two successive generations; and their impact remains today: The refugee problem of 1948 remains unresolved, and territories occupied in 1967 are still under occupation. Although a major Arab-Israeli war was absent in the 1990s, the Palestinian issue was at the heart of Arab-Israeli negotiations during that decade, and cycles of violence kept it even more in the news. Add to this the religious and symbolic importance of Jerusalem, and it is not hard to understand why Palestine is central in the region’s collective consciousness.

The importance of this issue has been accentuated during the past year of violence, especially given the unprecedented open coverage that the new satellite media provide. But my research indicates that, contrary to recent reports about the centrality of these media, the strength of Arab commitment to the Palestinian issue was not related to watching such stations as the now-famous al-Jazeera TV out of Qatar. In Saudi Arabia, for example, those who didn’t watch al-Jazeera were more likely to rank the Palestinian issue at the top of their priorities. And in Egypt, where very few people have access to satellite television, the Palestinian issue received the highest ranking (by 79 percent of the public) of any of the countries studied.

The recent focus on this issue is not driven by the media; any given outlet of the new market-driven media succeeds in its competition with others only if it provides more of what the public demands. In fact, al-Jazeera TV, which now is highly criticized here for its inflammatory reporting, was two years ago the subject of regional criticism for being too friendly to Israel. It is the regional mood that has changed.

The recent surge of this issue in public consciousness is the natural result of the violent collapse of peace negotiations. In the 1990s, a moderate could debate an extremist on television and claim that there was a better way than extremism. After the collapse of negotiations, moderates went on the defensive. It is akin to moderate Israelis who lost faith in peace with the Palestinians. Each side has its own narrative that is not entirely sensitive to reality. Just as most Israelis blame Arafat and the Palestinians, most Arabs and Muslims blame Ehud Barak, Sharon and Israeli occupation.

But we cannot ignore the reality of public sentiment in the region. One can debate whether authoritarian governments can, through repression, withstand its fury, but let’s not kid ourselves. Even if they can—as they have in the past—we will only move from one crisis to another, unless the Palestinian issue is addressed.

Arab-Israeli peace is not sufficient for regional stability, or for ending anger at the United States. And, yes, the Palestinian issue has been used by many in the region to cover up serious economic and political ills that must also be addressed. But the role it plays in the collective consciousness in the region renders its resolution a necessary condition for regional stability. The United States cannot impose peace, and certainly not one that jeopardizes Israeli security, but it can and must help restart credible negotiations that inspire hope.