At Middle East Quarterly, Richard Landes wrote an excellent overview of how Edward Said’s outsized influence on Middle East studies has blinded the West to reality.
It is very long, but here is the section on how the West didn’t understand – and still refuses to understand – the dynamics behind the Oslo process of the 1990s:
Few debacles better illustrate the folly of ignoring honor-shame dynamics than the Oslo “peace process,” which based its logic on the principle of an exchange of “land for peace”: Israel cedes land to the Palestinians (most of the West Bank and Gaza) to create an independent state; the Palestinians bury the hatchet of war since they’re getting what they allegedly want, without the need for war.
Thus the accords banked on a Palestinian shift from their charter-defined commitment to regaining Arab and Muslim honor by wiping out the shame that is Israel, to a readiness to accept Israel’s legitimate existence. Such a shift depended on their understanding that this promissory concession to Israel would bring what Palestinians “yearn for,” namely the freedom to govern themselves in peace and dignity. A win-win so obvious, that, as Gavin Esler of the BBC opined, “it could be solved with an email.”
What the Oslo architects and their Western supporters so completely underestimated was the hold that his native honor-world held over Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) chairman Yasser Arafat. This lack of insight not only dominated thinking in Western circles (not put at risk by such a gamble), but even Israeli political and intelligence circles, who had much to lose:
[I]t is clear that it was not only Israel’s political leadership that was held hostage by the chimerical conception that an era of peace with the Palestinian Authority had begun: M[ilitary] I[ntelligence] and the Shin Bet security service had trouble liberating themselves from the same feeling. The intelligence officials were not always willing to let facts disturb a rosy perception of reality.
Just because Western and Israeli analysts failed to pay attention, however, does not mean the laws of honor-shame ceased to operate. After the ceremonious signing of the deal on the White House lawn, PLO chairman Arafat found himself the target of immense hostility from his Arab and Muslim honor-group for having brought shame upon himself, his people, upon all Arabs and all Muslims. When he arrived in Gaza in July 1994, Hamas denounced him roundly: “His visit is shameful and humiliating, as it occurs in the shadow of occupation and in the shadow of Arafat’s humiliating submission before the enemy government and its will. It is impossible to present a defeat as victory.” Edward Said, proud member of the Palestinian National Council, the PLO’s semi-parliament, echoed the language of Hamas: the compromises involved a humiliating and “degrading … act of obeisance … a capitulation” that produced a state of “supine abjectness … submitting shamefully to Israel.”Thus did the “post-colonial” intellectual speak the zero-sum, tribal language of Arab and Muslim honor-shame, attacking negotiation as dishonorable; this was the very language Westerners avoided discussing lest they “Orientalize the Orient.”
|To the extent that Arabs were sold on the Oslo process, it was as a Trojan horse, not as a humiliating concession.
|And yet Arafat used the same honor-shame language in Arabic, from the moment the accords were signed and the Nobel Prize granted. Six months after returning from Tunisia in July 1994, to what had, as a result of the accords, become Palestinian-controlled territory, Arafat defended his policy to fellow Muslims in South Africa, not by speaking of the “peace of the brave,” but rather by invoking Muhammad’s Treaty of Hudaybiya, signed in weakness, broken in strength. To the extent that Arabs were sold on the Oslo process, it was as a Trojan horse, not as a (necessarily) humiliating concession; a plan for honorable war not for ignominious peace. In cultures where, for honor’s sake, “what was taken by force must be retaken by force,” any negotiations are shameful and cowardly.
By and large, Western journalists and policymakers, including the “peace camp” in Israel, and even intelligence services, ignored Arafat’s repeated invocations of Hudaybiya. Advocates of peace viewed them as antics designed to appease public opinion (itself a thing worth pondering) and remained confident that, in the end, the more mature call of the international community would sway Arafat to the side of positive-sum reason. Practitioners of “peace journalism” in Israel, for example, consciously avoided such discouraging news items in general and the meaning of Hudaybiya in particular. In his 800-page memoir on the Oslo failure, Dennis Ross, the U.S. Middle East envoy most deeply involved in negotiations with the Palestinian leadership, has not a word to say about the Hudaybiya controversy, despite how consistent it was with his own assessment of Arafat’s problematic behavior, his “failure to prepare his people for the compromises necessary for peace.” Worse. Arafat’s sin was not of omission, but of commission: He systematically prepared his people for war right under the noses of the Israelis and the West.
Rather than consider the implications of this counter-evidence, those supporting the process attacked anyone who drew attention to them. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a so-called Muslim civil rights organization with ties to the same Muslim Brotherhood of which Hamas is a branch, led the attack in the name of protecting the Prophet Muhammad’s reputation. Daniel Pipes wrote repeatedly about the Johannesburg mosque speech, the meaning of the Treaty of Hudaybiya, and the trouble Westerners found themselves in when they brought up the subject. Despite being studiously fair to the Muslim prophet on historical grounds, Pipes provoked furious condemnation and an early accusation of “Islamophobia.”
The outcry essentially forbade critics from examining evidence relevant to their pressing concerns. Instead, peace enthusiasts viewed Arafat and the Palestinian leadership as full-fledged modern players who wanted their own nation and their freedom, and whom one could trust to keep commitments. Most thought that Arafat would, when the opportunity presented itself, choose the imperfect, positive-sum, win-win, over the zero-sum, all-or-nothing, win-lose. They “believed” in the Palestinian leadership and shamed anyone who dared to suggest the Palestinians still clung tightly to atavistic revenge. Thus, even as Jerusalem and Washington prepared for a grand finale to the peace process at Camp David in the summer of 2000; even as Israel’s media prepared their people for peace, Arafat’s media prepared Palestinians for war. And none of the key decision-makers paid any attention.
The inability to understand the dynamics of maintaining honor (through fighting Israel) and avoiding shame (brought on by compromising with Israel) doomed Oslo to failure from the start. People involved, who thought that they were “so close” and that if only Israel had given more, it would have worked, got played. For the Palestinian decision-makers, it was never close. Even a successful deal would have led to more war. Indeed, according to that logic, the better the deal for the Palestinians—i.e., the “weaker” the Israelis—the more aggression will accompany its implementation.
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