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Cant and the Middle East

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In the world of diplomacy, and politics generally, words are not chosen for their correspondence to the truth. They are chosen for their power to advance some purpose. That’s why most of what we hear is cant.

Nowhere is this rule more faithfully observed than in connection with the Middle East.

When President Bush says Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is a “man of peace,” he doesn’t mean that Sharon is a man of peace. He means, rather, that some goal is served by saying Sharon is a man of peace—even though he is a man of unfathomable brutality. The events in Jenin are only the latest demonstration of that fact. (He was forced to resign as defense minister in the 1980s after an Israeli commission found him responsible for permitting the massacres of Palestinians by Lebanese allies in southern Lebanon during the Israeli invasion.)

What goal is served by Mr. Bush’s characterization? More than one, no doubt. Clearly it was aimed in part at the neo-conservative wing of his political base, which was disturbed by what sounded like critical utterances against Israel. Although Mr. Bush’s earlier demand of an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank villages had absolutely no teeth (such as a threat to cut off billions in annual military aid), those who believe that Israel can do no wrong and that the United States should be a good cheerleader were not mollified. Mr. Bush needs the neo-conservatives, and it must have irked him to have them saying that his Middle East policy indicates he’s going “wobbly” on the “war on terrorism.” When it comes to the Middle East, the last person Mr. Bush wants to be compared with is … his father.

The president is not the only one who speaks in cant on the Middle East. Ariel Sharon is quite fluent in it too. When he sent his troops into Jenin, he said he would leave “no seed of terror behind.” But he surely knows this is nonsense. The destruction of that refugee camp, the murder of Palestinians of all ages, and the delay in allowing access to rescue workers can only sow the seeds of terror, not destroy them. Considering what we know about human nature and the Middle East, it is unlikely that the young people who lived through the onslaught against Jenin will conclude that cooperation with the Israeli government is their most promising course. Their world-view, if anything, has been confirmed by Sharon’s cruelty. Anyone who looks forward to a falling off of Palestinian violence is fooling himself.

But isn’t Israel justified by that very violence? Blowing up innocents cannot be condoned. But it is folly to think that that is all one needs to know. Young Palestinian men and women do not kill Israelis because they hate Jews for being Jews. One must blind oneself (and avoid objective historical accounts) to believe there is something inherently irrational about Palestinian animosity toward Israel. After all, Jews and Arabs lived together in Palestine for many years before the twentieth century. As my orthodox grandfather taught me, the relationship between the two communities deteriorated when Judaism was transformed (by secular Jews) into a political movement whose program included encroachment on innocent Arabs in the quest for Greater Israel. (It may come as a surprise, but the harshest critics of Zionism were Reform and Orthodox Jews.) It was the first president of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Judah Magnes, who said, “The slogan ‘Jewish state or commonwealth’ is equivalent, in effect, to a declaration of war by the Jews on the Arabs.” In candid moments, Israeli military leaders acknowledged that the land belonged to Arabs.

This will be seen as ancient history, and of course the past cannot be undone. But understanding history is essential to moving intelligently into the future. The Palestinian attacks on innocent civilians must stop. But that goal will have a better chance of realization if the Israeli establishment would give up its dream of a Greater Israel void of Palestinians and really start talking about peaceful coexistence.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.