Sunday, May 01, 2011

Centrality of Israeli-Palestinian Peace Agreement; Brent Scowcroft and Confirmation Bias

Many foreign policy gurus who should know better swallow the nonsense that if we can only solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, all the other problems in the Middle East will magically disappear. The person most closely associated with this point of view is Brent Scowcroft.

Scowcroft made his reputation as the national security adviser to two Presidents, the elder George Bush and Gerald Ford, As  Jonathan Tobin has pointed out, Scowcroft is “the quintessential Middle East realist.” For many years Scowcroft has advanced his  belief that Israel must be forced to make concessions to the Palestinians in the hopeless conviction  that this will achieve a solution to all the region’s problems. This was not true when Scowcroft was advising President Ford 35 years ago, and is not true today.  It has been contradicted by events repeatedly.

Brent Scowcroft has a recent article in the Financial Times in which he restates all the same nostrums that should have been retired long ago. His article contains nothing new.  Scowcroft repeats his two key beliefs. First, he restates his conviction that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is central to instability in the Middle East. Secondly, he again recommends, against all evidence,  his belief that an Israeli-Palestinian agreement can be accomplished in the near future. He ignores the fact that the Palestinians have refused to sign any agreement that might recognize any of Israel’s needs, not to mention its legitimacy. He ignores the fact that no solution is possible if the Palestinians don’t want it.

His article is a classic example of confirmation bias. This term, frequently used by behavioral economists, refers to the tendency to favor information that confirms prior beliefs or existing positions, and to ignore or explain away contrary evidence. The result will often lead to an inability or unwillingness to change direction based on new evidence. This can lead to ineffective policies and disastrous decisions. Unfortunately, we are all susceptible to it.

Nowhere is this more true than in the fashionable belief that the Israeli-Palestinian problem is central in contributing to all the other problems in the Middle East. Though Scowcroft and his followers are often labeled “realists”, Lee Smith , writing in Tablet, points out that the urgency surrounding the Palestinian issue has little to do with reality. The various Muslim states, including Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt, and Iran, have needed  to find a way to accomplish two things; divert attention from their own autocratic behavior, and win over the West to support their non-democratic governments. They do this essentially by changing the subject to Israel and the Palestinians. 

The problem, in their formulation, is not their own internal dysfunction, but rather it is the “Zionist entity”. And many persons, including advisors to the President, nod their heads with sage understanding, firmly convinced that the problem is Israel and her supporters in the United States. When the oil-rich  leaders of Saudi Arabia tell the leaders of the UK and the US that they must do something about the Palestinians, the game is on to pressure Israel.

A reasonable question is whether the progeny of Scowcroft, some of whom are advisors to the current American President, will change their tune.  Not likely. Once stuck with an “explanation”, even the smartest people will tend to focus on those “facts” that support their theses, and ignore those realties that clash with their vision. These discredited  beliefs about the Middle East  have driven the approach of the West for over 40 years. Confirmation bias is not some academic term, but rather has severely distorted the Western  approach to  Israel, and made a solution to the conflict less likely.

It is difficult to believe that the takeover of Lebanon by Syria, the killing of the Lebanese Prime Minister by Bashar Assad, the massacre of 25,000 Syrians by Hafez Assad in Hama, the Iraq-Iran war, the attacks of Sept 11, 2001 against New York and Washington, or any of the dozens of other conflicts in the area, have anything to do with Israel.

And now we have a series of dramatic new realties, the phenomena in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere, in which Arab masses are rising up against autocratic leaders. And I have heard not one word about Israel. No one is claiming that they are revolting over the “plight of the Palestinians”  (However, it is likely that years of anti-Israel incitement may yet have this effect)

The reality that a wave of uprisings has completely overturned all prior assumptions about Middle East politics, and that these same upheavals are unrelated to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, ought to give pause to prior beliefs about the supposed centrality of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to Arab anger at the West. In addition, the failure of so many well-meaning attempts at achieving a settlement further discredits the notions put forth by Scowcroft.  

The existence of these beliefs and their acceptance by so many media figures, by political leaders, and by policy makers, explains the need for President Obama to put pressure on Israel to freeze the building of new homes. It explains the irrational impulse to push for a settlement that will in fact settle nothing. And it explains the need for our President to consider imposing a solution on Israel, one that will force Israel to make "peace" with the Palestinians. It matters not that such a peace that will only be a way-station on the road to another terrorist state in that part of the world, a peace that the Palestinians don’t want, a peace that will be anything but peaceful.  

In addition to the fallacy about the centrality of the Israeli-Palestine conflict, all prior attempts at a solution have been stillborn. The reason for this is that the Palestinians have rejected any recognition of a Jewish state, or any solution that does not contain within it the seeds for the destruction of Israel, and Israel has rejected suicide.  Further, there are negative consequences to the insistence by the West of a quick and early solution. Repeated attempts to pressure the parties to achieve a solution has led to the belief by the Palestinians that they do not need to negotiate in good faith with Israel; the US will   do their work, and provide them with excuses.  .

A clear example of the problems of “making peace” can be seen in Israel’s peace treaty with the government of Egypt. That government has recently been overthrown, and the various candidates for leadership are openly talking about discarding the agreement. .

Another example, cited by Barry Rubin, has to do with Israel’s agreement to end the war with Hezbollah in 2006, based on a guarantee by the U.S. government, and a promise by the UN to keep Hezbollah from returning to southern Lebanon. However, Hezbollah has now moved back into southern Lebanon and has tens of thousands of rockets poised to strike Israeli cities.

.So now Israel is being asked to make a similar deal with the Palestinian Authority.  How likely is it that the PA will not be overthrown? What about the wisdom of a treaty with an entity that controls only half of the territory it claims to represent? Consider that the other half is controlled by Hamas, a group that will never enter into any agreement with Israel, and is determined to annihilate the Jewish state.  
In the title of one of his articles, “When Peace Treaty Fails, It’s Time to Sign Another One”, Barry Rubin points out the irony of repeatedly attempting to do the same thing that has never worked in the past. Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

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