I like Barry Rubin. He leans more to the right than I’d like but his commentary is frequently on target, measured, full of data points that are useful and may not be public knowledge, and creative. He often approaches issues from a fresh and original viewpoint.

I particularly enjoyed his piece today called Some swampland, anyone?”

After studying and living with the Middle East for a few decades one sees certain patterns endlessly repeated, though always with a new set of details. Understandably, naïve newcomers fall for the carnival con-man’s traps. They should learn after one disaster. Veterans have no excuse.

In a con-game, a malefactor gains the mark’s confidence in order to rob him. Classic examples include selling swampland as vacation homes or the internet scam of posing as a distressed African official who promises rich rewards in return for a loan.

The victim is fooled by the promise of big gains if he only trusts his partner and gives up his own assets. Contrary to folklore, the best way to cheat someone is not to offer them something for nothing – that’s too obvious – but to pledge something dreamy tomorrow in exchange for getting something very real right now.

THE PATTERN goes like this:

Step One. They say: We have been your victims so you must make up for it. Our violence has been due to our grievances. You must deal with the root causes of problems. In short, you owe us big time. Pay up to show you have changed your ways.

A common Western response: Following our usual style of self-criticism and trying to do better, we acknowledge fault and do nice things to build credibility with you. Then you will like us better, trust us more, and make a deal.

Proper analysis: Such behavior not only convinces the Middle East side that the West is weak, scared, and surrendering but it is also taken as an acknowledgment of guilt. Grievance and outrage, in this context, are bottomless pits. Playing this game establishes a terrible relationship along the lines ofËœprobably the worst thing Shimon Peres ever said – our task is to give, their job is to take. This pattern never gets broken.

Correct response: If you have grievances, have suffered, and root causes must be resolved then it is in your interest to make and implement an equitable, workable deal. You are not doing us a favor by making peace, stopping terrorism, or being moderate. It is in your interest and you must show credibility, too. If it is true that you are so terribly suffering, then you are the ones with an incentive to compromise. Things are the exact opposite of what you say.

Step Two. The con-game’s siren call goes this way: If you only take risks and build confidence through concessions you will gain great rewards.

A common Western response: What do we have to lose? Since we don’t remember what happened last time this will probably work. We can alleviate suffering, prove we want peace, there’s no harm in talking. We can be the great heroes who brings peace, and so on.

Proper analysis: I do remember what happened the last half-dozen times I fell for this trick. In addition, a careful examination of your ideology, regime interests, statements to your own people, media incitement, and power structure show me what to expect: little or nothing.

Correct response: If you won’t acknowledge all the times I took risks before and they came back to bite me (Oslo agreement, withdrawal from south Lebanon, withdrawal from the Gaza Strip) and you didn’t keep your commitments (or act the way I expected) why should things be any different now? I’ve proven good faith now it is your turn.

Rubin goes on to write that he’s not speaking about Israel, although I suspect he is being generous in this assessment, but rather about Europe and the US. His point being that until these countries recognize that the turmoil in the Mid-East is rooted in “the Arabic-speaking world’s political structure and prevalent ideology” they will continue to make bets on that “swampland.” This isn’t some sort of politically correct essay, or one that suffers from Chomskian rewriting of history where the Arabs are always seeking peace. Simply put, it’s a call to see the situation for what it is and for managing it wisely. If his analysis is right then the approaches that have been tried over these past decades with the Palestinians and other Arab nations are more likely to fail than succeed. In the meantime, enormous resources are wasted, Israel’s enemies are strengthened and Israel’s own position is undermined.

One of the problems for Israel is that it costs the US and the EU little to “buy” whatever the Palestinians are selling them. If they promise peace, why not give it a chance and spend a bunch of Euros getting there? The Israelis, however, have to contend with the fallout. Whether it’s heavy arms falling into Hamas hands after the US kindly provided them to the PA in Gaza so they could squash Hamas, or demands for further concessions on Israel’s part, every time we go through this cycle of promises and failure, the line in the sand that Israel has sought to draw is erased. Barak tried to address this in 2000 by proclaiming that if the deal he offered wasn’t accepted, then everything was off the table. However, that was mere talk as we can see by recent years’ developments where Barak’s offers are the basis for all current talks. Back then the Palestinians complained they wanted more and now, 7 years into a war they launched, they still want more.

See the property and make sure the foundation is solid before you buy what they are selling. That’s Rubin’s advice.

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  • Well, OK. But we in the West should do what we think is right and just. What’s wrong with acknowledging that the other side has legitimate grievances, if such is the case? How is that a sellout? What does that, taken alone, place at risk?

    If we become obsessed with seeming “weak” to the Arabs, we’ll unwittingly adopt their values.

  • Tom, how many billions and billions have been spent on the Palestinians over the years? Their sewage is spilling into the ocean right now while some of their leaders live handsomely as does Suha Arafat.

    I think the problem is that you can’t make reality happen out of fiction. You can’t sign a peace deal with a people that envision the end of you. Why not make more severe demands with the leverage the support provided by the West ought to provide?

    The Palestinians do have legitimate grievances and those can be recognized. However, to say “we’ll strive for peace” and then not do a darned thing to stop the terror groups is what Rubin is talking about. Where did that demand go? It was in the Road Map and it was a fundamental request that has now been on the books for a number of years. The Palestinians know this and thumb their nose at it, but both the EU and the US keep coming at Israel to ignore this little oversight and to proceed with peace talks. Oh, and the Palestinians are welcome to another $7.5 billion in the meantime…

  • Middle, even under the best of circumstances, a substantial number of Palestinians will envision the end of Israel. Even if Fatah or some other entity became the Palestinian peace party, many will remain unreconciled to Israel and any concessions to it. You seem to want this to change prior to negotiations. Surely it’s more realistic to acknowledge this as a given, part of the context of any negotiation and the era that follows it.

    I don’t suggest relying on Palestinian good will. (That’s what you rely on, making it a precondition as you do.) A peace can emerge if (a) each party views it, on balance, as being in its interests, and (b) it attracts international support. This is why Gerry Adams and David Trimble get along. It’s why Latvia and Macedonia and East Timor exist.

    As for $, leverage, etc.– don’t you think some account has to be taken of Palestinian capacity to rein in terror? Your kvetching about this is odd, given Israel has a pliant interlocutor in Abbas (over whom the Bush Administration can, and, I suspect, has exercised “leverage” on the terror issue) with Hamas confined conveniently to Gaza. Israel can press Abbas about the West Bank, and has a free hand to do whatever it wants in Gaza. One would think this a highly favorable backdrop for bringing terror to an end.

    However, Israel can’t seem to stop the rockets from hitting Sderot. Think Abbas can accomplish this- with the best of intentions- if the IDF cannot?

    It’s probably a matter of degree on this point, with the PA facing real limits on its capacity wholly to end terror.

    Should Israel insist on this, however, regardless of any countervailing consideration(s) suggesting resumption of negotiations? It’s one thing to hold the Ps to a high standard, another to confer on Hamas and other evildoers veto authority over Israeli policy.

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