Shibley Telhami Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
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How do you think the events of 9/11 will shape or reshape the influence of ideas, of leadership, and of peace processes that you've been describing?
Well, it's interesting. I am not sure of the extent to which the region has fully internalized the changes 9/11 has created, certainly, in the U.S., and probably in much of the world.
In a way, in the short-term, both of them -- that is, the Arab states, but especially the Palestinians, and the Israelis -- have behaved tactically. They've looked at it as a short-term crisis that they have to find a way to get around, until they go back to normal politics. So what you've seen is that the Sharon government thought, maybe, "Now the world will be more sympathetic with us on terrorism. And we can use this to paint the Palestinians as terrorists. And, certainly, the attention will be focused elsewhere. We could do more to confront the Palestinians." The Palestinians saw it as, "Maybe this is a way to get closer to the U.S. and to build a relationship with the U.S., tactically, so as to have them pressure the Israelis." The Arab world saw it as an opportunity for a new coalition, à la a Gulf War, that would also create new political alliances and would change a strategic situation in their favor. The Israelis, therefore, are very uncomfortable with the idea of coalitions. They want unilateralism, because they feel that coalitions are going to translate the pressure on them.
All of that, in my judgment, is tactical. I think none of them are coming to grips with a much more profound problem. The profound problem is within the region itself, and at the global level. And they all could become victims of it. We have much more in common, in a way, in this war on terrorism. "Terrorism" is used as cliché now, obviously. But I do think that there has been a dynamic in both societies that neither society has come to grips with sufficiently. In the Arab Middle East and, really, beyond the Arab Middle East in the region as a whole, you have a psychology which has not empowered the vast majorities, the silent majorities, who really are moderate in their inclinations, who want ordinary, normal lives, who want to create spaces that will provide more hope for their families, who have reconciled themselves to the need for compromise on political issues, including ones with Israel; and the fringe, which is not only extremist but militant, that is, using violence as a method, and especially violence against civilians, which is the worse of all kind.
I think that what we have seen, because of the frustration of the region with much of the world and the sense of dependence of the region on much on the world and especially on the U.S., is an anger that they have toward the world and the U.S. What we've seen is that those majorities have looked at this conflict as if they're bystanders, as if the conflict is between the U.S. and its borders and some extremist fringe or militants that they don't like, but it's their problem, not ours. That is the worst of all possibilities, because what they need to see in it is that their own lives are at stake.
You do have people who have come to grips with that. You have intellectuals asking the question, "Do we want the bin Ladens to dominate the Middle East? Do we want a Taliban world? This is not what we want." And they understand the risks to themselves, although they don't think these are imminent risks, so that they're different. You even had articles by Arab intellectuals saying that the threat to America was a threat to their own dream, because America is a metaphor. America isn't merely the superpower. A lot of people are angry with America, but they love America. They aspire to be Americans. They want American goods. They want American products. They want to live the American life. They want to have the freedom that America provides. And so, the 9/11 [events] presented a threat to that idea.
Those people are few and far between, certainly, the ones who articulate and express those views. And when they go on television -- which has become very influential in the past decade, we have a proliferation of new media in the Middle East that is highly watched and more independent than in the past -- when you have a debate between those moderates, and between the militants or their supporters, the moderates simply go on the defensive, they do not have something to offer. They have no vision, no ideas, no future. In part, because there's no mechanism for them. There's no packages in front of them to point to. In the 1990s, we had a package like that, that followed the Gulf War.
The Oslo Accords.
The Oslo process, but also a promise of prosperity. Remember that the Madrid conference that came after the Gulf War promised a new Middle East, linked to the world -- based on negotiated settlements between Israel and the Arabs, but also based on economic development, prosperity, and possibly even political development. By the end of the decade, the whole thing collapsed. The negotiations collapsed. Prosperity never materialized. In some instances, things went from bad to worse. There was a loss of hope, a loss of inspiration. There's no package on the table like that today.
Shibley, I'm afraid our time is up, but thank you very much for sharing with us this story of your intellectual journey and relating that to this conundrum of problems in the Middle East. I think it's very clear that the complexity of our ideas has to grow if we're going to have the understanding to come to terms with these problems in the Middle East in the way that your father and grandfather did in their village. Thank you very much for joining us.
And thank you very much for joining us on this Conversation with History.
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