Three Middle East Myths Exploded

The illusions of the Middle East prevailed until the throngs in the Arab streets shattered them. Like bowling pins, the myths keep falling. It remains to be seen whether they'll be replaced by new ones, or, at long last, by a dose of reality.
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First it was the myth about linkage between Iran and Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.

According to the logic, without progress on the Palestinian front, it would be impossible to mobilize Arab countries to face the Iranian nuclear threat.

The notion had shelf life, sustained by some diplomats and the commentariat until it was blown out of the water by the WikiLeaks revelations.

Of course, it was no secret that Arab leaders feared Iran's growing power and made not the slightest connection between the two issues. Anyone who met with an Arab official from Riyadh to Rabat heard the same dread about the looming prospect of a nuclear-armed Shiite theocracy in Tehran.

But in today's world, facts don't necessarily have any claim on fiction, until they become so incontrovertible that there's no easy way around them.

And that's just what WikiLeaks proved.

Lo and behold, the cables revealed that from Saudi Arabia to Bahrain, from the United Arab Emirates to Egypt, Arab leaders were imploring the United States to stiffen its spine and confront the Iranians. Linkage to the Palestinian question? Not even close. No mention whatsoever.

To the contrary, several Arab countries have looked to Israel, with or without a peace agreement, as a stealth ally in the face-off with Iran.

Another myth was about settlement-building in eastern Jerusalem.

According to that one, the peace process was going to wither on the vine and die because Israel indicated its intention to continue construction within Jewish neighborhoods.

Israel was criticized, pilloried, and pummeled for its actions, accused not only of being an obstacle to peace, but the obstacle. The reality on the ground seemed not to matter. The world was led to believe that the very future of the Middle East hinged on Israel's alleged misbehavior.

Israel attempted to explain that both sides understood there would be border adjustments in a peace accord reflecting demographic realities on the ground, but this mattered not a whit. And it had even less success when it reminded the world that settlements, certainly an issue for negotiations, was by no means the only one - and certainly not a sufficient explanation for more than six decades of overwhelming Arab refusal to come to terms with Israel's very right to exist.

Then came PaliLeaks, and the myth was blown out of the water.

The documents showed there was indeed tacit agreement on certain land swaps, including, yes, Jewish areas of eastern Jerusalem. The papers showed that the gap between the two sides was less than imagined, but, sadly, the uproar over the leaked documents proved that the Palestinian Authority has failed even to attempt to prepare its population for the concessions needed for an end of conflict and lasting peace.

And last it was the myth loudly stated by Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan that the root of all problems in the Middle East lies with Israel's intransigence.

To accept the Turkish leader's premise means throwing truth to the wind. Even a cursory study of the Arab world reveals deep-rooted problems having nothing to do with Israel and everything to do with political, economic, and social stasis. But that would have spoiled the appealing narrative.

After all, it is much more reassuring for the Erdogans of the world to lift responsibility from Arab shoulders and place it squarely on Israel's! And for the Israel-bashers, of whom there is no shortage, anything suggesting Israeli culpability is greeted with endless expressions of glee and gratitude.

Who needs critical-thinking skills when criticism of Israel is so much more effortless and satisfying?

Yet this myth, too, has been exposed in recent weeks for all the world to see.

The streets of Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen filled with crowds rising up against domestic repression, the absence of opportunity, and the culture of cronyism and corruption.

Though none of the "after-the-fact experts" foresaw it, why, Erdogan aside, should that have come as a surprise?

All it took was a casual reading of the UN Arab Human Development Report, compiled by Arab scholars and published regularly by the world body, and other relevant material. I draw below from an article I wrote 13 months ago in The Huffington Post entitled "It's not about Israel."

They [the report's authors] have spoken of three overarching explanatory factors for the region's unsatisfactory condition: the knowledge deficit, the gender deficit and the freedom deficit.

Unless these three areas are addressed in a sustained manner, the Middle East, which ought to be one of the world's most dynamic regions, is likely to continue suffering from instability, violence and fundamentalism, irrespective of what happens on the Israeli-Palestinian front.

Consider some of the important findings in recent Arab Human Development Reports and related studies:

• The total number of books translated into Arabic in the last 1,000 years is fewer than those translated into Spanish in one year.

• Greece -- with a population of fewer than 11 million -- translates five times as many books from abroad into Greek annually as the 22 Arab countries combined, with a total population of more than 300 million, translate into Arabic.

• According to a Council on Foreign Relations report, "In the 1950s, per-capita income in Egypt was similar to South Korea, whereas Egypt's per-capita income today is less than 20 percent of South Korea's. Saudi Arabia had a higher gross domestic product than Taiwan in the 1950s; today, it is about 50 percent of Taiwan's."

As Dr. A.B. Zahlan, a Palestinian physicist, has noted: "A regressive political culture is at the root of the Arab world's failure to fund scientific research or to sustain a vibrant, innovative community of scientists." He further asserted that "Egypt, in 1950, had more engineers than all of China." That is hardly the case today.

The UN Human Development Report reveals that only two Egyptians per million people were granted patents, compared to 30 in Greece and 35 in Israel (for Syria, the figure was zero).

Similarly, the adult literacy rate for women aged 15 and older was 43.6 percent in Egypt and 74 percent in Syria, while for the world's top 20 countries it was nearly 100 percent.

And finally, according to Freedom House rankings, no Arab country in the Middle East is listed as "free." Each is described as "partly free" at best, "not free" at worst.

The sad truth is that it is precisely political oppression, intellectual suffocation, and gender discrimination that explain, far more than any other factor, the chronic difficulties of the Middle East.

There exist no overnight or over-the-counter remedies for these maladies that would allow the region to unleash its vast potential, but one thing is clear: they, not the straw man of Israel, are at the heart of the problem.

It would be illusory to think otherwise.

The illusions, or myths, prevailed until the throngs in the Arab streets shattered them.

Like bowling pins, the myths keep falling. It remains to be seen whether they'll be replaced by new ones, or, at long last, by a dose of reality.

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