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Angry Young Men Don't Want Mideast Peace

December 7, 2000 |
The "peace" agreement that Israel will sign sooner or later with the Palestinians will be made on the basis of fear, not hope. And that's not necessarily a bad thing.
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Israelis will continue to disagree in the coming election campaign over the different approaches to the Palestinians advocated by Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon. But psychologically the bulk of Israeli voters have all become Likudniks following the October killings of two Israeli reservists in Ramallah and the rise of Palestinian vigilantes who have thrown the West Bank into chaos. Israelis have no trust -- if they ever did -- in the power of democratic processes and civil society to stabilize the West Bank after they withdraw. They will demand a treaty that protects them from a worst-case scenario of political evolution in the West Bank and Jordan.

That's because the volatile young men in Ramallah who tortured and mutilated the Israeli reservists -- before throwing their bodies from a window and mutilating them some more -- do not represent a traditional, politically disaffected class. These young men are beyond politics, and therefore may not be assuaged by any compromises at the negotiating table. An extra few square miles of sovereign territory will make little difference to them. Rather, they are products of changing demography, urbanization and other non-political forces that have altered the face of the Arab world in recent decades.

Forty percent of all Arabs are under 14 years old, and two-thirds under 25. Real unemployment and under-employment is 20% and higher in many Arab societies. Meanwhile, per capita water availability in the Arab world will drop by almost half by 2025, curtailing water for irrigation, and driving even more young people from rural farming villages to cities and shanty towns. Arab cities are increasingly dominated by concrete streets of low-end shops crowded with knots of frustrated young men at corners with little or nothing to do. And as the marriage age rises because of the lack of money for adequate dowries, marriage and the sexual fulfillment it can offer become increasingly a luxury for the better-off.

The situation will worsen as Arab regimes such as Jordan's will be unable to sustain the high levels of public spending that employ much of their work forces. Because of the higher Palestinian birth-rate, Jordan's population will be 85% urban Palestinian in the early 21st century. Politics in the Arab world will not be state politics per se, but the messy municipal politics of sprawling cities dominated by the working poor, in which governing elites have only flimsy institutions with which to exert control.

Of course, Ramallah represents relative wealth, education and sophistication vis-a-vis other places in the West Bank and the Arab world. But that only increases the frustration of its bored, young men. They have long since stopped comparing themselves to other Arabs, and instead have been overwhelmed by their envy of the Israelis, who are so close-by and whose lifestyles appear so much more alluring. If this continues, their only gratification may be found within an extreme version of Islam, whose very severity provides both a rationalization for their plight and an outlet for their powerful frustrations.

Expect similar thugs to be undermining regimes in Jordan, Syria and elsewhere in the future. And after the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, they may turn on the upper-middle class Palestinian elite that now claims to be speaking in their name. The articulate Palestinians on CNN are often Christians with no power bases of their own. After a complete separation from Israel, the politics of the West Bank could evolve very bloodily, with the flames veering eastward eventually toward Amman. A population pyramid so wide at the bottom with young people is a population without loyalty to any regime, unless it provides them with demonstrably better material opportunities.

The "peace" agreement that Israel will sign sooner or later with the Palestinians -- contrary to what the Clinton administration and many pundits have said -- will be made on the basis of fear, not hope. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. Fear can lead to the most sustainable treaties, just as it can lead to a responsible foreign policy in general. The disengagement accord between Syria and Israel brokered by the Nixon administration was based purely on mutual fear, and it has lasted a quarter-century. The so-called peace process of the past seven years was based heavily on an optimistic faith and it has led directly to mob violence.

Fear can make leaders see clearly and act morally, like Churchill, whose fear allowed him to see through Hitler early on, whereas Chamberlain based his policy on hope and trust. Churchill knew that men are creatures of passion more than of reason, however much they may deny it. Likewise, following the footage of the lynching of the two reservists that was played over and over again on Israeli television, Israelis will only accept a peace treaty that mitigates their fears more than it stimulates their hopes. They have seen in the most tangible manner how passion more than reason defines the Palestinian "street."

A treaty of separation may come faster than many think, and may eventually lead even to peaceful and fruitful coexistence -- but only if the treaty itself is based on mutual fear and the inspiring phrases regarding a shared future are mainly for the benefit of Western publics watching on CNN.

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