Prof. Barry Rubin: In Support of ‘Constructive Cynicism”

Prof. Barry Rubin, Director of the GLORIA Center, introduces the idea of “Constructive Cynicism”. As it relates to the Annapolis conference, Rubin argues that there is tangible benefit for America and Israel from the illusion of a renewed peace process, so long as the Bush Administration does not actually pressure Israel to accept a significant agreement that would change the political and security arrangement.

Prof. Rubin discusses briefly the media’s “Both Sides” approach, a point that I have put forth on these pages. When the reader sees an op-ed arguing something along the lines of “both sides are controlled by extremists, both sides have legitimate grievances that they must relinquish, etc”, the reader knows that he is being given an idealized, all-sides-are-equal argument that allows the Western journalist to remain in the comfort zone- there are no real villains, just two sides making the same mistakes, and if they only sat down and talked about their misunderstandings, there would be peace.

Annapolis: One Cheer, One Yawn, One Cynical Shrug
Barry Rubin
December 03, 2007

Before the Annapolis meeting, some said the operation would save the patient; others that it would kill the patient. In fact, the patient is exactly the same but the doctors had a hell of a big party and congratulated themselves on doing a terrific job.

We’ll end the conflict by December 2008, says President Bush. We want to make peace and get along, say Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) The Western media cheers it as a big success since everyone showed up and said the right words; nobody walked out or hurled insults. It’s enough to make you believe that peace is at hand.

But there’s a huge gap between Western and Middle Eastern reactions to the meeting. While the former celebrates, the latter knows better than to expect anything.

It isn’t surprising that Western would-be mediators cannot end a conflict when they don’t understand why it exists. Neither the Arab-Israeli nor the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is based on a misunderstanding, a gap that can be closed by well-meaning but ignorant conflict managers, or Israeli intransigence.

The reason the issue persists is twofold. First, the Palestinians and a very large portion of their fellow Arabs still want and expect total victory. They don’t seek compromise because they don’t really want a two-state solution, at least not as more than a temporary stage leading to Israel’s disappearance from the map. Thus, while there is endless talk about Israeli concessions and commitments but virtually nothing about what is required by the other side. Why? Because they won’t give anything and pointing that out too explicitly shows there is no chance of real progress.

Second, Arab politics needs the conflict’s continuation. Incumbent regimes require it to provide a scapegoat so they can mobilize support for themselves and as an excuse letting them explain away their own multiple failures. The Islamist oppositions need it as a slogan in their pursuit of power. Fatah is in the first category; Hamas in the second.

Consequently, any analysis that piously blames each side equally is incapable of comprehending Middle East politics. Yet peace brokers believe their effectiveness requires a dishonesty that ensures their own failure. They pretend intransigence, terrorism, and incitement comes from both parties.

The future is easily predictable: endless talks; no agreement. The only progress will be from the comforting illusions of vague speeches like those made at Annapolis.

This will have little effect on the ground. Attempts to attack Israel will be made daily, including by Fatah members who may get U.S. training but reject an end to the conflict or even resettling Palestine refugees in a West Bank-Gaza Palestinian state. The PA will arrest almost nobody and hold no one in jail very long. Anti-Israel incitement will continue.

Indeed, the day after the conference ended, PA television ran multiple times a film showing Israel being transformed into an Arab Palestine. What is amazing is not that the PA makes inadequate attempts to preach peace and compromise but that it makes no effort at all in that direction. Meanwhile, what Abbas is really hoping for and expecting is not so much any material Israeli concessions but billions of dollars in foreign aid, in exchange for which he won’t be asked to do much more than merely to survive.

Consider in this context just one element in President George Bush’s new framework which is being touted as a major advance. The United States will judge of whether Palestinians and Israelis are meeting their commitments. This sounds tough and decisive. But it is not at all new.

During two previous periods, U.S. policy put itself in a similar position. The first was in the 1988-1990 period, when the White House-under Congressional pressure-had to certify that the PLO was stopping terrorism in order to continue dialogue with that organization. As a result, the State Department, charged with this mission, repeatedly ignored PLO attacks by the simple expedient of saying they were not carried out by the PLO but by groups which just happened to be members of the PLO. Only when a major foiled terrorist attack was praised by PLO leaders did the United States have to end the dialogue.

The second example was the 1994-2000 peace process. The PA usually made no serious attempt to stop terror attacks from lands it controlled nor did it arrest or punish those responsible. It is hard to find a single PA media program or speech made internally that urged conciliation. On the contrary, incitement took place daily. But the United States had to remain either silent or, at most, equally blame both sides, in order to keep the process going.

As sole judge this time the United States will never say the PA is not meeting its commitments by publicly denouncing the scandal of continued incitement, pitifully minimal anti-terrorist effort, and massive corruption. After all, to show the PA breaks all its commitments to a tremendous degree would be to demonstrate that the peace process cannot work. It would also anger Arabs, who would charge that the United States is pro-Israel and not an even-handed mediator. Oh, and by the way, this policy will also make U.S. policy incapable of bringing real progress.

The administration’s public goal is peace but its real one is to keep talks going until it leaves office. The Israeli public is well aware of this fact. According to polls, while 53 percent supported the Annapolis conference’s goals, only 17 percent thought the meeting a “success,” while 42% called it a “failure.” They don’t, however, expect any serious pressure or major concessions from Washington either.

Is this apparent contradiction so terrible? Much less so than it may seem. If the United States has strengthened its position in the region, even on the basis of illusion, that is not a bad thing. If having this framework eases Israeli-PA tensions somewhat, shows those willing to listen that Israel wants peace, and helps avoid Hamas overthrowing Fatah, that is a positive contribution. Israel can talk about all the concessions it would make if it really had a sincere, determined partner ready to reciprocate, knowing that this scenario will not happen.

The important thing is for the Bush administration not to believe its own propaganda. If it makes this mistake, and tries to pressure Israel and appease the Arab side into a negotiated settlement-which will not materialize in the end-that would make things worse. But I don’t think that is going to happen to any considerable extent either. What is needed might best be called constructive cynicism.

5 Responses to Prof. Barry Rubin: In Support of ‘Constructive Cynicism”

  1. […] W W W . N E W L Y R I C . N E T placed an observative post today on Prof. Barry Rubin: In Support of â??Constructive Cynicismâ?? […]

  2. Diane says:

    Back in the late 1990s, when I was still a liberal pacifist who believed in a basic level of decency shared by all cultures and the general upward spiral of human history, I debated Oslo with a cousin who had become Frum. I pressed and probed until she finally articulated her preposterous belief that Palestinians don’t really want peace — they only want bloodshed, theirs, mine, it doesn’t matter so long as the fight continues.

    It seemed inconceivable … contrary to all I knew about self-interest, decency, logic, goodwill toward one’s fellow man. I accused her of irrational hatred. But her words got me thinking, reading and eventually arriving at some devastating conclusions. Having bitten into the bitter fruit of knowledge, it was impossible to spit it out. As the Jihadis continue to make their aspirations crystal clear to the West, liberals will have to taste this bitter truth for themselves. I understand their reluctance to take the first bite.

  3. fp says:


    at least two classic conclusions from your experience:
    most people tend to project from their own culture to others; the ability to think critically and independently based on evidence has no substitute.

    the former is what you did previously; the latter is what saved you from it.

    consider now rice: she was told by sharon the same thing your friend told you. but she does not possess those critical faculties (she’s ignorant and dumb as a door post — the result of mindless affirmative action). the result: annapolis.


  4. […] Prof. Barry Rubin: In Support of ‘Constructive Cynicism” Barry Rubin, Director of the GLORIA Center, introduces the idea of “Constructive Cynicism”. As it relates to the Annapolis conference, Rubin argues that there is tangible benefit for America and Israel from the illusion of a renewed … […]

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