Honor-Shame and Abbas’ Dilemma: The Problem of making peace

Khaled abu Toameh has an interesting analysis of the dilemma that Obama’s lates “peace-making” moves have created for Mahmoud Abbas. Although I don’t agree with his analysis, he does point out the central dilemma of the Arabs in dealing with the world — one also highlighted in the response to the failure of Farouk Hosni to become the head of UNESCO. (HT/Lianne)

Sep 24, 2009 1:11 | Updated Sep 24, 2009 1:23
Analysis: Tripartite summit undermines Abbas
Talkbacks for this article: 5
Article’s topics: Mahmoud Abbas, Barack Obama, Binyamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority

Palestinian Authority officials in Ramallah have not hidden their disappointment with the tripartite summit that was held in New York and which brought together US President Barack Obama, Prime Minister Binymain Netanyahu and PA President Mahmoud Abbas.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.Photo: AP [file]

On Wednesday, the officials said they were not only disappointed with the outcome of the summit which, they noted, did not achieve any breakthrough in the stalled peace talks, but also with the circumstances under which the meeting was arranged.

Even many representatives of Abbas’s Fatah faction voiced their deep disappointment over his agreement to meet with Netanyahu unconditionally. Some went as far as accusing Obama of “humiliating” Abbas by forcing him to meet with Netanyahu against his will and contrary to his pledges.

Note here that anything the Palestinians insist on and is denied them they see as a humiliation. In this case, they want Israel to make major concessions just for the privilege of speaking with Abbas. Anything else — like meeting with no preconditions — they view as a loss. So the zero-sum game here is hard: they want Netanyahu to freeze settlements as a precondition to sitting down. Any compromise, in the honor-shame world, shows weakness.

Of course, Obama is strongly to blame for this situation, since he and his administrators acted at the beginning as if the settlement issue were nonsense that they could put an end to with a sweep of their hand (something like an intifada in the original sense), encouraging the Palestinians to dig in and watch Israel squiirm. When they realized how complex the issue (and hopefully how unbalanced their approach), they left Abbas stranded on a limb he had proudly gone out.

What the US should have done from the beginning was to demand that Palestinians stop the hate-mongering in the mainstream media (includng their schools). This would draw attention to a fundamental problem no one in the West really knows about, and the Goldstone Commission specifically ignored — indeed allowing a Palestinian psychiatrist to accuse Israel of Palestinian sins.

    The Palestinian in the eyes of the Israeli soldier is not an equal human being. Sometimes this Palestinian even becomes a demon in their eyes. Therefore it is a state of demonization. This is unfortunately, uh, what can be seen in the behavior of the Israeli soldier not only killing children or fathers before the eyes of children. But even in the way of dealing with the Palestinian just coming through, uh, a crossing point or border when the Palestinian is treated in a humiliating way simply to humiliate him. He is not dealt with as an equal human being. This is the base of everything and then there is the fact that there is no restraint, no discipline within the army and, uh, uh, even there’s an encouragement. This is part of the Israeli military institution and previously we have seen many stories of how the Palestinians are being killed either at the hand of soldiers or settlers and then the accused or the, uh, responsible is, uh, found innocent, sometimes even a statute is put up for him as a hero.

Actually this is a poor shadow of the kind of Palestinian hate-mongering, that specifically sacrifices Palestinians to “the cause”, which Judge Goldstone did not admit as testimony. Until it stops no “peace is possible.

Last Friday, following yet another meeting between US special Middle East envoy George Mitchell and Abbas in Ramallah, senior officials in the PA president’s office rushed to announce for the 1000th time that he would not agree to meet with Netanyahu

This is posturing. No one asked them to make such a big show of their irredentism. Certainly not Obama, to whom it was embarrassing. If you answer, the Palestiniians (or other leaders) demanded it, then we fall on precisely the problem. If this is the way Palestinian politics work, then how can they make peace with Israel. If they see every concession as a humiliating loss, if every stage has to be accompanied by displays of manhood, what possibly can happen ths time that didn’t happen with the catastrophe of the Oslo accords and the second Intifada?

The officials told reporters that Abbas had “reaffirmed” during the meeting with the US emissary that he remained “strongly opposed” to the idea of meeting with Netanyahu or resuming peace talks with Israel unless all construction in the settlements was halted.

But the surprise came only hours later when the White House announced that Obama would meet with Netanyahu and Abbas on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly deliberations in New York.

Asked to explain the discrepancy between the two positions – that of Abbas’s aides on Friday and the White House invitation – a top Palestinian official said: “The president [Abbas] couldn’t resist the heavy pressure the Americans put on him. In fact, he went to the meeting with Netanyahu against his will.”

So a basic gesture of good will towards settling a conflict — on the part of the person whose side has lost repeatedly in efforts at winning the conflict outright, whose people are in a condition of “intolerable suffering” — is, in this strange world of Palestinian and Arab politics, inconceivable.

Another official complained that the meeting with Netanyahu had caused “grave damage” to Abbas’s credibility and standing among Palestinians.

“For the past seven or eight months, President Abbas has been declaring day and night that he wouldn’t meet with Netanyahu or resume the peace talks unless Israel froze all settlement construction, including new homes that are being built in east Jerusalem,” the official pointed out.

“What are the Palestinians supposed to think of their president when they see him doing the exact opposite of what he had promised them? How will anyone from now on take him seriously?”

On one level, this is pure nonsense. Arabs regularly take positions they can’t effect and then back down under the pressure of reality. On another, it’s an inversion of the rules of modern, positive-sum diplomacy: flexibility, not rigidity is the way to find a win-win solution. But in Arab politics, being seen as forced to back down is unacceptable for them and necessary for Israel, which is why insisting on Netanyahu’s yielding on settlements was so choice an issue to make a big deal about.

The official also noted that the meeting with Netanyahu was being used by Hamas and several other Palestinian factions to discredit Abbas and depict him as a puppet that receives orders from the Americans.

This is an old story, and goes back to the Oslo process’ insistence on “strengthening” Arafat. On the contrary, it was then and will be now, a form of blackmail: either you acceed to Abbas’ demands, or you’ll get Hamas. Americans need to make it clear that they only respect people who show flexibility, and that Hamas’ efforts to undermine Abbas, undermine his people. What do Palestinians want: Gaza under seige, or the West Bank under development? And if they prefer their proud and self-destructive resistance to getting on with their lives, then maybe their suffering s not intolerable.

In an effort to curtail or minimize damage, Abbas and his spokesmen have since taken advantage of every podium available to explain their stance.

Their defense is based mainly on the argument that Abbas went to New York “out of respect for Obama” and to brief the US president on the PA’s position regarding the resumption of the peace talks with Israel.

“Our position after the meeting is the same as it was before the meeting in New York,” Abbas explained in a statement. “We came to New York out of respect for President Obama and his tireless efforts in favor of the Palestinian people in various fields.”

Political analyst Khaled Mansour said that Abbas’s decision to participate in the tripartite summit came as a “new disappointment” because it showed to what extent the PA leadership was willing to succumb to American pressure.

Abbas, he added, is under the illusion that the US is a fair and honest broker in the Israeli-Arab conflict. Mansour said that Palestinians across the political spectrum had been encouraged by Abbas’s decision to boycott the peace talks as long as Israel was continuing to build in the settlements.

Who are these “Palestinian people?” The “street”? The Shabab? The religious zealots? And where is the “vast majority of moderates” among the Palestinians who want peace, just like the Israelis? Isn’t it time for the West to start making demands on the Palestinian public, rather than indulging the alpha males who make their lives miserable?

Another political analyst, Hani al-Masri, said that Abbas agreed “grudgingly” to attend the summit because he felt that the Arab countries were not supporting him enough. “They [the Arab countries] have been asking him to remain steadfast and persistent, but none of them have done anything to support his steadfastness and persistence,” he noted.

According to al-Masri, some of the Arab countries had even asked Abbas secretly to accept the invitation to meet with Netanyahu.

Typical — posture in public, yield in private, and then expect one fool to carry the ball. Pressures work. Time to apply them publicly. Obama could address the Palestinan people himself directly, praise Abbas for his commitment to achieving peace, and appeal to them to show their support for a leader who [unlike Arafat] has their interests at heart. Otherwise the nasty and twisted game of honor-shame politics will continue to poison every move.

Summing up Abbas’s predicament, the analyst added: “When he says yes, he’s accused of compromising Palestinian rights; when he says no, he’s accused of failing to grasp the reality.”

Precisely. It’s the dilemma of the Arab world. By their rules, the should get their way; by the rules of modernity (hopefully, “reality”), they have to change their rules. It’s up to us to make sure they change their rules rather than, as Goldstone so obligingly permits, they continue to play by their rules.

The same problem just happened at UNESCO, where the Egyptian Minister of Culture, Farouk Hosni failed to head the agency because, in Egypt for the last 20 years, he’s played by Arab political rules — anti-Semitism, authoritarianism, corrupton. According to one Arab critic, this isn’t even Hosni’s fault, but rather than of the prevalent system in Egypt:

The loss “further confirms the fallen status of the Arab regimes, and the Egyptian regime in particular, on the international scene, and the disrespect in which they are held in all fields, not just the cultural,” wrote Abd al-Bari Atwan, editor of the London-based daily, in an editorial featured prominently Wednesday on the paper’s Web site.

“The fault lies not with the two Arab candidates [including 2005 Saudi candidate Ghazi Algosaibi], who are highly efficient and competent,” but with the political systems of their native lands, “which lack minimal [levels of] democracy and public freedoms, suffer from corruption, pursue policies hostile to culture and creativity, [implement] censorship that belongs in the Middle Ages, and are hostile to development and openness to modern cultures and countries,” Atwan wrote.

Predictably, face-saving moves blamed the Jews (for attacking precisely these weaknesses). Arabs are not genetically inferior. They can learn, adapt, grow, develop the kinds of cultural strengths that tolerance and freedom bring with them. They may even, if they do it right, avoid some of the insanities that Western democracy has brought. But the idea that they don’t need to level up is covertly racist… and, for all those secretly contemptuous Westerners who don’t think they can/need to develop the disciplines of freedom, it’s ultimately self-destructive of freedom.

Which brings me back to Yale University Press, whose infamous decision embodies all the condescending and self-destructive elements I just mentioned. If when the cartoon affair had first broken, every Western newspaper had published the one of Muhammad as a pig, with a caption:

muhammad pig cartoon
Cartoon drawn by Muslim cleric to incite hatred of the West

…then I think, we would have humiliated the people most deserving of humiliation — in Muslim terms — and made it clear not to play those kinds of games with a culture that has a high capacity for public criticism, and — more important — strengthened those moderates in the Arab world who are eager to join the international community.

8 Responses to Honor-Shame and Abbas’ Dilemma: The Problem of making peace

  1. nelson says:

    When all is said and done, maybe the Obama presidency can even be advantageous for Israel. Why?

    Contrary to what people like Walt & Mearsheimer have been saying, the US never sacrificed its own interests for those of the “Zionist entity”. Actually, as the smaller, weaker, poorer party to a mutually beneficial alliance, it has usually been Israel that had to content itself with less than excellent results, that had to set certain limits to its goals in order to please the bigger partner.

    Many of those limitations came from legitimate foreign policy American interests and could ultimately be considered beneficial to Israel, a country that wouldn’t like to see the US defeated in the international arena. Some limitations, however, came from reasons that had much more to do with American domestic affairs, the not so legitimate interests of groups like, for instance, the Arabists in the State Dept. and so on.

    Nowadays it is clear for anybody who is not ideologically blind that Oslo was hamrful to Israel and there were people who saw this clearly a long time ago. I’m beginning to think that a weak president like Obama wouldn’t be able to impose something like Oslo on Israel. Condoleeza Rice was probably tougher on Israel than Obama can (for the time being) be.

    Well, Israel cannot really, unlike what its detractors say, change the US, but it can use this opportunity. The power vacuum left by the US can legitimately be used by Israel to advance its interests without undue pressure from Washington. Besides, it is not up to Israel to help, correct or repair the Arab world. If the Palestinian Authority is weak right now, if the PLO is more or less in a state of civil war with Hamas, so be it. Why not exploit the enemies’s weaknesses?

    BTW, what’s taking place in Honduras should be closely watched by those interested in Israel’s fate.

  2. Eliyahu says:

    The so-called Road Map [or feuille de route, not a mere road map but a guide showing what route to take] contained instructions for both sides. One for Israel was to stop settlements, a degrading, racist, Judeophobic provision at best. Two initial requirements for the Arab side were to stop hostile incitement in their mass media, schools, etc. as well as disbanding hostile militias and taking away their weapons.

    It’s interesting that the Quartet, led by His Phoniness, tony blair, pays no attention whatsoever to those two initial requirements supposedly imposed on the Arab side. We only hear about “illegitimate settlements” ad infinitum. Obviously the Quartet takes a racist stance towards Jews, while favoring or indulging Arabs in their violations of the Quartet’s own provisions [in the feuille de route].

    Note that Obama and Hilary seem to have totally forgotten or to be totally unaware of the Quartet’s requirements for initial steps by the Arab side. Obviously the Quartet is not a serious peacemaking body but a body meant to impose an unfavorable settlement of the dispute on Israel, which would really be meant to help the Arabs finish Hitler’s work. Call me paranoid if you like. But then explain why we only hear about “settlements” over and over, while never hearing from Quartet spokesmen about palestinian authority failure [refusal] to carry out the initial requirements imposed on them in the feuille de route.

  3. nelson says:

    Caroline Glick in today’s Jerusalem Post:

    “The question for the US’s spurned allies in general – and for Israel in particular – is whether we are better off with a politically strong Obama or a politically weak Obama. Given that the general thrust of his foreign policy is detrimental to our interests, America’s allies are best served by a weak Obama.”

    The same as I wrote above.

    (But you read it here before.)

  4. Daph says:

    Comment on Abbas’ Dilemma

    The biggest asset of the Palestinians is the fact that their argument is with Israel [the Jews]. They will never end this conflict if they feel that they can still benefit from
    lies about Israel [that others will believe] and if they can still get more money from various sources only because they are the “victims” of a war with the Jews.

    The settlement [not peace] Israel achieved with Egypt and Jordan was with the regimes of these countries and not the societies. The relationship must be played down and Israel must endure hatred in the media in order to keep these agreement alive. This is the reality in the middle east and we cannot hope for more.

    Iran and Syria are in a stand by position to ruin even these settlements and will never let the Palestinians join.
    So Abbas pretending to be independent in his dealings must talk about the
    percentage of the west bank territories given to the Palestinians or the housing in the settlements because this sounds better to outsiders.

    Obama did the exact opposite of what was needed to bring about a settlement and is surprised now that Abbas is frustrated.

  5. Phil says:

    I thought you might want to see this claim about “honor-shame” at

    It says: “What is important to remember is that in an honor and shame culture such as early Judaism it was a scandal to get pregnant out of wedlock or before marriage.”

    I don’t buy it. I think the reason was not about an “honor and shame culture” but because the Torah said not to do it.

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