9/11 Report Misses One Crucial Point: Mideastern Policy

A month or so back, Bob Kerrey loped in late from a meeting of

the 9/11 commission to the New School stage to have a discussion with the

author Richard Ben Cramer about his new book, How Israel Lost: The Four Questions . The throaty author offered his

keystone for negotiations in the Middle East-”Give back the land”-but the

university president shrugged off the

suggestion. No one in the Arab world has ever really cared about the

Palestinians, he said, and there are no opportunities for young people in the

Arab world anyway, that’s the problem. The two men talked past one another.

The commission of which Mr. Kerrey is a member has now published

its report, and what was supposed to be an act of soul-searching has been

ruined by the same blind spot the former Senator showed onstage. The report

skirts America’s one-sided support for Israel over the Palestinians. It says

that the Arabs don’t like us because of their own failed societies and the lack

of opportunity for young people.

Once again, the Middle East

shows itself to be the third rail of American politics. With the exception of

retired leaders like Jimmy Carter and George McGovern and brave writers like

Richard Ben Cramer, no one dares to open his mouth about what is obviously the

main irritant in our relationship with fundamentalist Islam: We are

contemptuous of the Palestinians’ rights to self-determination.

“Americans can’t understand why Arabs don’t think of them as

honest and decent purveyors of democracy,” Mr. Cramer said. “Well, this is

why.”

The 9/11 commission report

contains just a few quiet mentions of the Palestinian issue, as an aside. Yes,

American policy in the Middle East is one of the “staples of popular commentary

across the Arab and Muslim world,” but the commission insists on describing

that policy as a “choice” we have made, like the choice to invade Iraq.

“Those choices must be integrated,” it says, “with America’s

message of opportunity to the Arab and Muslim world.”

That’s crazy. That’s like corporate investors in South Africa

back in the 1980′s saying that the policy of tolerating apartheid should be

“integrated” with a message of opportunity for young blacks in America. You

can’t integrate such things; they are inherently contradictory. And meanwhile,

the destruction of hope in the occupied territories is central to the Arab

understanding of how our society behaves.

Ignoring this grievance is dangerous to ourselves. As Mr.

Cramer’s book shows through the telling of powerful, simple stories, 37 years

of occupation have damaged the soul of Israeli democracy. The most painful

story in the book is of Yossi, a brave and kind settler in the occupied

territories who tries to reach out to his Palestinian neighbors with a vision

of a new society in which Israeli and Palestinian children will grow up side by

side. Yossi is burned out by other members of his settler community.

As a boy, Mr. Cramer had celebrated Israel as a place of glorious

dreams. Now he sees two societies embittered and toughened by nationalist

violence. Both sides in the Middle East thrive on the occupation. It has become

wrapped up in their identities and their politics. And the mission of Israel

changed, he writes, “from the rescue of the Jewish people to the rescue of the

Jewish state’s occupation.”

The Israeli rationalization for occupation is the same

rationalization now offered for our occupation: The Arabs are dangerous, and

besides, there are no democracies in the Arab world. Which gives us a right to

go in and install a democracy. Very democratic. No wonder that one of the

critical factions supporting our invasion and occupation of Iraq has been

right-wing supporters of Israel, on the grounds that “everyone has to do

it-it’s the only way to handle the Muslim world.”

The obvious truth that occupation is itself dangerous and

terrorism-producing is now understood by most Americans, post-Iraq, but it is

still not acceptable talk among our leaders.

The 9/11 commission report demonstrates this fact. It ascribes

the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to such vague sociocultural factors as stagnant

economies and “the decline from Islam’s golden age.” The kids there are jealous

of our wealth and freedom. The “indifference, cynicism and despair” of

autocratic Arab societies are all to blame. Our policy in Israel has nothing to

do with it.

This is like arguing that Timothy McVeigh and his friends wanted

to blow up the federal building in Oklahoma City because they were unemployed

and lacked all hope. There will always be unemployed and desperate people. The

issue is what triggers a drifting maniac like McVeigh, or drifting maniacs in

fundamentalist Islam, to such radical acts. And the answer in both cases is

real grievance. McVeigh was angered by government actions against extremists in

northern Idaho and Waco, Texas, in 1992 and 1993. As painful as it is to say,

one positive effect of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 was that it helped

prompt a long-overdue investigation by the government of the Waco case (a

flawed investigation, but an investigation nonetheless).

This time around, people should stop psychologizing Arab youth

and actually listen to what they say about what angers them. The answer is that

our country is dreadfully one-sided in the Middle East. This powder keg will

never be defused till we distance ourselves from Israel’s repressive

policies-as well as continue to condemn suicide bombing and corruption in

Palestinian society.

Our leaders are failing us. Just as our leaders didn’t want to

hear the arguments that Iraq was already contained and that the evidence of

W.M.D.’s was flimsy two years ago, they continue to turn a deaf ear to reports

of Israeli repression. Leading editors say that the issue is just too

complicated to sort out, and lift their hands helplessly. When Senator Fritz

Hollings argued that the Israeli lobby played a role in our Iraq policy, he was

attacked as an anti-Semite. Mr. Cramer’s book has been attacked not once but

twice in reviews in The New York Times .

“If newspapers take the risk of considering it,” Mr. Cramer says,

“then they have to defend themselves by giving it to someone who will tear it

up.”

The danger here is that thanks to the silence of people who know

better, or ought to, our democracy is giving up ground to nationalists and

extremists. The extremism of the Israeli right and Palestinian suicide bombers

is being mirrored by the Bush administration’s militarists and the suicide

bombers in Iraq.

This is not the American dream. As Mr. Cramer points out,

occupation and brutalization go hand in hand. “Within months of becoming an

occupying power, we saw the horrors of what American boys and girls will

perform when they have unchecked power,” he says, referring to the prison-abuse

scandal. “And the larger American public, I think, is reconsidering the

fundamental assumption that Israelis have for so many years offered us-that

they are like us.”

The Middle East is now a critical American issue not only because

it threatens more terrorist attacks on our soil, but because we are damaging

our own hard-won values, of free speech, individual freedom and

multiculturalism, in order to rationalize repression by a leading ally. The

9/11 report is a further step in that ugly process, and a giant wasted

opportunity.

Everyone wants to say that the

people who died on Sept. 11 died for something meaningful. The commission’s

answer is reform of the intelligence bureaucracy-something that will never be

reformed. The way to make sure the victims of 9/11 died for something

meaningful would be to reform our policy in the Middle East.