Wednesday, January 14, 2009


Why the Middle East Conflict Never Ends

The strife in the middle east has been going on, in its latest phase, for 60 years. Now when something goes on this long without being resolved there has to be a reason. The reason can usually be found by examining who stands to gain from the status quo.

I'll offer three hypothesis as to who these might be.

First there are what I call the "magic sand" people. These belong to all three of the monotheistic religions of the region: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. All claim that certain spots in the desert have special properties to them and their group is thus entitled to control over these regions. In some cases they all lay claim to exactly the same spots. They use historical evidence as justification for their positions, even though these claims are based upon conditions which existed over a 1000 or even 2000 years ago. Historical clams can't be allowed to trump everything that has happened since.

This group is very vocal and can be counted on to create civil unrest and perform acts of violence in pursuit of their cause, but they are tools of the other groups.

Second are the oligarchs who run all of the countries in the region. There are no functioning democracies in the region, although a few have elections and other democratic trappings. In addition, they all suffer from gross disparities of wealth. Not only within a state, but between them. Egypt has no oil and is poor, Kuwait has too much oil and is obscenely rich.

I have some statistics on this which can be seen in the table at this link. Look at the column which list oil reserves per person to see the imbalance.

Another measure is the "Gini" Index which ranges from 0 for a perfectly equal society to 100. For comparison, Norway has the lowest at 25.8, the US at 40.8. There are only statistics for a few middle eastern states: Egypt 34.4, Yemen 33.4. The lack of data for the most unequal like Saudi Arabia and the Emirates is telling. The states where everyone is poor release statistics, those with the most extremes in wealth suppress them. International agencies, which could estimate this, seem reluctant to do so, since they don't want to offend our friends with the oil.

Third are the oil consuming states, principally the US and Europe. They have long pursued a policy of keeping the oil states economically, socially and politically underdeveloped. This is a variation of the banana republic strategy that was the norm for South America for much of the 19th Century. We support oligarchs because it is easier to do business with a small group of powerful individuals than to have to deal with messy democracies and the will of the people.

The oligarchs don't want the population noticing this and rising up to remedy the situation, so they create distractions. These distractions are the issue with Israel and the ethnic rivalries that never get resolved. This is where the magic sand people come in. By blaming everything that is wrong with the region on Israel it is not necessary to deal with the local injustices.

The US also has its proxy in Israel. It supplies it with arms and other materiel so that it can perform the type of destabilizing tactics that the US wants without the US having to get its hands dirty. Notice that all the fighting in the regions that has involved Israel has never been directed at toppling a major Arab political hierarchy and replacing it with democratic institutions.

In addition the Arab states have refused to allow the displaced Palestinians to resettle elsewhere in the region. They want to keep this group bottled up and angry generation after generation so that there is a steady supply of foot soldiers.

There are no players with clean hands in this conflict.

The Jews in 1948 did some sort of land grab, whether this was done under a "mandate", whether it was fair, whether Arabs were forced out, fled from fear, or were duped into leaving by their leaders, is a historical question which seems impossible to answer fully. Whatever the circumstances, it happened. It was an injustice, but it wasn't the only injustice in history.

The Arabs who fled have been mistreated by fellow Arabs ever since. This is also an injustice, but it is a continuing one.

The Arabs who stayed in the region have also been mistreated. The ones in Israel proper somewhat less than those in the areas claimed by the Palestinians. These are currently being mistreated by both the Israelis and the radicals in their midst.

Speculative Solutions

Are any of the proposed "solutions" viable? It would seem not or they would have been implemented already. These ideas are not to be taken as firm policy suggestions, rather they are just my attempt to get people thinking along new paths.

To my mind the "two state" solution is the least viable option. The territories that the Palestinians would end up with are not big enough and don't have enough resources to provide for a decent standard of living. A divided state is also unworkable. Even if the free movement between Gaza and the West Bank became the norm this would still add gross inefficiencies to any economic development.

The desire of the magic sand people to have those in the opposing groups vanish from the region is, of course, also impossible. That some keep wishing for this just means that they have been programmed to avoid thinking about realistic solutions.

Stamping out opposition by military means has also proven a failure. This has been a failure not only between states, but within states as the recurring battles in Lebanon illustrate. One cannot solve problems of civic injustice by military means. One can cower a population as totalitarian states have done in many cases in the 20th Century, but the cost is high in terms of low economic development and blighted lives.

I suggest a new approach. Redressing the history of injustice by means of money.

All those who have suffered by being displaced, or being put into situations of economic constraint, should be compensated financially. This means, at a minimum, "Palestinians" living in camps throughout the region as well as those currently living in the disputed regions. The compensation should extend to the third generation of those affected. That is those who still under 20 years old as well as those who experienced displacement and hardship directly.

The compensation should be large enough that these families can establish themselves economically. I don't have an exact figure, but let's say somewhere in the neighborhood of $50-100 thousand per adult. This money would be paid out over a period of a few years via an international agency which would hold the funds in a special banking system set up for this purpose.

Those countries which are now keeping refugees bottled up or refusing to allow them to become full citizens would need to allow them to integrate into the general society, or move to countries in the region which would be willing to do so. For each case that was thus resolved the host country would also get some direct aid to assist in resettlement and integration.

The Palestinian areas would enter a new status. Gaza would become a "special administrative unit" of Egypt and the west bank of Jordan. This requires a bit of explanation.

The idea of sovereign states based upon cultural homogeneity has been a dominant trend over the past several hundred years. Regional difference in Europe were generally minimized to promote the idea of a nation. This can be seen in the consolidation in France, Italy, Germany and the UK. Cultural and language differences have been minimized and a national identity created in its place. The results have been fairly successful. Using this model has worked less well in other areas of the world, especially in Africa and the middle east. Arbitrary sovereign state borders were created by colonial powers with little regard to the ethnic groups within the regions. The results have not been good. There have been continual flareups of ethnic violence ever since.

I propose a new type of citizenship for groups in these regions. They maintain their sovereign-based citizenship, but also have a clan or ethnic group formal identity. This second identity permits them to participate in the administration of local affairs using traditional cultural mechanisms. We have a model of this in the US with American Indians. They are US citizens and, if they wish, they can participate in tribal affairs. The rules for such participation are up to the tribe and may involve living on the reservation or other criteria.

Many countries with large numbers of people living elsewhere also accommodate this by allowing them to continue to vote in local elections. In some cases they don't lose this right even if they obtain citizenship in their new place of residence. An example where such a dual identity could work to reduce friction is with the Kurds who are spread over three sovereign countries, but consider themselves as one people.

Ethnic groups with a strong cultural tradition want to preserve this and the primary focus for them has to do with education and local land disputes. There is no reason why these administrative tasks can't be handled locally.

So the "special administrative districts" I'm proposing for the Palestinians would be like this. If they chose to remain in their enclaves they can run their own local affairs. If they chose to minimize their cultural heritage and move into the larger society then they give up some of these special privileges.

Fears, such as those expressed by the King of Jordan, about his country's national character being overwhelmed by the increase of new citizens are a type of cultural racism. History has shown that immigrants integrate into the general society, almost completely by the third generation, if they are allowed to. If the US can accommodate people of widely differing backgrounds, Jordan can accept some who differ only slightly from the native population.

People who are granted full rights become just as patriotic as those who have lived their before. It is only when the governments continue to emphasize the differences that problems arise. So the Palestinians become dual citizens or not as they wish.

Chances for Success

Is any of this possible? As I said out the outset, the reason there has been no resolution to the issues is because there are strong forces who favor the status quo. Are they about to give up their privilege voluntarily? Will the west push for democratization of the region and take on the associated risks of having to deal with populations that want to trade their resources on their own terms, not ours? Will the military establishment be willing to stop selling unneeded, expensive and provocative armaments to the region and lose the revenue?

Will the local oligarchs be willing to cede control to the people? Will the hyper-wealthy oil states be willing to share their revenue more equally with their own population, and more importantly, with their impoverished neighbors?

Obviously the vested interests have the upper hand. Change has to happen from the bottom up. The people of the region have to demand a better deal. The first step in this is education. They have to learn that their interests are being ill served and who it is that is working against them. Focusing on the Israel/Palestinian conflict is a deliberate distraction and only education can explain this.

The west cannot force a solution on the region, even if it wanted to, but those interested in social equity and economic advancement can promote a better understanding of the issues and not fall into the trap of debating which side's moral failings are more egregious.

First comes education and the fostering of good will, then comes cooperation, then come the calls for social justice within the population. Then, and only then, can real solutions emerge.
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