A well-known maxim from the Dictators’ Handbook advises finding an external enemy to distract the public and thus protect the ruler from his people. The prescription has seen its most successful and enduring application in the Middle East, where two dozen unelected, authoritarian rulers have spent more than half a century telling their populations to ignore their governments’ misdeeds and instead look elsewhere.
Despots did all they could to cast the anger of their citizens toward a minuscule nearby state, Israel, the only place in that vast region with a functioning democracy; the only country where a government could, in fact, lose power at the ballot box, surrendering routinely to the will of the people.
One of the few positive developments in today’s deeply troubled quest for peace in the Middle East is that pro-democracy movements have taken away from Arab despots, at least for now, that most pernicious of weapons. No longer can they focus their people’s attention on Israel, portray the Jewish state as their primary concern and keep the anti-Israel rage simmering just below the boiling point. The strategy protected them, but created hostility and dehumanization that made peace more difficult.
Sleight of hand
Like a magician making the audience look at one hand while maneuvering with the other, despots kept their dungeons filled with pro-democracy activists and other opponents of the regime, cementing their rule through their security apparatus, while convincing their people that their problems could be traced to the hated Israelis and their American friends.
Incredibly, many in the West bought this fiction, believing that peace between Israelis and Palestinians was the key to healing what ailed the region. Never mind that the argument made no sense.
Surely, peace between Israelis and Palestinians is an important goal. It is tragic that its prospects look so dismal. How welcome it would be if Palestinians stopped their refusal to sit down with Israelis and Israelis made a strong peace proposal.
But we now see clearly that their conflict is the last issue on the minds of the millions of Arabs and Iranians risking their lives to bring down oppressive regimes. Protesters in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia have said nothing about the Palestinian issue. The protests have revealed a yearning to improve life for 300 million Arabs, rather than focus on the 3 percent of them who are Palestinians.
For decades, officials from Washington and London and Paris would travel to Arab capitals, sit down with dictators and hear the canard. The greatest threat, the most important matter, the rulers explained, is the Israeli occupation. Western officials believed it, even though much more important problems pressed. Political repression, economic stagnation, subjugation of women, those were just a few of the issues the dictators preferred to ignore. Better to discuss Israel’s measures to stop weapons from entering Gaza.
For rulers seeking to stay in power, this is a significant loss. They won’t give up the weapon without a fight. Similarly, militants still bent on Israel’s destruction have also suffered a blow with their loss of priority in the Arab world. They, too, miss the focus on Israel.
Stoking the conflict might just bring it back.
That’s why a few days ago, terrorists butchered five members of a Jewish family, stabbing an 11-year-old boy and then his 4-year-old brother before murdering their parents and their baby sister.
In the growing global effort to isolate Israel, reaction to the massacre, incredibly, some people sought to justify a sickening act that nothing could excuse.
Iran, too, which portrays itself as a champion of the oppressed, would like nothing more than to see a sudden surge in anti-Israel sentiment. An outbreak of violence would help divert attention from the brutal way in which Tehran is suppressing its reform movement. Authorities have arrested opposition leaders, imprisoned, executed, and tortured large numbers of people they view as a threat to the Islamic Republic.
Iran is taking advantage of regional turmoil to re-arm its allies and strengthen their position in the changing Arab world.
Frida Ghitis writes about global affairs for The Miami Herald. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune.
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