Americans (still) don’t understand the Middle East. This man wants to help.
What is the biggest misperception that Western policymakers have about the Middle East?
There are two basic problems. The first is that they think that peace between Israel and the Palestinians will make all the other problems easier to solve. The Sunni will cooperate with the Shia, the Arabs will cooperate with the Persians, and the tribes of Libya will sit around the fire and sing “Kumbaya” together. This theory is totally baseless. If there is peace between Israel and the Palestinians, not a single struggle in the Middle East will become easier to solve because all those struggles have absolutely nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian problem. The second is that solutions that were tailored for the culture of the West cannot work in the Middle East because the culture of this region is totally different.
What are the fundamental causes of conflict in the Middle East?
When Americans think about the Middle East, they think from an American mindset: that every person in the world can find a way to live with any other person. This is what America is. America is a state, or a society, that was made by immigrants who came from all over the world. All of them share the American Dream together, they get together, they send their children to public school, and the second generation or third generation of children marry each other.
This scenario could not be farther from the reality of the Middle East. In the Middle East, people are fighting each other to death because of differences in ethnic groups, tribalism, religious issues, and sectarian issues. They are not trying to live in peace with each other. The “Other” is always the enemy and has to be exterminated because I don’t like him, he is not one of me, and we, as a group, are not going to accept anyone who is different from us. This is the mindset of the Middle East. And what you see today in Syria, in Iraq, in Libya, in Yemen, in Sudan, is actually the result of this mindset: The Other is my enemy, and there is no way for me to live in peace with the Other.
This is why, in the Middle East, instead of living with each other, the solution is to divide those dysfunctional states into emirates which will be homogenous. And every group should live by itself and leave the others alone.
How do you see that process playing out? Are some of these present struggles a move toward a peaceful Middle East, or are the conflicts we see now not a sign of progress in the region?
You can already see the beginning of the light at the end of the tunnel. You have, first of all, two Kurdish districts, which emerged from the conflicts in Syria and Iraq. The Kurdish district in northern Iraq, with its capital in Erbil, is very stable and successful. It is the fastest growing economy in the Middle East. Erbil has already, for 25 years, been marching on its way to independence. The other Kurdish district, which emerged from the ruins of Syria, in the Northeast part of Syria, is a calm, stable regime, which will never return to any Syrian framework.
The Druze in the South are also talking about their independence, which they enjoyed under the Ottoman Empire. They may manage a stable, successful, and independent state once more. This is the hope: that small, homogenous states will rise up from under the ruins of these conglomerates, which never succeeded as legitimate functioning states—neither in Iraq, nor in Syria, nor in any other countries in the Middle East.
Is there a role for federalism within these states?
You have to convince the ruling elites to loosen the grip that they have on the neck of other parts of the society. This is not easy. It’s like asking the administration in Washington, D.C., to give more independence to the states; not everybody will agree to this. This is the problem, but people forget that the best model for a good life in the Middle East is the emirates model. I’m talking about Kuwait, Qatar, and the seven emirates of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). These states are stable because each one is actually a state of one single tribe that leads the country. All the other people are foreign expatriates and have no political aspirations or expectations. The society is homogenous—the ruling elite belongs to the society of the tribe. The tribal system doesn’t have elections. They don’t need elections, as they have real leadership—not politicians; they have real leaders from the tribe itself. This is the only system that works in the Middle East, and this is why I promote the establishment of eight Palestinian emirates.
How do these factors play into a potential resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? What would a practical solution look like?
The idea of a Palestinian state is based on another idea that there is a Palestinian nation for the Palestinian people. A Palestinian people exist just like the Syrian, Iraqi, Sudanese, or Libyan peoples, which everybody today understands do not actually exist. People in these countries are not loyal to the state; they are loyal to the traditional frameworks of the tribe, ethnic group, religion, and sect. The West invented these identities because this is how the West works. They are imagined peoples who exist only in the discourse of a very small and shallow elite that never retained the loyalties of the people in the streets.
There is no Palestinian people. There are clans, who are in the cities, who do not get married to each other, people who do not move to live in other cities because they are different in their mindset, dialect, culture. We see what can happen in such a state that will follow, no doubt, in the footsteps of Syria, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, and Yemen. This is why the two-state solution is a good wish but not a realistic outcome on the ground. And don’t forget that, because of the failures of [Syria and Iraq] to become nations, we have the Islamic State today. People are more loyal to their religion than they are to the state. Nobody in the world can prevent Hamas from taking over the West Bank just as they did in Gaza, even by elections, which they won in January 2006, or by a violent takeover as they already did in Gaza in June 2007. Hamas could take over the Palestinian state only to be a preamble to another Islamic State, just like ISIS. We would be doomed to live with such a state. This is why the only solution that would give the Palestinians freedom and security from Israel is a Palestinian Emirates solution.
With that in mind, what role should the US play in the region in the near future, and what does an ideal long-term engagement strategy look like?
The United States, first of all, has to learn about the Middle East, about the culture of the Middle East, about tribalism—the loyalties of people to their religion and sect, before it intervenes in this region. Consider how a doctor has to learn medicine first before treating a patient. For this, you have to spend seven years in medical school, and who knows how many more years to be specialized in whatever you want to do. First of all, people have to learn and study. It takes time and effort. Nobody should come to this region to dictate solutions without first knowing what are the problems that shake the region and what are realistic solutions that are tailored to the culture of this region, which is totally different from the culture of America and Europe.
I read an article you wrote, in which you said, “Israel and the world must understand that, in the Middle East, one only achieves peace through victory.” What does victory look like for Israel?
Victory is achieved when one party successfully convinces the other party to leave me alone, because the price of messing with me is too high. This is when peace is achieved. I’m not talking about kissing and hugging and sitting around the fire and singing “Kumbaya” together. In the Middle East, peace is achieved only when one party succeeds to convince the other to leave it alone. Peace is something which only the invincible can expect.
Featured Photo: cc/(maxim303)