Journalist debunks the many myths of the Middle East

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David Makovsky and Dennis Ross, fellows at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, aren’t just concerned with exposing and exploding the myths and illusions about the Middle East. They want to forge a new path for America in that troubled region.

“We are trying to explain the path we ought to be taking in the Middle East,” write Ross and Makovsky in their new book, “Myths, Illusions, and Peace: Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East,” “while also illuminating the core set of principles and assumptions that should underpin that path.”

Makovsky, a journalist and adjunct lecturer at Johns Hopkins University, will share his and Ross’ accumulated wisdom Nov. 1 at the JCCSF’s BookFest, during a session titled “Misguided Wisdom and Misinformation.” He will be joined by Adam Garfinkle — author of “Jewcentricity,” about the world’s obsession with blaming Jews — and moderator Abby Porth of the Jewish Community Relations Council.

He will also speak Nov. 2 at Hillel at Stanford.

Before Makovsky and Ross, the former chief peace negotiator for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict under presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, offer their vision for a resolution to the geopolitical struggle, they challenge a series of deeply entrenched ideas about the Middle East that have cost America leverage and opportunities to achieve peace in the region.

In an interview from his office at the Washington Institute in Washington, D.C., Makovsky says that the “mother of all myths is the idea of linkage — that Arab states will align or not with the United States based on America’s relationship with Israel. The Arab states align with the United States based on their own national interests, not collective ones.

“A lot of Arab states actually view Israel as a counterweight to radicalism,” he adds.

Ross and Makovsky note in the book that “Israel protects moderate [Arab] regimes while allowing them to avoid direct confrontation — without being identified with Israel.”

Israel’s value to Arab states provides a concrete example for debunking the myth that Israel is a strategic liability to the United States in a post–Cold War universe, Makovsky posits.

Promoted most notably by University of Chicago’s John Mearsheimer and Harvard University’s Stephen Walt in their highly controversial book “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” the realist view is that America’s relationship with Israel is counterproductive to our national interests. Mearsheimer and Walt argued that U.S. relations within the Arab world would improve dramatically should we halt support for Israel.

“We believe that the United States and Israel have forged an alliance that has remained strong and has served the interests of the Middle East as a whole,” Ross and Makovsky write. “In the face of terrorism and radical threats on all sides, this relationship has been rooted in shared interests no less than shared values.”

Another myth Ross and Makovsky debunk in the book is that dealing with Hamas in an effort to promote peace will be fine. “The realist school, characterized by some on the left, believes that what drives everything in the Middle East is oil,” Makovsky says. “Everything else is irrelevant or an impediment to peace.”

But while engagement is a desired policy and practical objective, forcibly promoting peace and entertaining negotiations with extreme radicals is foolhardy at best, he notes.

“Extremist parties have grown and are determined to torpedo peace,” Makovsky says. But he favors engagement with Iran and Syria:  “If we do not engage with Damascus, we will never know [about a peace agreement]. The U.S. and Iran have not engaged in so long that we need to try a new approach now.”

David Makovsky

Makovsky says the approach he and Ross favor is one that allows the regional parties to take ownership of their problems and their solutions. “We need to focus less on grand theories, and focus more on substance,” he says. “To promote democracy in the region, we need to help build liberal institutions that would lead to more democratic elections.”

He cites Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian Authority prime minister, as one of many reformers who favor a two-state solution and a commitment to human rights and who has “won respect at home and abroad for his desire to raise Palestinian living standards and introduce transparency in Palestinian spending.”

Time is of the essence in the Middle East, Makovsky warns:  “Today the potential costs of being wrong [with our policy choices] are far higher.”

He refers to the Obama administration’s eight-month tussle over Israeli settlements as wasted time. “We could’ve said we don’t want settlement expansion, not pushed for an immediate freeze.

“Frankly, I think the settlements were a misplaced issue,” he adds. “We raised Arab expectations and created friction with the Israelis. What we want is to be in the main room, not stuck in the hallway.”

Myths, Illusions, and Peace: Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East” by David Makovsky and Dennis Ross (368 pages, Viking Press, $27.95)

David Makovsky
will speak on the BookFest panel “Misguided Wisdom and Misinformation” 2:15 p.m. Nov. 1 at the JCCSF’s Kanbar Hall, 3200 California St., S.F. A book signing will follow at 3:30 p.m. Information:

He will also speak Nov. 2 at Hillel at Stanford’s Koret Pavilion at the Ziff Center, 565 Mayfield Ave., Stanford. Information: (650) 725-1424..

Steven Friedman

Steven Friedman is a freelance writer.