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Monday, January 12, 2009

The zero-sum game and Arab mentality

In the wake of the 2006 Lebanon war, with hundreds of dead Lebanese civilians and a destroyed infrastructure, a Gulf News analyst - and professor of political science at UAE University - wrote:
The controversial discussion about the quality and significance of the victory and the size of destruction caused by the war is legitimate and healthy. But, despite the massive destruction in Lebanon, the Arabs seem to be better off after the war.

Logically, when Israel is in a worse condition, which is the case now, Arabs are definitely better off.

Although Israel was not routed in the battle, it surely seems defeated and frustrated. It is also living in a state of doubt and comprehensive review of its military and political performance during the war.

The equation of victory and defeat between the Arabs and the Zionist state has always been and will remain zero equation. This means that when Israel is defeated, Arabs have the right to celebrate victory.

Hatred of Israel can be found in the genes of all Arabs. Although it is hereditary, its intensity varies from time to time. All facts on the ground indicate that the Arab rejection of the Zionist entity reached its peak after the aggression.

The unification of Arabs in their deep enmity against Israel is a positive matter.
This is not some crazy member of the "Arab street". This is someone who has a respected job as an intellectual, who is saying that anything that is bad for Israel is, by definition, good for the Arabs. The Arab world, and a large number of its supporters, look at the Middle East as a zero-sum game where when one side wins, the other loses.

History shows that this is not an isolated opinion; in fact, it is still mainstream Arab opinion. Even as pragmatic and moderate a leader as Jordan's King Abdullah reveals that he still looks at the conflict the same way, that what is good for Israel is bad for the Arab world, although Abdullah is much more nuanced.

Westerners must understand this mindset. We grow up with the idea ingrained in us that the best solutions to problems are "win-win", where each side can gain or at least compromise in ways where their losses are minimized. This is so obvious to most Westerners that we cannot conceive of a mentality that is exactly the opposite - that if I win, you must lose, and vice versa.

The writings of the early Zionists show that rather than trying to hurt the surrounding Arab communities, Zionism intended to enrich them with a growing economy and modernization. When Israel won the Six Day War, it immediately set out to build a new infrastructure in Gaza and the West Bank for the Arabs - electricity, hospitals, clean water. The Palestinian Arab mortality rates plummeted and their life expectancy soared under Israeli rule. From the outset, Zionism was meant to be a "win-win," not zero-sum.

On the other hand, the zero-sum mentality is heavily tied to the genetic hatred of Israel that was mentioned by the professor above that is endemic among the Arabs. It goes to the root of the divide between the two cultures. Zero-sum implies hatred and eternal conflict, "win-win" implies pragmatism and peace.

At the outset of Operation Cast Lead, Israeli President Shimon Peres asked an extremely good question:
Still I have not heard until now a single person who could explain to us reasonably: why are they firing rockets against Israel? What are the reasons? What is the purpose?
Everyone who has answered that question in the explosion of anti-Zionist articles that have been written recently uses a variant of this zero-sum answer. Rockets hurt Israel, therefore it is obvious that they must be good for Arabs. Hurting Israel is a worthy goal in and of itself, independent of any consequences. From their perspective, Israel's pain equals Arab gain.

This twisted mentality is most prominent in Hamas' actions now. Hamas has stated that Israel's killing of civilians is evidence of Israel's failure in battle. In other words, Hamas considers the death of Palestinian Arabs to be a victory! There is a complete disconnect between the major goal - Israel's pain - and any desire to defend Gazans.

For Westerners, it is self-evident that the purpose of a military is to defend one's citizens. When your own population is being killed, your military has failed.

Hamas' purpose, though, is not to defend Palestinian Arabs - it is to destroy Israel. This necessarily means that they want to inflict pain on the enemy by any means possible. Their own people are not to be defended: on the contrary, they are to be used for this ultimate goal. Dead civilians are just another weapon to "win."

Moderate Arab rulers have been able to at least understand the pragmatism of the West; they know that any open conflict with Israel will cause them to lose their own positions. But as we saw with King Abdullah, the Arab mentality of seeing Israel not as a partner but as an enemy is still ingrained in the collective Arab psyche. For the "moderates," the zero sum game is still very real, but it is played diplomatically, rather than militarily.

While Israel would be thrilled to send its experts throughout the Arab world to help with agriculture, desalination, solar energy or medicine, to increase two-way trade with the Arabs, the Arab world remains leery of anything that makes Israelis happy - even if it helps the Arabs. From the beginning, Israel has wanted "normalization" to be part of any peace agreements precisely because Israel thinks in terms of win-win - but the Arabs just cannot wrap their heads around this concept.

To the Arab world, if Israel wins, the Arabs must be losing. And as long as they have this mentality, there can be no real peace.