An Israeli scientist’s view of the middle east and the west

Thanks to my distant kinsperson (if that's an acceptable term) and friend, the poet Ruth Fainlight, I have just belatedly read a fascinating and thought-provoking speech delivered in April 2004 by Professor Haim Harari, a theoretical physicist, Chair of the Davidson Institute of Science Education, and former President of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, about the roots of the problems besetting most of the middle east and the western response to them..  The full text of the speech is well worth reading:  its unintended leak to the Web caused a considerable stir at the time, so many will already be familiar with it, but it's new to me.  

Professor Haim HarariOne of Professor Harari's many controversial theses is that the Israel-Palestine conflict is not actually central to the region's overall problems or to the way that those problems impact on the rest of the world. His detailed illustration of this proposition can't easily be waved away. He is also critical of the West, especially the Europeans, for what he sees as a failure to confront the challenge posed by militant Islamicism, and for the western tendency to encourage its extremism by vainly attempting to appease it.  Of course this is (very properly) a view of the situation as seen through Israeli eyes: but it's perhaps as well to remind ourselves occasionally of the Israeli point of view as well as of the more familiar viewpoint of the Palestinians and others in the Muslim world.  

The following extract, about suicide bombing, gives the flavour of the professor's address:

[T]he real fear [of suicide bombing] comes from the undisputed fact that no defense and no preventive measures can succeed against a determined suicide murderer. This has not yet penetrated the thinking of the Western World. The U.S. and Europe are constantly improving their defense against the last murder, not the next one. We may arrange for the best airport security in the world. But if you want to murder by suicide, you do not have to board a plane in order to explode yourself and kill many people. Who could stop a suicide murder in the midst of the crowded line waiting to be checked by the airport metal detector? How about the lines to the check-in counters in a busy travel period? Put a metal detector in front of every train station in Spain and the terrorists will get the buses. Protect the buses and they will explode in movie theaters, concert halls, supermarkets, shopping malls, schools and hospitals. Put guards in front of every concert hall and there will always be a line of people to be checked by the guards and this line will be the target, not to speak of killing the guards themselves. You can somewhat reduce your vulnerability by preventive and defensive measures and by strict border controls but not eliminate it and definitely not win the war in a defensive way. And it is a war!

What is behind the suicide murders? Money, power and cold-blooded murderous incitement, nothing else. It has nothing to do with true fanatic religious beliefs. No Moslem preacher has ever blown himself up. No son of an Arab politician or religious leader has ever blown himself. No relative of anyone influential has done it. Wouldn't you expect some of the religious leaders to do it themselves, or to talk their sons into doing it, if this is truly a supreme act of religious fervor? Aren't they interested in the benefits of going to Heaven? Instead, they send outcast women, naïve children, retarded people and young incited hotheads. They promise them the delights, mostly sexual, of the next world, and pay their families handsomely after the supreme act is performed and enough innocent people are dead.

Suicide murders also have nothing to do with poverty and despair. The poorest region in the world, by far, is Africa. It never happens there. There are numerous desperate people in the world, in different cultures, countries and continents. Desperation does not provide anyone with explosives, reconnaissance and transportation. There was certainly more despair in Saddam's Iraq then in Paul Bremmer's Iraq, and no one exploded himself. A suicide murder is simply a horrible, vicious weapon of cruel, inhuman, cynical, well-funded terrorists, with no regard to human life, including the life of their fellow countrymen, but with very high regard to their own affluent well-being and their hunger for power.

This, it seems to me, is perceptive, and chilling.  It's hard to fault it.

In an interview given a year later, in 2005, Professor Harari summed up as follows the main misapprehensions that he seeks to question or correct: 

* The world crisis is not centered on or dominated by the Israeli-Arab dispute.    
* Terror must be faced by a two-prong attack: an aggressive military campaign against terrorists and their protectors and a massive campaign for women['s] equality, literacy, openness, human rights and rule of law in the Muslim world.    
* The European attitude of apeasement is dangerous and futile.    
* International law today is unable to address the issue of terror sponsored by states which deny their support.
* Media coverage of terror is intrinsically slanted, partly because of the asymetric situation, partly because of the fear factor and partly because of the dependence of media on local talent    
* In the Israeli-Arab conflict it is important to distinguish between the conventional level of the dispute (where will the borders be, settlements, land, water, etc) and the "annihilation level" of the dispute (destroying Israel, "right of return"). The conventional level is solvable, the annihilation level is not.

There's plenty in the Harari world view that many of us will disagree with:  the role of military action in defeating international terrorism, for example (although in the specific case of Israel there may be no acceptable alternative to the resort to military force in some circumstances), and the asserted inadequacy of international law to cope with necessary action against terrorism, although it has to be admitted that some of the practical examples of this inadequacy cited in Harari's address are bound to make you think. But the professor raises some uncomfortable questions that have become even more pertinent and pressing since he spoke.


2 Responses

  1. Peter Harvey says:

    The Middle Ages have not gone away.

    The original assassins knew that their chances of surviving their missions were slight and that they were effectively suicides.

    Despite later mission creep the original purpose of the First Crusade was a peacekeeping mission in the region to ensure a safe route for pilgrims to Jerusalem, in other words to pacify the Middle East so as to guarantee Europe’s security.

  2. John Miles says:

    A thought or two about this week’s compulsory read.

    Haim Harari says the prime motive for suicide bombing is profit, but he offers no convincing evidence for this.

    He goes for the monkey, not the organ-grinder. Obviously some of the agents, like all middlemen, may cream off more than their fair share of the money, but he doesn’t tell us who puts up how much, or what’s in it for him.

    Anyway terrorism happens to be one of the cheapest forms of warfare, which partially explains why it’s so often used by poor, feeble peoples against richer, more powerful ones.

    He also seems to go along with the notion that suicide bombers are mostly religious maniacs. This seems to be the more or less official western line, but how much reason is there to believe it’s true?

    He eliminates, very likely correctly, several suggested explanations of terrorists’ motives, but he doesn’t even mention one of the most probable: that the they hotly resent the occupation of what they see as their homeland by foreign powers.

    I have a nasty feeling that Professor Harari’s proposed crusade for women.s rights in the Muslim world simply result in a much highrr proportion of female terrorists than we have today.

    What exactly does he mean when he criticizes the West for "encouraging terrorism by vainly attempting to appease it?"

    What makes you think "resort to military force" will do anything to discourage terrorism in a population which produces it?

    Assuming of course that you aren’t prepared to commit genocide.