Learning nothing, from Arthur Balfour to Jared Kushner

WASHINGTON — The United States and many Arab governments are looking at the really big challenges they face in our region — and then simply leapfrogging them, and venturing into make-believe new worlds where everything is easy, clean, and modern. In Arab countries, this trend is primarily represented by governments that cannot address the daunting (and still worsening) challenges of equitable and sustainable human development that have accumulated after half a century of poor quality governance, and that are captured most dramatically in unemployed and unemployable youth, rising poverty, worsening income and quality of life disparities, poor education outcomes, high informal labor rates, environmental distress, and expanding wars.
Instead of tackling the root causes for these serious deficiencies, more and more Arab governments are turning to gimmicky and flashy plans to build new cities, even new capitals, that capture all the glitter of technology and green-friendly modernity. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and Kuwait have all announced plans for such dramatic new mega-urban projects to build entirely new cities that would instantly solve all the problems those countries face. Such ventures seem to me to aim primarily to impress foreign donors and private investors, rather than to tackle the root causes of the poverty- and inequity-based stresses that increasingly plague many Arab countries.
This capacity to ignore reality and escape into a happy new world where peace, security, technology, and modernity reign is now also spilling over into the political and diplomatic realm. Not surprisingly, the United States government actively promotes such fantasies that expect hope and dramatic innovation to replace the hard work of identifying the root causes of a political dispute and tackling them decisively and fairly.
This diplomatic version of the Arab world’s escapism into shining new zones of high tech bikini beaches is exemplified by fresh reports that Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, has just made another secret visit to Saudi Arabia to explore ideas for a regional Israeli-Palestinian peace process. This was reported by Politico newspaper, which noted that this is Kushner’s third such visit this year.
Kushner reportedly continues to focus on attempts to draw Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and others into a grand bargain peace plan between Palestinians and Israelis that also repels Iranian influence in the region. Such an “outside-in” regional collaboration would reportedly resolve the Palestinian-Israeli and wider Arab-Israeli conflict, promote closer ties between Israel and many Arab states in the region, and create a united Arab-Israeli-American alliance to confront and “roll back” Iranian influence in the region.
If these reports of American diplomatic aims are true, then it is probably time to assign Jared Kushner the title of “Junior Moron,” because these aspirations are totally unrealistic, and reflect mindsets in the U.S., Israel, and Arab capitals that prefer to escape reality than to grasp and address its complexities. They also totally ignore the sentiments of hundreds of millions of Arab men and women who repeatedly express their support for Palestinian rights and a fair resolution of the conflict, rather than submitting to Israel’s U.S.-backed militarism.
It is not just morally wrong, but also functionally impractical, to try to impose a solution in Palestine-Israel that reflects rightwing Israeli-Zionist expansionist tendencies, Israel’s military superiority, and Washington’s pro-Israel bias, even if some Arab governments seem resigned to accepting this as a key to their own incumbency and longevity.
Billionaire real estate investor Tom Barrack, a close Trump confidant, told Politico that, “Jared has always been driven to try and solve the Israel-Palestinian dispute. The key to solving that dispute is Egypt. And the key to Egypt is Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia.”
Well, not really… The key to solving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is actually to affirm Israeli and Palestinian equal rights to statehood by implementing all pertinent UN resolutions that enjoy a global consensus; end Zionist colonial expansion and occupation; end Palestinian refugeehood; and, affirm Israel’s full security and acceptance in the Arab- and Muslim-majority Middle East as a normal, rather than a predatory, state.
The American-Israeli-Arab approach now being explored occurs, ironically, exactly 100 years to the week after the British government in 1917 issued the Balfour Declaration, which promised U.K. support for the creation of a Jewish homeland — eventually the state of Israel — in Palestine. Big powers today, as in 1917, still view the Middle East through the lenses of their capacities to create make-believe worlds that suit their own needs, rather than to fix the problems of the real world we live in.
Then and now, denying the needs and rights of a majority of citizens in the Middle East who remain powerless to participate in the shaping and constant re-sharing of their hapless world will not bring stability or prosperity, but only endless resistance and conflict. Nothing captures this better than the century-long continuing struggle of Palestinians to achieve their national rights, alongside a defined state of Israel that also has a right to exist. Repeating today the unethical political mistakes of the Balfour years by pushing a few Arab leaderships to link with Israel in order to force a “peace” resolution on the weak Palestinians and then confront Iran will repeat the imperial dynamics of the deceitful Balfour Declaration, for several reasons.
First, because we continue to see in this century-long sad saga of Western powers’ engagements in the Middle East diplomatic moves that are designed in London and Washington (and now also in Moscow and Tehran) with the primary purpose of serving their imperial interests above anything else. Second, it continues the destructive tradition of foreign powers engaging with unaccountable Arab elites, without considering the interests or sentiments of the Arab citizenries. Third, it avoids coming to grips with the heart of the conflict in Palestine — the assertion of Zionist dominance at cost of Palestinian exile or occupation — and instead assumes that the Palestinians are too weak to resist what may be imposed on them because the envisaged new order suits the interests of Arab elites and foreign powers, and those are the only interests that count.
These very troubling trends are manifested by the politics of some Arab governments and their crony capitalist elites, alongside the wayward leadership in Washington that desperately seeks a foreign policy achievement. The Balfour legacy should remind us that political facts can be imposed on weak Arabs in certain moments of history, but such reckless behavior only leads to a full century of warfare by many millions of ordinary men and women who value their human dignity and national rights, even if their Arab elites seem mainly to value validation by American investors and cable television hosts.
Please, please, somebody give Junior Moron Jared Kushner a new golf course investment in an Arabian desert somewhere, and spare us this terrible fate that awaits our region.


Rami G. Khouri
is senior public policy fellow and professor of journalism at the American University of Beirut, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Middle East Initiative. He can be followed on Twitter @ramikhouri
Copyright ©2017 Rami G. Khouri
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