First published at Palestine Chronicle, 2016-08-18.
Inside the Middle East - Making Sense of the Most Dangerous and Complicated Region on Earth. Avi Melamed, Skyhorse Publishing, New York, 2016.
Reading Inside the Middle East is quite an adventure. I learned that I probably am a fairly quixotic fanatic ‘tilting at windmills’; that I need to learn how to be a critical thinker “demanding that concepts and narratives be replaced with facts and reality;” that I “need to fine tune [my] critical thinking and analytical capacities; all that so I can be an “informed advocate for Israel.” [italics added]
An important word: advocate.
Avi Melamed says his career has “been heavily shaped by my need to help Westerners understand the unfolding events” vis a vis the unfolding events of “the chaos in the Middle east.” His career as parsed throughout the work has been one of manufacturing consent’ for the Israeli government. In the preface he describes his career as “working in the fields of counterterrorism, intelligence, civil policy, and policy development and implementation.” The epilogue contains a similar descriptor, having had a “very long career in intelligence, policy development, entrepreneurship, and education.”
In the Preface and in the Forward Melamed sets the standard by introducing his superior qualifications stating that his “analysis is subject to the rigorous standards of professionalism...I have adhered to throughout my intelligence, advisory, policy, and educational careers.” While he talks facts about the Middle East, westerners knowledge is based mainly on the “cultural, emotional, and psychological environment that gave birth to the involvement of Westerners in the campaign to delegitimize the State of Israel.” His most recent work was as “an independent Middle East strategic analyst for the Eisenhower Institute’s Fellow of Intelligence and Middle east Affairs” with a “long and proven record of precise analysis and interpretations concerning developments in the Arab world.”
It is interesting to note that throughout this work there is no indication that Melamed actually experienced any military fighting - his Arab language skills and advocacy work were clearly needed far more than his marksmanship. Another item not mentioned in the work is the Old Testament - so talking about “cultural, emotional, and psychological environments” is not a two way street.
Questions of context and truth.
The essential context of this presentation is that the problems of the Arab world are caused by the Arabs themselves. In counterpoint it is a “disease” in the “deeply-rooted belief” that Arabs “are victims of of things like imperialism, colonialism, and racism”. Another disease is “the ocean of demagoguery, fiery speeches, rhetoric, and slogans” spewing forth. In the preface he also talks about the inadequacy of the “constitutions in the Arab world...not strong enough to secure the states’ integrity and social fabric.” Applying my critical thinking skills would that mean that Israel, without a constitution has an insecure integrity and social fabric? The ‘facts’ would say, yes, that is true. Are there no fiery speeches, rhetoric and slogans coming from the Israeli Knesset? Nothing about killing Palestinians, or removing them from Eretz Israel? Nothing about putting them on a starvation diet?
Melamed gives the standard Israeli line:
Israel, as a democratic society, enables freedom of speech and pluralism, even if it is hard to swallow and offensive to many people.
It is a strange democracy that keeps the Palestinians in the West Bank under arbitrary military rule that protects the settlers ambitions but not the international standards of occupation for the Palestinians. It is a strange democracy that has laws discriminating against Palestinians in areas such as housing accessibility and marriage regulations. It is a strange democracy that uses starvation and overwhelming military force in order to control its unwanted Palestinian population. Please tell me where my critical thinking skills are challenged here….
The real miss in the context is that there is nothing about the influence of the west, in particular of Great Britain, France, and the U.S. in both the creation of Israel and the current embattled environment throughout the region - nothing about their imperialist, colonialist, and racist mentalities for both domestic and foreign policies. Melamed argues that the “real enemies of the Arab world are corruption, lack of good education, lack of good health care, lack of freedom, lack of respect for human lives….” without at all addressing the historical geopolitical context of how all that came about. Sure all that may be true but what are the precedents that set that up?
According to Melamed it is of course the Arabs antiquated thinking, their religious divisions, and tribal mindset, you know, sort of like Israel with its tribal mindset (just ask Michael Oren) and its religious divisions (Orthodox versus secular versus a whole confusing array of religious fanatics). But again, that is a diversion from the contextual problems of the region.
At this point I must admit to being guilty of Melamed’s accusation that “Placing the blame on Israel for what was happening in the Middle East...is a quintessential expression of a distorted reading of reality.” Well, aren’t I the disillusioned one! But then I like to consider the historical geopolitical factors as well, not just the manufactured view of someone working within the Israeli information networks.
So far I am only into the first chapter, when Melamed states one of the stronger elements of Israeli mythology/narrative saying that the “Arab armies...suffered a humiliating defeat in the 1967 Six Day War against Israel [true] which had been launched by Egyptian President Gamel Abdel Nasser” and Syria and Jordan. The latter is distinctly a clear lie. Has Melamed not read the IDF records? Nor perhaps has he read Miko Peled (The General’s Son, Just World Books, Virginia, 2012) nor any of the volumes by Ilan Pappé, or even Benny Morris where it is clearly indicated and referenced that Israel pre-emptively attacked Egypt even while recognizing that Egypt’s military in the Sinai were in purely defensive mode?
Another lie is the that Hamas perpetrated a “violent coup” in Gaza in which it “violently overthrew the Palestinian Authority.” The background to that is large, involving the Hamas’ win in the 2006 elections, the rejection of its legitimacy by Israel, the U.S. and other western states. At that point in time the Abbas government had no actual electoral legitimacy, only the legitimacy of being a quisling government supported by the U.S. and Israel.
For all his pretensions about critical thinking skills and precise analysis, these two bold faced lies simply support the idea that Melamed’s position is that of advocating for the Israeli view that they are the wonderful light on a hill society while all around them is chaos created by the inner vicissitudes and ineptness of the Arab peoples. From that point I skim read the work, as it ignored the great majority of geopolitical contextual factors while it rolled out numerous anecdotes and statistics to create a ‘fog’ of rhetoric rendered meaningless by that very lack of context.
In the second to final chapter, Melamed gives his views on Israel itself, and reveals simply that he supports the narrative, rhetoric, and slogans promulgated by the Israeli state. Revealingly he pays attention only to Hamas and Gaza, and mentions Abbas infrequently and in accepting terms - why not, he doing Israel’s security work for them in the West Bank. He takes the familiar route of asking why the critics are not concerned about violence elsewhere in the world and why are they picking on Israel. This diversion does not take away from the reality of Israeli violence in Gaza and the West Bank, nor does it deny it.
There is much to be argued with in the Israeli chapter, but two points are salient. One is a simple contradiction wherein he states that “hundreds of Israelis have been killed or injured” but later states that Hamas attacks have caused “forty Israeli deaths of both soldiers and civilians.” Contradictions in critical analysis should obviously be avoided.
A second is his reference to the Goldstone retraction of the UN sponsored examination of the 2014 Gaza War. True, Goldstone made a retraction - from who knows what pressure - academic, personal, or judicial - but the other judges did not make a similar retraction. However, Goldstone never made a formal statement of retraction (meaning the report still stands) and the other authors of the report - Hina Jilani, Christine Chinkin, and Desmond Travers - issued a statement “to dispel any impression that subsequent developments have rendered any part of the mission’s report unsubstantiated, erroneous or inaccurate...nothing of substance has appeared that would in any way change the context, findings or conclusions of that report….We firmly stand by these conclusions.” (Guardian, April 14, 2011, cited in Obstacle to Peace, Jeremy Hammond, Worldview Publications, Michigan, 2016.)
Enough said, it is simply a work of advocacy for the traditional Israeli narrative, devoid of context. Still I wonder - are my “critical thinking and analytical capacities” “rigorous” enough or am I still tilting at windmills in my fanaticism?