Voice

What's Really Wrong with the Middle East?

Explaining the persistence of violence, sectarianism, and incompetence.

The Middle East really doesn't need any more bad news.

Still, it's official. The region now has its own disease: a dangerous virus called MERS, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome -- perhaps related to the SARS virus, but apparently deadlier.

This sad news started me thinking (again) about the sad state of the region. There are some bright spots -- or at least some spots that are not as dark. Tunisia seems to be making a relatively stable transition without paralytic violence and incompetent governance. And there's a younger generation of Arabs and Muslims who seem bent on freeing themselves from the old ways, demanding not only personal freedom but dignity, too. I'm reminded of Howard Beale's famous rant in Network: They're mad as hell, and they're not going to take it anymore.

Nevertheless, much of the region looks bad: violence in Iraq; civil war in Syria and violent spillover into Lebanon; growing popular despair in Egypt; repression in Bahrain; lack of central authority in Libya; and an impasse in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Even in Turkey, the wonder state, things have become unhinged.

What's going on here? Why, when much of the world seems to be moving forward, is the Middle East being left behind? And why has its big transformative moment -- the Arab Awakening -- seemingly been lost amid a jumble of violence, sectarianism, and incompetence? There may be many reasons for this sorry state of affairs. But here are my top five.

Mistreating Women

The status of women -- what they can and cannot do -- in theory and in practice varies widely in the region. But there's far too much inequality and discrimination. Countries that systematically discriminate against half their population, intentionally or otherwise and for whatever reason (culture, religion, tradition, inertia) try to hold women back, keep them down, or just plain ignore them aren't going to be as moral, productive, creative, or competitive as those that empower women -- whether in the Middle East or anywhere else. And their futures won't be nearly as bright. Period.

No Separation of Religion and State

I know it's politically incorrect to point out, but show me one truly healthy and successful society run according to divinely mandated religious rules based on the idea that its god is better than any other -- or where extremist religious groups intimidate and wage war against fellow citizens, sometimes using terror and violence. I thought Turkey might be an exception. But Prime Minister Erdogan's recent my-way-or-the-highway behavior makes me wonder.

The societies that have proven the most durable and successful over time (all of which are outside the Arab world) are those where the realms of god and man/woman remain separate, where institutions are inclusive, and where freedom of religion, but perhaps even more important freedom of conscience, prevails. Indeed, freedom of expression is a critically important element in realizing human potential, inventiveness, and creativity. And it must be respected and safeguarded by the state, not restricted by it. Go into Times Square and, unless you're threatening public order, you can say just about anything you'd like about Judaism, Christianity, or Islam without fear of arrest or worse. Don't try that in Tahrir Square.

Too Much Conspiracy

Too many people in the Middle East refuse to look in the mirror. They'd rather come up with excuses and justifications as to why others, particularly forces outside their neighborhood, are responsible for their misfortunes. I know all about colonialism, Zionism, imperialism, communism, secularism, Islamism, and every other -ism that's been marshaled to show why outsiders and not locals deserve the blame for what goes on in the Arab world.

But let's get real. At some point, as every person knows, there's an expiration date for blaming your parents for the way you turned out. And in the case of the Arab world, the warranty on coverage for blaming the Mossad, the CIA, America, the Jews, or Bozo the Clown for the absence of democracy, the lack of respect for human rights, and gender inequality has long expired.

To be sure, outsiders still influence the Middle East in very negative ways. But that's no excuse for believing its people can't shape their own destiny. After all, that is what the Arab Awakening was supposed to be about. And wouldn't you know it: the Arab Awakening got hijacked not by Western bogeymen, but by forces within Arab society itself, including Muslim fundamentalists, secular and liberal elements that couldn't organize effectively, and remnants of the old regimes who hung on to power after the dictators were gone. 

Narcissism

I know it comes as a shocker, but the Middle East really isn't the center of the world any more. Today, Asia, Europe, America, and even Africa are where free market economies, pluralism, and human enterprise are innovating, inventing, producing, and creating stuff -- leaving the Middle East in the rear-view mirror. Read any of the U.N. Human Development Reports, which chronicle the sad tale. But too many Middle Easterners still think they're at the epicenter of it all -- or somehow deserve to be.

Many Arabs and too many Israelis still believe that the world sits on the edge of its collective seat 24/7 wondering what's going to happen next in their region and devising new ways to rescue them. I'm really tired of Israeli peaceniks hammering the United States for not rescuing the peace process and of Arabs waiting for us to punish Israel, which too many ridiculously dismiss as either America's master or its unruly child. Meanwhile, talk to any Lebanese and you'd think what happens in Beirut is on the minds of U.S. policymakers from morning till night. And, despite America's loss and lack of credibility, there's still this misplaced hope that the United States will save Syria.

Here's a news flash: the cavalry isn't coming. Maybe if this sinks in, the locals will do more for themselves. But I doubt it.

Leadership

There really isn't any. It's ironic -- particularly against the backdrop of the Arab Awakening's democratic impulses -- that the most durable leaders have turned out to be the authoritarian monarchs. The King Abdullahs (Jordan and Saudi Arabia) look like statesmen compared to Egypt's Mohamed Morsy or Iraq's Nouri al-Maliki.

But even here there's a problem. Middle Eastern leaders have become masters at acquiring power, but they're not all that interested in sharing it. Marry that to the absence of legitimate and inclusive institutions -- and to politicians more interested in furthering the interests of their tribe, family, or religious sect than the nation as a whole -- and the future of good, accountable governance in the Arab world doesn't look all that bright.

MERS is still a mystery. But I'm pretty confident the epidemiologists will eventually figure it out. And I know we must give this region a couple more generations to sort things out. Still, I'm not nearly as confident they will, even though what ails this region is an open, if inconvenient, truth.

FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images

Reality Check

Present Throughout the Creation

Turning 90, Shimon Peres talks peace, politics, and the limits of leadership.

Interviewing Shimon Peres earlier this month, I had the distinct feeling that I was talking to a man 30 years younger than the Israeli president actually is -- full of life, energy, and still ascending the mountain of a career yet to reach its peak. Indeed, it's hard to believe that the world -- and I mean that literally looking at the guest list for birthday celebration in Jerusalem this week -- is gathering to mark Peres's 90th.

That a man entering his tenth decade still appears so vibrant isn't all that unusual these days. Frankly it's becoming a dog-bites-man story. My father and father in-law both turned 91 this year. Henry Kissinger just celebrated his 90th earlier this month. Maybe 90 is the new 70.

What distinguishes Peres isn't his longevity but his centrality and relevance to Israel's remarkable story. He has had his share of political setbacks, most notably his unrequited quest to become an elected Israeli prime minister in his own right. He served twice as prime minister -- once in a national-unity government, in which he rotated the top job with Yitzhak Shamir, and again in the wake of Yitzhak Rabin's assassination -- but he never won a popular mandate.

But this omission makes Peres's career even more extraordinary. I'd be hard pressed to identify another political figure who played such a critical role in any democracy over such a long a period of time despite not winning its top leadership post. In our own history, Benjamin Franklin comes to mind. And so might Alexander Hamilton, had not Aaron Burr cut his life and career short.

Charles de Gaulle famously said that the cemeteries of France were filled with indispensable men, though he clearly would have counted himself (with good reason) as one of the truly indispensable. And it's hard to imagine Israel's story without Peres. Peres did not found modern Israel as de Gaulle founded the Fifth Republic, but if you took him out of Israel's national narrative, the country would have been much the poorer.

Peres has been there and done that in nearly every aspect of Israel's political, security, and economic life. He was a member of the Knesset for 48 years, longer than anyone else. He served in 12 cabinets, including as deputy minister of defense under David Ben Gurion, treasury minister, defense minister, foreign minister, and vice prime minister. In 2007, he was elected Israel's ninth president. And Peres wasn't just serving time. He's considered to be the father of Israel's nuclear program and has been central in matters of Israel's security and peacemaking for well over half a century.

His detractors believe his contributions exaggerated and in the case of his signature effort -- forging the Oslo accords -- dangerous. They mock his narcissism and political ambition. But deriding a leader for ambition and self-regard, particularly after 70 years of public life, is thin criticism. Peres is Peres. And, despite all his flaws and imperfections, for the most part he has transcended his detractors.

Peres may never have the grandfatherly authority of Rabin or Ariel Sharon, or the true greatness of Ben Gurion, his mentor. But he has won the affection and gratitude of his country and a central place in Israel's history. On the eve of his 90th birthday celebration, Peres generously agreed answer my questions -- both over email and in person -- about peace, politics, life, and the future. What follows is an edited version of our exchanges.

FP: What are the three greatest threats facing the state of Israel today?

SP: First, the lack of peace. Israel is a small political island in a stormy sea. And today it is more stormy than ever, breaking against the shores. There is a distinct lack of stability, aggravated by a large arsenal of dangerous arms, a great deal of which have made their way into irresponsible hands. Israel is not the reason for the events. But it may become an excuse for them. I do believe that if we conclude our peace negotiations with the Palestinians, and try to enter into a peace agreement with the Arab world, Israel may overcome the greatest danger. In my view, the real danger is to fail to try to overcome the obstacles while peace is still possible.

The second threat is the new character of modern security; Terror that has replaced classical warfare. Terror is not a policy but a crime. It does not respect laws or human lives, nor does it have a clear goal and policy. It does not require great masses of fighters but rather it is the weapons and scale of destructive intent of the terrorists that determine the magnitude of the dangers. The central danger today in this respect is Iran -- its ayatollahs, its weapons, its attempts to build nuclear arms, and its declarations that it is their intention to destroy Israel. Terrorism and the Iranian position is a danger to the whole world. Israel is perhaps under a more direct threat than anyone else, and Israel is also a part of the international coalition to bring that danger to an end.

Third, Israel has a long history. It has paid a heavy price for being alone, with no parents to her faith, no brother to her language, no sister to her history. But Israel is also respected for her moral choice of negating slaves and masters, and clear in her basic belief that every person is born in the image of the Lord. The threat is to fail to sufficiently look to the future and to lose sight of the value of the Ten Commandments. Israel can and should combine her values with what the future has to offer.

FP: Will 2013 be a year of war or diplomacy with Iran?

SP: The answer to that rests with Iran. The door of diplomacy is open for the Iranian regime, and everyone prefers a peaceful solution. However, the ayatollahs must know that all options remain on the table. The immediate victims of the Iranian regime are the Iranian people; it is them that suffer from a lack of freedom, a lack of economic prosperity, and a lack of human rights. Iran cannot feed children on enriched uranium; the regime must choose between enriched uranium and an enriched nation. Iran also has a hand in the situation in Syria, and there too conflict can be avoided if the regime chooses diplomacy over violence.

FP: Is the two-state solution still achievable?

SP: It is the only alternative to make and keep peace with the Palestinians and maybe the entire Arab world. It is achievable because all nations have to live both in the past, which is unchangeable and dividing, and the future, which calls for a globe where economics and security are borderless. So every independence is at the same time interdependent as well. We can keep our identity within political borders, and live in a global society free of racism and national hatred.

The two-state solution already has a master plan, a beginning and a conclusion. We have to overcome the disagreements and focus on the implementations. I believe it is possible and achievable, and I see in the president of the Palestinian Authority a real partner.

FP Does the world judge Israel by an unfair double standard?

SP: Israel is judged differently by two distinct groups of people. The first are those who maintain the age-old prejudice of anti-Semitism. They judge us differently out of hatred for the Jewish people and the Jewish state. Anti-Semitism is a non-Jewish sickness and it is for non-Jews to overcome. But there are also those who expect a higher moral standard of the Jewish people because of our heritage, our prophets, and our teachings. I believe we must judge ourselves by these high standards, always striving to be better, always striving to live up to the expectations of our prophets.

FP: The Palestinians bear their fair share of responsibility for the absence of peace. What's Israel's responsibility?

SP: I don't think we can learn much from past mistakes. The mistakes of the past are far less relevant because they are unchangeable, like the past itself. Today is less historic and more future-oriented. We have to do our best not to make new mistakes; that is our responsibility. Today, both sides have a responsibility to sit down at the negotiating table and finalize a peace agreement that will benefit the future generations of both peoples.

FP: Why is it important that there be a Jewish state?

SP: This is not a question which you would address to any other state. Today, the world is both global and individual. Our world would not exist as we know it if it consisted of only one flower or one human brain. The Jewish people are small in number and great in concept. Judaism was the first example of a rebellion of the people. It started with the exodus from the house of slaves and a journey to the Promised Land. That journey is not yet over. There are still houses of slavery, and we are still engaged in making the Promised Land an island of promise. Judaism started with "Briat HaOlam" [Genesis] and it continues with "Tikkun Olam" [Healing the World]. In my judgment, Judaism is intrinsically never satisfied with the way things are, but aiming to improve endlessly.

FP: Will the state of Israel exist in 2113?

SP: Of course. The Jewish people have faced great struggles in their history and overcome them. The state of Israel will not only survive, but it will flourish.

FP: How important is the United States to the survival of Israel?

SP: Very. I believe vision precedes strategy; not only for Israel, but for the entirety of humanity. Many nations became great or attempted to achieve greatness by taking from the other. The United States became great by giving, not by taking. The one that contributes generates friendship, which is always wiser and cheaper than creating animosity.

The Jews were born with the notion that there is nothing wiser than the moral call. One can summarize Judaism in these words: "Love others as you would yourself." The takers built empires and then went bankrupt. The givers built homes for themselves and shelters for others, and you don't get lost when you are building, not destroying. When the first pioneers arrived with the Mayflower, they called their destination New Zion. New Zion and Old Zion have a moral and historical affinity.

FP: What's the greatest regret of your life in public service?

SP: The failure of the London Agreement, which I believed at the time could have been a catalyst for peace, security, and stability in the region. I do not believe in dwelling on the past, but rather that we should always look to the future. In life, one must learn to be modest. More than rule, we were ruled. For that reason, early in my life, I told myself: "Don't try to rule. Try to serve."

FP: What's been your greatest joy?

SP: There is no greater joy for me than bringing joy to others. The greatest joy I feel is to be surrounded by my family; my children, grandchildren and great children, who are a source of pride and inspiration for me. There is nothing that can bring a smile to your face quicker than that of a happy child.

FP: What impact did President Obama's visit have?

SP: A tremendous impact. He was wise, sincere, and friendly. He brought a fresh breeze to the Middle East, which reinvigorated public opinion in the region and encouraged everyone to believe that we can achieve a better tomorrow. The people of Israel want peace and are willing to pay the price for peace. President Obama's visit encouraged them to believe that it can happen and made clear to the people of Israel, once again, that the United States is a true, dedicated, and loyal friend of the state of Israel. It was a historic visit and a hopeful moment for us all.

FP: What does it take to be a good leader?

SP: To be wise to self and not to be foolish to all. I think nowadays there is very little room for leaders, because leaders have had a role when we used to live on the land and have to defend it and have armies and have commanders and all was fractured. Now, in the age of science, what can a leader do? Armies cannot conquer science. Police cannot arrest innovations. And, you know, a leader today appears -- he says, "I'm strong, I'm great, I'm this, I'm that." And then people ask him, "Really, are you? Can you bring an end to terror?" He says, "No." "Can you bring an end to deficit?" "No." He cannot because the deficit is not only financial, but also a deficit of expectations. The more you have, the more people expect of you. So they say, "Who needs you?"

If you want to be a leader, serve, because what you can achieve by goodwill, you cannot achieve by power. I don't think soft power -- that's nonsense. You have today two administrations, one which is in trouble, the old government administration, and the other which is thriving, the global companies, because they don't use force and because they understand that globality is vis-a-vis the world, but each of us remains individual. And they try to answer the expectations of every individual person. And they are listening; they are not ordering.

As a result, they brought an end to racism. You cannot be global and racist. They brought an end to nationalism to a high degree, because you cannot be nationalist and global. On the other hand, they enhanced the importance of the individual. To be a good marketer, it's not enough to have a good product, you have to have good relations. You don't have to lead; you have to help, to facilitate, to enable. And people will be sure that you don't want to take advantage of them, but to help them to advance.

FP: If you could choose to have lunch or dinner with any historical figure, who would it be and why?

Other than Ben Gurion, I would like to have it with Lincoln. Because the man showed peaks in strength and peaks in understanding. He went through a civil war, but for the right purpose. Okay, really you don't have a choice but to go to war, but never go to war which is unneeded. And he really knew how to express himself. His language had not legs, but wings. They are flying throughout history.

FP: The Woodrow Wilson Center and the Peres Center are partnering on a project called YaLa-Young Leaders, the largest Facebook organization in the Middle East, with 400,000 members. Do you have hope for the next generation?

SP: Very much. First of all, because life expectancy has doubled and so has life effectiveness. Today, boys or girls at 14 or 15 are ready-made people. They are better informed. They are confronting more challenges, yet we don't let them play a role in our life? We look upon them aschildren. They are not children. They are educated, excellent people that can start to create at an early age.  On the other hand, the so-called old people are not so old. Today, a women or a man at the age of 65 and 70 can work easily. We have to change our itinerary. So you have more time and you face more challenges and you cannot bluff so much, because in the Internet age you have to be brief and honest. So, we have a new age with an old mind.   

FP: What worries you most about the future of the state of Israel? 

SP: Ignorance. Ignorance. Yes, I think politics is suffering from ignorance. The communication became so fast and so flat and the people are becoming victims of fast food and fast information. They are not cooked enough.

MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images