Fear is a great motivator

The most effective method of bailing water from a sinking boat is a frightened man with a bucket. When the bilge pumps fail the man with the bucket usually gets the job done. Tom Friedman sees the same factors at work in the Middle East now.

The Middle East is experiencing something we haven’t seen in a long, long time: moderates getting their act together a little, taking tentative stands and pushing back on the bad guys. If all that sounds kind of, sort of, maybe, qualified, well ... it is. But in a region in which extremists go all the way and the moderates usually just go away, it’s the first good news in years — an oasis in a desert of despair.

The only problem is that this tentative march of the moderates — which got a useful boost here with the Annapolis peace gathering — is driven largely by fear, not by any shared vision of a region where Sunni and Shiite, Arab and Jew, trade, interact, collaborate and compromise in the way that countries in Southeast Asia have learned to do for their mutual benefit.

So far, “this is the peace of the afraid,” said Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief of Al Arabiya, a satellite news channel.

Fear can be a potent motivator. Fear of Al Qaeda running their lives finally got the Sunni tribes of Iraq to rise up against the pro-Al Qaeda Sunnis, even to the point of siding with the Americans. Fear of Shiite thugs in the Iranian-backed Mahdi Army has prompted many more Shiites in Iraq to side with the pro-U.S. Iraqi government and army. Fear of a Hamas takeover has driven Fatah into a tighter working relationship with Israel. And fear of spreading Iranian influence has all the Arab states — particularly Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan — working in even closer coordination with America and in tacit cooperation with Israel. Fear of Fatah collapsing, and of Israel inheriting responsibility for the West Bank’s Palestinian population forever, has brought Israel back to Washington’s negotiating table. Fear of isolation even brought Syria here.

But fear of predators can only take you so far. To build a durable peace, it takes a shared agenda, a willingness by moderates to work together to support one another and help each other beat back the extremists in each camp. It takes something that has been sorely lacking since the deaths of Anwar Sadat, Yitzhak Rabin and King Hussein: a certain moral courage to do something “surprising.”


The question to be answered is whether the parties will do anything with the momentum that the conference is suppose to generate. It is possible, but the real fear that prevents an agreement is the Muslim religious bigotry that has pushed the conflict to begin with That will be the counter fear that Iran and its allies will be pushing. At least this effort has not been met with exploding Palestinians like the last effort. That is some progress already.


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