There's an old joke about three guys stranded in the desert, dying of thirst. They have a can of water - but can't open it. One guy, an engineer, uses a stick as a lever and a rock as a fulcrum and ... nothing. The second guy, a physicist, does some calculations, drops the can from a predetermined height at a carefully considered angle and ... still nothing. Finally, the third guy, an economist, looks at the can and says: "OK. I have the solution. Assume a can opener."
A similar joke could be told about those who have worked on what we call - with more hope than precision -- the "peace process" in the Middle East. Diplomats and negotiators have urged Israel to give up land (Gaza, for example) for peace. They have focused on negotiating easy issues figuring that would "create momentum" for a comprehensive settlement down the road. They have attempted to "build confidence" among the warring parties, as if the conflict were just a big misunderstanding. And they have assumed leaders who did not exist as a way to conjure a preferable reality.
Each of these approaches has failed, and if those who will be handling the Middle East portfolio in the Obama administration want to understand why they should spend a little time listening to the extraordinary Palestinian journalist Khaled Abu Toameh. Recently, he gave a wide-ranging interview to a group of Americans visiting Israel, including Michael J. Totten who posted a transcript on his indispensable website.
Among other things, Toameh makes clear how stupid experts can be. In the 1990s, for example, peace processors "gathered all these PLO fighters from around the world, released thousands of PLO fighters from Israeli prisons, gave them uniforms and guns, and called them security forces. And the result was the people who had never received any basic training, people who had never finished high school, became colonels and generals in Yasser Arafat's [Palestinian] Authority."
Arafat stole billions of dollars donated by Americans and Europeans to aid Palestinians. Some of the money went into foreign bank accounts and to Arafat's wife who was living large in Paris. Some went not to build Palestinian hospitals and schools, but instead for bars, restaurants and a gambling casino -- across the street from a refugee camp. "The fact that Arafat was crooked didn't surprise us Palestinians," Toameh says. We were only surprised by the fact that the international community kept giving him money and refused to hold him accountable when he stole our money."