Robert Fisk, the veteran British Middle East correspondent for The Independent, began a cross-Canada tour last month with a talk in Montreal, sponsored by the pro-Palestinian Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East.
More than 250 turned out at St. George’s Anglican Church, where poor acoustics muffled some of his words. He did make the point during a question and answer session that the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was dead.
Fisk, who is based in Beirut and has been reporting in the region for more than 40 years, noted that there still is a constituency in Israel that wants to reach a mutually acceptable accommodation with Palestinians, and that when the Oslo Accords of 1993 were signed “a lot of Israelis thought maybe this is the way to make it work.”
The Israeli progressives he spoke to at the time all said they would like Israel to be “liberal and democratic and at peace with its neighbours.”
“But when I get on the bus from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, that’s not what the people say. They would like the Palestinians to disappear and are very happy that they’re on the other side of the wall.”
Proportional representation that the country’s founders chose as the country’s electoral system empowers small political groups and prevents a majority from taking shape, he said.
This has stymied the compromises that would make a peace deal possible. First-past-the-post such as we have in Canada and the United Kingdom would have been preferable, he said.
The influx of Russian immigrants has increased antipathy toward Palestinians, he said. Many of them had served in the Russian Army in its brutal war against Muslim insurgents in Chechnya “and they are imbued with the idea that Islam is an enemy.”
“Unless you can encourage people in Israel to take a broader view of what Israel is going to be afterward, in the future, that is a major problem. Many Israelis will decide it’s safer to be in California than in the Golan Heights.”
Israel is trying to win friends in the region, in particular among the Gulf States of Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, and in Saudi Arabia, but he asked, “How long is that going to last? Do you really want to put your trust in Gulf Arabs?”
He predicted revolutions will erupt in the Gulf States, but “it’s going to be between the royal families. There are too many princes in Saudi Arabia.”
In an interview the next morning with Laura Lynch on CBC’s The Current, he said that Arabs in the Middle East regard the Donald Trump administration as being “insane, bizarre, weird, crackpot.
“The choice seems to be between a mad guy in the White House or a sane tyrant in Moscow, and I think they prefer the Kremlin, which is America’s great loss.”
In the Middle East, “Trump’s policy doesn’t really exist. It’s impossible to follow. The idea of there being a foreign policy in the Trump administration is as weird as saying that Trump’s tweets are literature.” He cited the sudden abandonment of support for the Kurds in northern Syria and green light for their Turkish enemies to invade, resulting in heavy casualties and Kurds fleeing as refugees as the latest example.
Fisk, who has a Ph.d. in history, compared declining U.S. influence in the Middle East to the decline of the Roman Empire, noting that “a lot of Roman emperors were bonkers. They used to constantly want to use Legions abroad and did not realize how the reputation of the Roman Empire was decaying.”
“After a while the enemies of Rome instead of fearing the Roman Empire began to laugh at it, which is what many people do now toward the United States.”
While the American empire is not about to fade, historians of the future may well write “the first cracks began with the election of Donald Trump.”
When it comes to the suicide of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Syria in October as U.S. Special Forces were attacking him, Fisk observed that “killing leaders of guerilla organizations is much more propaganda than it is real.”
“Within a week of Baghdadi’s death along with three of his children there was a huge ISIS attack on a French-built military base in eastern Mali where the French are fighting Daesh-ISIS … ISIS stormed the base and within one hour killed or executed 46 of the 80 soldiers there – the rest fled – and took it over. A large area of Mali has fallen back into ISIS hands.”
“ISIS was created by the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, and once these creatures are created you can’t get rid of them…The only way to deal with ISIS or any organization that uses violence is to try to create something called justice.
“Justice in the Middle East means fairness, goodness, decency, helping people with education. Secular education is the great missing element in the Middle East.”
To improve the lives of the majority in the Middle East, Fisk said we need an approach similar to the Marshall Plan that helped rebuild Europe after World War II, a formula to “turn their countries into centers of education and knowledge, as they were 600 years ago.”
While there is an educated elite throughout the area, “We are more interested in testing our weapons there and using Drones there and killing them than we are in telling them, we want you to be part of our world and we want to be part of yours.”
“As long as that is the case you are going to have an ISIS on your hands.”