During a recent visit to the Middle East, Edward S. Walker Jr., president of the Washington-based Middle East Institute and former U.S. Ambassador to Israel, Egypt, and the UAE, gave a number of interviews to Arab newspapers.
Walker has been attempting to build bridges between the U.S. and the Arab world. While trying to persuade Washington to demonstrate more empathy for the needs and desires of Arab countries, he is at the same time trying to cajole media and intellectual circles in the Arab world into using more rational rhetoric in order to influence U.S. public opinion through conventional channels.
Walker's stock in the Arab world has risen in recent months following an article he wrote which appeared in The Washington Post criticizing "Israel's policy of assassinating suspected Palestinian terrorists." In an earlier article – which according to the Arab media was rejected by the Post and ended up being distributed privately – Walker slammed American media claims that Egypt was not necessarily an important strategic ally for the U.S.
It is often thought in the Arab media that problems that surface periodically between Washington and the Arab countries are not caused by conflicts of interest, but by Israel's supporters in the U.S. After writing the two articles mentioned above, Walker has increasingly been viewed by the Arab media as a partner in the struggle to redress this perceived injustice.
After the articles appeared, Muhammad Abd Al-Mun'im¸ editor-in-chief of the Egyptian weekly Roz Al-Youssuf, wrote, "A senior American official is standing up in the heart of Washington, with rare courage and a high level of morality and values, and together with us he wages the cruel battle against the Israeli lobby and Israel's claims and deceits. He opposes the policy of double standards, and reminds his countrymen of the moral and political values upon which the U.S. has been based since its founding."
Roz Al-Youssuf reiterated these words in the introduction to its interview with Walker, and added, "Edward Walker continues to wage our battle with us. He defends Egypt and tells all who call to stop American aid to Egypt and all who try to fish in muddy waters [i.e. conspire] that 'Egyptian aid to Washington is greater than the American aid to Egypt'… These are his words and these are his positions, to which he adheres. He is proving to all that he belongs to a rare species of human being that does not settle for following the herd…"
Ostensibly, no better stage could have been set for Walker's recent tour of the Middle East. Indeed, Walker managed to meet some of the expectations of his interviewers and interlocutors in the Arab media: He criticized Israel and guaranteed that a clash between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and U.S. President George W. Bush was inevitable. He confirmed that Pentagon conservatives were working to undermine American relations with Arab states to pave the way for an attack on Iraq; he said that Hizbullah had nothing to do with terrorism; and stated that there were logical reasons why Arafat was not preventing terrorism.
But Walker's interlocutors were bitterly disappointed with him regarding the peace process. Walker had nothing new to tell them; he even refrained from linking the peace process's failure to Islamist terrorism. It was also evident that at least some of the Arab journalists did not welcome Walker's advice regarding their handling of American public opinion.
On the Difference Between Terrorism and 'Legitimate Resistance'
Arab politics and the Arab media are preoccupied with the question of defining terrorism and distinguishing it from "legitimate resistance to occupation." In this regard, Walker managed to reach a partial understanding with his Arab interlocutors, primarily regarding Hizbullah. In an interview with the Egyptian paper Al-Mussawar, Walker was asked whether he thought the U.S. should distinguish between terrorism and the "resistance" of organizations such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Hizbullah.
"I will begin with Hizbullah, as an example," Walker replied. "Hizbullah is, in fact, three different organizations: a Lebanese political movement; a Shi'ite party from the south that enjoys legitimacy and is represented in parliament – and we encourage this - and a resistance movement legitimately fighting the Israeli occupation in southern Lebanon. All of Hizbullah's attacks against Israeli forces are legitimate acts of resistance, not terrorism; nevertheless, Hizbullah has a history of terrorism, as it participated in terrorist activities such as blowing up civilians in Buenos Aires [the 1992 car-bombing of the Israeli Embassy and the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish Center] and other operations."
"But President Bush announced that we are not looking back, and that we will continue to look towards the future. If in the future Hizbullah defines itself as a political movement and a resistance movement, we will have no problem with it."
SUPPORT OUR WORK
When asked, "What about Hamas and [Islamic] Jihad?," Walker answered: "Hamas and Jihad violated the principles set by the U.S. since September 11. These are organizations that declare themselves to be terrorist organizations, and proclaim that they will continue to blow up civilians… The problem lies, therefore, not with the organization but with the means they use. If Hamas were to focus its activity on attacking Israeli forces, as Hizbullah has, it would be another matter. But they don't."
This issue also surfaced in an interview with the Palestinian daily Al-Ayyam, which asked Walker whether Hamas was to be the next target after the Taliban. Walker said, "What do those who make this claim propose? That we send in the Marines? That we send in our special forces? Look, we don't like Hamas, we don't like what this movement has done and is doing. We are not opposed to 'resistance,' but we oppose someone coming here, for example, setting off his bomb, and killing us all. Why is he killing me, killing a boy or a girl on the other side? You know, many Muslims were killed in the World Trade Center; among them were Egyptians, Jordanians, and others. This is incomprehensible. I do not agree with the means they employ."
The interviewer then asked Walker, "Does this mean that you distinguish between fighting the Israelis within Israel and fighting them on occupied territory?" "I do not think that this is a proper distinction," Walker said. "It seems to me that if you want to be a fighter and are willing to lay down your life, you must be willing to fight soldiers. This is what Hizbullah did. Hizbullah did not win by blowing up civilians; it forced the Israelis to withdraw because they continually attacked soldiers and were willing to rise up against the Israeli army; sometimes they failed and sometimes they won."
"So you say fighting soldiers in the occupied territories is legitimate?" the interviewer asked. "In occupied territory? Yes, certainly, according to most definitions of occupation," Walker said. "I do not believe that anyone thinks that fighting between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian security personnel is terrorism."
The Hizbullah question was discussed in further depth in Lebanon's The Daily Star, conducted after the U.S. demanded that the bank accounts of Hizbullah and several militant Palestinian organizations be frozen. Walker said, "The timing of the [latest] executive order had a lot to do with those people in the United States who had a direct interest in Israel, who were incensed that the PFLP, Hizbullah, and Islamic Jihad were left off President Bush's original executive order, issued on September 24."
Walker suggested that the non-Middle Eastern organizations on the U.S. State Department list were for camouflage purposes: "One of the reasons they put them all on was not to highlight the fact that they are putting on more Middle East groups," he said. "Israel and the friends of Israel wanted [Hizbullah and the Palestinian groups] on the list and they didn't care about the rest of them."
The Arab Media and U.S. Public Opinion
Another major issue in Walker's trip was Arab handling of American public opinion. Walker hoped to foster some understanding of how important the messages from the Arab media are, and how they sometimes damaged the image of the Arabs among the American public. Evidently, however, some of his Arab interlocutors believed so strongly in the righteousness of their path that they could not tolerate the thought of moderating their rhetoric. One of these was Khaled Sallah of the Egyptian government-sponsored weekly Al-Ahram Al-Arabi, who wrote, "Edward Walker appeared in the region and introduced himself as one of the leading doves in American political circles. Almost anyone who knew Walker during his diplomatic activity in Cairo would agree that his rhetoric is moderate on all things regarding the Middle East. However, during his last visit to Cairo, this rhetoric was revealed to be nothing more than a 'limited' change in the diplomatic formulas…"
"In a conversation Walker held with four Egyptian journalists… it was clear that the American ambassador had not come to the region only to hear and exchange opinions with officials, intellectuals, and journalists; he brought with him a list of political and strategic advice that he thought the Arabs should listen to carefully, so as to improve 'the rhetoric' towards Western public opinion and to acquire skill in the rules of the diplomatic game in the new world order…"
"Walker talked more than he listened, at least at that private meeting with the Egyptian journalists. He focused on a number of fundamental issues which helped [us] understand that there is, in effect, kinship between the hawks and the doves [in Washington]. Despite disagreement on the details, the presentation, and the political formulas, Edward Walker had no remarkable view regarding the present situation in occupied Palestine. As far as he is concerned, Israel is a peace-seeking democratic state. Walker's criticism of Sharon is no different than the American government's criticism of the Israeli violence apparatus..."
"Walker harshly criticized the Arab diplomatic community in Washington, and said that [its members] had met following the incident [of September 11] to decide how to deal with it. Walker said that he advised some of the Arab ambassadors to take out ads in the American papers expressing sorrow for what had happened to the American people… According to him, some of the ambassadors told him straight out: 'Why should we express sorrow for what happened?' They told him that they felt it would be an erroneous message, as if the Arabs felt responsible for what had happened… Walker compared the behavior of the Arabs to the initiative of the Jewish-American organizations, which he described as the swiftest [to respond] and highly influential in this type of crisis…"
"Walker's recommendations were not limited to the way in which the Arabs present their problems in Washington, but also touched on the content of Arab rhetoric. Walker thought that the Arabs tended to use emotional expressions and emotional formulas more than logic and legal formulas, and that, in his opinion, they could have a broader influence in American society. He said that these emotional formulas are perceived as provocative, and sometimes are unsuited to the American mentality."
"It was precisely at this point that I said to Edward Walker that the only mistake that the Arabs – maybe – made was not on his list; the mistake was that they believed for many long years that the U.S. would incline towards justice once it understood [the situation]. I said that our legitimate rights required none of this effort to influence American public opinion, and none of all the funds for advertisements in the American papers… After I finished speaking, it occurred to me that I had violated Edward Walker's fundamental advice – not to use emotional rhetoric…"
"Walker reiterated the same words that the [American] administration says regarding the importance of negotiations and dialogue, renouncing violence, and all those complications of this diplomatic machine, which [Arab] rights enter hale and hearty and exit dust and ashes."
"Walker did not miss the opportunity to allude, at the end of his speech, to the doves and hawks in Washington, as if trying to say: 'Don't repeat this emotional rhetoric, so as not to give the hawks a chance to gain a monopoly on decision-making in the Pentagon…'"
To conclude his article, Sallah stated: "If we surrender to the idea of doves and hawks, and are stricken with fear that the Pentagon hawks will gain a monopoly on decision-making and form an alliance with the hawks of Israel, we must heed Walker's advice. Since he presented himself as one of the moderate doves, why should we not declare the founding of an 'Edward Walker Company for Arab Propaganda in Washington,' and the former American ambassador himself will run it, and will formulate Arab rhetoric so that it suits the mood of American public opinion?"
"Everything leads to one conclusion: Why not establish a company run by Walker? Why should we not leave him to supervise the execution of his recommendations himself? Walker did not say this clearly, but his words hint that a plan of this kind was not far from his agenda, on his tour of the Middle East and from his advice."
*Yotam Feldner is MEMRI's Director of Media Analysis