Rob Harris: Shearer's Middle East border analysis falls along simplistic lines

A Palestinian boy looks from his family's destroyed house at workers rebuild a house which was destroyed during the 2014 summer war between Israel and Hamas. Photo / AP
A Palestinian boy looks from his family's destroyed house at workers rebuild a house which was destroyed during the 2014 summer war between Israel and Hamas. Photo / AP

David Shearer's article last week, "Border decisions condemn countries to conflict", seems conflicted. He began by condemning the British-French (Sykes-Picot) "carve-up" of the post-Ottoman Middle East, yet a few lines later bemoaned the fact that the borders don't take into account the nuances and aspirations of minorities. He seems unaware that after Sykes-Picot, the Allies attempted to create Armenia and Kurdistan as nations (Treaty of Sevres) but were thwarted by the emerging nationalistic Turkey under Ataturk (Treaty of Lausanne).

Why are we still infantilising Arabs? Are they not capable of fine-tuning Sykes-Picot to reflect the aspirations of locals?

I asked a Zimbabwean why, after independence, Robert Mugabe hadn't redistributed land along the previous tribal lines?

The response was equal parts exasperation and sadness: "Once these despots strut the stage as President of a sizeable state, they are not going to revert to being Chief of some Bantustan". The Middle East equivalence is palpable.

Contrary to Shearer, some in the serious Arab-language press see Sykes-Picot as a squandered gift. An article by K Khairallah in Al Arab calls Sykes-Picot "a boon". He states: "There are those in the Arab world who have always cursed Sykes-Picot, seeing it as the main reason for Arab calamities and defeats in every field. The Sykes-Picot agreement was not the main reason for these calamities and defeats, but merely the coat hanger on which many Arabs hung their problems and their helplessness, in order to excuse their inability and backwardness ... Sykes-Picot failed because the Arabs moved away from what is realistic and rational, though it could have been made into a success."

Yet the pursuit of more detailed subdivisions of Sykes-Picot as Shearer desires is being hotly resisted by other Arab commentators. The Egyptian daily Al-Ahram warns against reappearance of "the ghosts of Sykes-Picot", stating: "Western research institutes and the American press are openly talking of a new Sykes-Picot that will correct the mistakes of the previous partition. Nobody can fail to notice that five Arab countries - Iraq, Syria, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Sudan - are to be divided into 13 states. The ghosts of Sykes-Picot are tangibly present, to divide the Arab region into mini-states along sectarian lines."

The Gazans got the land, but Israel received no peace.

Shearer's facile "teachable moment" for his daughter about the robustness of national borders that are seas and oceans ignores the fact that one of the longest, most stable borders in the world is that between the US and Canada, based on an entirely non-topographical notion, the 49th Parallel. Nor do stretches of ocean mean security, as we can see from the Turkish invasion and occupation of northern Cyprus.

It is no surprise that Shearer's final barb is aimed at Israel and takes issue with Israeli settlements on the West Bank. Firstly, remember that the West Bank, like Gaza, was never a Palestinian territory. Gaza was part of Egypt and the West Bank part of Jordan. The Israeli "occupation" is at a ceasefire line, just as it is on the Golan Heights, and awaits a durable peace.

Israel has shown decisiveness at considerable domestic political cost to implement negotiated land-for-peace deals. They did so in Sinai with Egypt and in Gaza. The Gazans got the land, but Israel received no peace. If Gaza can be seen as a downpayment on a two-state solution, what Israeli leadership in its right mind would allow another Hamas firing point in the West Bank? In total, over 90 per cent of the land within the 1967 ceasefire lines has been ceded back to Egypt, Syria, Gaza and the West Bank.

Gaza, the West Bank and Golan are not place names on some map of Israeli beastliness towards Palestinians. They are artefacts of the massive military attacks Israel has withstood since 1948 and will likely endure again.

- NZ Herald

Rob Harris' interest in Middle Eastern history and politics began in 1967, when he was a young staff member at the NZ Dairy Board. Two colleagues who were travelling in the area got caught up in the Six-Day War.

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