Maureen of Arabia

By Jeffrey Goldberg

Maureen Dowd visited Saudi Arabia recently and interviewed its foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, who had, among other things, this to say about trends in the Middle East:

"We are breaking away from the shackles of the past," the prince said, sitting in his sprawling, glinting ranch house with its stable of Arabian horses and one oversized white bunny. "We are moving in the direction of a liberal society. What is happening in Israel is the opposite; you are moving into a more religiously oriented culture and into a more religiously determined politics and to a very extreme sense of nationhood," which was coming "to a boiling point."

"The religious institutions in Israel are stymieing every effort at peace," said the prince, wearing a black-and-gold robe and tinted glasses.

Now, on the one hand, I opened up the paper, saw Maureen in Saudi Arabia, and vowed not to read her column. The beat-on-Israel contingent on the Times op-ed page is fairly strong (There's Roger Cohen, of course, and Nick Kristof is a regular critic; Friedman doesn't visit the subject that often anymore, and when he does, it is often to highlight the latest iteration of Israeli short-sightedness, and  David Brooks isn't writing much about the Middle East anymore. So the most important editorial page in the world is, shall we say, excessively even-handed in its approach to these issues. All this, despite the fact that it is obviously still a taboo in the American press to criticize Israel.

On the other hand, When I started reading the column,  I couldn't argue very much with the idea advanced by the Saudi foreign minister, and I'm glad Maureen brought these views back here. I've been more open to the idea that the Saudis could play a constructive role in Middle East peacemaking since they put forward a plan -- via Tom Friedman's column -- to break the negotiations deadlock. The plan had many problems, but it was still fairly astonishing to see that the Saudis were, in essence, agreeing to recognize Israel as a permanent presence in the Middle East. As we all know, the Israelis argue that the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity (many Israelis, in fact, never miss an opportunity to tell us that the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity). But the Saudi proposal represented a blown chance for Israel to move toward a settlement and to build a Sunni-Jewish coalition that will be necessary to counter the country both Israelis and Saudis fear most, Iran.

But back to Maureen: She is suggesting that Saudi Arabia might, in some modest and slow way, be liberalizing, or at least emerging from its deep freeze. I don't know -- I've never been there, and I don't know that much about the ruling family. But I'm sorry to say I agree with some aspects of  the foreign minister's diagnosis of Israeli fundamentalism. It is undeniably true that Jewish fundamentalists wield disproportionate power in Israeli decision-making; it is true that a small minority -- fundamentalist settlers -- has kept Israel entangled in the lives of the Palestinians on the West Bank; it is true that, because of the power of the Orthodox rabbinate, it is easier in some ways to be Jewish in America than in the Jewish state (Just ask women who try to pray at the Western Wall.) All this is not to say that Israel isn't still the most enlightened democracy in the Middle East, but there's not much of a competition. And it should be cause for deep worry when the Saudis -- not especially known for their liberalism -- have a point about illiberal Israel.     

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2010/03/maureen-of-arabia/37145/