Why are 21 countries with 800 times more land so obsessed with Israel?
When she is surrounded by a swirl of conversation she cannot understand, my two-year-old granddaughter turns to me expectantly: “What they talking about, Bubbe?” Right now, I would have to confess to her that the hubbub over 1,600 new housing units in Jerusalem defies rational explanation.
Of the children of Abraham, the descendants of Ishmael currently occupy at least 800 times more land than descendants of Isaac. The 21 states of them Arab League routinely announce plans of building expansion. Saudi Arabia estimates that 555,000 housing units were built over the past several years. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced during a meeting in Baghdad last year that “Some 10,000 units will be built in each province with 100 square meters per unit” to accommodate citizens whose housing needs have not been met for a long time.
Egypt has established 10 new cities since 1996. They are Tenth of Ramadan, Sixth of October, Al Sadat, Al Shurouq, Al Obour, New Damietta, New Beni Sueif, New Assiut, New Luxor, and New Cairo.
In 2006 the Syrian Prime Minister, Mohammad Naji Atri, announced a new five-year development plan that aims to supply 687,000 housing units. Kuwait expects to have a demand for approximately 100,000 private housing units by 2010. Last year Jordan’s King Abdullah launched a National Housing Initiative, which aims to build 120,000 properties for low-income Jordanians.
Arab populations grow. And neighborhoods expand to house them. What’s more, Arab countries benefited disproportionately from the exchange of populations between Jews and Arabs that resulted from the Arab wars against Israel. Since 1948 upward of 800,000 Jews abandoned their homes and forfeited their goods in Egypt, Iraq, Morocco and Yemen. In addition to assets valued at hundreds of billions of dollars, the property deeds of Jews from Arab lands is estimated at a total area of 100,000 square miles, which is five times the size of the state of Israel, and more than Israel would include even if it were to stretch over all the disputed territories of the West Bank.
These preposterous disparities are a result of contrasting political cultures. The Arab League was founded at the same time as Israel with the express aim of undoing the Jewish state’s existence. Although much has changed over the ensuing decades, opposition to the Jewish state remains the strongest unifying tool of inter-Arab and Arab-Muslim politics. Trying to eliminate the Jews rather than compete with them has never benefited nations.
It is unfortunate that Arabs obsess about building in Israel rather than aiming for the development of their own superabundant lands. But why should America encourage their hegemonic ambitions? In December the White House issued a statement opposing “new construction in East Jerusalem” without delineating where or what East Jerusalem is.
Ramat Shlomo, the neighborhood at the center of the present altercation, is actually in northern Jerusalem, west of the Jewish neighborhoods of Ramot, home to 40,000 Jewish residents. Why does the White House take issue with the construction of housing for Jewish citizens within the boundaries of their own country? The same White House raised no objection when Jordan recently began systematically stripping citizenship from thousands of its Palestinian citizens rather than providing new housing units for them in a land much larger than Israel.
Perhaps Israel has been at fault for not doggedly insisting on unconditional acceptance of its sovereign existence, and for not demanding that Arab rulers adhere to the U.N. Charter’s guarantee of “equal rights of . . . nations large and small.” Preposterous as they would have thought it, perhaps Israelis ought to have called for a freeze on Arab settlements to correspond to unreasonable Arab demands on them.
Any peaceful resolution to the Middle East conflict will begin with a hard look at the map of the region in which 21 countries with 800 times more land are consumed with their Jewish neighbors’ natural increase.
Ms. Wisse, a professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard, is the author of “Jews and Power” (Schocken, 2007).