Listening to “experts” on the Mideast has been positively embarrassing recently. They admit that the Arab world has just taken some dramatic steps toward normalization with Israel, and they admit that they had previously considered such steps inconceivable without Israeli concessions to the Palestinians. Yet in the same breath, they assert unequivocally that progress on the Palestinian track remains a prerequisite for further normalization. In other words, the failure of their previous predictions hasn’t dented their confidence in their predictive powers.
Mideast experts obviously aren’t alone in this. It’s a common failing among experts in many fields, and it has contributed significantly to “populist” disdain for expert opinion. But recent developments in the Mideast offer a particularly clear example of the problem.
One of the most significant of these developments was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Oman, an Arab country with which Israel has no official relations, on Oct. 26. Given that even Egypt and Jordan, with which Israel does have relations, often keep Netanyahu’s visits secret, the fact that Oman made the trip public, with several Omani newspapers reporting it, may be even more noteworthy than the fact that it took place.
The next day, at the Manama Dialogue in Bahrain, Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah went even further, telling the Mideast security summit that “Israel is a state present in the region, and we all understand this. … Maybe it is time for Israel to be treated the same and also bear the same obligations.”
That same weekend, an international judo tournament took place in the United Arab Emirates. Although much has been made of the fact that Israeli judokas were allowed to compete under their own flag and anthem for the first time in the history of the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam, that actually proves nothing except that the International Judo Federation finally developed a spine: After cravenly forcing Israeli athletes to complete under the federation’s flag and anthem at last year’s tournament, this year, it threatened to strip Abu Dhabi of hosting rights unless Israeli athletes were treated the same as athletes from other countries (the success of this tactic should be a lesson to other sporting associations that still kowtow to Arab states’ refusal to grant Israeli athletes equal rights).
But Abu Dhabi went far beyond the federation’s mandate. Nothing in the federation’s rulebook, for instance, required the hosts to grant Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev the honor of awarding the medals at one of the tournament’s events. Nor did anything in the federation’s rules require Emirati officials to take Regev on an official visit to Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque—the first such visit by any Israeli minister. As Times of Israel reporter Raphael Ahren put it, this “was something veteran analysts said they never imagined could happen in their lifetime.” In other words, Abu Dhabi took advantage of the cover provided by the tournament to make some dramatic gestures toward Israel.
Mideast experts readily acknowledged that the Omani and Emirati moves, coming as they did at a time when the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is frozen, were both unprecedented and completely unexpected. Yet that didn’t stop most of them from asserting that “only a final status agreement with the Palestinians can inspire normalization,” as Evan Gottesman of the Israel Policy Forum put it. Or as Yoel Guzansky of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies told Ahren, “The Palestinians are still the glass ceiling for Arab-Israel normalization. … This visit should be the beginning of normalization, not the end, but for the Gulf states, it’s likely the end. This is the most they can do for now.”
Yet what makes them so certain? After all, they’ve been wrong many times before. Just two years ago, after another round of unprecedented gestures, the “experts” similarly declared (wrongly) that the rapprochement had gone as far as it could without progress on the Palestinian track. So why are they convinced that this time, they’re right?
There are two answers to this. The first is wishful thinking. The experts making this claim generally favor Israeli concessions to the Palestinians, so they don’t want Israel to be able to normalize relations with Arab states without such concessions. Similarly, the few experts who confidently predict that normalization is possible regardless of the Palestinians are generally people who oppose such concessions.
The second answer is that predicting change is hard. For decades, with the notable exception of the peace with Egypt, Arab attitudes toward Israel were in stasis, making it easy to predict that the future would resemble the past. But now, with Arab attitudes in flux, nobody can really know how far Arab states are willing to go; I doubt they even know themselves. There’s simply no precedent to judge by.
Yet since human beings don’t deal well with chaos, the normal human instinct is to cling to the past as a guide even when that guide is clearly no longer reliable. And that’s especially true for “experts” because if they admit to being clueless, then why should anyone listen to them anymore?
That’s precisely why experts are so often wrong on so many issues—not because they’re stupid or evil, but because they’re too arrogant to admit that even experts can’t predict the future. They can’t predict whether a complex policy will succeed or fail, they can’t predict when a seemingly stable country will suddenly implode, they can’t predict when long-held attitudes will suddenly shift.
That doesn’t make them useless; experts excel at concrete tasks that don’t require oracular powers. For instance, though Israel’s intelligence agencies failed to predict the second intifada, they became very good at the day-to-day task of thwarting terror attacks once they adjusted to the new situation.
But unless experts acquire enough modesty and honesty to admit that they have no special expertise about the future, they will keep getting big issues wrong. And eventually, like the boy who cried “wolf,” people will stop listening to them altogether, even on issues where they do have something to contribute.
This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on November 7, 2018. © 2018 JNS.org