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Middle East experts are experts by virtue of their positions of power.
Some of them, like former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, even have learned a thing or two about international affairs. Rice actually has a Ph.D., which as comedian-pianist Victor Borge once said, should be read as “phttttttttttt.”
The experts, and that includes John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Catherine Ashton and the Oslo Accords crowd, may have learned about prophets, kings, oil and sheikhs in International Relations 101, but they missed out on the basics, like selling non-kosher turkeys to the Arabs.
I learned more about Arab-Jewish relations by working in kibbutz turkey barns than Kerry and Ashton could ever learn in their worldwide visits to official residents of presidents and prime ministers in Ramallah, Jerusalem and Amman.
Turkeys, like people, are cute when they are babies, but after a few weeks, they are not like most people. Their feet are scratchy and they begin to stink. When they get to be three months old, some of them pick up a cold, a little bronchitis, or start to hobble on weak knees, probably from too many carbohydrates.
Then they start acting like grown teenagers. The stronger turkeys pick on the weaker ones, just like fifth-graders playing king of the hill. They peck at the skin until the poor gobbler cannot stand on his feet.
When I was in charge of the birds on a kibbutz farm, the sick and injured had their own quarters, a fenced-off intensive care ward where the bullies couldn’t bother them. But sometimes it was too late. Their broken legs and their bronchitis often are more than modern medicine can cure on a cost-efficient basis.
What can you do with a sick and lame turkey? You sell it cheaply. After all, the reason to raise turkeys is turn them into fat candidates for the slaughterhouse and convert them into cold cash. The Humane Society really does not have much demand for them.
That’s where a revised International Relations 101 course could have taught the experts, sitting in their sterilized offices, something besides making roadmaps to nowhere. Even Professor Yossi Beilin, the darling of the Israeli Left, doesn’t know a kibbutz from Damascus.
Peace is a business, like anything else these days. But you have to know the rules of the game. A good Western businessman knows that a handshake is a handshake, a word is a word, and a deal is a deal.
For instance, Tom wants to sell his two-year-old Chevy for $5,000. Clyde wants to buy it for $4,000. One of them budges or there’s no deal. Jim tries to cut a deal at $4,400. If Tom and Clyde compromise at $4,500, Tom gets his money and Clyde gets his wheels. As for Jim, that’s his problem.
But that’s not the way it works in the Middle East. Here, Abe writes out a check and Ahmed gives him the key. The next day, Abe discovers the key doesn’t fit. “Of course it does not fit,” Ahmed retorts. “The price of the car was according to the real value of the dollar. The inflation rate went up 0.2 percent yesterday. You owe me $10!”
Abe protests, “Where’s the cell phone antenna that was on the roof? I am stopping payment on the check. You owe me $25 for the bank charge.”
“I’m not finished stripping the car,” retaliates Ahmed. The DVD is mine, but I’ll put back the original radio. It works most of the time, especially the Al Jazeera channel.”
“Look, here,” snarls Abe. “I paid you $4,500, but that was based on the price of gold. It went up two cents yesterday. The real price is $4,498.09.”
“You can add another $120 for the deluxe hub caps, or I’ll take them with me,” Ahmed shouts.
They agree to talk again tomorrow. That was 10 years ago. They still are talking.
It doesn’t matter that Abe still has to thumb a ride to work and that Ahmed does the same because he doesn’t have enough money for gas. The principles are that the other guy didn’t get what he wanted so they can continue arguing.
In Western societies, negotiations are a means to an end. The objective is to make a deal so both sides get what they want.
In the Middle East, negotiating is an end unto itself. The objective is to negotiate forever.
Remember the sick birds? Not even the most God-fearing fundamentalist would have had a prayer for them, but the Arab neighbors near the kibbutz love sick turkeys because they can get them cheap. I loved to sell sick turkeys because a bird in the hand is worth more than two in the incinerator.
So, Mohammed and Youssef came by once every couple of weeks to buy sick turkeys, or what vaguely resembled turkey. But they had no idea they were dealing with a Yankee who learned International Relations 101 and was totally ignorant of Middle East culture.
“Look,” I told them honestly. “Six have broken legs, five suffer from bronchitis, three others have some stomach tumor and two more are in an advanced stage of Parkinson’s Disease.”
“How much?” asked Mohammed, after the usual two-hour ritual of sipping tea together and our lying to each other how much we are peace-loving friends.
“You can take them for 10 cents a pound,” I generously responded, not knowing the unwritten Middle East law that a seller must ask for three times the price he is willing to take. Mohammed offered eight cents. I replied, “No way. Ten cents is 10 cents. Take it or leave it.”
I was smart to know he would try to cut the price after seeing the merchandise, so I showed him ahead of time a couple of diseased turkeys that still were living. Figuring I was a dumb American who needed to learn the facts of Middle East life, Mohammed shook hands with me and we offered each other a false smile to disguise our mutual distrust.
I brought them all out, except for a couple that died on the way, and Mohammed declared, “I’ll give you eight cents a pound.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked. “We shook hands on 10 cents a pound. A deal is a deal.”
Mohammed, not having heard of International Relations 101, thought I was nuts: “What do you mean, ‘a deal’? Where do you come from?”
“I’m from the United States of America,” I responded.
Mohammed compassionately explained, “Look, when in the Middle East, do as the Semites do. You’re supposed to offer me nine cents a pound. Then, I come back with eight cents a pound. Then, we sit down for tea again and tell each other how we really are cousins. After that, we decide to continue bargaining tomorrow.”
I took the opportunity to educate Mohammed and Youssef about modern Western civilization. “We shook hands on 10 cents, and 10 cents is what it is going to be. Not a penny more and not a penny less. It’s time you guys started catching up with the 21st century.”
Youssef looked at Mohammed. Mohammed looked at Youssef. Both realized they were dealing with a turkey who can’t tell the difference between a dinar and a shekel. They returned home, bewildered by this disgusting Western attempt to enlighten 3,500 years of Middle East civilization.
Mohammed and Youssef’s families didn’t get meat for dinner, and I spent a fortune on kerosene to burn dead turkeys. Mohammed and his neighbors in the village stole some healthy turkeys from the kibbutz in the middle of the night. The next evening, I retaliated and severely damaged their TV antenna and injured several shirts hanging on a clothesline.
Three months later, Mohammed and Youssef were going nuts without TV and I was losing money because I had to pay for a security fence around the turkey barns.
The three of us met on the road one day. Each of us caught the other off guard, so we sat down and drank tea, convincing each other how there would be peace if it were only up to us.
We agreed to resume bargaining the next day over a new batch of sick turkeys. After two years, relations never have been better. We bargain every day. Mohammed and Youssef survive on their usual Middle East diet of pita and olives, without sick turkey meat, and I use the charcoal from the burnt birds to keep me a lot warmer than the beat-up space heater.
Bush, Clinton – both of them – Rice, Obama, Kerry Ashton and Yossi Beilin got it all wrong.
If they want to make peace in the Middle East, they have to understand that an agreement is not the goal. A handshake and a signed document are only a basis for a future argument.
The Russians have vodka. Israel has falafel.
And the United States has turkeys for Thanksgiving.
And the biggest turkeys are the Middle East negotiators.
This article appeared in its original form on IsraelNationalNews.com in 2005.
About the Author: Tzvi Ben Gedalyahu is a graduate in journalism and economics from The George Washington University. He has worked as a cub reporter in rural Virginia and as senior copy editor for major Canadian metropolitan dailies. Tzvi wrote for Arutz Sheva for several years before joining the Jewish Press.
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