The other week, responding to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech that envisaged creating a demilitarized Palestinian state, perennial Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak noted, “I told President Obama that solving the crises of the Arab and Muslim worlds goes through Jerusalem.” The week before, General David Petraeus, head of the U.S. military’s Central Command, said, “Hezbollah’s justifications for existence will become void…if the Palestinian cause is resolved.”
The notion that the Israeli/Arab conflict lies at the core of Middle Eastern problems has been popular among the political class for years:
- UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon: “If the issues with the conflicts between Israel and Palestine go well, [resolutions of] other issues in the Middle East, including Lebanon, Iran, Iraq and Syria, are likely to follow suit” (January 2007).
- Jordan’s King Abdullah: “solving the Israeli-Palestinian problem, allows us to tackle the other issues around us … Whether people like it or not, the linchpin is always the Israeli-Palestinian problem” (January 2007).
- Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak: “I expressed to the President the centrality of [this] conflict to the people of the region … [putting] the peace process back on track is central to enhancing the prospects of reform and the prosperity in the region” (April 2004).
- Then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair: “[Middle Eastern] terrorism will not be defeated without peace in the Middle East between Israel and Palestine” (July 2003).
In fact, it was this very idea that led America in 1991, vigorous and prestigious in the Middle East after vanquishing Saddam Hussein in Kuwait, to try and terminate it.
At the time, American time and talent might have been better utilized urging Arab allies to liberalize their tyrannies or on off-setting the destabilizing constellation represented by Syria’s Assad and the Iranian mullahs.
Instead, then-U.S. President George H.W. Bush and his Secretary of State, James Baker, chose to think that solving the Arab-Israeli conflict was central and achievable – much like President Obama does today and George W. Bush did before him.
Yet, even before Bush and Baker gave international sanction to the centrality myth, history had already pronounced it a nonsense.
The Arab-Israeli conflict had no bearing on the Algerian war in the 1950s; Egypt’s invasion of Yemen, the bloody emergence of the Ba’athist dictatorship in Iraq, or the Aden Emergency, all in the 1960s; or the Libyan-Chad war in the late 1970s; or the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, which claimed a million lives; or Iraq’s invasion and annexation of Kuwait in 1990.
Nor did it have any bearing on events that were to follow – like Saddam’s subsequent massacres of hundreds of thousands of Kurds and Shia, the Taliban seizure of most of Afghanistan, or the descent of Somalia into a Hobbesian arena of rival militias.
Nonetheless, Bush and Baker convened the 1991 Madrid Arab-Israeli peace conference, which was succeeded by the Oslo process between Israelis and Palestinians. All must now agree that the results were the opposite of peace and reconciliation – in that conflict, or any other.
But Oslo’s collapse failed to induce a reappraisal of either the alleged centrality of the Arab-Israeli conflict or its capacity for resolution.
The same James Baker was to be found reinvigorating the old centrality chestnut as co-author of the 2006 Iraq Study Group, which again declared regional peace and progress to be hostage to a resolvable Arab-Israeli animosity.
However, reality still fails to oblige. Israelis, long reconciled to the idea of a Palestinian state and still largely of the view that a peace settlement would entail creating one, no longer believe that doing so will bring it peace and therefore oppose it. Negotiated withdrawals in the West Bank and unilateral ones from Gaza and southern Lebanon having failed to bring peace and acceptance, Israelis oppose more concessions.
Indeed, examining the words and deeds of the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, Hamas in Gaza, and the temper of Palestinian opinion favoring terrorism and rejecting Israel’s existence, the only possible conclusion is that Palestinians neither accept Israel as a Jewish state, nor revile terrorism against it performed in their name, nor see Palestinian statehood as a goal whose attainment should change either of these facts.
But supposing for a moment that none of this were true and the conflict presently resolvable, it would still be difficult to see what possible influence an Israeli-Palestinian peace could produce elsewhere in the Middle East.
- The Taliban and al-Qaeda would not lay down their arms in Afghanistan or Pakistan because of such an agreement.
- The Sudanese regime and the Janjaweed militia would not end their slaughter of black animists in Darfur upon news of an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty.
- The Islamic Courts Union in Somalia would not desist in its efforts to dominate the country, let alone dispatch an ambassador to Israel.
- The Iranian regime would not revise its determination that Israel must be wiped from the map, just because Israel would now be sharing it with a neighboring country called Palestine.
This being the case, declaring that the Israeli-Palestinian impasse lies at the heart of regional turbulence and global threat is not an assertion about the importance of producing an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. Rather, it is a formulation whose origins lie in hostility to Israel’s existence, a hostility that precludes the prospect of terminating the conflict even as it blames Israel for it.
It is an insinuation of Israeli illegitimacy and guilt, made by the devious (Abdullah, Mubarak) and restated by the credulous (Ban, Blair). Into which category President Obama falls remains to be seen.
Interestingly, President Obama shied away from explicitly calling the Arab-Israeli conflict the core issue in the Middle East in his Cairo speech last month: there, it became the second of four such issues, the other three being unspecified “violent extremists” (al-Qaeda and their ilk), nuclear proliferation and democracy (more precisely, the lack thereof) in the region. Nonetheless, the pride of place the Obama Administration is giving the Arab-Israeli issue; the overt connection it has drawn between it and the resolution of other matters, like Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons; and its endorsement of the Arab demand that Jews stop moving to the West Bank and even eastern Jerusalem, are all hallmarks of a belief in its centrality.
Burying the myth of Arab-Israeli centrality, however, is easier said than done, because so many are invested in it.
For Arab despots, continuing blissfully unhindered in their repressive ways requires getting the U.S. to desist pestering them about pesky matters like human rights. This is best achieved by persuading the U.S. that the key to a liberalized Middle East lies in its working to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict first. This in turn leads successive administrations into pursuing Arab/Israeli diplomatic debacles for whose inevitable failure it can then be blamed by Arab despots.
U.S. support for Israel – which can be made to mean anything short of cutting off diplomatic and trade relations with it – will supply the necessary alibi for further conflict and the continued elusiveness of Arab warmth for America.
For Western politicians – in this context, the word statesmen grates – demanding further Israeli concessions in another foredoomed peace bid allows them to gratify Arab tyrants who export Muslim radicals to their shores while hoping for the best. Short of resolution, let alone a program, for resisting Islamist encroachments at home, this is what passes for the strategy of the free world today.
In short, Middle Eastern pathologies caused and exacerbated the very conflict whose solution is now held out at as their cure. But as any doctor knows, treating symptoms rather than causes effects no cure; still less so, when the patient is only marginally responsive to palliative treatment. Invasive surgery on a weakened body lacking any prospect of success serves no purpose – unless the purpose be malign.
Breaking out of this dangerous, self-defeating cycle of delusion and distraction will be painful for the U.S. and the West. Expect therefore much continued avoidance and denial in Western chanceries.