One-Track Minds on Two-Track Mideast Solutions

By Larry Cohler-Esses

Published January 24, 2003, issue of January 24, 2003.
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In 1975, Assistant Secretary of State Harold Saunders scandalized Congress by becoming the first administration official to tell lawmakers that the Palestinian problem was the “heart of the conflict” between Israel and its Arab adversaries. Despite the shellacking Saunders took for his stance, a generation of Israeli and Western peacemakers ultimately adopted his view that the Palestinian problem was both solvable and the key to unsnarling the layers of wartime barbed wire between Israel and its Arab adversaries.

Now, the Bush administration has all but declared war on Iraq, while the Israeli-Palestinian conflict sinks every day to new lows. And there are some — perhaps even Bush himself — who seem ready to flip Saunders’s premise on its head. Maybe, they say, settling the “Arab problem” is the key to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not the other way around.

It’s a corollary to the goal of region-wide reform, if not revolution, that Pentagon policy-makers such as Paul Wolfowitz seek via the defeat of Saddam Hussein’s bloody regime. Indeed, Fouad Ajami, one of the foremost cheerleaders of the Wolfowitz project, describes one of its great virtues as the chance to deal a fateful body blow to “virulent pan-Arabism” of the sort that sustains violent Palestinian resistance, including terrorism, against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

“The norm has been for Iraq… to stoke the fires of anti-Zionism knowing that others closer to the fire would be the ones consumed,” Ajami writes in the current issue of the journal Foreign Affairs. “A new Iraqi political order might find within itself the ability to recognize that Palestine and the Palestinians are not an Iraqi concern [and] that offering a bounty to the families of Palestinian suicide ‘martyrs’ is something that a burdened country can do without.”

It’s a conclusion that proponents believe a chastened Syria and Iran — both of which would be encircled by American bases and/or Israel after an American victory over Iraq — will also reach.

David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy explains, “The Bush administration’s hope is that with Iraq’s defeat, there will be dividends in the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah cluster, and that if Saddam goes, then Yasir Arafat’s star dims. Then, it’s a new constellation. If all of a sudden you have a more benign environment, concessions that are impossible for Israel under current conditions may become possible.”

That’s one possibility. It may even be supported by Wolfowitz, the administration’s resident Wilsonian idealist. But setting aside the presumption of an early and unambiguous American victory on which the whole theory is based, there is another, more plausible outcome: that Israel, in thrall to its powerful settlers lobby, will simply continue to expand its presence in the West Bank and Gaza, and establish new settlements with the hypothesized collapse of violent Palestinian resistance.

Some look to refocused mediation efforts by a toweringly influential United States in the wake of an Iraq victory. But James Baker — the counselor and lifetime confidante behind the first president Bush’s post-Gulf War peace drive — is long gone. At the side of the current President Bush — and Wolfowitz — are a panoply of Pentagon hawks with a history of bristling, deeply ideological opposition to the notion that peace should be based on large territorial concessions to create a sovereign Palestinian state.

One of these is Douglas Feith, the undersecretary of defense for policy generally seen as the No. 3 official in the Pentagon. I can bear personal witness to Feith’s adamancy on the issue. As a reporter during the late 1980s and early 1990s for Washington Jewish Week — whose attorney he was — I debated him several times over dinner on the very notion of Palestinian peoplehood.

It was also personal. Feith was then one of the two principals of the Washington law firm Feith & Zell — the other being his close friend Mark Zell, a West Bank settler and prominent ideologue for the settlers movement. Zell recently wrote that “if you deny the legitimacy of our [West Bank] habitations, you deny the legitimacy of the entire Jewish state.”

In 1996, Feith co-wrote a proposed agenda for the incoming administration of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with, among others, Richard Perle, now chair of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board, and David Wurmser, now special assistant in the State Department. Territorial compromise is not part of the agenda. Rejection of the Oslo peace process forms its core. The paper declares “removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq” to be “an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right as a means of foiling Syria’s regional ambitions.”

As for the Palestinians, “While the previous government, and many abroad, may emphasize ‘land for peace,’” the authors wrote, “the new government can promote Western values and traditions” by emphasizing “‘peace for peace,’ ‘peace through strength’ [and] the balance of power.”

In other words, it is vanquishing the Arab problem that will quiet the Palestinian conflict — and, apparently, enable Israel to retain its settlements.

Last August, the influence of these counselors was apparent on Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, whose sway over Bush these days is undisputed.

“My feelings about the so-called occupied territories are that there was a war… and [Egypt, Jordan and Syria] lost a lot of real estate to Israel because Israel prevailed in that conflict,” Rumsfeld told Pentagon employees during a question-and-answer session. “In the intervening period, they’ve made some settlements in various parts of the so-called occupied area, which was the result of a war — which they won.”

Ironically, the upending of Saunders’ s premise takes place despite its now-proven validity. In the wake of the 1993 Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, no fewer than seven of the Arab League’s 21 members established diplomatic contacts of varying levels with Israel. With the collapse of the peace process, many of these gains have been lost.

Yet last March, the entire Arab League, faced with the prospect of spreading social and economic chaos, and domestic rebellion stemming from a Palestinian-Israeli conflict in free fall — plus stiff diplomatic pressure from the United States — passed a unanimous resolution promising “normal relations” with Israel, if the Jewish state would settle its conflict with the Palestinians by giving them a state in the West Bank and Gaza. It’s just a declaration. But for the first time, the entire Arab world defined its conflict with Israel as one with political rather than existential goals.

The Arab League countries may be too late. They are up against some powerful people in Washington out to do things the other way around — in some cases, maybe over the carcasses of their own regimes.

Larry Cohler-Esses covered American-Middle East relations for Washington Jewish Week and The New York Jewish Week.

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