It has become, it seems, the new paradigm for dealing with the Middle East: Just solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or at least start moving in that direction. Then it will be much easier for the United States to deal with Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Al Qaeda, democratization and all the other problems of the Arab Middle East and the Muslim world.
United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan convened a group of experts in recent months who reached this conclusion, with Annan adding that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the most critical in the world. British Prime Minister Tony Blair stopped off last month in Pakistan and suggested there would be fewer jihadist terrorists there — in Pakistan! — if only Israel and Palestine made peace.
Henry Kissinger stated it in more limited terms in a recent opinion article: “Negotiation between Iran and the United States could generate a stampede… [among] the Sunni states of the region — Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the non-Shi’ite government of Lebanon, the Gulf states — unless preceded by… a policy of equilibrium…. A restarted Palestinian peace process should play a significant role in that design.” Most recently, the Iraq Study Group report stated that “the United States will not be able to achieve goals in the Middle East unless [it] deals directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict.”
The Bush administration has hitherto balked at the suggestion that the road to a better Arab world, a friendlier and more cohesive Iraq and a weaker Iran goes through Jerusalem. National Security Adviser Steve Hadley said so explicitly last month. Philip Zelikow, an embattled administration advocate of that linkage, resigned last month from the State Department. Perhaps most obviously, President Bush has for six years avoided pressuring Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians in order to advance his broader Middle East agenda.
I am no fan of the Bush administration’s Middle East policies. And I grant the obvious: that peace between Israelis and Palestinians would make the Middle East a better place and deny extremists one rationale for their deeds. Nor do I condone those Israeli hawks who reject this linkage not on its merits or faults, but because they don’t want a compromise peace process.
But in a region laced with closely interacting crises — a reality the Iraq Study Group underlined last week by stating, “to put it simply, all key issues in the Middle East… are inextricably linked” — I submit that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will probably not contribute appreciably to solving any or all of the other crises. Linkage, after all, does not necessarily mean that solving one issue solves the others.
Middle East autocrats cite the conflict as justification for avoiding democratic reform? Without the conflict, they’ll find a new excuse. Hezbollah argues that it is defending Lebanon against the Zionists? Lebanon’s Shi’ites will continue their drive for domination without the Zionist “threat.”
Iran, which backs Hezbollah and Hamas, denies the Holocaust and seeks regional hegemony, will continue to threaten Israel and the Gulf Arabs. Iraq will continue to fall apart. And Al Qaeda — which never cited the Palestinian issue as a rationale for its terrorism until the September 11 attacks, when it needed to show Americans a familiar excuse — will continue to attack the West.
Worst of all, the moment one concludes, as many do, that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not currently ripe for a solution, the more extreme among the linkage advocates assert that the real problem is Israel’s very existence — an increasingly popular argument from Tehran to American and European university campuses. The reverse linkage, incidentally, is not nearly as specious a proposition. If the United States could find ways to neutralize or weaken Syria and Iran’s influence in the region, Israel (and moderate Palestinians) would benefit from a weakened Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Going a step further, peace between Israel and a willing Syria that has been mollified by rapprochement with Washington would further isolate the Palestinian conflict and render its solution more feasible.
On the other hand, more Bush-style Arab democracy will only exacerbate the Israeli-Arab conflict by enfranchising and legitimizing additional militant Arab Islamists beyond those already enfranchised with the administration’s help: Hezbollah, Hamas and Iraqi Shi’ite militias.
The most persuasive case for linking the Israeli-Arab conflict to the region’s broader problems is the one concerning Iran and moderate Arab states — an argument alluded to by both Kissinger and the Iraq Study Group. Since last summer’s Lebanon war, moderate Arab countries, led by Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, have signaled Israel and the United States that they share their apprehension regarding Iran’s designs for the region and wish to work together with Jerusalem against Iran.
However, they add, they can’t enter into this sort of collaboration unless they can show their “street” that Israel is making an effort to end its conflict with the Palestinians. In effect, these regimes are offering Israel an additional and welcome incentive to move toward closure on the Palestinian issue: the opportunity to acquire new allies in the impending struggle against Iran and to enter into a comprehensive Israeli-Arab peace based on the Saudi initiative of March 2002.
It would be impolitic to challenge the assessment of the authorities in Riyadh and Cairo regarding the requirements of their public opinion: Only time and good fortune will tell whether their regimes become more stable and representative once there is Israeli-Palestinian peace. Israel does indeed appear to confront an unusual readiness on the part of its Arab neighbors to make both peace and common cause. This, the silver lining in the Iranian threat, is indeed a good reason to redouble our efforts with the Palestinians. However, two mitigating points bear emphasis.
First, even the most willing Israeli leader — and Ehud Olmert appears to be willing — needs a viable, moderate and authoritative Palestinian partner. Unfortunately, we don’t appear to have one.
And second, when push comes to shove, it is not at all clear how much the moderate Sunnis will be able to contribute to the struggle against Iran. After all, this is the same dysfunctional Arab world that stands by helplessly while Iraq and Lebanon fall apart and while one of its number, Sudan, aids and abets the wholesale butchery of non-Arabs in Darfur.
Of course, it’s probably just a matter of time before someone insinuates that Israeli-Palestinian peace is required before the authorities in Khartoum can stop the horror of Darfur.
Yossi Alpher, a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, is co-editor of the bitterlemons family of online publications.