February 16, 2007
Why It Would Be a Catastrophe to Solve the Arab-Israel ConflictBy Rael Jean Isaac
There is no more widely believed proposition in world politics today than that solving the Arab-Israel conflict would contribute to world peace as nothing else could. It doesn't matter where you stand on the conflict. Republicans and Democrats, Western European democratic leaders and Arab despots, the EU, the UN, Israeli leaders, Jews of the world - for all of them, solving the Arab-Israel conflict is the holy grail.
Merely to breathe life into the hope suffices to win a Nobel Peace Prize. No other conflict has garnered so many prizes. The first went to Ralph Bunche in 1950 for working on the Arab-Israel armistice that produced the Green Line, Israel's de facto border until 1967. In 1978 Sadat and Begin received the prize for Camp David and the peace treaty with Egypt (in practice, another armistice, given Egypt's failure to honor most of its provisions). In 1994 it went to Arafat, Peres and Rabin for bringing peace via Oslo.
Those were the ones purely for Arab-Israel peace. But there were a number of others where the Nobel Committee cited contributions to Arab-Israel peace: for example in giving the Prize to Canada's Lester Pearson in 1957 the Nobel Committee said that as a result of his efforts "The Palestinian problem was actually put to rest for some time" UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold who got the Prize in 1961 was cited for "easing tension" between Israel and neighboring Arab states. In 1988 the Nobel peace prize went to the UN Peacekeeping Forces - created to keep the peace between Egypt and Israel after the 1956 war. And most recently in 2002 Jimmy Carter got the Nobel. True that was presumably a reward for his anti-Bush stance, but the major achievement the Nobel Committee cited was Camp David. That's seven Nobel peace prizes in whole or part for solving the Arab Israel conflict. Yet the conflict remains as healthy as ever.
Why so much emphasis on this one conflict in a world awash with them? The reason is the perception that it is at the root of all the dysfunction in the Middle East. In a way this has been a comforting proposition to Western leaders. It's something to fall back on when their policies in the region fail; in fact, it could be argued it's the litmus test of their failure when leaders focus on the need to solve the Arab-Israel conflict. This is precisely what is happening now.
The effort to bring about a stable, unified, democratic Iraq is clearly in deep trouble. Under fire for his support of the Iraq war, Tony Blair has been telling any audience he can find that the Israel-Palestinian problem is at the heart of the conflicts in the Middle East and solving it is the key to solving all other Middle East problems. He said this to the Iraq Study Group, he told it to a Washington Post interviewer, and he even said it on Al Jazeera's new English language TV channel in an interview with David Frost. Tasked with coming up with a solution in Iraq or at least a way out, the Iraq Study Group proposed a conference to solve the Arab-Israel conflict. There were 78 other proposals, but this was clearly the pièce de résistance.
When the Iraq Study Group proposals, hugely hyped before their publication, fell flat, a former national security adviser (to Presidents Ford and the first President Bush), apparently feeling the problem was the plethora of recommendations, rode to the rescue in a January 4 New York Times op-ed. He boiled the 79 suggestions down to one: solve the Arab-Israel conflict. According to Brent Scowcroft, at that point
And while the Bush administration has not adopted the Iraq Study Group's recommendation for using Israeli concessions as a carrot to induce Syria and Iran to limit their participation in the mayhem in Iraq, in his address to the nation on January 10 President Bush promised "urgent diplomacy...to help bring peace to the Middle East."
On Condoleezza Rice's latest whirlwind trip through the Middle East, according to a January 15 AP report, Arab officials proposed a broad bargain they dubbed "Iraq for Land," i.e. Israeli land in return for their help in stabilizing Iraq. (Given that Iran is the key player, backing both Shiite militias and Sunni jihadists, it is hard to see what leverage the Sunni states offering this "bargain" have.)
In Iraq, with little fanfare or notice, the Kurds, 20% of the population, have opted out of the state. They have their own army, customs officials, education system, language and flag. Peter Galbraith provides a telling incident in his recent book The End of Iraq. The Kurds, to show their friendship for the United States, wanted to throw a party for the Americans in honor of the Fourth of July. American officials said they'd be happy to attend, but only if an Iraqi flag flew over the building. The Kurds refused to budge - the flag of Iraq is anathema throughout Kurdistan. So there was no Fourth of July Party.
A skeptic may say, very well. It's clear the Arab-Israel conflict is more likely to produce peace prizes than peace. And pretending that solving it would solve other unrelated problems is indeed a cop-out by those who know that pushing Israel around is a lot easier than achieving Western goals in the Muslim world. But why claim that actually solving the Arab-Israel conflict would be a catastrophe? A catastrophe not only for Israel but for the U.S. and for Judeo-Christian civilization as a whole.
Let's begin with Israel where it is not hard to see why solving the Arab-Israel conflict spells catastrophe. The only way Israel can achieve peace is to disappear. The Arabs make that clear, no matter how much the rest of the world and indeed the Israelis shut their ears. The Hamas government on Israel's border makes that crystal clear, without any of the peace-in-English, war-in-Arabic obfuscations of the Arafat era. The conflict is not about territory occupied since 1967, but about all the territory Israel occupies.
What is less obvious is that for Israel even the process of trying to achieve peace is catastrophic. Even those dubious of such efforts may not recognize this - in fact they may think that by constantly striving to reach a peace agreement, the Jewish state shows the world that Israel is willing to make major sacrifices for peace while it is the Arabs who refuse all reasonable compromise. But the damage far outweighs whatever small good such brownie points may do Israel. That is because once elected Israeli leaders hold up the promise that peace can be achieved, they are impelled to act in ways that supposedly will advance it. In 1992 the Labor Party, led by Yitzhak Rabin, defeated the long ascendant Likud with the promise that if elected, it would achieve peace within the year. Labor leaders then felt they had to produce something quickly. The result was the catastrophic Oslo agreement. Should Israel be destroyed, historians will surely find that a major turning point.
At election time, from then on, leaders of both parties would continue to offer voters the same promise. In his victorious campaign against Shimon Peres in 1996 Netanyahu promised to bring peace. What he delivered was another retreat sealed and delivered at the Wye conference. Barak promised to bring peace. He virtually offered Arafat the territorial store, even including a limited Arab right of return: for his pains he obtained a renewed Arab Intifada, far more lethal than the first. Sharon promised to bring peace. He delivered the so-called "disengagement," a euphemism for the destruction of Israel's Gaza settlements. As a direct result rockets have rained steadily on Israeli communities in the south while the army brass and politicians alike have shrugged and told angry residents, there's nothing we can do, live with it. Hamas tells the Jews of Sderot, the hardest hit community, that the only solution for them is to evacuate the town. Hamas briefly offered a truce (predictably, it did not hold up) but even the way the truce was offered was a form of escalation: the Hamas government announced that if Israel had not gone back to the 1949 borders within 6 months, it would embark on all out war.
In short, the promises of peace have delivered only Israeli retreats, escalating Arab demands, greater Arab self-confidence, declining Israeli morale, greater Israeli vulnerability. Israeli leaders share the blame with the Israeli public. The leaders fail to rally the public for the challenge of confronting unrelenting Arab hostility. They tell voters what the majority wants to hear. For this reason Israeli Nobel Prize winner in Economics Robert Aumann says the average Israeli is equally responsible. Says Aumann:
Despite the failure over and over again, of retreat and concessions, Israeli leaders, seemingly gripped by a form of obsessive-compulsive behavior, come up with more of the same. In the wake of the IDF's humiliation by Hezbollah in Lebanon, Olmert briefly said his "convergence" plan (to do to Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria what was done to Jewish communities in Gaza) had been put aside, but it is already being revived. Some members of the cabinet talk optimistically of relinquishing the Golan to Syria. Can Israeli leaders possibly expect a different outcome this time? More likely they are so bankrupt of ideas, so lacking in fortitude, so morally exhausted, that they can think of no alternative but yet more retreats. And so the broken record scratches over and over again on the same groove. In short, it is difficult to dispute that even the search for peace has had catastrophic consequences for Israel.
But what about the United States and the Western world? Why should Arab-Israel peace be catastrophic for them? Let's look for a moment at the analysis and expectations of those who see Arab-Israel peace as the key to solving the myriad problems and conflicts of the Middle East. As they see it, it was the creation of Israel that roiled the slumbering waters of the Middle East, producing the fury, the frustration, the sense of humiliation and injustice that keeps the area seething. In this view the bitterly anti-Western attitudes of the man on the Arab street derive from resentment of the West for forcing a Jewish state upon Arab lands, displacing Arab peoples, all this because of the Holocaust, a Western sin. The continuing rage feeds regional instability as Arab masses fasten on a series of bad actors who exploit that rage, a Nasser, a Saddam Hussein, an Osama bin Laden. Now, the highest bidder yet has emerged, Iran's Ahmadinejad, who promises a nuclear Armageddon. And so, according to this scenario, if the problem of Israel could only be solved to Muslim/Arab satisfaction, all the most intractable problems posed by the region would melt away. The Arab sense of grievance toward the West would dissolve. No more planes into New York towers. No more bombs on London tubes. Arab leaders reinforce this view of the situation, repeating endlessly to their Western counterparts that the Arab-Israel conflict is the root cause of every Middle Eastern debacle.
How then to solve it? Some Western leaders, and one must acknowledge the idealism of a Tony Blair or President Bush, believe that if only the right formula is devised, Palestinian Arabs will live contentedly side by side with Israel, and Arab rhetoric to the contrary is just that, rhetoric. However there are plenty of realists out there, Baker surely among them, who realize that peace means the end of Israel and figure that's a good thing too. As they see it, as long as Israel exists in any borders it's an irritant; and it is only after it is gone that the Middle East will be a new slate on which good relations with the West can be written.
What about this analysis, in either its idealistic or realist version? It's not wholly wrong. It's clearly true that the Arab-Israel conflict woke the Arabs up to their impotence. Incredible to the Arab mind, five Arab armies, supremely confident of driving the Jews into the sea, were beaten by what they viewed as a small ragtag community of despised Jews, many of them the beaten down survivors of concentration camps. For the Arab world it was immensely traumatic, and the trouncing of Arab armies two decades later, in 1967, only reinforced the trauma.
But the trouble with the analysis is that for the Arabs, and indeed the broader Muslim world, Israel is a small part of the problem. The core problem is their abject inferiority to the West in both power and cultural influence. They would have woken up to this, admittedly in less dramatic fashion, without Israel. Yes, the Muslim world longs to extirpate the little Satan, but much of that world now feels itself ready to take on the Great Satan, to restore the Caliphate, to embark on a global jihad to win the world for Allah.
The Muslim world is in a much stronger position than it was in 1948, with a realistic prospect of taking over much of Europe demographically, from within. And however stubbornly the realists may balk at recognizing this reality, if the West delivers up the little Satan, it will only increase its own danger and vulnerability. That's because Israel's demise would be perceived as a huge victory for the Islamists.
Possessed of a strong sense of religious and cultural superiority, the Arab world for decades looked to one nostrum after another to restore it to glory, to cure its "humiliation" by Western power. Some looked to Soviet Communism; that romance petered out. Then there was pan-Arabism, epitomized by Nasser, involving such short-lived experiments as the 1958 union between Syria and Egypt (Syria pulled out in 1961) and the 1971 Federation of Libya, Egypt and Syria (which also expired within two years). As it became apparent that lip service was all that Arab governments were prepared to offer, the enthusiasm for Pan-Arabism waned. What has replaced it is the presumption that the triumph of a pure Islam is the tool to restore worldwide Muslim preeminence. For the West the worst possible outcome would be if the Islamists, whose goals go way beyond the pan-Arabists, were to prove they had found the path that works.
Bin Laden has repeatedly stated his belief that Islam defeated one of the two great powers in Afghanistan. He is convinced the other is weak and without will, a belief the vigorous U.S. response in the wake of 9/11 only temporarily undermined. To the Muslim world Israel and the U.S. are umbilically tied. Many in the West may know that along with political and economic support Israel has been at the receiving end of much U.S. political pressure to bow to Arab demands. But that's not how the Muslim world sees it. The destruction of Israel would be seen as a huge defeat for the U.S. There could be nothing more likely to produce the wreck of U.S. interests and policies throughout the Middle East, no greater boost for the Islamists in encouraging them to pursue their larger war against Judeo-Christian civilization.
If solving the Arab-Israel problem is the path to perdition, what policies can productively be pursued in respect to the Middle East? Deterrence? Exploiting divisions within Islam? Military action? Supporting internal dissidents within individual countries? Sharply curtailing Muslim immigration to the West? A crash program to develop non-mid East energy sources? A combination of these? Other possibilities? We are in for a long struggle against a resurgent Islam and there are no Five Easy Steps to End the Islamic Threat. This said, it is past time for some genuine realism to be brought to bear in thinking about the problems of the Middle East, not the false kind James Baker represents. Putting the idea of solving the Arab Israel conflict in the diplomatic trash bin should be the first order of business.