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Though not always explicit, the message of the Rice-Gates swing through the region was none too subtle: We will strengthen our team against the threat from the other team. The teams are also obvious: the Sunni Arab states, the Mahmoud Abbas half of the Palestinian Authority, Israel and the US versus Iran, Syria, Hizbullah, Hamas and al-Qaida.
We act as if this situation is normal while it is in fact revolutionary. As Raja Kamal, formerly of Harvard's JFK school and now at the University of Chicago, points out:
"For the first time in the Middle East, there is now an organic and parallel common interest between Israel and Sunni Arabs... Israel and the Sunni Arab regimes of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan all view Iran's new role with fear and suspicion. With Iran emerging as the common enemy... Israel and Sunni nations will likely look to collaborating with each other."
The massive parallel US arms packages for Israel and the Gulf states are an attempt to reflect this new reality. So is what some call the US "diplomatic surge," culminating later this year in a regional meeting of Israel and Sunni Arab states, presumably including Saudi Arabia. Instead of the usual harping against Israel, the Saudis reportedly are mainly begging the US to deal with Iran's growing influence and not withdraw precipitously from Iraq.
IT IS NOT lost on these Sunni Arab states that the Arab-Israel conflict, which they created and have sustained for over half a century, has now become an Iranian-possessed Frankenstein's monster turned against them. The conflict that used to be a handy tool to distract Arab publics from their despotic leaders has now become a cudgel in Iran's hands to intimidate these same governments and distract the US from dealing with Iran's nuclear buildup.
The US message for the Sunni states, then, should be simple: You want us to deal with Iran? So help us stabilize Iraq and defuse the Arab-Israel conflict. Take our main distractions off our plate, and the momentum will shift from Iran's team to ours.
So far, the Arab states have done only a fraction of what they could do to help. They are still sitting on the fence, trying to hedge their bets, just in case Iran's team continues to gain the upper hand. Old habits die hard, so it is not easy to shift over to thinking and acting according to a new reality that the US and Israel are not enemies, but actually on the Arabs' side.
It could well be that the expectation that the Sunni Arab states will start acting like real US allies is unrealistic, rendering the US push a wasted effort. The Arab countries, like most, pay attention mainly to who is winning, so the surest way to bring them off the fence is to more seriously confront Iran.
But there are two other things that could be done to give America's Arab strategy a better chance of bearing fruit. Both involve adjusting to the new reality that to some extent already exists, and yet also must be created and reinforced.
THE FIRST step is to stop covering for the Arabs' responsibility for the Arab-Israel conflict. While there once was a time when Israeli opposition was a serious obstacle to creating a Palestinian state, that time is long gone. Israelis, both government and people, would leap at a deal based on territorial compromise, the abandonment of any "right of return" to Israel, and full diplomatic relations with the entire Arab world.
There is no serious opposition to such a deal within Israel; while on the Arab side, the jihadi front exercises a powerful veto against it, and the taboo against accepting Israel's legitimacy (as opposed to de-facto existence) remains as strong as ever, even among "moderates."
There is no reason for the Arab states to admit, much less address, their responsibility for the conflict when the West will not call them on it. How can anyone expect the Palestinians to start saying they must abandon the asymmetrical demand to move to Israel (when Israelis cannot move to, or even stay in, a future Palestinian state) if the Arab states are not saying they must? And why should the Arab states be so bold when even the US says so only rarely, and then only in code?
Thus the first way for the US to breathe life into the "We're on the same team" (let's call it WOST) concept is to break an old taboo and start saying routinely: "Palestinian refugees will return only to the State of Palestine; Jews will return only to the State of Israel" (as stated in the Statement of Principles signed by Ami Ayalon and Sari Nusseibeh).
The second way the US can help is by revolutionizing its own thinking. This means jettisoning what is perhaps the most entrenched instinct over decades of peace-processing: the Arab-Israeli balancing act.
ACCORDING TO this thinking, every speech on the conflict must have at least the appearance of balance. Each must contain a list of what Israelis (stop settlements, etc.) and Palestinians (stop terrorism, etc.) must do. This balancing act became farcical some time ago since everyone knows that the US's "demands" of Israel are either already being carried out or are inconsequential, while its demands of the Palestinians are largely ignored by them, without consequence.
Yet it is not a harmless exercise. It has become harmful not only because it undermines American credibility, but because it flies directly counter to the new WOST message. If Sunni Arab states, Abbas's PA and Israel are all on the same team, why balance between them? Why reinforce the idea that Israel is an adversary rather than an ally?
As the recent Hamas coup gruesomely demonstrated, the jihadi Palestinians of Hamas are much greater enemies of Palestinians who want to build their own state than Israel is. In a world in which Israel has proven that it is willing to dismantle settlements - even unilaterally - to create a Palestinian state it is crazy to treat settlements, rather than jihad, as the primary obstacle to such a state.
In the new WOSTian world, the US is asking the Arab states to quit their balancing act and pull their weight on the team. It would help get this message across if the US ended its own "evenhanded" approach and started openly rejecting favorite jihadi mantras - such as a "right of return" to Israel - and even the pretense of an equation between settlements and terrorism, and between Israel and the jihadis.