Are we on the threshold of a new era in US Middle East policy? Perhaps.
A draft of President Donald Trump’s new national security strategy, which makes significant departures from that issued by his predecessor, Barack Obama, in 2015, provides the following clue:
“For generations the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has been understood as the prime irritant preventing peace and prosperity in the region. Today, the threats from radical jihadist terrorist organizations and the threat from Iran are creating the realization that Israel is not the cause of the region’s problems. States have increasingly found common interests with Israel in confronting common threats.”
To see just how starkly this contrasts with the received wisdom that regards the Israelis and Palestinians as constituting the epicenter of the Middle East’s problems, just recall, among dozens of possible examples, the words from September 2013 of president Obama’s secretary of state, John Kerry, speaking of the then-common position of the US and the Arab League:
“We all of us agreed that a [Israeli/Palestinian] final status agreement is important in enhancing regional security and stability throughout the Middle East.”
Accordingly, this new strategic doctrine potentially represents a Copernican revolution in US thinking about the Middle East.
If recent events –– and indeed the entire seven-decade- long period of the Arab war on Israel – has made one thing clear, it is that the lack of a peace agreement between Israelis and the Palestinian Arabs is manifestly not the core of the Middle East’s turbulence, violence and bloodshed. Just to recall the Middle East’s current conflict zones – Syria, Iraq, Yemen, not to mention other, low-level simmering conflicts and flash points – is to be reminded of the utter irrelevance to them of Israel and the Palestinian Arabs.
Put simply, if Israel didn’t exist, the same problems between and within these Arab countries – and countries we haven’t mentioned – would be proceeding unhindered.
Consider: In the 1950s, the Arab war on Israel had no bearing on the Algerian decolonization war, the Yemen/Aden clashes, or the first post-war outbreak of violence in Lebanon.
In the 1960s, it had no bearing on the Egyptian invasion of North Yemen, the Omani Civil War, the bloody emergence of the Ba’athist dictatorship in Iraq, or the Aden (now Yemen) Emergency, which collectively claimed thousands of lives.
In the 1970s, it had nothing to do with the bloody conflict between Morocco and the Polisario in Western Sahara, or the Libyan-Chad war, the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, or the outbreak of Turkish/Kurdish fighting, which collectively claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.
In the 1980s, it had nothing to do with the South Yemen Civil War, Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons attacks on Iraqi Kurds, which claimed thousands of lives, or the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, which claimed over a million lives.
In the 1990s, it had nothing to do with Iraq’s invasion and annexation of Kuwait, or Saddam Hussein’s subsequent campaign of massacre against Kurds in the north of the country and marsh Arabs in the south, which collectively claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.
If, therefore, the Arab war on Israel is a distinct conflict generally unrelated to other regional flash points, it should be obvious that for the US to declare it to be the head and font of all the region’s woes is both absurd and damaging to American interests, for several reasons.
First, it is nonsense and nonsense is a poor and reckless basis for policy. Whatever international pieties the US thereby observes, flat-earth pronouncements of this type communicate to an Arab world that knows better a message of American incomprehension and thus a lack of credibility.
Second, an Israeli/Palestinian peace agreement, were it even presently attainable, would not solve other regional problems, which are rooted in the region’s ideological and religious pathologies.
Third, asserting the centrality of Israelis and Palestinians to regional turbulence benefits no-one but Arab despots, who avail themselves of US preoccupation with this issue to continue blissfully unhindered in incubating radical Islamic movements and repressing their subjects.
This in turn leads successive administrations into pursuing foredoomed Arab/Israeli diplomatic initiatives, whose inevitable failure is then attributed to America and Israel.
How precisely this serves American interests has yet to be explained.
Accordingly, making a fetish of an alleged Israeli/Palestinian “peace process” squanders American resources, credibility and standing.
Why should the US talk up a bogus peace process? Why should Washington go out of its way to reap failure and blame? President Trump’s officials are still at work framing the contours of an “ultimate deal.” However, if the new strategy is any guide, it will be wisely prioritizing dealing with the genuinely regional threats that confront America and its allies, not seeking the Holy Grail of an Israeli/ Palestinian Arab peace.
Morton A. Klein is national president of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA). Dr. Daniel Mandel is director of the ZOA’ s Center for Middle East Policy and author of H.V. Evatt & the Establishment of Israel (Routledge, London, 2004).