December 19, 2006
Q. What does an Israel-Palestinian peace have to do with Iraq?
A. Much less than the Iraq Study Group believes.
Dear Friend of FLAME:
The recent Iraq Study Group---aka the Baker-Hamilton Report---makes an astounding assertion. It holds that at least one key, if not the key, to peace in the Middle East is U.S. leadership in forging peace between Israel and the Palestinians. We warned a few weeks ago in the FLAME Hotline of just this danger: Increased international pressure on the U.S. to in turn increase pressure on Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians in order to achieve peace. Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations have continuously called on Bush (and previous administrations) to force Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians in order to get a peace deal. These "moderate" Arab states believe the Israel-Palestinian conflict is a flash point that keeps its Islamist radicals and its citizens in general riled up against Israel and the U.S. If the Palestinians can achieve their state, these dictators argue, things will calm down in their countries . . . and all over the Middle East. Now the Iraq Study Group seems to advocate the same disastrous strategy.
There's certainly no doubt that Islamic jihadists the world over would rejoice if the Palestinians were to win a diplomatic victory over Israel---but only because that would put them one step closer to destroying Israel and conquering the entire region, which is their avowed goal. But there's also no doubt that further intervention by the U.S. in the Israel-Palestinian conflict will a) do nothing to resolve this conflict and b) even if it were successful, would do nothing to resolve the cesspool of civil strife in Iraq.
First of all, who really believes that if there were peace between Israel and the Palestinians that the Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq would stop murdering each other? Surely Baker and Hamilton et al. do not believe this---they seem to believe that the U.S. should assume leadership in the conflict so as to achieve greater stature as an "honest broker" in the Middle East. That's all fine, but what good would this do to bring peace to Iraq and more importantly what would this "leadership" cost Israel?
Which brings us to the second reason that increased U.S. involvement in the Israel-Palestinian conflict makes no sense: It's abundantly clear that Secretary of State Rice can do absolutely nothing with either the terrorist Palestinian ruling party, Hamas, or with Fatah, the party of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Hamas steadfastly insists on driving the Jews into the sea, and Abbas can enforce nothing on the terrorists, even if he wanted to, which itself is highly dubious. Indeed, the only place the U.S. administration can find any diplomatic traction is with Israel. So if the U.S. were to become more active in the conflict, its only choice is to force Israel to make more concessions on top of the dozens she's made over the past few decades and years, most recently her withdrawal from Gaza. (We already know that this gesture did nothing but embolden the terrorists, who promptly increased their daily rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza and kidnapped one of its soldiers.)
The third reason U.S. activism in the Israel-Palestinian conflict will not bring peace---and it's a painfully sad commentary---is that Palestinian society is socially, culturally, and financially bankrupt. The Palestinians are simply not capable of managing their own political affairs, let alone serious peace negotiations, at least in the near term. Most obviously, the Palestinians are currently involved in what can only be described as an open civil war. Lawlessness, which was kept to a steady simmer under Yasser Arafat, has now broken out into full-scale fighting in the streets between Hamas and Fatah. What's more, the Palestinians have no real cultural basis for governing, since their entire reason for being over the last fifty years has been to kill Jews and decimate Israel. Palestinian children are not taught the lessons of democracy and governance, they are taught the skills and morality of martyrdom---suicide terrorism in the service of Islamic jihad. Likewise, the Palestinian economy is in shambles. The Palestinians have virtually no industry, no international trade, no commercial specializations . . . and of course, especially after the election of Hamas, no financial support from the international community. The oil-rich Arab statesmen who pine so longingly for a Palestinian state do virtually nothing to assist the Palestinians economically, except to fund explosives and other weaponry to fight Israel.
The brief article that follows offers an incisive critique of the Baker-Hamilton analysis, not only its conclusions about U.S. involvement in the Israel-Palestinian struggle, but also about Iraq itself. Author Yossie Alpher asks some piercing and painful questions about the U.S. occupation of Iraq---especially the validity of our underlying assumptions when we invaded. Above all, he questions our current strategy in Iraq in terms of achieving the more important goal of keeping our larger enemy, Iran, under control. I think you'll find this piece helpful in clarifying our choices to your friends, colleagues and legislators.
Iraq Study Group: Reverse both the linkage and the logic
The Iraq Study Group, or Baker-Hamilton report, is not for the most part about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Rather, it is a last-ditch attempt to generate new American policies in the Middle East that can somehow avoid a tragic US defeat in Iraq. By the by, it acknowledges that the diverse conflict situations in the region are linked and suggests a series of policy initiatives in the related conflicts that might positively influence America's situation in Iraq. In so doing, it gets not only the linkage wrong, but also the recipe for progress between Israelis and Palestinians.
The ISG asserts that, "the United States will not be able to achieve its goals in the Middle East unless [it] deals directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict". Thus it buys wholeheartedly into the theory that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the source of much of the unrest in other parts of the Middle East. We witnessed similar assertions in recent weeks by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and British PM Tony Blair. The latter, incidentally, went so far as to tell an audience in Pakistan that an Israeli-Palestinian peace would reduce jihadi terrorism there!
There can be little doubt that peace or even the rudiments of an active peace process between Israelis and Palestinians would be beneficial for the Middle East as a whole. Nor do Israelis and Palestinians need the incentive of reducing jihadi terrorism in Pakistan in order to apply themselves to solving their conflict. But would the mess in Iraq look any different today if, three years ago, the Arab-Israel conflict had not existed? Would Lebanon? Would Iran have ceased to develop nuclear weapons, seek regional hegemony or support Hizballah? There is simply no basis in fact or regional logic to support this approach, which gratuitously accepts the most handy Arab excuse for avoiding democratization and for not confronting the region's real problems.
"The United States", notes the report, "does its ally Israel no favors in avoiding direct involvement to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict". There is merit to this statement, which in Baker's case is based on the successful attempt back in 1991 to bring Israel and its neighbors to Madrid, where a peace process was launched.
But the report ignores at its peril the heavy contrast between America's status in the region then (victory over Iraq and "pax Americana" in the post-Cold War Middle East) and now (failure in Iraq and in virtually every other avenue of American endeavor in the region). Its writers seem to believe that if they just list the all too obvious issues the conflicted parties have to talk about and call for "sustainable negotiations", the fragmented leadership in Gaza and Ramallah and the mafia-like Assad family in Damascus will salute and comply. In fact the Iranians, Syrians, Hamas and Hizballah appear to view the report as confirmation that they have won the day against America. Witness the statement two days ago in Tehran by the ostensibly "moderate" Palestinian PM Ismail Haniyeh: "Iran is our strategic depth".
To be fair, Baker and Hamilton focus not only on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but on the conflict with Syria as well. Yet they ignore the more compelling logic of reverse linkage: under current circumstances, with the Palestinian Authority in disarray and no viable Palestinian partner for Israelis to deal with, it makes sense to focus on Israeli-Syrian negotiations first, insofar as success in reducing Damascus' support for Hamas would render Israeli-Palestinian talks more productive.
The ISG report offers a compelling description of the sad state of the US occupation of Iraq today. Yet its most troublesome aspect is that it willfully refuses to probe into the sources of the American fiasco in Iraq and to apply the lessons of that failure to prioritizing the United States' vital interests there for the future. Thus the report never asks: Was trying to democratize Iraq a mistake? Was the enfranchisement and legitimization of the pro-Iranian Shi'ite militias that today effectively rule the country a good idea? Was it a smart American move to strengthen Iran and turn Iraq into a potential member of the Iranian orbit, the "Shi'ite crescent"?
This approach kept President George W. Bush happy: he could confirm that the ISG was looking to the future rather than the past, where his mistakes lie. But because the report never asks these questions, it also never discusses the need for the US to radically change the outcome in Iraq: to forego democratization if necessary in order to leave behind a regime that keeps Shi'ite Iraq from falling into the Iranian orbit and to prevent a region-wide Sunni-Shi'ite conflict. Only in this way can Iran be kept at a distance from Iraq's borders with Saudi Arabia and especially Jordan--borders that are only a stone's throw, in Middle East terms, from Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.