Attempting to understand the limping march towards peace in the Middle East without the benefit of historic perspective is like awakening in a house of mirrors where the lines between real and fake are blurred, where it is difficult to tell a foe from a friend, and where at times it seems that there is no way out. To comprehend the Middle East one must consider the convoluted, and often counterproductive role the super powers have played in the region.
The solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict resides in two separate spheres, that intertwine and often conflict each other. The first is the regional Israeli-Arab sphere. The second is the long standing and ongoing conflict between the US and Russia (beforehand the USSR). Within these spheres there exist numerous different dynamics and doctrines that render matters so convoluted that at times, when a regional solution appears within reach, super-power conflicting interests, that have little to do with the regional players, make an agreement unobtainable.
A case in point is the 1948 debate over the composition of an international force that was to be charged with securing the implementation of the United Nations Partition Plan. All the Soviets requested at the time was the inclusion of 5 Soviet officers in the international force. For the US, however, interdicting Soviet entry into Middle Eastern affairs was more important than enforcing the UN decision. From there on the parties could not agree on anything else, and the entire matter was dropped. The international keeping force and with it the Partition Plan, and the newly declared State of Israel all fell five Soviet soldiers short of fruition and thus were ushered in numerous wars and countless dead.
Another example is the 1984 meeting in New York between then Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko and then Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir. The former implored Shamir to consent to Soviet participation in an international peace conference, hoping that Israeli acquiescence to Soviet participation would lead to US acceptance of Soviet presence as well. Gromyko assured Shamir that all the Soviets wished for was a tiny little Palestinian state, but to no avail. The US doctrine was opposed to any legitimization of a Soviet (Russian) role in Middle East agreements and Israel followed suit. Perhaps, had Israel endorsed Gromyko’s request we would have enjoyed years of peace with a tiny little Palestinian State.
In 1979 the enormous super power complex was stripped away when the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat applied an Occam’s razor to both the super powers (by bypassing the Geneva conference), and to the Arab League and initiated direct negotiations with Israel. Fearing super power destructive intervention, Sadat actually wrote a letter to then US President Jimmy Carter pleading with him not to interfere.
Israel’s doctrine of direct negotiations was born out of the negative experience of the 1949 Lausanne conference under the auspices of the United Nations, and out of concerns that future multinational conferences would favor Arab interests. Early in Israel’s history, Israel did attempt to include the Soviet Union as a party to peace negotiations, but that was mostly as a counter measure to various American and British peace proposals the core of which was taking away the Negev from Israel. The British and American goal at the time was to re-establish Arab territorial contiguity from Africa to the all the way to Iraq under British and pro-Western control (it was a world without long range ballistic missiles and territorial contiguity was an important strategic asset). This was an interest that both Israel and the U.S.S.R. opposed for their own different reasons. Since these early attempts and the eventual re-alignment of of Arab and Soviet interests, Israel has regarded Russian participation in peace talks to be undesirable.
The Arabs always viewed direct negotiations as an implied recognition of Israel’s victory and legitimacy. During the first attempt of a multinational peace conference in 1949, the Arabs refused to even be in the same room with Israeli representatives. Even after successful direct negotiation, between Sadat and Menachem Begin, which resulted in the return the Sinai to Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak (who took over after Sadat) reverted back to endorsing the international negotiation format doctrine.
As for the super powers, the conflict and disagreement between them has helped the Israeli insistence on face to face direct negotiations (which the US supported but Russia opposed), and simultaneously played into the hand of Arab persistent refusal to recognize Israel (since in the absence of super power agreement the subject was mute). The Soviet Union, and now Russia, viewed the Middle East as part of it’s southern border and thus as an area of vital security interest. And over the years what it could not accomplish on the diplomatic front it accomplished through arms sales and boots on the ground. So when the US achieved a foothold in Iraq, Iran, and Turkey, the Soviet Union aimed to countermand by gaining ground in the southern tier of Middle East, in Syria, Egypt, and Libya, and so game of moving pawn around continued.
As for the US, the doctrine has always been to safeguard economic and oil interests, and to prevent Russia (USSR) from becoming an equal participant in the politics of determining Middle East accords, as well as limiting the expanding Russian influence in the region.
It is with this in mind that one must view the often conflicting interests among close allies, collaboration between adversaries, counterintuitive agreements, and mostly the absence of any real solutions.
It is with this in mind that one must view Secretary John Kerry’s endless whirlwind marathon to an Israeli-Palestinian accord. After having opened the door for Russia back into Egypt, allowing it a solidified foothold in Iran, making Russia a partner to the agreements with Syria, and a major player in the agreement with Iran, the last thing the US desires is to make it a partner to the negotiations with the Palestinians. A Kerry failure would usher in the Arab League (which Israel would welcome) and a multinational or United Nations involvement (which Israel would reject but Russia and the Palestinians would welcome). The inclusion of Russia and the European Union would only further diminish America’s influence in the region and render relations with Saudi Arabia and Jordan even more tenuous.
It is with this in mind that one must consider Kerry’s tireless efforts to reach an accord, even if it is to the detriment of Israel. When it comes to peace between Israel and the Palestinians, American and Israeli Interest are not congruent. Kerry wants an agreement that the US could leverage into greater influence with the Arab and Muslim world, into better relations with Iran, access to Syria, stronger ties with Turkey, and deeper inroad into the old Soviet Republics. For Kerry it’s all about the pawn play surrounding the Russian king, and in the geo-political chess game between the super powers an occasional gambit is part of the overall strategy. Unfortunately, Israel is the pawn Kerry is planing to sacrifice.
Sadat sought peace when he realized that international efforts were not going to bring about the return of the Sinai back to Egypt. Peace between the Palestinians and Israel will only be feasible when the Palestinians realize that peace offers them a better future than a continued state of war and that only Israel can deliver a Palestinian State. Peace will come when the Europeans stop projecting their internal demographic problems on the Middle East, when Kerry ceases pressuring Israel in order to further US regional interests, and when the Palestinians open their eyes to the abyss that they are in. The reality on the ground is such that Israel can exist and thrive in the present state of no peace for many years, while the Palestinians are in dire need of a viable economy and an improved standard of living. The convoluted support of Palestinian intransigence and the continued financing of Palestinian terror organizations on the one hand, and the attempts to coerce Israel into an undesirable agreement on the other hand, is counter productive and doomed to failure.Igal Zuravicky MD FACC
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