Hearing about Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to the Middle East two weeks ago, I could not help but be reminded of a famous epistemological joke.
A man sees his friend bending under a streetlight looking for something. “What are you looking for?” he asks. “My keys,” his friend replies. “Well, where did you lose them?” he asks. After his friend responds that he lost them in the bushes, the man asks why, if that’s the case, he’s looking under the streetlight. His friend answers, “Because this is where the light is.”
The bizarre insistence of the Obama administration on finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at a time when stability, human rights, and American interests in the Middle East are being severely compromised and jeopardized is mystifying, to say the least.
Why is it that at a time of such severe grievances and international crises, the American government is devoting so much time and energy to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? It’s a conflict, after all, that pales in the face of what’s happening in Syria, Egypt, Turkey, and perhaps more Arab states to follow.
Sadly, the answer to this question seems to be embarrassingly easy to articulate. It’s because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, at least compared with the various other imbroglios in the region, is easier to deal with. The players are familiar and no one plays too rough – again, relatively speaking.
As Robert Blecher, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa Program of the International Crisis Group put it, “The moment for this kind of diplomacy has passed. [Kerry’s] working with actors who have acted in this movie before, and the script is built around the same elements. But the theater is new; the region is a completely different place today.”
The U.S. is taking the easy way out in the Middle East. No need to deal with insane dictators, bloodthirsty jihadists and unstable governments; all the White House needs to do is send someone to Tel Aviv’s comfortable airport and Jerusalem’s regal hotels, have him talk with English-speaking Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — and the Americans have done their share in the Middle East.
This is what is going on and why it is going on. Dennis Ross – a former adviser on the Middle East to several presidents, including Obama – was recently quoted as saying, “You don’t have instability between the Israelis and Palestinians right now. But if you don’t act, there’s a risk that the Palestinian Authority will collapse, leaving a vacuum. And if we know one thing about vacuums in the Middle East, they are never filled with good things.”
This is not an expression of Ross’s tackling new and rapidly changing challenges, or brainstorming to find solutions to difficult situations. Rather, it is a way of sticking to the old and familiar Middle East – of preferring predictable patterns and systems.
It’s a comfortable approach that seemingly carries little risk. There is, however, one catch: Like the person looking for his keys under the streetlight because that’s where the light is, the U.S. will never find peace in the Middle East if it chooses to focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict simply because it’s the least challenging option.
If in such a time of crisis – when the future of the Middle East is being determined for generations to come – the U.S. continues to avoid making difficult decisions and engaging with potential allies, we will wake up one day with a world we do not know and, worse yet, a world that does not know us.
It is time for the White House and the international community to acknowledge that Israel is not the problem in the Middle East, and that the cause of peace would be better served by diplomats doing their best to find solutions for the problems rather than trying to find problems for the solutions.
One way to do that is to unite behind a safe, strong, and uncompromised Israel – a state that is a wellspring of peace, stability, human rights and economic success in the Middle East.
About the Author: Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a fellow at Yeshiva University’s Institute for Advanced Research in Jewish Law.
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