The other week, responding to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech that envisaged creating a demilitarized Palestinian state, perennial Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said, “I told President Obama that solving the crises of the Arab and Muslim worlds goes through Jerusalem.”
The week before, General David Petraeus, head of the U.S. military’s Central Command, said, “Hizbullah’s justifications for existence will become void … if the Palestinian cause is resolved.”
The notion that the Israeli/Arab conflict lies at the core of Middle Eastern problems has been popular among the political class for years:
● UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon: “If the issues with the conflicts between Israel and Palestine go well, [resolutions of] other issues in the Middle East, including Lebanon, Iran, Iraq and Syria, are likely to follow suit” (January 2007).
● Jordan’s King Abdullah: “Solving the Israeli-Palestinian problem allows us to tackle the other issues around us…. Whether people like it or not, the linchpin is always the Israeli-Palestinian problem” (January 2007).
● Egyptian President Mubarak: “I expressed to the president the centrality of [this] conflict to the people of the region … [putting] the peace process back on track is central to enhancing the prospects of reform and the prosperity in the region” (April 2004).
● Then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair: “[Middle Eastern] terrorism will not be defeated without peace in the Middle East between Israel and Palestine” (July 2003).
In fact, it was this very idea that led America in 1991, vigorous and prestigious in the Middle East after vanquishing Saddam Hussein in Kuwait, to try to solve it.
At the time, American time and talent might have been better utilized urging Arab allies to liberalize their tyrannies or on off-setting the destabilizing constellation represented by Syria’s Assad and the Iranian mullahs.
Instead, then-President George H.W. Bush and his secretary of state, James Baker, chose to think that solving the Arab-Israeli conflict was central and achievable – much like Obama does today and George W. Bush did before him.
Yet even before Bush and Baker gave international sanction to the centrality myth, history had already pronounced it a nonsense.
The Arab-Israeli conflict had no bearing on the Algerian war in the 1950s; Egypt’s invasion of Yemen, the bloody emergence of the Ba’athist dictatorship in Iraq, or the Aden Emergency, all in the 1960s; the Libyan-Chad war in the late 1970s; the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, which claimed a million lives; or Iraq’s invasion and annexation of Kuwait in 1990.
Nor did it have any bearing on events that were to follow – like Saddam’s subsequent massacres of hundreds of thousands of Kurds and Shia, the Taliban seizure of most of Afghanistan, or the descent of Somalia into a Hobbesian arena of rival militias.
Nonetheless, Bush and Baker convened the 1991 Madrid Arab-Israeli peace conference, which was succeeded by the Oslo process. All must now agree that the results were the opposite of peace and reconciliation – in that conflict or any other.
But Oslo’s collapse failed to induce a reappraisal of either the alleged centrality of the Arab-Israeli conflict or its capacity for resolution.
The same James Baker was to be found reinvigorating the old centrality chestnut as co-author of the 2006 Iraq Study Group, which again declared regional peace and progress to be hostage to a resolvable Arab-Israeli animosity.
Reality, however, still fails to oblige. Israelis, long reconciled to the idea of a Palestinian state and still largely of the view that a peace settlement would entail creating one, no longer believe that doing so will bring it peace and therefore oppose it. Israelis also oppose more concessions, as negotiated withdrawals in the West Bank and unilateral ones from Gaza and southern Lebanon failed to bring peace and acceptance.
Indeed, upon examination of the words and deeds of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza, and the temper of Palestinian opinion favoring terrorism and rejecting Israel’s existence, the only possible conclusion is that Palestinians neither accept Israel as a Jewish state, nor revile terrorism against it performed in their name, nor see Palestinian statehood as a goal whose attainment should change either of these facts.