A popular view among liberals and progressives is that the solution to the Middle East Conflict (read: the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory) is the key for solving all other problems in the Middle East. America will succeed in making Iraq a peaceful and democratic state, Arab states will democratize and prosper, and the Islamists and Al Qaida will become isolated with their calls for jihad
and will lose their most important source for recruitment. Iran will likely abandon its quest for atomic weapons, and Egypt and Syria can spend all the money they now put into their armies on education and health care.
Not only progressives hold this view in large numbers, the Arab states themselves claim so, too. Only recently the moderate king Abdullah of Jordan voiced this opinion, and called on the USA to adopt a more 'evenhanded' (read: more pro-Arab) position, and also the Arab League likes to label 'the issue of Palestine' as the key problem of the Middle East. This need not surprise us but should make us think, for it exonerates the Arab leaders for the problems of the Middle East like the instability, the popularity of radical Islam, the miserable position of women and minorities, the poor economic development and the high unemployment and population growth. They have always used Israel as a convenient distraction for their own internal problems, and have tried to soften their poor image with lip service to the 'question of Palestine'. Progressive commentators know this of course, for whenever some Arab politician says something ugly or aggressive about Israel or Jews, they are lining up to explain (read: excuse) it as meant for internal consumption.
This vision of the role of the Middle East Conflict is shared also by some prominent people in and around the White House, both Democrats and Republicans, and it forms the heart of the report by the so-called Iraq Study Group
, aka the Baker-Hamilton commission, which was published in December 2006. It's ironic that a report made to offer a way out of the Iraqi swamp, ends up at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For the USA it is also attractive to not only focus on its own mistakes in Iraq, but to divert attention to another country, even if it's an ally. Even Condoleezza Rice pays lip service to this vision and travels around between Israel, the Palestinian territories and Egypt.
The results of a recent worldwide survey
, which ranks Israel as the country with the most pernicious influence on the world, fit into this image. The Middle East Conflict, for which Israel is mainly held responsible, is viewed as a threat to world peace and a major strain on the relationship between Muslims and the West.
The occupation of the Palestinian territories, it is claimed, is such a big humiliation for the Arabs that they cannot trust the West and cannot interact with it on an equal basis. It echoes the West's colonial past, its arrogance, its feeling of superiority. But it's not just the occupation but also Israel's existence itself that is humiliating, particularly because it was the Arab League's stated goal from the beginning to prevent or abolish Israel's birth. Israel's existence shows the significant difference in economic, technical and military development between the Arab world and the West. While Israel, on the one hand is a convenient distraction for internal problems of Arab states, on the other hand it painfully highlights Arab incompetence and backwardness in several areas.
There is no doubt that a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a viable Palestinian state would have a positive effect on the region and (to a lesser extent) also on relations between Muslims and the West in general. But let's not hold idyllic expectations. A Palestinian state will not be a thriving democracy in the short term, but a mini-state that wrestles with a high birth rate, limited natural resources and a clan structure in which internal rivalries and corruption play a major part. The Palestinians (and the Arabs) will not be able to have all their demands met, because that would make the existence of Israel as a Jewish state impossible. The future compromise will be painful for both sides. On both sides a significant number of people will feel that they have had to pay too high a price and that the other side has gained too much from the deal. After a peace treaty there will likely remain a danger that tensions will escalate, that extremists will sabotage the lot, that the other side will not keep the agreements. For reconciliation between (Jewish) Israelis and Arabs more is needed than a peace treaty. An end needs to be put to Arab anti-Semitism, to the conspiracy theories, to the boycott of Israel, to the Arab world's resentment of alleged Jewish superiority and success. A peace treaty can contribute to this, but is not a cure-all. On the contrary: a peace treaty can only succeed when the Arab world is prepared to accept the compromises and is out for reconciliation instead of struggle. And the fight about that is still undecided in the Arab world.
There is another problem with this theory: it puts all stakes on one of the longest and most persistent conflicts in the world. The most passionate supporters of this theory think that this conflict can be resolved in a few years and that negotiations on 'final status issues' can be started right away. If Israel hesitates in agreeing to substantial concessions, simply increase the pressure, they say. In 2000 Israel did agree to substantial concessions, despite many claims to the contrary, but that did not lead to a peace agreement, because Arafat was unwilling to give up the 'right of return' of Palestinian refugees, nor to agree to dividing the old city of Jerusalem and some border adjustments. On the other hand, it was far from certain that the Israeli public would have approved of Barak's far reaching concessions in a referendum, certainly not with the 'help' of some well-timed suicide attacks. The opponents of peace on both sides can count on each other.
Surely there is a need for some pressure on both sides to make concessions, but even more there is a need for a good control-mechanism which should guarantee that both sides keep their end of the agreement and can count on the other side to do the same: International monitors or peacekeepers for example. These are not new to the region and the results have not always been positive. UNIFIL is not capable of, nor willing to prevent the re-arming of Hezbollah
, despite the provisions of UN SC Resolution 1701
which both Israel and Lebanon agreed to. European monitors have not prevented the large scale arms smuggling between the Gaza Strip and Egypt despite their obligation to monitor this. Israel repeatedly closed the Karni border crossing for goods, despite promises that it would be open. Beautiful prospects like a connection with the West Bank, a harbor and airport for Gaza failed to materialize, because no one could guarantee to Israel that those would not lead to an increase in weapons smuggling. The Gaza cease-fire since the end of November has been violated from the first day by Palestinian groups firing rockets into Israel almost daily. In January the Hamas praised a 'successful' suicide attack in Eilat.
Final status negotiations are pointless in this situation of mutual distrust, uncertainty about who will abide to which agreement, and especially Palestinian factions being opposed to any agreement and willing to blow them up literally without the Palestinian Authority being able and willing to fight them. Moreover, final status negotiations are not conducted in a vacuum and are not detached from the daily reality of humiliations of Palestinians at checkpoints, aggressive settlers, (mostly) prevented Palestinian suicide attacks and incitement in Palestinian media. An interim period, in which practical problems on the ground are addressed and confidence is built by keeping 'small' agreements, is a precondition to final agreements on matters as definite borders, Jerusalem and the refugee problem.
Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is of major interest, but it may take a while. Therefore it is not wise to wait for it before tackling other problems of the Arab world. Democratization, women's and minority rights, better education; those are all as important and necessary, and can lead to the conditions which make a compromise and reconciliation with Israel easier to accept.Ratna Pelle
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