Commentary

Keep Mideast Diplomacy Low-Key

By Leon T. Hadar
This article was first published on FOXNews.com, April 5, 2002.

Against the backdrop of the Israeli siege of the Palestinian Authority headquarters in Ramallah and the continuing anti-Israeli terrorism, the Bush administration has succumbed to tremendous pressure at home and abroad to “do something.” So, it has sent Secretary of State Colin Powell to the Middle East.

The players pressing for U.S. involvement include all the “usual suspects,” like the members of the “international community” who are arguing once again that it is the responsibility of the United States to make peace between Arabs and Israelis.

In addition, foreign policy experts in Washington are accusing the Bush administration of being “disengaged” from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and suggest that this low-key approach helped produce the current violence and brought about an erosion in U.S. “leadership” in the region.

The American pundits who lash at President Bush for failing to come up with a peacemaking strategy, point to the efforts made by other U.S. presidents in trying to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict and warn of the dire consequences of American inaction. Some of them are even proposing the idea of sending U.S. troops to guarantee a border between Israel and Palestine.

But those critics have still to come up with a rationale for placing the Israel/Palestine conflict at the top of U.S. foreign policy. Or, to put it differently, they should explain to the American people why a benign neglect approach toward that conflict would have an adverse affect on core U.S. national interests. In fact, raising the U.S. diplomatic and military role as part of a Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking strategy would not only harm U.S. interests, it would not help resolve the bloody dispute.

A hyperactive U.S. Arab-Israeli diplomacy could have been justified in the context of the Cold War, as a way of containing Soviet expansionism in the region and securing Western access to its oil resources. But there is no global ideological and military power threatening to exploit the Arab-Israeli conflict today as part of a strategy to dominate the Mideast, while the global energy supply is determined mostly by market considerations.

Israel, a regional military power, has made peace and established diplomatic relations with its former Arab enemies, Egypt and Jordan, and has the military capability, including a nuclear arsenal, to act as a deterrence against Syria, Iraq and Iran.

The Arab-Israeli conflict has been transformed now into a local civil war between Jews and Arabs over the control of the territory of Israel/Palestine, including Jerusalem. The war, with its national, ethnic, and religious dimensions is clearly a human tragedy, but very different from those between Azeris and Armenians, or Serbs and Albanians.

But those Americans who contend that the United States has the “moral obligation” to bring an end to the bloodbath should recognize that there are no serious antiwar opposition groups among the Israelis or the Palestinians. Both sides are willing to pay the costs of what they regard as a fight for their survival, and there is no reason why the Americans should “save them from themselves.”

Not unlike other civil wars, this one will end when both sides are exhausted and conclude that their interests would be served more effectively around the negotiating table than on the battle field.

Until that happens, there are no indications the war in the Holy Land will spill over into a regional Arab-Israeli war and affect U.S. interests.

Unlike the 1973 Mideast War, the Arab governments lack the military power to defeat Israel, or the diplomatic and economic ability to threaten American interests. While the so-called “allies” of the United States in the Arab World—including Saudi Arabia (the nation that produced the majority of the Sept. 11 terrorists) and Egypt (whose government-controlled media espouse vicious anti-American rhetoric)—argue that Washington is obligated (in addition to providing them with military protection) to come to the rescue of the Palestinians, these governments have refrained from pressing Arafat to come to terms with the Israelis.

If they are interested in advancing the resolution adopted in the recent Arab League meeting in Beirut to normalize relations with Israel, they should take the necessary steps to open direct negotiations with that state, and should not expect the United States to “deliver” Israel.

After all, it was a process of direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, without any U.S. involvement, that led to the signing of the Oslo Agreement (and later the peace accord between Jordan and Israel).

And it was the attempt by the Clinton administration to interject itself into the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, leading to the 2001 Camp David talks, which created the conditions for the outbreak of the current intifada (uprising).

Even during the Cold War, when Washington attempted to help mediate the conflict between Arabs and Israelis, its efforts proved successful during the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace talks only when the two sides agreed in advance to resolve their differences.

On the other hand, when the U.S. tried to intervene diplomatically and militarily in the Israeli-Palestinian war in Lebanon in the early 1980’s, the move produced devastating effects on U.S. interests, including a dramatic increase in anti-American terrorism.

That is the kind of scenario that could repeat itself in the West Bank, if U.S. diplomats and troops are asked to make peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Jerusalem would prove once again what Beirut showed: That the road to foreign policy hell can be paved with American good diplomatic intentions, a point that Secretary Powell should consider as he heads to the Middle East.

Leon Hadar is an adjunct scholar of the Cato Institute.