Commentary

“Localizing” the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

By Leon T. Hadar
This essay first appeared in the July 23, 2000 Orange County Register.
It’s difficult to say goodbye to old friends, be they your high school pals or the characters on a favorite television sit-com. Just ask some of those veteran Cold Warriors in Washington. They have yet to recover from the depression that has been tormenting them since they had lost their Great Game playmates from the KGB, and have been forced to live in a dull, dull world without Checkpoint Charlie and other Cold War thrills, such as “international stability” and “foreign policy missions,” not to mention that good old Soviet threat. Not surprisingly, “enemy envy” has been identified by psychiatrists as a common cause of anxiety as among the Washington’s wonks.

Well, if you thought that the end of the Cold War has been a traumatic event for us inside-the-beltway foreign policy buffs, wait until our aging buddy, the Arab-Israeli Conflict (or in its last incarnation, the Arab-Israeli Peace Process) bids us farewell. No, the New Middle East’s Zeitgeist will not resemble Immanauel Kant’s vision of eternal peace. Israelis and Palestinians may (or may not) be able reach an agreement in Camp David over such existential issues as Jerusalem and the Palestinian refugees, and to find a way to co-exist. But not unlike in Bosnia, Northern Ireland, or Quebec (the list is quite long), tribalism will remain alive and well in Palestine/Israel, with or without a formal accord. That is the bad news. But it can also turn out to be the good news for the Americanspectators who have quite frequently been asked by the tribal chiefs to jump into the fray, i.e., send the marines, pour in U.S. dollars or invite them to Camp David. In a way, the Arab-Israeli Conflict is now in the process of being “de-internationalized,” transformed from a major regional conflict with enormous global ramifications for the United States and other global players, into a more “localized” affair that Washington, at the start of the twenty-first century, will be able to treat with certain benign neglect.

Benign neglect of the Middle East? Detachment has certainly not been the kind of frame of mind with which intellectual Washington’s foreign policy elites and the American public have been conditioned to approach the Middle East for much of the years of the Cold War, if not for most of the last century. Indeed, if the struggle between the West and its two main rivals, Communism and Fascism, would be recalled as the central ideological drama of the historical epoch which began with the Guns of August in 1914 and ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the encounter between Zionism and Pan-Arabism that gave birth to the Arab-Israeli Conflict, should probably be described as one of the most captivating political sub-plots of the age that historians now describe as the “Short Twentieth Century.”

In fact, both the Jewish and Arab national movements, each attempting to provide a modern secular identity to its ancient religious community, succeeded in mobilizing diplomatic and military support for political independence in the Middle East by riding on the historical waves of the era and by allying themselves with its major global powers. It was the competition between these great powers over the Middle East, with its critical geo-strategic significance and oil resources, that endowed the conflict with its Realpolitik dimension, turning it into one of the central diplomatic-military stages of the Cold War. At the same time, idealistic and religious factors, including the traumatic impact of the Holocaust, Christian attachment to the Holy Land, and the plight the Palestinians, all intertwining with the role pro-Israeli Jewish communities have played in the political and intellectual life of the West, that helped to ignite international public opinion and transform the war between Jews and Arabs in the second part of the last century into the world’s greatest media spectacle.

Washington, driven by these and other international and domestic pressures, and against the backdrop of Soviet-American competition, rising international oil prices, and the post-1967 fear of Israeli annihilation, was forced during the Cold War to expand its commitments in the Middle East, as part of a strategy aimed at fulfilling three major goals: First, containing Soviet expansionism in the region; secondly, securing Western access to the oil resources; and, thirdly, ensuring the survival of Israel. That maintaining U.S. leadership role position in the Middle East became a central U.S. core national interest was reflected in U.S. willingness to risk a nuclear war with the Soviet Union and a costly oil embargo during the 1973 Middle East War and to expand since that war enormous diplomatic resources to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict and achieve stability in that region, an effort that reached its peak at the 1991 with Desert Storm and the Madrid Peace Conference when Washington seemed to able impose a Pax Americana of sort on that part of the world.

These policies have been energized by the sense that if the U.S. failed to “do something” and try to resolve this or that Middle East crisis, it would be creating the conditions for Soviet advance in the region, courting an Arab oil embargo, or making it more likely that Israel would be destroyed in a war with the Arabs. Now, compare the regional and global environment in which President Carter convened the Camp David Summit of 1978 where those sentiments dominated the conventional wisdom in Washington and the Middle East, with the conditions twenty-two years later under which President Clinton summoned the Israelis and the Palestinians to his Camp David Summit: First, there is no Soviet Union anymore threatening to impose its will on the Middle East. Then, the international oil cartel has lost the kind of economic and political power it had in the 1970’s. And finally, Israel, a nuclear player with one of the world’s most advanced economies and technological infrastructures is the Middle East’s predominant military power.

In short, it’s nice that Washington can play the role of the peacemaker in the Middle East, but that element of urgency that it should “do something or else” is not there anymore. Moreover, because the fear of Israel’s annihilation had abated, there is less concern among American-Jews about Middle East politics, suggesting that contrary to the conventional wisdom, Clinton’s success or lack of in making peace between Israelis andArabs will have almost not domestic repercussions. If anything, American-Jews, like Jews in Israel are divided over the policies towards the Palestinians, and demographic changes in Israel, such as the rising influence of Middle Eastern Jews, and the American-Jewish community, including growing rates of intermarriage, suggest that Israel will probably cease to dominate in the future the political agenda of a shrinking American-Jewish community. And with other ethnic groups, such as Hispanics and Hindus, trying for influence on U.S. foreign policy, Israel and the Middle East facing tough competition from other regions for Washington’s attention and resources.

The diminishing political ties between American-Jews and an Israel that is becoming more normal and integrated in the Middle East, reflect the rise of a more secular and commercialized nation, a Tel Aviv-oriented and confident Israel that is entering a new age, being metamorphosed from a militarized Jewish ghetto and a socialized economy into a thriving trading center. At the same time, the Pan Arabist dream of a unified Arab nation from the Atlantic Ocean to the borders of Iran is being replaced with a vision of a normal nation-state system divided into various sub-regional economic units, that could include a free trade arrangement consisting of Israel, Palestine and Jordan. The current religious fundamentalist trend in both the Arab-Moslem world and Israel is not the harbinger of things to come, but is probably more of a temporary reaction to fears on both sides over that process of normalization and globalization.

Washington should welcome those trends that could mark the beginning of a process of its “constructive disengagement” from the Middle East, lessening its military and diplomatic commitments there and encouraging the creation of a new regional balance of power systems as well as a more assertive role by other global powers in the region: France will probably lead a new effort by the European Union to expand its role while the growing ties between Jerusalem and Beijing point to the more activist Chinese policy in the region. That other global players are willing to pay the costs of maintaining order in the region is a trend that should be welcomed by the U.S. Indeed, why shouldn’t France and Japan that are more dependent than the America on Middle Eastern oil, contributed most of the resources for resettling the Palestinian refugees. While American companies should play a leading role in the economic reconstruction of the Middle East, Washington’s role in the region should be relegated to that of the “balancer of last resort.” But any effort by the U.S. to perpetuate its costly “unilateral moment” in the Middle East will only bring about a backlash in the form of new regional and global alliances aimed at countering its drive towards hegemony.

At the end of the day, this hegemonist and never-ending activist U.S. role in the Middle East may be affected by the law of diminishing returns. The perception that Washington will always be there to bail them out and pay the bills may create discourage Israelis and Palestinians from making peace. The notion that they would have to pay the costs of their tribal warfare may force them finally to try to resolve their differences. Israelis and Palestinians may be able to follow the example of the Czechs and the Slovaks and divorce on good terms, copy the more bloody model of separation in Bosnia, or adopt a fragile system of co-habitation a la Northern Ireland. In these or other cases, ranging from the inter-tribal chaos of Somalia to the Canadian Confederation, the effect on U.S. interests of the choices made by the Israelis and the Palestinians should be marginal. That is not to say that a clash between Arabs and Jews in downtown Jerusalem is not a human tragedy. So is a fight between gangs in downtown Washington, DC. Neither, however, poses a clear and present danger to U.S. interests that necessitates American military intervention or diplomatic hyperactivism.

Leon Hadar is a Cato Institute research fellow in foreign policy studies and the author of Quagmire: America in the Middle East.