Commentary

Should America’s Arab Friends Take Over the West Bank?

By Leon T. Hadar
January 9, 2002

The recent cycle of Israeli-Palestinian violence has re-ignited the anti-American fury in the Arab “street.” Meanwhile, military despots and medieval monarchs in the Arab world, many of whom continue to maintain their power thanks to Uncle Sam, are demanding that the Bush administration “do something” to help their Arab brethren in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Or else?

During the Cold War and the era of energy shortages, “moderate” Arab leaders exerted leverage over Washington. They threatened to switch to the Soviet camp and impose oil embargoes if America failed to “deliver” Israel. Those threats accentuated the risk that an all-out Arab-Israeli war would pose to U.S. interests. They also could generate, as happened in 1973, a nightmare scenario involving a Soviet-American nuclear showdown and a global oil crisis, which forced Washington into its hyper-activist peace processing in the Middle East. But the collapse of both the Soviet bloc and the oil cartel has helped “de-internationalize” the Arab-Israeli conflict and transform it into a local civil war.

Not unlike other ethnic and religious conflicts, the impact of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute on U.S. national interests is limited. Arab governments, including Egypt and Jordan, which have embassies in Tel-Aviv, may sympathize with the Palestinian cause. But they lack the power to militarily challenge Israel. Low energy prices make it impossible for them to re-apply the oil weapon. And in the absence of any new geo-strategic power interested in checkmating Washington, they are now playing a weak diplomatic hand as they try to help the Palestinians re-internationalize the conflict with Israel.

Instead of complaining about the failure of the United States to make peace in the Holy Land, and of warning Americans of the dire consequences of their low diplomatic profile, Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia should recognize that it is their interests and the long-term stability of the region that will be affected by the simmering Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Yet those governments have acted as spoilers during critical stages of the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations.

So perhaps the time has come for those governments to “do something” to help end the Palestinian-Israeli violence. They should consider a creative regional blueprint for a separation settlement along the lines of the status quo that existed in the Middle East before the 1967 War. It could, for instance, allow for a return of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to respectively Jordanian and Egyptian control for an interim period, during which security forces from those two countries will maintain order in the territories, while economic aid from the Arab Gulf states will help improve the lives of its people.

Both the Palestinians and the Israelis will support such a plan as they consider the alternatives. Life for the Palestinians under Israeli military occupation has become unbearable. But they have failed to produce a leadership that could reach an agreement with Israel. Egypt and Jordan would replace the Israeli occupation with a temporary Arab rule, establishing the environment that would give rise to an effective Palestinian government.

At the same time, most Israelis now express support for the idea of a withdrawal from the occupied Palestinian territories but need an Arab counterpart to negotiate a deal. By giving Israel explicit security guarantees that prevent terrorist attacks against it, Jordan and Egypt would help create the conditions for an Israeli separation from the Palestinians.

Such a separation agreement would not provide the Israelis with a peace agreement with the Palestinians. At the same time, the Palestinians would not win political independence. Those issues, together with Jerusalem and the refugee problems would have to wait for the final stage of negotiations between representatives of these peoples.

But by advancing such an interim settlement, Egypt and Jordan, with backing from the Arab Gulf states, will not only bring about an end to the violence between the Israelis and the Palestinians. They will also help set the foundations for a new regional balance of power that does not rely on foreign intervention, proving that Pax Americana is not a necessary condition for peace in the Middle East.

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