Is Middle East Peace Really ‘Vital’?

I’d like to test an assumption.

For the longest time, I’ve held that peace between Israel and the Palestinians is not only in Israel’s long-term interest — it’s in America’s, as well.

A dramatic news analysis in the Times today — “Obama Speech Signals U.S. Shift on Middle East” — makes clear that this assumption is propelling Obama’s approach to the conflict. And it might mean that Obama will offer his own peace plan, and try to impose it from the top down — instead of waiting for the parties to negotiate a solution themselves.

Resolving the Israel-Palestinian dispute, Obama said, is a “vital national security interest of the United States.”

The article goes on to explain why … sort of.

Mr. Obama said conflicts like the one in the Middle East ended up “costing us significantly in terms of both blood and treasure” — drawing an explicit link between the Israeli-Palestinian strife and the safety of American soldiers as they battle Islamic extremism and terrorism in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

It goes on to cite Gen. David Petraeus’s recent Congressional testimony, in which he argued that, as the Times writes, “the lack of progress in the Middle East created a hostile environment for the United States.”

The impasse in negotiations “does create an environment,” [Obama] said Tuesday in a speech in Washington. “It does contribute, if you will, to the overall environment within which we operate.”

Condoleeza Rice made similar comments three years ago, arguing that resolving the conflict is a U.S. “strategic interest,” in part because “The prolonged experience of deprivation and humiliation can radicalize even normal people.”

Martin Indyk, former U.S. ambassador to Israel, now at Brookings, argues that the issue is central because we have thousands of troops fighting in the Middle East.

“Will resolving the Palestinian issue solve everything?” Mr. Indyk said. “No. But will it help us get there? Yes.”

I guess my question is: how?

The assumption — which has always been my assumption — is that peace between Israel and the Palestinians will remove a major radicalizing element across the Middle East. But that’s a hypothesis that’s hard to test. Do we really believe that if peace broke out tomorrow, Al Qaeda and Hezbollah and all of the anti-Western clerics would suddenly cease their anti-American rhetoric and find common cause with their Palestinian brethren in the West Bank?

Isn’t it more likely that they would find another convenient propoganda tool to agitate followers? Might they not continue to rail against a shrunken state of Israel, or point to injustices in Gaza, or cite American troops in Afghanistan as a rallying cry?

Do American military commanders really believe Muslim radicals will suddenly lay down their arms and sing kumbaya?

“I don’t think that anybody believes American lives are endangered or materially affected by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” said Mr. [Robert] Wexler, [a former Democratic congressman] who has close ties to administration officials. “That’s an oversimplification. However, you’d have to have blinders on not to recognize that there are issues in one arena that affect other arenas.”

This argument seems a bit mushy to me. What other arenas would it affect? And how, specifically? What evidence do we have, anecdotal or otherwise?

Thomas Friedman made this argument in a recent column:

America [has gone] from having only a small symbolic number of soldiers in the Middle East to running two wars there — in Iraq and Afghanistan — as well as a global struggle against violent Muslim extremists. With U.S. soldiers literally walking the Arab street — and, therefore, more in need than ever of Muslim good will to protect themselves and defeat Muslim extremists — Israeli-Palestinian peace has gone from being a post-cold-war hobby of U.S. diplomats to being a necessity.

He points out that both Biden and Petraeus have recently made this case, arguing that “the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict foments anti-U.S. sentiments, because of the perception that America usually sides with Israel, and these sentiments are exploited by Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran to generate anti-Americanism that complicates life for our soldiers in the region.”

“I wouldn’t exaggerate this,” Friedman writes, “but I would not dismiss it either.”

This seems like a sensible place to land. Which raises the question: Is Obama, by calling this a “vital national security interest,” exaggerating it?

I think it will be critical, in the coming weeks and months — particularly if Obama continues to pressure Israel — for the administration to make its case, in concrete terms.

If we could wave a magic wand and have a peace deal tomorrow, how much less complicated would life be for our soldiers in the Middle East? How much Muslim good will would really be generated, and how enduring would it be? Will it really help us snuff out Islamic radicalism, or will the goalposts simply shift? How can we be sure?

With Israel’s security at stake, this is no time for mushy thinking or wishful strategizing. The answers to these questions are vital.

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