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The Future of an Illusion

A piece of paper will not bring peace to the Middle East

Apr 5, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 28 • By ELLIOTT ABRAMS
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George Mitchell once acknowledged that when he talks to Arab leaders they raise Iran first, but no one in the administration wants to allow mere facts to interfere with their ideology. George W. Bush was as close as any American president ever has been to Israel, but had excellent relations with the Moroccan, Algerian, Emirati, Omani, Bahraini, Kuwaiti, Saudi, and Jordanian rulers—all except the Egyptians, who were annoyed that he thought they should have free elections. Paying attention to what Arab political leaders say publicly about Israel is foolish, for their real views consist of tough-minded assessments of the balance of power in the region. What they want most of all is calm; they do not want their streets riled up by Israeli-Palestinian violence. Palestinians are not at the center of their hearts or they would visit the West Bank and bring plenty of cash with them. What preoccupies them is survival and Iran. If they take any lesson from the current coldness between the United States and Israel, it is that the United States is not a reliable ally. If we can ditch Israel, they know we can far more easily ditch them. 

The most perverse misunderstanding along these lines is the thought that supporting Israel is risking American lives in Iraq and Afghanistan and in the war on terror. Vice President Biden is reported to have told Netanyahu that “this is starting to get dangerous for us. What you’re doing here undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.” White House denials suggest that the quotation is not exact, but there has also been no flat-out denial of the sentiment. David Axelrod, the political hack who appears to be a key foreign policy strategist and spokesman for the president, was asked on one of the Sunday shows if he agreed that settlement construction puts U.S. troops’ lives at risk. He replied, “It is important for our own security that we move forward and resolve this very difficult issue.” Not exactly a resounding “no.” General David Petraeus, the CENTCOM commander, told the Senate that “clearly the tensions in these issues have an enormous effect on the strategic context in which we operate in the Central Command area of responsibility.” Once again, not a “No way” or a “Get real.” Petraeus had a chance to say the Pakistanis are not thinking hard about West Bank settlement construction when they watch the Taliban and developments in Waziristan, and he failed to do so then or in later explanations. How hard would it have been for him or some other official to remind everyone that Osama bin Laden became a terrorist to overthrow the government in Riyadh, not the one in Jerusalem? The struggles between modernizers and traditionalists, Sunni and Shia, secularists and Islamists are tearing the Islamic and the Arab world apart. They would continue to do so if Israel no longer existed. 

Israelis listening to official American remarks hear an amateurish interpretation of Arab politics, which as Lee Smith reminded us in his recent book (quoting bin Laden himself) is basically about backing the strong horse. Arab leaders want to know what we will do to stop Iran; they want to know if their ally in Washington is going to be the top power in the region. Israelis wonder where the “uh oh, this will make Islamic extremists angry” argument stops. Does anyone think al Qaeda or the Taliban would be mollified by a settlement freeze? The Islamists are not interested in “1967 issues” related to Israel’s size, but in “1948 issues” related to Israel’s existence. If henceforth we mean to engage such people rather than to defeat them, Israel’s existence—not its settlement policy—comes into play. 

If this is not the Obama view of the world, the administration should say so quickly and very clearly. Otherwise his administration can fairly be said to be revisiting our own “1948 issues.” The argument that Israel would be a great burden and ruin our place in the Arab world was proffered then by George Marshall—and rejected by Harry Truman. In his memoirs, Clark Clifford wrote at length about the State Department’s efforts to stop -Truman from recognizing the new State of Israel. Clifford quoted Marshall’s deputy Robert Lovett as saying on May 14, 1948—the day Israel declared its independence and Truman offered recognition—“There will be a tremendous reaction in the Arab world. We might lose the effects of many years of hard work with the Arabs. We will lose our position with Arab leaders. It will put our diplomatic missions and consular representatives in personal jeopardy.” After 60 years of American leadership and military dominance in the Middle East, it should be as disturbing to Americans—not least to Democrats who venerate -Truman—as it is to Israelis that traces of this approach are emerging again in Washington. 

Netanyahu answered these poor arguments in his address to AIPAC: 


Our soldiers and your soldiers fight against fanatic enemies that loathe our common values. In the eyes of these fanatics, we are you and you are us. To them, the only difference is that you are big and we are small, you are the Great Satan and we are the Little Satan.


5. The ‘peace process’retards peace. 

A single-minded concentration on “the peace process” hurts the cause of peace and moderation throughout the region and does little to build the necessary institutions of Palestinian society. It’s obvious that nearly two decades of negotiations have not produced peace. Instead this focus has had two deleterious effects. 

First, it means we care more about getting Syria, Egypt, or others to endorse some negotiating plan than we do about their own internal situations. The people, the politics, the alliances of such countries become unimportant, as we focus on whether their rulers will deign to sit at some table we’ve laid. Human rights and democracy issues evaporate. 

Second, we use all our chips for the negotiating sessions, instead of applying them to the hard work of nation building. We ask Arab states to reach out to Israel (which they will not do) when we should be demanding that they reach out to the Palestinians (which they might). We explode, and damage U.S.-Israeli relations, over a tiny construction announcement because it might slow “proximity talks” Mitchell has cooked up. We use American influence with Israel not to promote economic growth in the West Bank, but to try and impede Jewish (never Arab) construction in Israel’s capital city. This set of priorities is perverse and will not lead to peace. Instead, a pragmatic approach that seeks to create in the West Bank a decent society and a state that will maintain law and order should be our goals. 

The last week of March brought talk of “reconciliation” between the Obama administration and the government of Israel. Relations are so strained that we, too, appear to need our own set of “proximity talks” now. But reconciliation is not a simple matter, as the Catholic Church knows. In that faith, it is a sacrament consisting of three elements: conversion, confession, and celebration. Conversion is the internal realization of wrongdoing, confession is the external admission of it, and celebration follows when (and only when) the sinner has converted, repented, confessed, and returned. Given the Obama administration’s view of Israel and the Middle East, celebration seems a long way off. 


Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.



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