The Magazine

Dangerous Illusions

Peace-processing our way to disaster.

Jun 11, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 37 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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American foreign policy in the Middle East can produce severe cognitive dissonance. Take Palestine and Iran. The White House's evolving policies toward the Palestinians and the clerical regime in Tehran show how easy it is for history to take a back seat to process, for reality to give way to illusions, and for hope in diplomacy to obscure the need to make serious decisions. The difficulties in Iraq can be blamed for much of this: The administration has been reeling since 2005, first crippled by the hapless strategy and tactics of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and General John Abizaid, and now plagued by self-doubt about the war itself and the possibility of maintaining political support at home. Former Democratic senator Bob Kerrey, a member of the 9/11 Commission, made the case for the Iraq war simply and eloquently in the Wall Street Journal. Yet the new secretary of defense, Robert Gates, a member of the Iraq Study Group, increasingly reveals that he cannot argue for wars--the one in Iraq and the broader one against jihadism--that he does not appear to understand or believe in.

The administration is tired. Arguments for the war on terror and Iraq that once came easily (if seldom eloquently) are rarely heard now. So we are left to parse the administration's actions for thematic content. It's not a happy task. We'll take the depressing first, leaving Iran, which is with the possible exception of Sunni jihadism the greatest menace confronting the United States, for last.

The West Bank and Gaza are increasingly convulsed by civil strife--in Iraq such violence is sometimes called "civil war"--yet many people, in government and out, think that an Israeli-Palestinian deal is still possible, provided Washington has the will to force Jerusalem to make concessions. Yet the Islamic fundamentalist movement Hamas has grown powerful electorally and militarily by advancing an uncompromising hostility to the existence of Israel. Fatah, the backbone of the now-defunct Palestine Liberation Organization and the political base on which the Bush administration and the Europeans want to build a Palestinian state living in peace with its Jewish neighbor, has grown noticeably more anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic. Competition with Hamas, more popular and more religious, now defines Fatah's themes. Not just on the West Bank and in Gaza, but throughout the Sunni Muslim world, fundamentalism has eclipsed virtually every other rallying cry. Born in anger at the unstoppable bulldozer of the West's seductive and deracinating modernity, Islamic fundamentalism shows no signs of receding in Sunni lands, let alone in Palestine, where the faithful live right next to rich, technically accomplished, and militarily powerful Westerners.

Peace-processing has become an institution in Washington. Among many Democrats and Republicans, it's a reflex. Normally historically sensitive people will quickly affirm the centrality of the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio to the spread of religious radicalism in the Islamic world and its now nervous offshoot, Europe. Yet the dynamic unfolding in Palestine--Islamic fundamentalism gobbling up the decaying corpse of secular dictatorship--is what we've seen almost everywhere in the Arab world. In Algeria, Syria, and Iraq, the process has been even more violent than in the West Bank and Gaza.

Israel is basically irrelevant to this ongoing collision of modernity and Islam. Still, it is entirely likely that a majority of Palestinians, perhaps a decisive majority, do not want to live peacefully next to a "Western, Jewish-colonial settler state." There is a reason Fatah has moved closer to Hamas ideologically. Religious Muslims, let alone fundamentalists, loathe the idea of a Western, Jewish state in what they see as the Muslim Middle East. As fundamentalism has gained strength in the region, the U.S.-backed dictators and their clientele--the Middle East's peace-processing establishment--have become an ever smaller minority among a more politically faithful majority who are deeply offended by the idea of Israel. What the Bush administration is now halfheartedly and wearily trying to do is restore the ancien régime after 1789.

Fortunately, with the Palestinians, the administration's search for a new policy can't be too detrimental to the United States. The Palestinians have enthusiastically rejoined the mad rush of modern Islamic history. They are no longer a separate, special people. The Palestinians are in the early stages of their "civil war," and it's impossible to know where it will finish--though one could make a decent guess that in these early rounds, Hamas will win and the illusion of a Palestinian partner for peace will end, even for the most committed Americans and Europeans.