Palestine Policy Paralysis

Face it: There is no “key” to Middle East peace.

Recently, retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni criticized the political strategy behind the Iraq war. The members of the Bush administration who believed that Iraq “was going to be the catalyst for some kind of positive change out there … didn’t understand the region, the culture, the situation, and the issues,” says the general.

Of course, Zinni is referring to the neocons, “a small group of people,” as another former officer, retired Col. Patrick Lang writes, “who think they are the ‘bearers’ of a uniquely correct view of the world.” In his essay “Drinking the Kool-Aid,” Lang explains that officials with “experience in the Muslim world are strangely absent from Team Bush.” Rather, the administration stacked the deck with people who were willing to succumb “to the prevailing group-think that typifies policymaking today”—or, drink the Kool-Aid. According to Lang, part of the administration’s mass intellectual suicide meant putting “the Israel-Palestine conflict, which had dominated the Middle East agenda of the Clinton administration … in the deep freeze.”

Since many people believe, as Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote recently in the New Republic, that “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the single most combustible and galvanizing issue in the Arab world,” they are angry that the administration has neglected it. In a recent column, the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof approvingly quoted Zinni as saying the Bush administration believes “the road to Jerusalem led through Baghdad.” But, according to the general, everyone knows that “the road to Baghdad led through Jerusalem. You solve the Middle East peace process, you’d be surprised what kinds of others things will work out.”

Zinni seems to be suggesting here that while we would be surprised, he would not. If, unlike us, he knows what would happen if we tugged hard enough on the right thread and unknotted all the problems of the region, then he should say so. For instance, if the Palestinians had a state, would Hamas revise that bit in its charter about destroying Israel? Would all the Arab nations become secular, constitutional democracies run by competent rulers committed to ensuring the individual liberties of all their citizens? Would Osama Bin Laden call off his jihad against the United States? In short, has Zinni had a vision in which the lion lies down with the lamb?

Probably not. But you don’t have to be a career military man or even a Middle East specialist to take it as gospel that the Palestinian issue is the key to the region. It has been official U.S. doctrine for close to three decades and conventional wisdom long before that.

The 1973 oil embargo proved to U.S. presidents exactly how much their jobs depended on keeping Middle East oil producers happy, and the Arabs weren’t happy that the United States supported the other side in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Arabs said they wanted the national aspirations of the Palestinians recognized, and so in November 1975, a member of Gerald Ford’s State Department told Congress that “the Palestinian dimension of the Arab-Israeli conflict is the heart of that conflict.” A December 1975 report by a Brookings Institution group, which included Brzezinski, spelled it out: “The United States has a strong interest in the unimpeded flow of Middle Eastern oil to itself and to its European and Japanese allies.” Therefore, the report argued, “The United States has a vital interest in the establishment of a stable peace in the Middle East.”

There’s no doubt that peace in the Middle East would be a good thing for Palestinians and Israelis, but arguably it is the unimpeded flow of oil that is in Washington’s “vital interest,” while peace is, at most, only a “strong interest.” After all, even if Israelis and Palestinians were to make peace, recent terrorist attacks on the Saudi oil industry show that there are lots of things that might happen in the region to impede the flow of oil.

And yet the belief that Palestine is the key to the entire region is an article of almost religious faith. As the late Elie Kedourie documented in Islam and the Modern World, the idea started to gain ground in British foreign policy by the end of the 1930s. The then-ruler of Saudi Arabia, Ibn Saud, was vying with his Hashemite foes in Transjordan for regional power, and the British accommodated him with a role in negotiations over Palestine. Naturally, the Iraqis wanted to be dealt in as well, as did the Egyptians, all of whom claimed they were fighting for the “legitimate demands of the Arabs of Palestine.”

The British had backed the Pan-Arabist cause and so were ideologically predisposed to believe that Arabs, who shared the same language and many the same religion, also shared the same interests. It was only logical, thought the British, that Ibn Saud and the rest should have a stake in things turning out well for their Arab Muslim brethren in Palestine. And because the Arab leaders said Palestine was the region’s major issue, the British believed that their other pressing concerns in the Arab world—like their bilateral relations with the individual Arab states, access to oil, undermining the French position in the region, and keeping the Axis powers from securing more of a foothold—would consequently fall into place once this one problem was settled to the satisfaction of the competing potentates.

Obviously, the chief concern of those Arab rulers was to advance their own power and influence, though it was no coincidence that their jockeying also managed to weaken the British position beyond repair. The sons, grandsons, and various intellectual progeny of those Arab leaders have been selling U.S. officials the same story their ancestors sold the Brits: Solving the Palestinian issue is the key to Middle East stability.

Setting aside the fact that current-day Arab rulers have at least as much of an interest as their forefathers did in making Western policymakers believe what they want them to believe, is there any objective analysis that could possibly substantiate such a claim? Of course not: Even if Yasser Arafat, the House of Saud, Hosni Mubarak, King Abdullah II, Bashar Assad, and the rest all swear they are telling the absolute truth, there are other powerful forces in the region, like Islamist groups, that have no use for peace. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was killed when he stepped out of line and went to Jerusalem.

Jerusalem used to be the direction in which the prophet Muhammad and the first Muslims turned to pray. In time, Muhammad changed the direction, or qibla, and Muslims began to pray facing Mecca, as they do today. All the Bush White House did was change the qibla of American Middle East policy from Jerusalem to Baghdad. While the present clique of White House ideologues assumed that a safe, stable, and democratic Iraq would reshape the region, Zinni, Brzezinski, and company still maintain that the peace process is the key. They don’t know more about the Middle East than the Bush White House; they’re just angry that someone replaced their absurd reductive paradigm with another, equally absurd reductive paradigm.

For quite some time now, U.S. officials have believed that there’s a magic lantern, and if we rub it in just the right place, we’ll get our three Middle East wishes—cheap oil, peace, and the undying friendship of Israelis and all the Arabs. But as one writer notes, there are no quick fixes in the Middle East, an area where experts are just as likely as neophytes to be dangerously wrong.

Brzezinski and the others should consider the possibility that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is so combustible because American policymakers have helped to make it so. They have seen it as the keystone of the entire Middle East, rather than as just one among many regional issues that cannot be solved with grand schemes but only managed by competent policymakers.