Silver Linings In the Middle East
Published on: May 14, 2010
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  • nadine

    “Finally, for the Arab countries, the status quo is also not the worst thing in the world. They are able to avoid more rounds of conflict with Israel without having, yet, to sign any treaties or do anything else that is deeply unpopular at home. Furthermore, they can extract promises and concessions from the Americans in exchange for signing paper agreements and documents of hypothetical recognition — agreements to recognize Israel ‘if and when’.”

    True, but the Arab regimes get much more than that from the status quo: the frozen Mideast Conflict is their great all-purpose excuse for everything: Want Political Reform? Hey! Look at the Cause of Palestine! Economic Reform? Same answer. Americans want more cooperation? Same answer, and even better, they can demand the Americans do something to fix the conflict that they are keeping unfixable!

    It’s a good living for the arsonist who sells water to the firemen. Does anybody doubt that if the Arab League had ever said, “we’re tired of the conflict, so you Palestinian going to do a deal and mean it” that it wouldn’t have been done and signed?

    Seriously, if the Mideast Conflict didn’t exist, the Arab regimes would have to invent it. Only I don’t think they quite reckoned with Iran taking control of part of the game.

  • “We don’t really like the status quo, but nobody sees a realistic path to a viable alternative that would work much better.”

    Actually everybody sees not one, but two paths to a viable alternative: Israel can annex the West Bank and Gaza and give full citizenship to all Palestinians; or they can abandon a Jewish controlled “Greater Israel” and return to basically the 1967 borders.

    Some weird hybridization of two-states / one binational-state, such as the autonomous regions within countries that exist today, is even possible. The issue is not with the Territories, but with the Occupation.

    But the bottom line problem is that those paths will never be accepted by Israel, not that the parties can’t see these solutions.

  • setnaffa

    There is no excuse for this dhimmi rot.

    How can you even negotiate with people who are still shooting rockets and mortars at civilians?

    I have contempt for the Palestinian cause simply because they act murderous [ed.]. I have contempt for Islamic neighbors of Palestine because all they send is more guns, more bombs, more death.

    Yasser Arafat, the Egyptian leader of Fatah, died with over 2 Billion dollars in secret swiss accounts while “his people” were huddled in the same refugee camps/terror training grounds they’ve been since at least 1967.

    How much longer with this anti-Semite charade continue?

  • “Israelis increasingly isolated and under pressure from the international community”

    What? Is Israeli foreign trade going down? Is there any threat of a single UN Security Council resolution against Israel?

    “the United States so frustrated and hampered in our other Middle East policies because of the conflict”

    But this is a self-imposed consequence. We could wash our hands of the conflict and be much better off. (Can anyone seriously claim that the State of Israel would be endangered if we stopped sending them money, arms and political protection?)

  • Mikee

    Then there is that little problem: a stated goal of Palestinian leadership is the genocide of Israelis. Makes any solution except the “final” Palestinian solution seem a bit premature.

    How about the Palestinians go ahead and make their state? Who the hell is stopping them?

  • Daniel

    There is still another thing. Many Palestinians do not look forward to an independent Palestine with hostile relations to Israel. They cannot express this openly for fear of the violent groups who are dead set against the Jews.
    But they remember that the West Bank and Gaza prospered the most during the period of full Israeli occupation before the first Intifada. During that period the Arab population grew rapidly. Since then it has declined due to emigration.
    When a line was drawn in the middle of an inhabited area for the wall to be constructed, there was a rush by Palestinians to get to the Israeli side of the wall. Your typical Palestinian would rather live in Israeli governed Jerusalem than in part of independent Palestine.
    And there is good reason for this. Bad as Israeli politics may be it is very far superior to the prospect of rule by either the PLO or Hamas.
    Would you rather live in a kleptocracy or in a booming economy with a well established rule of law, higher quality medical care, and the need to import foreign workers.
    The intellectuals, thugs and politicians want independence, the rest of the population fears them and it.

  • PTL

    Never happens. Too many are interested in the
    status quo. Iran, Syria, the State Dept. here,
    the Foreign Office in Great Britain.
    What is going to happen to all the “Middle East Experts?” Can we afford so much more unemployment?
    There was never peace in the Middle East.
    There will never be peace. It gives all those anti-Semites a reason for living.

  • Dimitry

    I’d add a couple of things.
    First, Israel
    1. It isn’t so much that the Israelis benefit so much from the status quo that they don’t want to move forward, but it is that the Israelis (in overwhelming consensus) don’t see any close resolution.

    2. In these conditions, the status quo that represents a lack of open warfare or very low level conflict are enormously better than the alternative of open war or a meaningless piece of paper. The Israelis want peace, but real peace, and there are plenty of probems even on the conceptual theoretical level with the proposed solutions, it isn’t clear they can be solved untill there is some majoor reformation of the palestinian society as a whole.

    The Palestinians.
    1. Here we should separate the leadership from the regular folk.

    2. The leadership enjoys under the status quo from most of the advantages of a state, without most of the responsibilities. They enjoy vast amounts of aid in which they can dip their hands, and they don’t really need to develope the economy significantly because the aid props it up.

    3. More significantly, similar to what you stated about the Arab states, under the status quo, the Palestinian leadership can sit back without making the concessions needed for peace, without prejudicing the possibility of the future total victory (however unlikely in our Western eyes). They also don’t risk being killed or overthrown by the more extreme elements of their society.

    4. And, finally, similarly to the Israelis, they prefer this state of calm o the alternative of open warfare. The second intifadah had brought palestinian economy decades back, and it is not fully recovered from this even today.

  • joe

    I agree with this rather sanguine view of the status quo but of course the problem is how durable is it in the face of the Iranian unpredictability factor? not only whether or not Iran succeeds in attaining a nuke but also what Israel may do to prevent it. Perhaps a war between Israel and the Suni on one side and the Shia on the other will sort things out but who or what will be left?

  • Paul Freedman

    Unless the Arab acceptance is temporary and, as Egypt aligns its nuclear foreign policy with Iran, even the Sunni oligarchies have decided tht they can work with the Shia “arc of rejection”, force denuclearization on Israel, and, notwithstanding treaties and day to day (grudging) de facto non-belligerency, through isolation, delegitimizing, and sanctions, reach a strategic tipping point down the road when the Crusader Kingdom can be removed once and for all.

  • Roy

    Walter’s remarks echo some of the arguments made by Hussein Ibish, of the American Task Force on Palestine. He discussed the progress Palestinians have made over the decades with Jeffrey Goldberg, in an excellent interview. Unfortunately, a recognition of that progress has not been forthcoming among much of the international community, including large parts of the political left. An apposite excerpt:

    These people are trapped in the language of the Fifties and Sixties. You’re talking about a worldview is anachronistic in the most fundamental sense. It doesn’t recognize any of the changes that have taken place since then. For example, the strategic situation that’s emerged in the Middle East, where the Arab states and the Arabs generally have a lot of other things to worry about other than Israel. This is a world in which a lot of Gulf states are extremely concerned about Iraq, and where there are Arab states — Jordan and Egypt — that have treaties with Israel, where Syria has a motive to be civil with Israel that is unpleasant but completely stable, and where it’s a very different environment than simply the Arabs and Israelis are enemies. The other thing that they’ve missed completely, and this is sort of the amazing thing, is the total transformation in American official policy toward the Palestinians over the past 20 years. Twenty-one years ago, there was no contact ever between the U.S. and the PLO. No contact, zero, and no Palestinian statehood is the consensus American foreign policy and it is a national security priority under Obama. People in the House, key positions like the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Howard Berman, chair of the Subcommittee on the Middle East, Gary Ackerman, Nita Lowey on Appropriations – all of them Jewish American members of Congress, stalwart supporters of Israel, and all of them committed to peace based on two states. And all of them, by the way, who were on the host committee of the American Task Force on Palestine gala last week.

    The whole interview is highly recommended. Goldberg and Ibish have a sort of dialogue going, and for my money, its the most pertinent, realistic and hopeful conversation going on Israel/Palestine, far more attuned to the nuances of the issues than most of the analysis coming from self-styled experts. Here’s the link:

    http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2009/11/hussein-ibish-on-the-fantasy-world-of-one-staters/29425/

  • bgates

    All the advantages accruing to the Palestinians – unprecedented international aid, political concessions from Israel – are due to the continuation of the status quo. The positive developments in Israel are in spite of it. Can you seriously argue that a treaty with India is dependent on a continuing stalemate with the Palestinians? Would Sunni fear of Iran dissipate if the PA and Hamas agreed to peaceful coexistence with Israel?

  • Norwegian Shooter continues to cram all available data into his previous categories, regardless of whether they contradict the category or not. Perhaps he is a good metaphor for the Middle-East in general.

  • M. Report

    Silver Linings In the Middle East

    Short Version:
    “I have been over into the future, and it works.”
    – Lincoln Steffens on the Soviet Union @ 1921

  • ChrisGreen

    “Actually everybody sees not one, but two paths to a viable alternative: Israel can annex the West Bank and Gaza and give full citizenship to all Palestinians; or they can abandon a Jewish controlled “Greater Israel” and return to basically the 1967 borders.”

    The first path you describe may work . . . maybe. The second path you describe wouldn’t. There are small elements in both Gaza and the West Bank for whom, according to their own words, the fight will never end until Jews are driven completely out of Palestine. There are even larger groups of Palestinians for whom the fight will never end until the boundaries are reset to pre-1948 UN resolution borders, including the Right of Return. Both of these are impossible solutions. I’m sure you are aware of the disconnect between what Palestinians say to Westerners and what they say to their own people.

    I do agree with you that Israel would not be under any imminent danger if the US stopped sending aid. This isn’t 1967 and Israel’s neighbors are not longer hell bent on it’s destruction. After all, Israel is a convenient scapegoat and Egyptian honor/face, at least, was repaired with the recapture of the Sinai.

  • joe

    “It is likely that the increasing pluralism of a Middle East less and less defined by such concepts as an ‘indivisible Arab Muslim nation’ will be a more hospitable place for non-Arab, non-Sunni states. In such a Middle East Israel will not be the one glaring exception to an otherwise uniform pattern; it will be one of many elements in a region whose political structure will increasingly reflect its rich cultural, religious and linguistic diversity.”

    Professor Mead, I hate to say it but this is just Pollyannaish conjecture. The mere fact that Arab nations are willing to work with Israel in an unofficial capacity, when exigencies demand, does not announce a new era of ‘pluralism’ in the Middle East; it reflects the weakness of the Arab countries’ capacities: Egypt and Jordan are the only countries that have officially recognized Israel. The other Arab states refuse to acknowledge Israel’s de jure existence. Facts on the ground are of course different, but if you refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of my state from its inception until the present day, I would characterize that unhappy state of relations as ‘zero-sum’.
    The indivisible Arab Nation, as a transnational actor, was mortally wounded in ’73 and died in 1979. The indivisible Arab culture has been around in the Levant and Maghreb since the wars of conquest and is not going anywhere. Historically, the Sunni and Shi’a states have never had peace. The Fatimid Empire ruled Egypt for centuries yet now only 3-5% of the population is Shi’a. Look at the treatment of Shi’a minorities in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Qatar etc. or conversely the treatment of Sunnis in Shi’a states—okay, just have Iran here but it’s not good. When the Druze or Alawities fight for their own account or for Syria, Lebanon and Israel, they fight for survival. I do not think I need to mention how Christians are treated in the Middle East, Baha’i or non-“people of the book”. Even if not properly enforced in western history, the region has no history of a cuius religio, cuius regio legal precept. (As an aside, think of the survival of the Emirate of Granada after the battle of las navas de Tolosa in 1212 until 1492. The Emirate much like Israel was a hated occupier, being heathens and all, but tolerated as a bastion of trade with Levant and beyond. Similar to Israel, it was powerful militarily comprised of approximately 60 fortified towns and able to call upon a sizeable and competent army. The Spanish Kingdoms did not attempt to conquer it for almost 300 years. Can you think that the Arab states will leave Israel alone in relative peace for a similar period of time, even though the Palestinians, the Egyptians and the Jordanians all benefit economically from its existence? I do not see it happening.)
    Granted these examples are intra-State minorities, but the proposition that a more pluralistic Middle East will be a more peaceful one would be an historical anomaly though a welcome one.

  • Frank from Texas

    I think Mr. Mead is right in that the status quo exists as it’s less painful than any readily acheivable alternatives.

    It keeps the victims in place for ready use by the various players, it gives Europeans a cause to feel holier than thou over, and it doesn’t cost much for to maintain as the people keeping the misery going, are not the ones living in it.

    The real answer, mentioned very rarely, but mentioned on occasion is not the two state solution, but the 5 state solution:

    Have Egypt take back Gaza and accept the residents as their long lost countrymen, have Jordan take back the “Trans Jordan” and do the same, have Syria accept a tiny piece of lowlands East of the Golan Heights as “enough” (Israel can’t realistically trust them with the actual heights in this or any foreseeable lifetime).

    I don’t think that there’s anything resembling a valid territorial claim at play at the Lebanese border, Shebaa Farms being at best a red herring, but if it made a comprehensive and permanent deal possible, I guess some sort of deal could be made to happen.

  • K2K

    I am very glad to see a comparison to the US/Cuba frozen conflict and Israel/Palestinians. The current U.S. administration refuses to engage Cuba through proximity talks. Quite ironic when one considers that the U.S. should be leading by example with the former U.S. colony of Cuba, instead of first coercing the proximity talks on Israel and the U.S.-preferred Palestinians (Abbas and unelected Fayyad).
    Even more tragic is the U.S. making the I/P confilct so central to U.S. foreign policy when the actual centrality is Lebanon-Hezbollah-Syria-Iran.
    Why is no one even mentioning self-determination for the Kurds?

  • Pingback: Walter Russell Mead on “frozen conflicts” and Israel « Spin, strangeness, and charm()

  • Kolya

    One thing one might consider before looking at silver linings – the forces of political Islam (Iran, Muslim brotherhood) have established two beachheads directly bordering the state of Israel. Their appeal to Muslims living in the Middle East is “follow us – we will be strong enough to defeat Israel and obtain ‘justice'”.

    Until they have suffered a credible defeat, it is unlikely that there will much of a peace. To win against these forces Israel will have to fight in a particularly brutal way (at least to Western eyes).

    However Israel’s friends in the West are progressively tying it’s hands behind it’s back. Israel will be made to choose between survival versus international political legitimacy because it’s enemies will never be held to the same moral standards.

  • More reasonable words from J Street Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami:

    “The only way that Israel will remain secure as a democratic, Jewish home and the only way Jerusalem will be recognized by the world as Israel’s capital is if we come up with a reasonable plan for sharing the city. That was certainly the vision underlying the parameters of a final resolution on Jerusalem laid out by the Prime Minister’s close friend, President Bill Clinton, in the year 2000. That vision remains the likely basis of any peace agreement today as well: Jerusalem encompassing the internationally recognized capitals of two states, Israel and Palestine; what is Arab should be Palestinian, what is Jewish should be Israeli, and what is holy to both requires a special care to meet the needs of all.”

    And he quotes from Olmert as well:

    “Former Prime Minister Olmert spoke eloquently several years ago about that legacy at a memorial service in honor of the late Prime Minister: ‘[Rabin] understood that if we want to maintain Israel as democratic Jewish state, we must concede to a lack of choice and to our great torments and give up parts of our homeland for which we dreamt for generations of yearning and prayers… We must also give up Arab neighborhoods in eastern Jerusalem and return to the seed of the territory that is the State of Israel up until 1967, with obligatory amendments as a result of the reality created in the meantime.’ “

  • Dan Hamilton

    This article is BS. There can be no peace because the goals of each group cannot be met. The Jews want to live and the Palestinians and Muslims want them dead. And believe it. They have said it for the last 50 years, non-stop. The only possible peace would be if the Jews would die or leave. You cannot make peace with people who will kill their own children as long as they can kill you.
    The Muslims laugh at fools like the author. He makes it possible for them to win.

  • Luke Lea

    Is this your view for the long-term or just the time being — until this radical Islamacist generation burns itself out?

    I noticed you said nothing about demographic trends both within Israel and in the occupied territories?

  • Thanks, Roy, for the link to Hussein Ibish. Refreshing and exciting to hear such clarity and common sense from the other side.

  • Sam

    Unfortunately regional-in the middle East-and global powers live on conflicts,peace is contradictory to their interests.
    The two-state solution is a mere transformation of the present conflict into a more eternal one,since geography dictates its natural needs.
    One simple need of geography is demand and supply,simply a 30,000 square kilometer is unable to supply the demands of an explosive population of both Israelis and Palestinians.
    1-Re-drawing of the political map of the Middle East since last time i.e Sykes-Picot at the beginning of last century,and transferring the Gazan and West bank Palestinians into a state of their own in Trans-Jordan or Saudi Arabia,with adequate compensation and international help,will solve the status quo.
    2-If the US and its allies decide to go with the above suggestion,they can implement it within 24 hours-in principle=and over a couple of years in realty.
    Almost all the political entities in the middle east,specially the oil rich ones,have been established under the auspices of Western powers ,and Western powers continue to safe guard these entities on a daily bases,they easily can ask them to do what is expected of them.
    If they refuse,which I highly doubt,Saddam Hussain’s example can be easily sited,although Saddam did not refuse at any time what is asked of him,at his final hours he pleaded complete allegiance and subservience to the US and its allies,but the die was cast.
    So the status quo lies in the hands of the US and its allies only.
    Global support can easily be mustered,China,Russia….will be brought on board.

  • Barry Meislin

    The author says all the right things, making it appear that the status-quo is, for better or worse, caused by—and in the interest of—all parties. That he does not, in these days of castigating Israel for the absence of peace in the region (and most other ills besides), engage in the usual bashing of Israel makes him appear to be even-handed, judicious, and earnest, which no doubt he is.

    Nonetheless, the author ignores the elephant(elephants?) standing in the middle of the living room:

    1. Hamas, supported by Iran, funded by Iran, armed by Iran, trained by Iran, wishes to wipe Israel off the map.
    2. The Palestinian Authority, funded by practically everybody (but with no real authority), demands that Israel withdraw to the 1967 armistice lines, demands that Israel agree to the repatriation of Palestinian refugees and their descendants into those pre-1967 armistice lines, refuses to recognize Israel as a Jewish State, and continues to fund media barrages that consistently villify the State of Israel and Jews, while denying any historical link between Jews and the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea.
    3. Hizbullah, supported by Iran, funded by Iran, armed by Iran, trained by Iran, wishes to wipe Israel off the map.
    4. Israel withdrew from South Lebanon and from Gaza.
    5. Iran, a member of the UN in good standing, has declared its intent to destroy the State of Israel on several occasions.
    6. Syria supports Iran and supports Hizbullah.
    7. Turkey supports Syria, Iran and Hamas, and the P.A.
    8. Washington, having decided that the creation of a Palestinian State is the cornerstone of peace in the region, is making the creation of a Palestinian State its primary goal of its Middle-East policy (such as it is).
    9. Hamas and the Palestinian Authority are declared enemies. The Palestinian Authority is being propped up by all those who want to forestall the inevitable: Hamas’s takeover of the West Bank (along the model of its takeover of Gaza).

    Now one can understand why he ignores all of these elephants. Indeed, most of us prefer to do the same.

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