Monday, November 24, 2014
Sorry for the bad formatting - I'm on the road! Will fix it up in a few days!
A new US president is two years away. The current president's Middle East policy is significant for its repeated failures. Even if he thought the following ideas were excellent (which he probably wouldn't), President Obama has neither the reputation nor, to use Ambassador Beasley's words, the ticker to implement them.
I thus (not so!) humbly offer the following for the next US president.
In two years, the Middle East will look largely like it does now. Syria will remain a mess, as will large parts of Iraq. The Israeli-Palestinian dispute will be no closer to resolution. Iran will be closer to nuclear weapons capability (regardless of whether an agreement will be reached in Vienna later today), but will not likely be either a declared or undeclared nuclear state. The Status Quo and Resistance Blocs will remain in existence. Turkey will have continued its drift to Islamist dictatorship, but will still be a NATO member state and still won't be an EU member. The EU will remain economically weak, a political counter-weight to the US on some international issues (e.g. Israel), but will still be all talk, with very limited capability for action. The Kurds will remain stateless.
Some things will have changed, however. The non-existent state of 'Palestine', which still won't exist, will have likely been recognised by the UN and most Western countries, with the exception of the US, Australia, possibly Canada and perhaps some former Warsaw Pact countries like Poland. This recognition will have led 'Palestine' to pursue Israel in the International Criminal Court in a 'lawfare' strategy. The US will not be trusted at all by its allies to keep its word, and will not be feared at all by its foes to follow through on threats.
To finish this introduction, I offer two final points. First, globalisation has impacted on the Middle East, too, and few problems there can be analysed or resolved in isolation from broader Middle Eastern and external actors and influences. Second, the basic wants and needs of major players in the region will remain as they are now. This lets us plot a Middle East strategy for an incoming president.
What do the major players want?
- Security, with or without the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza
The Status Quo Bloc (in particular, Egypt and Saudi Arabia)
- No threats to their internal stability
- To see Iran weak and contained
- A reversal of fortunes for organised Islamist groups, including Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and Islamic State
- No independence or autonomy for non-Arab Sunni religious or ethnic minorities anywhere in Middle East (e.g. Kurds)
- No threats to its internal stability
- To be the regional hegemon
- To export its revolution to Shi'ite majority countries / areas
- To see Israel weakened and destroyed
- To see America exit the Middle East
- To see organised Sunni Islamist groups emboldened in or adjacent to countries at odds with Iran (Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia
- A reversal of fortunes for a Islamic State
Kurds (noting they are divided)
- Independence or autonomy in areas where they are the majority (e.g. Parts of Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria)
Palestinians - Fatah
- Political survival, maintenance of control of Palestinian Authority
- Re-establishment of authority over Gaza / weakening of Hamas
- Palestinian state in West Bank and Gaza regardless of concessions made, though with an eye on political survival (which requires no concessions)
Palestinians - Hamas
- Expanded unrest in West Bank, Jerusalem and rest of Israel
- Weakening of Fatah
- Expansion and consolidation of its control
- Recognition by increasing number of jihadi groups
- Popular dissatisfaction of rulers in Sunni countries
America's strategic interests
American strategic interests in the Middle East are few and simple: security for Israel; unrestricted flow of energy sources for the global economy; stability and security for those countries that seek to help the US pursue its interests; and a weakening of those parties that oppose US interests. Second-tier interests include the establishment of a Palestinian state and the spread of human rights in the region. These second tier interests cannot contradict the first. This is why, to date, there is no Palestinian state and human rights are only protected in one Middle Eastern country, Israel.
These interests have not changed in decades. What has changed over time is the priority placed on these interests by different administrations and circumstance, and the consequent willingness and ability to pursue these interests. In recent decades, Iran and those parties it sponsors have become the principal challenge to US interests. The US should challenge Iran on as many fronts as possible. Russia has also re-emerged as a challenge to US interests in the region.
I would argue that a new president (either Republican or Democrat), together with a Republican-heavy Congress, will face the right strategic circumstances to stitch together a grand bargain.
Over a period of 12 to 18 months, quiet but intensive diplomacy and action should send strong messages to key regional players. America will demand concrete actions from friendly parties (and tie these demands to implied or stated threats of withheld American financial or military assistance), but will also make numerous promises to key parties.
What America will demand from each party
- Act forcefully to stop settler 'price tag' attacks
- Free, without pre-conditions, a few dozen Fatah prisoners
- Freeze all new buildings in all settlements (though not East Jerusalem) for 12 months, with 'invitation' to extend freeze if regional diplomatic activity has moved in Israel's favour
- Transfer some parts of the West Bank under full Israeli administrative and security control (Area C) to Area B (i.e. to Palestinian administrative control)
- More building approvals for East Jerusalem Arabs
- A publicly expressed willingness to meet with Arab officials or leaders to discuss the Saudi peace initiative
- An expressed willingness to recognise the 'State of Palestine' in a reciprocal arrangement for Palestinian recognition of Israel as the 'Jewish state'
The idea is to provide Fatah with some victories as a result of diplomacy, not violence
- No more incitement or implied encouragement of violence in Government-owned media
- No more implied encouragement of lone wolf or any other attacks against civilians (including settlers) or soldiers by anyone paid a wage for or by Fata
- No more unilateral actions vis-a-vis the UN and other multilateral organisations
- Renewed attempts to fight corruption, including within Fatah
- A positive reply to the Israeli suggestion of mutual recognition
The idea is to provide certainty to Israel that the Palestinian leadership has reconciled itself to Israel's ongoing existence
- An announcement that it (preferably under a Gulf Cooperation Council or Arab League label) will open a trade office, to deal with the Palestinian Authority and Israel
- A (secret) commitment to keep down oil prices
The idea is to provide a diplomatic umbrella under which the Palestinians can make concessions, and to place economic pressure on Iran and Russia
- A commitment that it is willing to transfer a small part of northern Sinai to Gaza to help over-crowding, but only as part of a final status Israel-Palestinian agreement
The idea is to hold out the promise of a viable Gaza Strip
Status Quo Bloc generally
- Statements welcoming a long-term US military presence in the Middle East as a guarantee against those parties that attempt to undermine sovereignty
- Noticeably fewer anti-Israel resolutions in UN bodies, particularly the General Assembly and Human Rights Council
The idea is that in exchange for renewed American security commitment to the Middle East, Middle Eastern countries will not pretend to their publics that they do not want the US there, and to give Israel assurances of Arab acceptance of Israel's permanency
- Constitutional reform to allow greater rights and influence of Sunni tribes in their regions
- Removal of Iranian financial and military assistance, with the threat that all US assistance will be removed otherwise
- Iraqi cooperation can also be obtained with an American threat to aid in secessionist movements (e.g. Kurds) if Iraqi cooperation is not forthcoming
The idea is remove Iraq from Iran's sphere of influence and help prevent internal conditions that make it susceptible to internal or external undermining
What America will promise, either publicly or privately, as necessary
- A renewed and forceful commitment that it will not allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons or 'breakout capacity', and that sanctions relief will come as a result of good Iranian behaviour, not as an attempt to elicit good behaviour
- Renewed funding and training for Iranian human rights and democratic agitators
- Diplomatic and military assistance against parties fighting Iranian-backed terrorist groups and militias
- A willingness to look the other way (within limits) as Status Quo countries shore up internal stability by preventing organised Islamist groups (such as Muslim Brotherhood) from gaining ground
- A renewed promise to Israel not to allow the UN Security Council and other UN bodies (the latter through threats to funding) to hurt Israel if Israel responds to attacks by Hamas or Hezbollah
- A renewed commitment that America will prevent creeping recognition of Hamas's permanency, with concomitant commitment that if Hamas accepts Quartet demands (recognition of Israel, renunciation of terror, recognition of past Israel-PLO agreements), US and Israel will accept it, trade with Gaza, etc
- A renewed willingness to use American military power (including boots on the ground) to preserve or re-instate sovereignty of the region's countries, but only in active (i.e. boots on the ground) cooperation with relevant militaries
- A deal with Russia to allow eastern Ukraine to secede from Kiev in exchange for cancellation of contracts with Iran in regards to the Bushehr nuclear reactor and air defence weaponry. NATO will cease expanding eastwards. Russian involvement with Syria, especially including its military presence at Lartaka, will no longer be challenged. A commitment that, once Iran is properly contained, the US will work with Saudi Arabia to raise oil prices
The idea is to weaken and contain Iran, to convince America's friends that it will protect them while making clear it's a two-way relationship, to allow Russia a renewed 'privileged sphere of influence' (à la the Cold War) while making clear the US sees the Middle East as its own privileged sphere of influence
Postscript - there is almost no mention in here of Syria. This is not an oversight. There is currently no party aligned with US interests that has a chance of winning. The US should only involve itself militarily to pursue its own interests, and should do so where the outcome and exit strategy is certain. Serious, boots-on-the-ground involvement should only occur in active cooperation with Arab states and, again, only when the outcome and exit strategy are clear and align with American interests.
Saturday, November 15, 2014
Recent articles I've found useful
- Iran's Pragmatic Camp Calls For Exploiting Obama's Weakness To Attain Comprehensive Nuclear Agreement On Tehran's Terms, Middle East Media Research Institute
- Azriel Bermant, Simulation Exercise: The Aftermath of a "Bad Deal" with Iran, Institute for National Security Studies
- Michael Singh, How the US, Not Iran, Is Making Concessions, Wall Street Journal
- Udi Dekel and Omer Einav, The Tension in Jerusalem: Preventing the Eruption of "the Volcano", Institute for National Security Studies
- Shimon Stein and Shlomo Brom, Why Should We Fear the Recognition of a Palestinian State?, Institute for National Security Studies
- Ron Tira, Back to the Idea of Administered Territories, Institute for National Security Studies
- Udi Dekel, The United States and the Coalition versus the Islamic State: Too Limited an Approach, Institute for National Security Studies
- Video Posted By Kurdish News Agency, Posts By ISIS Fighters Suggest Turkish Military Cooperating With ISIS, Middle East Media Research Institute
- Shimon Shamir, Reflections on Isamism:From the Muslim Brotherhood to the Islamic State, Washington Institute for Near East Policy
- Edward Dark, Why arming rebels will fuel Syria's inferno, al-Monitor
- Michel Gurfinkiel, As the World Turns: Will the West Prevail?, Middle East Forum
Saturday, November 08, 2014
Islamic State, the US intervention and Australia
Before I get to the wisdom of the Australian commitment, I will discuss the threat posed by IS and the reason for American intervention.
What is IS?
IS used to be known as ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and, before that, as Islamic State in Iraq (before it joined the Syrian civil war). It was al-qaeda’s franchise in Iraq (and, later, Syria), but ideological and personal differences between the ISIL and al-qaeda leadership saw the former ejected from the latter.
In June this year, ISIL announced the formation of a new Islamic caliphate in areas under its control, which span the Iraq–Syria border. It shortened its name to Islamic State, in part because the border between Syria and Iraq (and even the name Syria) is a colonial imposition.
Why won’t it last?
Notwithstanding its military successes and slick media presence (the reason, in part, so many people know about it, despite it being only one of over 1500 militias active in Syria), IS does not pose the long-term threat that media suggest; its (lack of) longevity is tied to its recruitment methods and fighting ability, and its lack of constituency.
Most IS fighters are not from the areas that IS controls. Indeed, many IS fighters are from other countries, including Australia. However, Australian and other international jihadis have fought with plenty of different groups in Syria; they flock to who they think is winning. Moreover, IS is able to pay its fighters because of all the gold and money it obtained when it overran Iraqi banks earlier this year. Jihadi doctrine aside, being able to pay one’s fighters is an important recruiting agent among Syrian-based militias. If and when Islamic State starts to lose (or lose the ability to pay its fighters), its fighters will desert.
Although IS has scored some impressive military victories, including against the Iraqi army, it remains that most of the people it fights are poorly disciplined, poorly trained and poorly armed. The Iraqi army fits two of these categories. If IS were to come up against a well-trained army, it would not win. That is why it is having trouble overcoming Kurds (both in Syria and Iraq), as these forces are highly disciplined and motivated.
Most importantly, IS lacks constituency. It has imposed its rule on its subjects, and kills or enslaves anyone who outwardly disagrees with it, or who is not a Sunni Arab. And while it is attempting to win hearts and minds among Sunni Arabs in the short term (such as by supplying law and order, reconstruction of infrastructure, education (according to its strict Islamist interpretation) and social services, IS offers nothing in the long term. Crushing restrictions on the way of life lead to economic and social ruin. If IS manages to hold its territory for a couple of years, it will turn it into Afghanistan under the Taliban. IS’s constituents will eventually get sick of IS control, and will either rise against it, or back a party that looks like it could defeat it.
Indeed, one of the reasons IS has short-term support (from Sunni Arabs) in areas under its control is because people in these situations tend to back the winners. You’re not going to back a losing militia (even if you’d like it to win) if, because you backed that party, you will be killed, or have your land taken from you. IS will have surface-level support from locals for as long as it is winning. As soon as a different group with the will and capability to defeat IS comes against it—whether it be a secular Syrian militia, a foreign army or another Islamist militia—popular support (and fighters) will leave IS. This lack of natural constituency (and the fact that its severe form of ruling will breed resentment) is the biggest weakness of IS, which is why it will not last.
Why is the US intervening?
IS is not on the cusp of over-running the Iraqi capital or winning the Syrian civil war. And it had scored impressive military victories in both countries long before the US decision to intervene. Moreover, the US knows degrading and destroying IS will not end the Syrian civil war; if and when IS is defeated, other jihadi groups will fill the vacuum. Indeed, it’s not even about IS victories in Iraq—IS’s successes in Iraq is a symptom, not the disease. The disease is a very badly-managed central government that alienated many Iraqis. Getting rid of IS will not solve Iraq’s problems.
The second relates to the bigger picture. The members of the Status Quo Bloc have been extraordinarily upset with US Middle East policy over the last couple of years, because of softening policies in regards to the Resistance Bloc and hardening policies in regards to the Status Quo Bloc. (A proper examination would take an entire post, not one paragraph, but quick examples are the perceived ignoring of the 2009 Green Movement in Iran, attempts at reconciliation with Iran since that time, turning away from Egypt’s Mubarak during the January 2011 revolution and the harsh response to the counter-revolution that removed the Muslim Brotherhood from power, and its dropping of red lines in regards to the Syrian Government’s actions in that country’s civil war.) I would note that the Status Quo Bloc consists of the US’s friends in the Middle East, who look to Washington to guarantee their security, and have been increasingly concerned about the future. Read this post to understand the Middle East’s big picture.
And while the members of the Status Quo Bloc still rate Iran’s march toward nuclear capability as their biggest threat, they have been frightened by IS successes due to the popularity of Islamism throughout much of the Sunni Middle East. If IS kept on growing, it could destabilise Jordan, and it might earn the loyalty of more and more Arabs, thus potentially threatening some of the Status Quo monarchies/dictatorships with internal Islamist rumblings. (As in support for hamas, popularity for the group tends to be higher among those people that don’t have to live under its yoke.)
By taking action against IS, and by strong-arming the Arab states into officially and (in some cases actually) taking part of this coalition, the US is shoring up its support among the members of the Status Quo Bloc. The US is saying, ‘we are still the guarantor Middle East security, and you Arab states still need us.’ The Status Quo states have been pleading with the US to deal with IS, and now the US has listened to them.
Should Australia be participating?
But why is Australia participating? IS does not threaten Australia. Yes, Australian jihadis fighting with IS might return to Australia, further radicalised and up-skilled. But if IS wasn’t there, Australian jihadis could (and do) join other groups. It is in Australia’s interests to maintain our alliance with the US, and this is why Australia is involved. That said, I believe Australia could have gotten out of this war. Unlike a Labor government, which may feel it would have to prove its loyalty to the alliance with the US, a Liberal government does not have to. It could have been argued relatively easily that we’ve done our time in Afghanistan and Iraq, and now it’s time to consolidate the budget, etc. Moreover, unlike other US interventions—such as 2003—the US is not struggling for credibility this time. In 2003, not many Western countries wanted to be part of the US invasion of Iraq, and it was important to the US that Australia was involved. That is not the case this time. Australia could have sent over a few dozen advisers and left it at that, but sending over warplanes is a rather large budgetary commitment. I believe that in weighing up the pros and cons of Australia’s involvement, the cons easily outweigh the pros.
Monday, October 27, 2014
Articles I've found useful this week
- Katherine Wilkens, A Kurdish Alamo: Five Reasons the Battle for Kobane Matters, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
- Semih Idiz, UN Vote Confirms Turkey's Waning Influence, Al-Monitor
- Amberin Zaman, What Do the Kobani Airdrops Mean for Regional Politics?, Al-Monitor
- Ali Hashem, The Islamic State's media warfare, Al-Monitor
- Ben Caspit, Kerry's Three Israel-Palestinian Options, Al-Monitor
- Hussein Ibish, The Three-Way Israeli-Palestinian Impasse, Now (h/t Allon)
- Ben Caspit, Is Hezbollah Preparing a Large Assault on Israel?, Al-Monitor
- Oil prices Continue to Define Geopolitics, Stratfor
- Jan Techau, Four Reason Why European Foreign Policy Sleeps, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
- Hilal Khashan, Arab Uprisings May Doom Middle East Christians, Middle East Quarterly
Labels: Useful articles
Tuesday, October 21, 2014
Talking Turkey: In search of strategic direction
In 2002, Turks elected an Islamist government, the AKP (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, ‘Justice and Development Party’), which began a very slow, very careful and very clever process of creeping Islamisation throughout the country. Although it would be wrong to say it turned its back on Europe, the Turks pretty much gave up on ever becoming an EU member and returned their focus to the Middle East.
In pursuing its Middle East policy, the AKP Government dallied with one of the Middle East's two main blocs, the Resistance Bloc (for a backgrounder on these blocs, see ‘What is the Big Picture?’). This wasn’t because it agreed with Iran’s regional hegemonic ambitions, but because Turkey’s interests were aligned with Iran—it wanted to change the status quo in the Middle East, it didn’t like Israel, it didn’t like the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and it didn’t want Kurds, which are present in Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq, to seek independence as a result of that invasion. I’ll be writing more on the Kurds further down.
Eventually, however, Turkey tired of the Resistance Bloc. What tipped the scales was a confluence of events in 2011 and 2012. In mid-2011, Syria’s President (dictator) Assad (a paid-up member of the Resistance Bloc) rejected Turkish attempts to moderate Syrian behaviour in the first few months of the Syrian civil war. Turkey’s leaders clearly took this as a personal slight (evidence of immaturity in policy making!) and shifted Turkey from believing it had the ability to help engender a peaceful resolution to making its regional priority the removal of the Assad Government.
Previous to that, popular protests had resulted in the removal of the Egyptian President (dictator) Mubarak in February 2011 and the election of a Muslim Brotherhood government headed by Morsi in June that year. In January 2012, hamas’s chief left Damascus and, in doing so, left the Resistance Bloc. Turkey saw in these changes the emergence of a nascent Sunni Islamist Bloc to challenge the dichotomous dominance of the Status Quo Bloc and the Resistance Bloc.
Turkey bet heavily on the success of the Sunni Islamist Bloc, with strong support for the Brotherhood in Egypt and hamas in Gaza. It also turned a blind eye to people and weapons entering Syria from Turkey, to fight with jabhat a-nusra (al-qaeda’s Syrian franchise), the Islamic State and other nasty groups.
But hamas’s position hasn’t improved (it has actually worsened). The Muslim Brotherhood over-reached in Egypt, attempting to impose Islamist policies too quickly, and were booted out after mass protests brought the military back to power in July 2012.
The Sunni Islamist Bloc appears to be dissolving before it could properly solidify, and by acting so dramatically against the interests of both the Status Quo and Resistance Blocs (and losing), Turkey has significantly hurt its interests in the region.
Turkey’s short-sighted policy on Syria has hurt it. It sought to become a champion for Sunni rights (and thus popular among Sunni Arabs) when it became so adamantly against the Syrian Government. However, Islamist militias (like Islamic State) that Turkey unofficially helped, have been killing Sunnis as willy-nilly as the Syrian Government. And Arabs in the Middle East know this.
The recent actions of Islamic State in closing in on the town of Ayn al-Arab (commonly called Kobani) have presented Turkey with another opportunity to lose. Turkey, which is deeply nationalist, has a large population of Kurds, which are also nationalist (Like Turks, Kurds are mostly Sunni. And like Turks, Persians and Jews, they are a separate ethnicity to the Middle East’s majority ethnic group, Arabs). Turkey has been in conflict with the PKK (Partiya Karker Kurdistana, ‘Kurdistan Workers Party’) for decades. The PKK is the dominant Kurdish group in Turkey, and is aligned with the dominant Kurdish group in Syria, the PYD (Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat, ‘Democratic Union Party’).
After the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, the PYD declared autonomy in three areas of Syria, one of which is Ayn al-Arab. Islamic State is now closing in on this area, threatening to massacre everyone in it. Turkey, despite being in NATO, and despite its troops sitting idly by watching the spectacle from just across the border, has been doing nothing to stop this. It does not want a successful Kurdish enclave bordering Turkey—least of all one run by PKK allies. What it really wants is for the PYD to come begging Turkey to intervene, after which Turkey would likely invade the area to set up a safe haven, but thereby remove the PYD’s autonomy.
To ensure the PYD didn’t succeed, Turkey was not allowing any Kurds from Turkey enter Ayn al-Arab to fight with their brethren. This policy has been risking the delicate peace talks that Turkey and the PKK have been undertaking for the past couple of years. Certainly, if Islamic State succeeds in overcoming the enclave and committing a massacre, that peace process will be ruined. It would also significantly damage Turkey’s reputation in the West, given that Turkey is officially in the coalition meant to ‘degrade and destroy’ Islamic State.
But now, a day after Turkey lost (to New Zealand!) its bid to win a seat on the UN Security Council, Turkish President Erdogan received a phone call from US President Obama, who clearly put the hard word on him. Turkey has now said that it will allow Kurds from Iraq to enter Ayn al-Arab to fight with their brethren. (The dominant Kurdish group in Iraq are rivals to the PKK and PYD (even to the point of closing the border between Iraqi Kurdistan and a Syrian Kurdish enclave on the Iraq–Syria border!), and are quite friendly with Turkey, mostly because they are rivals with the PKK). At the same time, the US dropped supplies, including arms, into the Ayn al-Arab enclave. So while ensuring it’s Iraqi Kurds, not Turkish Kurds, entering Ayn al-Arab is a win, of sorts, for Turkey, the reality is, it is now looking increasingly like Kurdish autonomy in Syria will survive for a little while longer. Turkey will not be able to establish its safe haven, and its policy of sitting by and doing nothing has helped poison Turkish–Kurdish relations even more, and made Turkey look terrible in the eyes of the West.
Strategically and tactically, the AKP Government in Turkey, in power since 2002, has taken the country out on a limb, leaving it dangling with fewer and fewer friends and no good options.
Saturday, October 18, 2014
Articles I have found useful this week:
What have I missed? I'd welcome recommendations.
- An interview with a former Israeli defence minister on hamas, the Israel-US relationship and Israeli Arabs: www.al-monitor.com
- How the international community just delivered victory for hamas after the July-August war: www.gatestoneinstitute.org (h/t AIJAC)
- More evidence that hamas won the recent war: www.timesofisrael.com
- Proof (if anyone needs it) that Ehud Yaari remains the best writer on Palestinian affairs: www.washingtoninstitute.org
- Why IS is successful, and the tactics required to defeat it: www.al-monitor.com
- Bad Turkish strategy vis-a-vis IS and the Kurds: www.al-monitor.com
- An update on IS activities in Iraq: www.washingtoninstitute.org
What have I missed? I'd welcome recommendations.
Labels: Useful articles
Tuesday, October 14, 2014
Why does Israel have such a bad image in the West?
But since 1967 (when Israel captured Gaza and the West Bank in the Six Day War), Israel’s image has steadily worsened. The reasons are complex but, broadly, it’s because in the years after 1967, the Palestinians and the Arab world changed their rhetoric on Israel. Increasingly, the language used was about national self-determination—to have a Palestinian state alongside Israel, not instead of it.
This message worked and, in the West, the Arab–Israel conflict morphed from being about Arabs trying to destroy Israel (unjustified) to Palestinians trying to gain independence (justified). The title of the conflict also changed; the Arab–Israel conflict became the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.
Just as they came to perceive that the post-1967 Palestinian goal was to establish a state in Israeli-occupied land, Western observers increasingly perceived Israel’s refusal to cede that land as the reason for continued conflict. Israel gradually moved from being good to being bad.
(I would note two things. First, stated Palestinian objectives did not change overnight, but evolved throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, as did Western perceptions of Israel. Second, many friends of Israel are concerned that stated Palestinian goals mask a desire to destroy the Jewish state. This post does not enter that debate; it’s about perceptions.)
Israel justifies its refusal to cede land by citing security concerns. However, this is not accepted in the West, which believes that ceding land would resolve the conflict, ending Israeli security concerns.
To the West, Israeli settlements in the West Bank are further proof that Israel is not interested in peace. And, indeed, Israel has never made a convincing argument justifying the settlements.
Filtering facts to prevent cognitive dissonance
Because Western individuals, media and officials perceive the conflict through the ‘Israel is the reason for the lack of peace’ prism, they interpret some facts and disregard others in a way that confirms their assumptions (we all do this—ask any psychologist!)
Thus, that terrorism increased in the years after the peace process began is not interpreted that Palestinians used their newfound autonomy (and the arms and money that came with it) to increase attacks on Israel. Nor is it interpreted that Palestinian rulers could not control their own population, which included extremists wanting to attack Israel (both interpretations would have suggested slowing down the rate of Palestinian autonomy until it had proved itself capable of ruling). Instead, the increase in attacks was interpreted as Israel not giving up land fast enough. The answer was to pressure Israel to give up more land quicker.
Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005. The immediate result was that, for the first time in history, Palestinians gained sovereignty over land they claimed. Within a year, hamas took over, killed its internal rivals, established an Islamist dictatorship and increased its attacks on Israel, resulting in three wars in six years (2009, 2012, 2014). The Western interpretation was not that withdrawing from land before Palestinians are ready to rule it results in more violence, but that Israel provokes hamas due to its policy (along with Egypt) of placing Gaza under embargo.
If this is perception, what is reality?
If the Western perception that ‘Israel is bad because it is the reason for the ongoing conflict because it doesn’t give up land’ is incorrect (or too simplistic), what is the real reason for the ongoing conflict?
The goal of the Arabs in the first decades of the conflict was to end Israel’s existence. In the years after 1967, some Arab parties changed their goals to establishing a Palestinian state alongside (not instead of) Israel. However, other Arab parties continued the goal of wanting to destroy Israel. Thus, Israel’s security fears of people wanting to destroy Israel (no matter how much land it cedes) are valid. But so is the West’s view that Israel not giving up land is an obstacle to peace.
Just as the fight to eradicate the Jewish state continues, the Israeli settlement movement is pursued by Israelis that don’t want a non-Jewish state anywhere in what they call the Land of Israel (which includes the West Bank). The Israeli government allows the settlements to increase in population. However, this is more a function of it pandering to powerful factions in Israeli domestic politics, than a sign the Israeli government wants to prevent the creation of a Palestinian state.
Israel would have the political ability to remove the settlements and withdraw from the West Bank if the majority of Israelis and the Israeli government became convinced a Palestinian state would not endanger Israel. This won’t happen by badgering Israel into making more concessions (although that is also necessary), but by ensuring the Palestinian government is able to rule. This means the Palestinian government needs to end corruption within its ranks (for two reasons: a major source of hamas’s popularity is the Palestinian government’s corruption; and corruption deters would-be foreign investors, which are necessary to enable an economically viable Palestinian state). Also, the West needs to encourage the Palestinian government to defeat hamas and all other Palestinian factions that want to destroy Israel.
However, for the Palestinian government to wholly sign on to peace with Israel, and to embark on a process of destroying hamas et al for that reason, the principle of making peace with Israel needs to be accepted. Currently it is not. Anyone in the Arab world that encourages ‘normalisation’ with Israel is ostracised. This policy is encouraged by Arab governments. While this might be a popular choice, it doesn’t give the Palestinian government the political umbrella it needs to take the courageous actions required to make itself viable, encourage Israel to withdraw from land and defeat its enemies. Thus, the Arab states need to change their approach to the Israeli–Palestinian dispute.
This is not to say that Israel has no role to play. Just as the Arab world needs to give the Palestinian government political cover to take pro-peace actions, and just as the Palestinian government needs to take those actions, Israel must provide rewards to the Palestinian government for doing so. Currently, most achievements by Palestinians vis-à-vis Israel (and there are few) are perceived as coming as a result of violence against Israel. This encourages more violence, and creates popularity for those groups participating in violence. If rewards come to those groups that advocate peaceful action, and more rewards come when peaceful actions are taken, it creates legitimacy for peaceful parties.
The international community can encourage both Israel and the Palestinians to take pro-peace actions. But most Western actions do the opposite. The West sees Palestinians as justified, and so offers Palestinians rewards—recognition at the UN, millions in aid, etc. These rewards do not stop when Palestinians take anti-peace actions (such as celebrating violence against Israel, ruling out future negotiations or ignoring corruption). Indeed, such anti-peace actions are blamed on Israel for not being quicker to withdraw from land, thus encouraging Palestinians to take more anti-peace actions. Rewarding bad behaviour will only encourage more bad behaviour.
Israel is seen as unjustified because it refuses to cede land, and is routinely criticised by the UN and others. But Israel is not withdrawing from land because it is genuinely scared of what will happen if it does. In order to overcome its fear, it needs to know the international community has its back. Unremitting condemnation from the West has convinced Israel that everyone (except America) is against it. This has made Israel less willing to withdraw from land.
In the coming months, Palestinians will likely seek a Security Council resolution instead of negotiations with Israel. If the Security Council (or General Assembly) says yes, this will reward Palestinian intransigence, which will encourage more intransigence, which will breed more Israeli stubbornness. Serious carrots and sticks need to be applied to both parties to force them back to the negotiating table and for both sides to enact policies that enable peace to be possible. This is the only way peace will be engendered.