Dennis Ross, in “Misreading the Middle East, Again” (US News and World Report), says that the premise – widely accepted by US foreign policy makers – that resolving the Israeli- Palestinian conflict would transform the region is “fundamentally flawed.”
He is correct.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has little to do with the 1,400-year-old Sunni- Shi’ite war, the Yemeni civil war, Iranian hegemony, the rise of Islamic State, Syrian Alawite genocide, Lebanese denominational dysfunction, Egyptian and Turkish fundamentalism, Libyan chaos, Iraqi alignment with Iran, Saudi Wahhabism, the abandonment of the Kurds, or the Islamization of Europe.
Since its creation Israel has been the convenient scapegoat to blame for all the problems of the Middle East. Generations of American foreign policy experts have misunderstood that Israel is an excuse, not a root cause of Muslim factions’ hostility toward one another and the West.
Yet as astute as Ross is in his assessment that Israel is not the primary cause of Middle East instability, he and many foreign experts are still locked into an outdated “territorial toolbox” to resolve the Middle East dysfunctionality. This wrongheaded policy prescription perpetuates conflicts throughout the region, including the Israeli-Palestinian one.
This is in part because most foreign policy experts still recommend recreating the artificially created nation-states of the Sykes-Picot lines of 1916. Just as those borders may be more of an impediment than a guideline for creating a more manageable region, the 1949 armistice lines between Israel and the Arab armies, ending Israel’s War of Independence, need to be seen for what they originally were, cease-fire lines between exhausted armies. American foreign policy experts need to stop viewing the artificially created borders as the exact foundation of regional stability.
In his book Doomed to Succeed: The US-Israel Relationship from Truman to Obama, Ross says he convinced President Barack Obama that only borders and security should be discussed between the Israelis and Palestinians. He reasoned that the issue of the right of return for Palestinian refugees is an “animating myth of the Palestinian national movement” and will never be conceded by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will never accept dividing Jerusalem, considering Israeli political realities.
Ross believes if enough territory could be conceded to the Palestinians, Israel could be convinced that the US could guarantee Israeli security. Ross wrote, “We [Ross and George Mitchell] were in agreement that we needed to lean toward the Palestinians on territory and toward the Israelis on security.”
Unfortunately, this is based on a false political narrative that the armistice lines are an international border, and that the Palestinian Arabs’ desires end at the Green Line.
Since 2010 Middle Eastern jihad enthusiasts have been led by America’s actions to believe its redlines drawn in the Middle Eastern sands can be successfully defied. Therefore Israel, and the US as well, can’t depend on the deterrence value of American commitments to keep a Palestinian state from attacking a more vulnerable, 14.5-km.- wide Israel, plunging everyone, likely including the US, into war.
Strategic depth matters, especially when greater Tel Aviv will be almost as close to the West Bank as Sderot is to Gaza City! We know how well the absence of strategic depth worked out in the disengagement of 2005. Territorial depth has taken on even more importance in the age of Islamic State and non-state actors, and yes – territorial depth still matters in the age of missiles.
Remember, there are just 15 seconds to get to a bomb shelter in Sderot, which is a practical impossibility for people on the 15th floor of a Tel Aviv high-rise.
But the issues of territory, settlements, refugees and Jerusalem leave the impression that if you could just concoct the right diplomatic formula, a resolution of the conflict could be conjured up.
This makes little sense unless you are prepared to deal with the elephant in the room, the overwhelming Palestinian belief that Jews have no rights to any land, that the Jewish narrative is illegitimate.
Last year I recommended that if you really want to make progress and know whether the Palestinians will respect any agreement they sign, you must require each party to accept the narrative of the other. In the Palestinians’ case, that would be to respect in word and deed Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state in the Levant, to acknowledge the 3,000-year-old Jewish history in Israel.
Without that, their dream of conquest would be only encouraged, even if every settlement over the Green Line were abandoned tomorrow. The American foreign policy mind-set must understand this conflict is not about the division of territory.
Even left-leaning Israelis, after being mugged by the reality of the second intifada, moved on to a more realistic assessment of the conflict and the goals of their Palestinian partner. Yet American State Department experts are stuck in an Oslo Accords time warp, refusing to acknowledge that despite the good intentions of the plan, in reality it actually hurt the chances for a peaceful resolution. After 20 years they still refuse to acknowledge the nature of the partner Israel is fated to live with; and what is worse, they refuse to learn why Oslo failed. Defending Oslo has become like a religion, where the divine word of Oslo is sacrosanct, the only legitimate path to peace.
The mantra reads:
• Ignore the intifadas; blame the settlements.
• Ignore the Israeli territorial offers; blame the settlements.
• Ignore the true meaning of Resolution 242 and what Oslo actually said; blame the settlements.
• Ignore the withdrawal from every settlement in Gaza; blame the settlements.
• Ignore the 14,000 missiles directed at civilians on the good side of the Green Line; blame the settlements.
To those stuck in the Oslo time warp, married to a wrongheaded analysis of the Middle East, withdrawal from settlements is the answer to ending the conflict and stabilizing the Middle East.
They claim that all the Palestinians want is good schools, economic opportunity and freedom. If only it were so.
The author is the director of the Middle East Political and Information Network and a regular contributor to The Jerusalem Post. MEPIN is a Middle East research analysis read by members of Congress, their foreign policy advisers, members of the Knesset, journalists and organizational leaders. He regularly briefs members of Congress on issues related to the Middle East.