In light of the Arab uprisings, the US needs to recognize Israel’s policies as obsolete.
by Andrew Parker
There is perhaps nothing more polarizing in the realm of global politics than the Arab-Israeli conflict. Bouts of violence have washed over the region ever since the creation of Israel in 1948. The UN has released countless resolutions on the matter, many currently in varying degrees of implementation. Still the impasse drags on. But at this time of revolution in the once politically stagnant Middle East, there are new opportunities to pursue a comprehensive peace strategy. It also gives The United States a chance to escape its overwhelmingly negative image in the region. I think it is worthwhile to lay out some history and challenge some preconceived notions to make people think about inventive solutions. If the definition of insanity is indeed repetition of an action while expecting a different result each time, then we will need a radically sane approach to overhauling the peace process.
One radical notion is that Israel is not a reliable partner for the United States. Yes, the two countries have been considered allies ever since Israel’s birth as a state. Yes, there is much economic and military cooperation between the two. But part of the reason the peace process has been such an incredible failure is that the United States has an intractable bias towards Israel, whether at the Security Council or the Quartet.
Once upon a time there may have been good reason for this. The creation of Israel coincided fairly neatly with the start of the Cold War and the implementation of the Truman Doctrine, which attempted to contain the spread of communist regimes. In the oil-rich Middle East, it was in the United States’ interest to maintain a positive relationship with a satellite in the region to balance out Soviet-friendly regimes in Syria, Egypt and Iraq. However, this made the United States incapable of being a fair arbiter in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the relationship between the two countries had become so deeply entrenched that it seemed the bond was unbreakable. In addition to this, the US supported dictators like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, who worked with Israel in the blockade of the Gaza Strip while stifling his people’s political expression. Such alliances cost the US dearly with the Arab public, who were bitterly resentful of what they saw as a grave injustice. Groups like al-Qaeda seized on this anger and manipulated the situation to gain sympathy. But with the alliance in place for so many years, it became more a question of maintaining diplomatic stability rather than an effort toward peace with the Palestinians and the region as a whole.
With Egypt slowly moving towards democracy, the United States should take advantage of the situation. An Egypt free of Mubarak is an Egypt that will be far more critical of Israel. Already the Rafah border crossing is set to be opened, eliminating Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip. This proves that Egypt can have a powerful influence on Israeli policy toward the Palestinians. It would be risky for President Obama to be openly critical of Israeli policies due to the Israel lobby and its influence on domestic electoral politics. Even so, he can work through Egypt to apply more pressure to gain the Israeli government’s cooperation, especially on the issue of illegal settlements in the West Bank. This is the very issue that even Middle East envoy George Mitchell, broker of the Northern Ireland peace agreement, could not get Israel to budge on beyond the initial temporary settlement freeze.
Interestingly enough, just a few months into the Arab Spring, the Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah have agreed to a unity deal. Despite Israeli PM Netanyahu’s denunciation of the deal, perhaps it is a sign that Israel will no longer be able to enact a policy of divide and conquer by rejecting the legitimacy of the Hamas faction in the government. Let us remember, Israel was actually critical in setting up Islamist Hamas to counter and destabilize the secular PLO in the 1980s. Ironically, when the Palestinians last held elections, it was Hamas that won a majority freely and fairly by all accounts. This was out of frustration with Fatah’s perceived idleness and/or complicity with the occupation. Israel may not want to deal with Hamas due to its history of advocating violence, but it will have to deal with the monster it helped to create (and not through war, as the disastrous Gaza War in 08/09 proved). MJ Rosenberg has a point that this is a distraction and Hamas would not even be dealing with Israel directly. Rather, it would be Mahmoud Abbas as head of the PLO. Still, I believe this unity deal greatly improves the prospects for peace by narrowing down the number of separate interests at the negotiating table.
There are other reasons Israel is a poor partner to the US. Many argue that we should be partners with Israel because ‘it is the only democracy in the Middle East.’ This notion may soon reach its expiration date in light of recent events in Egypt and Tunisia. In fact, I also doubt Israel was ever a true democracy to begin with. For example, Arabs living in Palestine who did not flee the 1948 war became citizens and could vote, but were subject to heavily discriminatory laws in other areas of life up until 1966. Despite theoretical legal equality, Israeli Arabs continue to face high levels of discrimination which are very well documented by groups like Human Rights Watch. This includes numerous hurdles in securing funding for education and building permits to facilitate population growth. Right-wing parties like Yisrael Beiteinu have even drafted legislation to force Israeli Arab citizens to take an oath of loyalty to the state’s Jewish character. Sadly, these parties continue to gain influence in the Israeli government and such legislation has an ever-growing chance of becoming law. Even at its core founding principles, Israel cannot be a democracy by definition. It cannot simultaneously maintain a Jewish character and guarantee equal treatment for non-Jewish citizens. This is especially true when looking at population trends. While the ratio of Jews to Arabs in Israel is currently about 4:1, how will Israelis maintain a Jewish state when their majority narrows over time? A state founded on an ethno-religious basis like this can only masquerade as a democracy. It would be as if the United States were a White Protestant nation by law (and while there are people who believe it should be that way, those people are fortunately a pissant minority), with Hispanics barred from doing anything to threaten the country’s inherent white character, despite being a rapidly growing demographic. Additionally, though the Palestinians in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza Strip are not actually citizens of Israel, they are without a reliable Palestinian state to look out for them. They are under such systemic occupation that their economy pretty much relies on services, utilities and trade through Israel. As such, I think Israel has a responsibility to protect these people’s well-being, one that they have largely ignored. Arguably a modern democracy would not allow the people it is partly responsible for to face such harsh conditions while its own preferred citizens flourish. Association with Israel should be embarrassing for the United States in this regard, seeing as we struggled so hard and finally succeeded at overcoming our own racial segregation and institutional discrimination.
The biggest problem I have with the peace process is the insistence that there should be two separate states, Israel and Palestine. This has been the template for the post-mandate era in Palestine with the UN Partition Plan of 1947, and subsequent UN Resolution 242, which demands a return to the borders in place before the Six-Day War in 1967. Every attempt at setting up two coexisting states has failed. George Mitchell’s resignation from his post as Middle East peace envoy is just the latest evidence of this (I would be highly interested in reading any memoirs he composes relating to the challenges he faced in the last two years). These repetitive attempts to impose borders are misguided, myopic, and reminiscent of colonial rule. Imposing borders like these has caused more chaos than peace and security. The ideal solution to the Israeli-Palestinian impasse would be to eliminate the borders entirely. This saves all parties involved the migraine-inducing mess of issues including how to make a territorially disjointed Palestinian state viable, whether to allow Palestinian refugees to return to their homes, whether to swap land in Israel in exchange for legalizing West Bank settlements, whether a Palestinian state would be militarized, or even how to split Jerusalem as a capital city. One could keep going on about details which negotiators have agonized over for decades. Let me be clear, there is no issue with the Jews considering Israel as a ‘homeland,’ just not at the expense of non-Jewish inhabitants. The concept of a state by and for the Jewish people and not others, as I have explained, has proven incompatible with democracy, and should just be dropped entirely. Instead there could be a single universally democratic state, with Jews and Palestinians living in mutual harmony, exacerbated by neither occupation nor intifada. Though a fusion of these two very different cultures will be enormously difficult, it will be easier than fighting over square inches of land; a process that has barely made any progress. Once a single state is created, the topics at the negotiating table might be naming this new country and designing its flag.
The shifting political dynamics in the Middle East will create new conditions that defy the old way of pursuing peace. The shedding of political stagnation and the conventional wisdom of the past creates new avenues for pushing peace. The United States has many opportunities to adapt to the situation. Strengthening ties with new Arab democracies while engaging in a realistic relationship with Israel can only have a positive impact on the region, especially with regards to improving the US’ image and drying up support for al-Qaeda.