In his new book, Doomed to Succeed: The U.S.-Israel Relationship from Truman to Obama, veteran peace negotiator Dennis Ross, now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, argues that a major factor in the United States’ repeated failures to develop effective policies in the Middle East is its assumption that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is key to establishing regional stability.
Ross’s skepticism goes against the accepted wisdom that takes for granted the proposition that peace between Israel and the Palestinians would have significance far beyond the two parties involved, an idea that has turned into something of an international mantra.
Keynoting the World Economic Forum in June 2012, then-Turkish Prime Minister (now President) Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that failure to solve the conflict “threatens regional peace and stability.” US Secretary of State John Kerry expressed the same view in September 2013, noting that a solution “is important in enhancing regional security and stability throughout the Middle East.”
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon used a similar formulation in his message to the UN International Meeting on Israeli-Palestinian Peace on July 1, 2015, noting that failure to solve the conflict “can further destabilize the region.” Not to be outdone, the European Parliament had this to say in its September 10, 2015 resolution on the peace process: “Achieving peace in the Middle East remains a key priority for the international community and an indispensable element for regional stability and security.”
But recent events in the region clearly disprove them and bear out Ross. The collapse of security and stability in much of the Middle East has nothing to do with Israel and the Palestinians. Had there been in place — theoretically — a peace treaty between the two parties, the rest of the region would likely look little different than the chaotic reality that prevails today.
The so-called Arab Spring, which gave promise of democratizing the Middle East, came and went, leaving in its wake (except for Tunisia) more intense Islamic fundamentalism, more sectarian violence, and more repressive regimes. This has had nothing to do with Israel or its relations with the Palestinians.
The Syrian civil war, sparked by Bashar Assad’s brutality, has brought death and displacement to millions and triggered an unprecedented wave of unfortunate refugees, mostly to Europe — along with the inevitable problems of security and social adjustment. Israel is a concerned bystander to the bloodletting right over its borders, and provides medical assistance to Syrians, who are technically at war with the Jewish state. But the course of events in Syria is totally unrelated to Israel and its quest for peace.
Islamic State, the jihadi movement that demonizes modernity, the West, other religions, and even alternate varieties of Islam, is using force to create a caliphate over a wide swath of territory — it now controls large areas in Iraq and Syria — where strict sharia law will be enforced. While Islamic State views Israel — and Jews — as enemies, by no stretch of the imagination could Israeli-Palestinian peace conceivably moderate its conduct.
The same is surely true of the larger sectarian struggle between Sunnis and Shi’ites for control of worldwide Islam. Saudi Arabia’s recent execution of a Shi’ite imam, followed by attacks on the Saudi embassy in Tehran and its consulate in Mashad, leading to the severing of diplomatic relations between Sunni states and Iran, has helped throw the world economy into turmoil and poses a stark challenge to American foreign policy. But it has nothing to do with Israel and the Palestinians.
In fact, though the Palestinian problem remains unresolved and other troubling issues continue to plague its people, Israel stands now, more than ever, as a beacon of sanity, democracy, freedom, and civility in a region where such attributes are rare.
Achieving peace with the Palestinians is important to Israel for its own sake. But overselling it as the panacea for Middle East instability is a recipe for failure.