The resolute call for peace in the Middle East, specifically between Israelis and Palestinians, that former ambassador Dan Simpson expressed in his Jan. 1 column, “Foreign Affairs in 2014,” is something we share. The rest of his statements we find deeply troubling. Mr. Simpson’s supposition is that negotiations will break down due to a lack of will on both sides. Moreover, he cites as a “troubling fact” the “ability of the Israelis to keep Sunni and Shiite Muslims fighting each other rather than concentrating on acquiring a homeland for the Palestinians.”
The idea that Israel has the ability or desire to stoke the flames of ongoing Sunni-Shiite tensions to its advantage, ostensibly to distract Arab states from assisting Palestinians, is incorrect. Israel’s policy on the sectarian tensions in the region is quite clearly one of neutrality. Charges or speculation of Israel being behind ongoing Sunni-Shiite conflict, including the recent assassination of Lebanon’s former finance minister, are misguided.
The proposition that the resolution of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict would lead to a wider Middle East peace is an oft-repeated fallacy that ignores history. Linking it to other Middle East conundrums obscures the actual reasons for internecine conflict in the Middle East today.
The ubiquitous accusations of Israel’s role in undermining efforts to resolve Middle East disputes constitute an unfounded indictment against the Jewish state. The Middle East today is a far cry from those halcyon days in the late 1990s when peace seemed inevitable. Hundreds of thousands of individuals have died due to sectarian violence spiraling out of control. To peg Israel as the state responsible for this political violence is wrong.
Animosity between Sunnis and Shiites started when rival factions among Muhammad’s descendants, the Quraysh, fought over who would lead Islam after his death in 632 A.D. The modern fight between Sunni and Shiite arises from regional power rivalries. For instance, Salafist, Jihadist and Islamist rebel elements fighting Bashar Assad’s Allawite minority government in Syria are backed by Sunni Gulf States such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar while Assad’s government is backed by Shiite Iran and Hezbollah.
But Sunnis and Shiites today are frequently in violent conflict wherever they coexist in the Muslim world, not only throughout the Middle East, but also stretching into Pakistan, Afghanistan and even Indonesia. One of the few things that unite many radical Sunnis and Shiites is their hatred of Israel and their attempts to destroy it, as exemplified by the cooperation between Shiite Iran and the Sunni Hamas that rules Gaza.
Are Israel’s supposed cloak-and-dagger policies pitting Lebanese against one another? The examples cited in the Post–Gazette do not mention that the U.N. Special Tribunal investigation into the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and other acts of violence in Lebanon focuses on members of Hezbollah. The recent bombing of the Iranian embassy in Beirut points to the Abdullah Azzam brigades, an al-Qaida offshoot. Newspapers such as Lebanon’s Daily Star and other Arab periodicals fail to identify Israel as a potential culprit in these bombings.
Israel has accepted both Syrian rebels and supporters of the regime at its hospitals in the north of the country, spending tens of millions of dollars treating these wounded victims of the Syrian civil war. Israel’s interest is to maintain neutrality in the face of sectarian conflict while providing as much humanitarian assistance as possible, regardless of affiliation.
Prisoner releases and dedication to the peace process are two additional Israeli policies aimed at bringing about a Palestinian homeland and staying out of wider regional imbroglios.
It is skewed logic to assume that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the root of all problems in the Middle East. Animosity between Sunni and Shiite began long before Israel’s creation.
To paraphrase Clausewitz, intellect always longs for clarity and certainty, which often is not possible to achieve. Things are not so simple in the Middle East, and Mr. Simpson and the Post-Gazette editorial board need to stop blaming Israel for all of the region’s ills.
Meyer S. Grinberg is chairman and Gregg Roman is director of the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
Originally published in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette here.