Realism and Reality on Israel-Palestine

The argument for "constructive disengagement" from the Middle East.

Editor's Note: This piece is the continuation of a conversation between TNI contributors Leon Hadar and Paul Pillar on the subject of U.S. policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The conversation began with a piece by Dr. Hadar entitled "Romney's Sensible Stance on Israel-Palestine" and continued with Dr. Pillar's reply, "Don't Neglect an Israel-Palestinian Peace."

As a long-time proponent of Israeli-Palestinian peace who has advocated the need for Israel to embrace—and for the United States to support—an activist peace policy along the so-called Clinton Parameters, I find in Paul Pillar's comments a restatement of goals, hopes and wishful thinking that many of us held for years. But hoping is not a substitute for a cool-headed analysis of reality.

First, I was not trying to "lecture" anyone but just stating the obvious: that agreements between nations that involve making compromises over their core national-security interests and values will never be achieved through outside pressure (and, in any case, will not be viable under these conditions). Yes, there was basic agreement between the Israelis and the Egyptians on Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai in exchange for Egyptian recognition before the Camp David negotiations. And, yes, the Israelis and Palestinians were not willing to give up on core existential issues such as Jerusalem and the "right of return" before and during the Clinton-led talks. And, yes, the Oslo Agreements were arrived at without any U.S. involvement (although Pillar does not mention Oslo).

It would be great if Washington were able to help the sides—as opposed to force them—to reach an agreement à la Teddy Roosevelt (although I am not sure that negotiating a peace agreement between the Russians and the Japanese—the war actually ended before the talks started, and the Russians lost—had the same urgency that Pillar seems to attach to ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict).

In any case, one of my main points was that the reality in the Middle East has changed dramatically since 2000, and the power of the more nationalist and religious forces in the Israeli and Palestinian communities has been strengthened as a result of demographic and domestic political changes as the conflict itself has become more "localized." It does not have the force to ignite a regional war, which is more likely to happen as an outcome of Israeli tensions with Hezbollah and Iran. I am not even sure that the old axiom—that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would help reduce the power of the radicals in the Middle East—applies anymore. Much of what is happening in the Arab world today reflects political, economic and social pressures that have very little to do with the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

At the same time, geostrategic changes have weakened the ability of Washington to continue playing a hegemonic role in the Middle East, and, yes, as Pillar points out, the power of Israel supporters in both political parties in Washington has placed constraints on the ability of a president to "do something" (assuming that he or she wants to do that). If anything, as the political center in Israel and Palestine has been shifting to the right, U.S. presidents have become even more responsive to pressure from Israel and its supporters. Pillar and I may not like it, but that is the way things are. Accepting the notion that a U.S. president is going to invest enormous time and effort to change that at a time when the challenges of the economy and China are dominating the agenda is highly dubious.

My personal view is that the continuation of the status quo in Israel/Palestine poses a long-term threat to the existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and that the current radical Zionist government in Israel is harming core Israeli interests. I also believe that Israel should recognize that it can’t count on Washington to protect its interests forever, especially when they run contrary to U.S. interests. Changes in demography and U.S. interests are bound to distance the United States from Israel in the future. To put it in blunt terms, Israel cannot survive in the long run as an American crusader state in the Middle East.

Moreover, a policy of gradual U.S. "constructive disengagement" from the Middle East—including an approach of benign neglect toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a normalization of U.S. relations with Israel—would create pressure on the Israeli public and elites to reconsider their current policies. I am enough of a realist to recognize that my proposed strategy will not be adopted by Washington anytime soon. But I think that this kind of constructive disengagement from the Middle East would help better advance long-term Israeli and U.S. interests.

Leon Hadar, senior analyst at Wikistrat, a geostrategic consulting group, is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.