Forget "Mideast Peace"
We used to think solving Israel-Palestine would solve the region's problems. We're learning how wrong we were.
What would true Mideast peace look like today? Would it take form in an Iran that ends its gross human-rights violations, historically compromises on its nuclear ambitions and no longer announces it has “the desire, capacity and force to annihilate the Zionist regime”—a fellow UN member state? A decimation of Hamas and Hezbollah? A just and lasting agreement to end the Syrian civil war? An Egyptian government that no longer stifles, oppresses, or sentences to death those who have ideological differences with state policies?
Would it be found in a Saudi Arabia that no longer suppresses the rights of women? An end to more than three decades of bombs exploding in Beirut? An eradication of Al Qaeda sympathizers operating in Syria, Iraq and the Sinai? A sense of economic and political opportunity for citizens across the region? Economic, diplomatic, and political cooperation between Sunni, Shia, Kurd, Christian and Jewish peoples and states? Or the long overdue emergence of governing bodies that feel the need to respond to their people’s massive environmental and demographic challenges, rather than continue to simply exploit their sectarian and tribal identities?
An honest observer would know that true Mideast peace would encompass all of these elements, and that peace and stability in the Middle East is nearly impossible without any of them. And yet, to hear policymakers and pundits tell it, the only Mideast Peace game in town is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Does anyone still believe that the outcome of the current round of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, deadlocked as they appear to be, is what will determine the Middle East's stability?
If not, then why does headline after headline and analyst after analyst insist on using the term “Mideast peace” only in reference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, when conflict has rocked nearly every Middle Eastern state over the past three years, from Tunisia to Iraq? Indeed, given the state of the messy, fractured and war-ravaged Middle East today, why is the term “Mideast peace” still even being used at all?
The answer is that, three years into the post-Arab Uprising Middle East, these policymakers and pundits are still employing the lexicon of a bygone era, in which solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the supposed key to regional stability.
But it’s past time to wake up. The false nomenclature belies a false consciousness. Israeli-Palestinian peace would bring a great many benefits, not least to the parties themselves. What it cannot bring, however, is peace to the Middle East.
This false consciousness exists on at least three levels. Firstly, the conventional wisdom behind the quest for so-called “Mideast peace”—namely, that Israel’s conflict with its Arab neighbors is the root of the region’s instability—is fundamentally wrong. Three-plus years of uprisings have proven it. Seemingly stable dictatorships in Tunisia, Yemen, Libya and Egypt (twice) have been overthrown, civil war has gripped Syria, the monarchies in Jordan and Bahrain are on edge, sectarian strife has bred growing violence in Lebanon and Iraq, protests and corruption charges have gripped Turkey’s government, and Iran’s theocratic, messianic leadership has continued on its quest for regional hegemony through the acquisition of a nuclear bomb.
None of this has anything to do with Israel or the conflict with it has with its neighbors. Surely, solving the crisis with Iran, the war in Syria, the strife in Egypt (including the growing terror threat out of the Sinai), or the threats to Jordan’s pro-American Hashemite Monarchy are as critical to real Mideast peace—let alone US foreign policy interests—as is resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
And yet, the term “Mideast peace” is used, fallaciously, only in reference to the latter. In so doing, users of the term implicitly—and illogically—continue to pin a massively outsized responsibility for the Middle East’s woes on Israelis and Palestinians themselves.
The second folly of the term “Mideast peace” is that it implies that Israeli-Palestinian peace will somehow lead inexorably to Israeli-Arab peace, which, given the threat to the Sykes-Picot borders and the rise of Sunni radicalism in the Levant, it almost certainly will not. This faulty belief, too, stems from the pre-Arab Uprising mindset that the Arab Peace Initiative—which pledges normalized relations with Israel in the event of a strictly-defined “comprehensive peace agreement” between Israel and the Palestinians—meant that Israeli-Palestinian peace would be equivalent to Israeli-Arab peace.
True, the API has been revamped in the wake of renewed negotiations to include land swaps based on pre-1967 borders. Yet the argument that comprehensive Israeli-Arab peace would follow an agreement completely breaks down given the faltering Levant region—which includes five critical guarantors of the API (Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Jordan).Of these five states, the first has seen two state overthrows, the next three are in the throes or on the brink of civil war, and the last is teetering on edge. Furthermore, without external mitigation, the violence emanating from the Levant may well lead to the creation of new sectarian statelets, several of which would be controlled by fundamentalist extremists with no interest in normalization with the Jewish State. Thus, even in the highly unlikely scenario that every single stipulation under the Arab Peace Initiative were fulfilled, it is worth questioning whether the governments who were critical to legitimizing the Initiative would still be there to see through its implementation.
Finally, believing that “Mideast peace” will follow an Israeli-Palestinian accord requires that one completely ignore regional spoilers. What of the myriad state and nonstate actors who call not for two states but for Israel’s complete annihilation? A negotiated outcome between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas may well create two states. But whoever thinks that the next day, Hamas in Gaza, jihadists in Syria and Sinai, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the government of Iran—all of whom have openly expressed support for the entire destruction of Israel—will put down their arms in the name of “Mideast peace” is deluding him or herself.
To be sure, resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would have potential to mitigate anti-Israel and anti-American sentiment. For Israel, an agreement is critical, even existential, and would provide it the opportunity to develop some degree of enhanced relations with several Arab neighbors, particularly in the Gulf States. For the Palestinians, statehood and self-determination are worthy and deserved goals. For the United States, resolving the conflict is an important objective for national security and international prestige, and despite the potential collapse of the current round of negotiations, Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts are to be lauded.
But everywhere you look in the Middle East, intractable conflicts are raging. None are near their resolution. True Mideast peace will take generations.
In the meanwhile, let’s drop “Mideast peace” from our collective lexicon. The phrase bears the hallmark of an understanding of the region whose time has long gone. At present and for the foreseeable future, there is no single solution, two-state or otherwise, that is the Mideast’s panacea.
Mark Donig is a J.D. candidate at UC Berkeley School of Law focusing on international law and environmental law, and a research fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.