With the midterms over, a tectonic shift in Washington's political plates, and emerging signs that the old parameters of permissible American debate on Levantine problems are crumbling, the season looks propitious for offering innovative ideas addressing the protracted Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even at this very late hour, the soon-to-be-released report by the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group, which will reportedly include recommendations for dealing with the conflict, can still retrieve some Middle East chestnuts from a raging fire-on this issue so vital to the American national interest. But the report will forward serious ideas only if the authors remove all existing borders from their conceptual map.
Whether one likes it or not, Arabs and Muslims from Marrakesh to Malaysia identify the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the single most important crucible fostering frustration, alienation and rage-terrorism's raw materials. And the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict makes the position of Muslim moderates untenable. At this moment of possible transitions in Middle East policy, a reopening of the Israeli-Palestinian file is urgent.
Professors John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt of the Kennedy School at Harvard candidly identified major reasons for the freezing of American policy toward Israel and the Palestinians in their essay, "The Israel Lobby and U.S.Foreign Policy", published early in 2006 by The London Review of Books. The essay provoked largely ad hominem denunciation from Alan Dershowitz, Martin Peretz, Eliot Cohen and a host of other neoconservatives. Sobriety returned with the trenchant analysis by Dimitri K. Simes, "Unrealists", which appeared in The National Interest's summer issue, available here.
There can no longer be controversy as to whether there is an Israeli lobby in the United States, or the fact that the lobby frequently blocks U.S. policies promoting the national interest in the Islamic world. What's more, neoconservatives and the "Christian" ayatollahs allied with them believe that U.S. and Israeli interests are everywhere and always the same. They are wrong. How much more data must flow from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran (perhaps especially Iran) and beyond before American politicians from both political parties begin to tell it like it is?
Let there be no misunderstanding. The United States should, and must, continue to support Israel. That is in the American national interest. But beyond this truism, it is past time for the policy community to begin to think analytically about the nature-and limits-of what the American commitment to Israel should be.
Perhaps the most courageous and imaginative article to appear on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in any American public policy journal in recent years is the eloquent articulation of ethical realism by John C. Hulsman, "Grasping The Nettle," published in the current issue of The National Interest and available here. (The essay is based on the proposals put forth in the recently published Ethical Realism: A Vision for America's Role in the World, Pantheon, which Hulsman co-authored with New America's Anatol Lieven, available here.) Hulsman's advocacy of Israeli and Palestinian accession to the European Union may indeed be a bridge too far (as Richard Rupp suggests in the same issue) but he rightly points out that any new attempt to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian problem must address the most difficult issues up front, at the beginning of any new negotiating process. One hopes that the Baker-Hamilton report will also reflect an understanding that doing otherwise will once again invite terrorism and guarantee failure.
It may even be necessary to contemplate a repartition of all of historic Palestine if the impasse between Israelis and Arabs is to be broken. The 1967 Green Line is not sacrosanct. Land swaps need to be more than "limited" and apply to more than Jewish settlement blocks in the West Bank.
For example, areas of major Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories might indeed be included within Israeli borders in any new partition, as President Bush has suggested, if significant areas within what is today Israel (possibly portions of Galilee and the Triangle) with Lower Nazareth as a hinge were to be included in a new, peaceful, and economically viable Palestinian state. Jerusalem must somehow be politically shared between Israelis and Palestinians and new boundaries drawn there also-but the boundaries must demarcate, not exclude. Some modest, symbolic return of Palestinian refugees to the new Palestinian state, and (as Hulsman recommends) major financial compensation for the others, surely constitute other requirements for any chance of moving toward enduring peace.
The Palestinian political presence in East Jerusalem is going to require a lot more than a "symbolic flag" if there is to be any chance at all for its acceptance in the broader Islamic world, without which no Palestinian government can ever come to terms with Israel. Palestinians will never recognize Ramallah as the permanent capital of any independent Palestinian state. Symbolically, politically and economically, a significant Palestinian presence in an open East Jerusalem that is organically connected to both Israel and the West Bank is essential if any new era in the Middle East is to be opened. Realism requires the recognition of the realities that exist.
Realism also requires that the American policy community cease to abjure any "pressure" on Israel in the search for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conundrum. Pressure has been exerted on the Palestinians time and again and both sides should now begin to be treated in an even-handed fashion, with American national interests always Washington's lodestone. What should now be abundantly clear is that the policies adopted by all parties for more than half a century have proven demonstrable failures. Isn't it really time to try something dramatically new?
Of course, the Bush Administration has provided its own answers to the question of Palestine. In practice if not occasionally in rhetoric, Bush has given Israel unqualified U.S. support for whatever the expansionist Likud (or Kadima) leadership wishes to impose on all of the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. Worse, Israeli newspapers have even published rumors that Bush has said that he would "understand" if Israel were to attack Iran's nuclear facilities, available here. However true that may be, the president's lamentable dereliction of statesmanship during the last six years has enormously damaged the U.S. geostrategic position not only in the Levant but throughout the Islamic "arc of crisis"-and well beyond. And precisely as Nikolas K. Gvosdev argues in "Democrats, Irrelevant" in the current issue of The National Interest, available here, both Democrats and the U.S. media are almost equally culpable in that dereliction.
Policy thinkers should consider three fundamental questions: (1) What kind of Israel should the United States continue to support? (2) Under what conditions? And (3) within what boundaries? All of which might be translated as: How should Palestine be repartitioned to both recognize the weight of history and provide Israel and Palestine with the geostrategic security, demographic viability and economic linkages that they so urgently require?
Without the enormous pain that an honest search for answers to such questions will involve, there will certainly be no gain-for anyone. Polarization between the United States and the Islamic world will deepen, Muslim rage will continue to metastasize, Israel's geostrategic position in the Middle East will deteriorate further, and the possibility of a truly apocalyptic clash of civilizations will increase. Recruits will certainly rally to the banners of Osama bin Laden in ever greater numbers.
Whatever the matter with Kansas is now, its problems over time will likely get much worse. Yes, Dorothy, the situation really is that bad.
So let the debate wax and spread.
Antony T. Sullivan is president of Near East Support Services, a consulting firm, and has published widely on the Middle East and the Islamic world.