What, if anything, does American diplomacy accomplish in the Middle East?
Contemplating the Egyptian mess—where the United States is now distrusted, blamed, and largely despised by every faction, Andrew Bacevich writes, “In the four decades before Camp David, the U.S. had managed to steer clear of war in the Middle East; in the near four decades since, U.S. involvement in hostilities throughout the region has become routine, with little to show as a result.”
Camp David was celebrated at the time, a highlight of Jimmy Carter’s term, and earned Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize. To persuade Egypt and Israel to make peace, the United States committed itself to subsidizing both states to the tune of several billions a year. While the core agreement has held up—those states have not fought a war with one another since—the anticipated broader benefits never materialized. The accord’s loosely drafted provisions to open a path towards Palestinian self-determination were brushed aside by a Likud government dedicated to expanding Israel into the West Bank. Consequently, Egyptian-Israeli peace was not a first step towards a broader Arab-Israeli peace, but only a localized salve. The question of Palestine continued to fester.
Thirty-five years later, we are at it again, with John Kerry’s recent bid to sponsor a final status negotiation between Israel and the Palestinians. Meanwhile the region slides into chaos, riven by conflicts that have little or nothing to do with Israel or Kerry’s negotiation. It’s fair to ask whether there is anything America can do right in the Middle East, and whether we should even try. Why should America care about Palestinian statehood anyway?
Such questions arise inevitably, but especially when the perennial realist answer—Mideast oil and our dependence on it—is no longer the trump that it was before the advent of hydraulic fracturing to extract more oil in North America.
Yet the more one thinks, the more clear it is that there is no easy exit. One reason is that the United States bears considerable historical responsibility for the Israel-Palestine impasse. If it is politically difficult to stand aside from conflicts where America has no stake or historical connection—as in Syria—what of one where America has close emotional ties with one participant, extensive involvement with the other, and has already been engaged for nearly three generations?
When the United States recognized Israel in 1948, after supporting the UN partition resolution that gave it a legal basis, Washington had no intention of endorsing Palestinian statelessness. For 15 years after Israel’s birth, U.S. presidents and diplomats pressed the Jewish state on the Palestinian refugee problem, pushing proposals that included extensive repatriation of displaced Palestinians back into Israel proper. The policy that eventually supplanted these, after the 1967 war, was to try to advance peace by arming Israel, with the idea that a strong Israel would feel secure enough to make concessions. The strengthening part succeeded all too well, but instead of peace there has now arisen a generation of Israeli leaders who barely pay lip service to diplomatic engagement with their Arab neighbors. With lavish American assistance, Israel has transformed itself from a vulnerable fledgling state into a regional superpower with a considerable conventional and nuclear arsenal.
What then would be the likely outcome of American disengagement? A plausible, even likely scenario would be the lowering of inhibitions on the Israeli right. Gone would be the most powerful restraint on Israel’s deciding it could resolve the Palestinian question any way it pleased. Ethnic cleaning advocates in Israel, already less marginal than they were 20 years ago, would be invigorated. The liberal and humanitarian influence of the American Jewish community would grow faint, as American Jews would no longer be seen as a critical link to U.S. aid and support. In short, Israel would be in unchained, its worse impulses empowered.
American interests would be affected. Few Muslims would hold America blameless for whatever Israel did. Anti-American propaganda, which has considerable resonance in the Mideast now, would be supercharged. An al-Qaeda that has already begun to recover from defeats in Afghanistan and Iraq would be replenished with recruits. And the terrorist threat facing the United States would be amplified.
This is not the only possible result of our “walking away.” But it seems a likely one. To admit this is not an argument for the status quo—for American diplomats to serve as “Israel’s lawyers” and for Washington to view the region through the optic of what is best for Israel. We have already done that.
On the American political scene, there are few strong advocates for a thorough reassessment of our Mideast diplomacy. Obama hinted at major changes in his early speeches but drew back when it was made clear that even members of his own party in Congress would applaud Benjamin Netanyahu over their own president. Under such circumstances, is it even worth talking about new strategies?
So let us stipulate: American policy should be consistent with American values. Forty-six years of Israeli rule over a people that has neither self-determination nor civil rights flouts such values. Secondly, the U.S. should welcome the input and assistance of other powers, particularly in Europe. (It would not hurt to acknowledge that European anti-Semitism was the original impetus for Zionism.) And then let us think about real alternatives. Could an Israel within the 1967 borders, alongside an independent Palestine, become part of the European Union, with trade and immigration rights? Would not such solution satisfy the Israeli wish to be part of the West? Would it not also transform Palestinian life immeasurably for the better? Such alternatives deserve to be explored—they are far more promising than either trying to walk away or continuing in well-worn ruts.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.