Andrew Exum, a brilliant young American researcher recently posted a quite justifiably critical post concerning our blog , saying we were focusing too much on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while disregarding broader Middle East strategic issues. Problem is, that it isn't only us doing it, with the whole of the American administration seemingly coming down with Jerusalem Syndrome. At times it appears that the administration's sole focus in the Middle East is the freeze of 1,600 housing units planned to be built in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo, the location of which even veteran Jerusalemites are hard pressed to pinpoint.
Instead of demanding both sides to "sit and talk," the U.S. administration is obsessed, working in every possible way to force a construction freeze in the East Jerusalem's Jewish neighborhoods on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu had already clarified that that was not going to happen. But, if only to appease U.S. President Barack Obama, the PM pulsed out the new/old idea published today in Haaretz of recognizing a Palestinian state within temporary borders while postponing the discussion over Jerusalem's future status.
The Palestinian Authority finds the idea completely unacceptable. Palestinian officials were quick to protest that possibility anytime anyone on the Israeli side toyed with the thought of a Palestinian state in temporary borders, clarifying that the Palestinians would not accept it. That is also expected to be the reaction in this case, and possibly the reaction Netanyahu was going for: to divert the fire from Israel while focusing international public opinion on the Palestinians refusal to negotiate and even to declare statehood. It is as if Netanyahu is saying: "Gentlemen, Israel agrees to a Palestinian state," taking the sting out of PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's plan to declare a Palestinian state along 1967 borders by August 2011. Netanyahu could then point his finger at PA President Mahmoud Abbas and his aides, saying "You see, I told you. It's their fault. They're not interested, and continue to miss out on chances for peace."
It's understandable why the Palestinians would reject a Palestinian state within temporary borders. They have witnessed the Jewish population in East Jerusalem and the West Bank triple itself since 1993, despite signing the Oslo Accords. As far as they're concerned, that which begins as temporary could quickly become permanent, especially in the face of Israel's settlement policies. But with such an erudite argument at hand, Netanyahu succeeds in creating at least the semblance of a desire to reach a diplomatic breakthrough, while painting the Palestinians as peace deniers. Again.
And now, back to the U.S. administration. The way that things look right now, a peace deal won't be achieved even if Israel and the PA decide on re-launching peace talks. And even if such an agreement is reached in the next two years, both sides would still be miles away from resolving the issues the White House and the State Department find convenient to overlook at the movement. Hamas rules Gaza and isn't going anywhere. Hezbollah has a tight grip on Lebanon and the continuing influx of arms from Syria maintains the fears of another war between Israel and its neighbor to the north. And, of course, Iran, continues its race to grab hold of nuclear weapons. But the U.S. administration feels it has found the magic cure for all of the Middle East's symptoms - peace between Israel and the Palestinians; and in the case of Iran, peace between Israel and Syria.
Thus, Chairwoman of the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Dianne Feinstein, when discussing the high probability that Hezbollah received Scud surface-to-surface missiles, inexplicably said that there's "only one thing that's going to solve it, and that's a two-state solution." Only, the portrayal of the current situation in such a manner is an insult to Hezbollah as well as, more importantly, to the intelligence of the American administration. No, the founding of a Palestinian state would not solve the problem of Hezbollah's presence in Lebanon one bit, or do anything to quench Iran's nuclear ambitions. Just a few days ago Jordan's King Abdullah II said that there wouldn't be a need for nuclear weapons at all once Israel and the Palestinian sign a peace deal. That too, is just pulling wool over one's eyes.
National Security Advisor Jim Jones went as far as telling the highly regarded Middle East Institute that "peace between Israel and Syria, if it is possible, could have a transformative effect on the region," adding that advancing Middle East peace would also help prevent Iran "from cynically shifting attention away from its failures to meet its [nuclear] obligations." In some respects General Jones is correct. Peace between Israel and Syria would tone down Iran's influence on other Middle Eastern nations. However, Syria is showing no signs of having the least interest in peace, and is blatantly ignoring Washington when it comes to its Hezbollah-bound weapons shipments. Moreover, even an Israel-Syria peace agreement won't stop Iran's efforts to achieve an atomic bomb. On the contrary, it may escalate them. A diplomatically-isolated Iran won't hurry to pass over nuclear weapons that could save it from an Iraq-like fate.
The U.S. administration tends to forget all this. It creates the false pretence that it all depends on Israel alone and on the ability to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians. That, at best, is an inaccuracy. As Aaron Miller, a former member of President Bill Clinton's peace team, who isn't suspected of being too supportive of Netanyahu, wrote in Foreign Policy this week, the U.S. has more pressing issues than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict such as, for example, Iraq, Afghanistan as well as, of course, Iran. Unfortunately, none of those issues would be solved even if peace is achieved between Israel and the Palestinians.
And as to my colleague Andrew Exum, we promise, regardless of the U.S. administration, to focus more on other Middle East issues. You never know, someone in the White House might even get inspired?
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