"Shame on them.... The people running Israel and Palestine have other priorities. It is time we left them alone to pursue them - and to live with the consequences." That is the advice of influential New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman in an article published last week.
The article also stated: "It is long past time that we stop being their crack dealers." Friedman proposes that the United States stop giving Israel and the Palestinians aid and gifts to persuade them to talk to each other. For now, however, Friedman can relax. There are no gifts and no talks. The peace process has returned to its natural state: cardiac arrest.
But Friedman's prescription contains one major error: When junkies are made to go cold turkey, withdrawal symptoms ensue unless they are properly treated, especially when the client has been spoiled for decades by the supplier, who never explained the dangers of occupation, who has treated the client like a baby allowed to do anything it wants and smiles in embarrassment when that baby kicks away every proposal, document or initiative.
But the withdrawal symptoms could, in fact, endanger the United States. Peace between Israel and the Palestinians is indeed in the interests of Israel and the Palestinians, but the continuation of the Arab-Israeli crisis, the nexus of which is in Palestine, threatens American interests no less than the war in Afghanistan, the struggle against the Iranian nuclear program or the future of Iraq and Lebanon.
The solution to one of these issues does not ensure a solution to the others. But they all have one common denominator: The United States in involved to the hilt, and all of them define American status in the world and its ability as a superpower to move countries in the direction it wants. The United States is secretly competing with Russia and China for influence, and these conflicts are an excellent testing ground.
Washington learned long ago that foreign aid, like sanctions, is no guarantee of compliance. Iran has been under sanctions for nearly 30 years; Iraq was under sanctions for 12 years, which did not preclude war; generous military aid to Pakistan has not made it a fan of the United States, and the billions invested in Afghanistan have not transformed it into a Western democracy. Neither has military aid to Lebanon made it safer or more stable.
Abandoning conflicts the way Friedman proposes has led to some tragic experience for the United States. After the withdrawal of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan, the United States forgot about that country and let the Taliban take over. After the short and fatal experience in Somalia, U.S. forces withdrew, and today that country is controlled by radical gangs spewing terror. The United States' blackballing of Syria and nonchalant approach to Lebanon have helped Iran enormously in gaining a foothold in both those countries.
Peace between Israel and Egypt does require aid to both countries, but if they didn't have strategic rationales for signing the agreement, it probably would not have been signed. In exchange for this agreement, which has become the foundation of Israel and Egypt's security concept, the United States has indeed achieved an extraordinary position in the Middle East - that of an indispensable broker.
This is the status Friedman proposes be done away with. He should know that when one crack dealer disappears, another is just waiting for the chance to take his place. When American efforts wane, countries in South America begin recognizing the Palestinian state, countries in Europe begin offering the Palestinians similar recognition, and past European leaders begin urging the European Union to boycott Israel. The decision by the U.S. House of Representatives to instruct the administration to veto recognition of a Palestinian state by the United States may warm the Israeli heart, which has become addicted to occupation, but it could lead the United States to butt heads with Europe and perhaps also with Russia and China.
Massive and intense involvement and unrelenting pressure - not sanctions and not gifts - but superpower-like conduct that recognizes that its interests are at risk, is what the United States needs to show now. Not a three-month freeze on settlement construction, but rather a comprehensive plan. Not a puppet show in which Hillary Clinton hosts Tzipi Livni at the expense of Ehud Barak or Benjamin Netanyahu so they get the hint, but progress on American recognition of a Palestinian state. The slogan that the United States cannot want peace more than the parties involved is simply false. The United States needs peace more than the parties involved.
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