How the Islamic State Could Kill the Two-State Solution

The havoc wrought by the Islamic State extends far beyond Iraq and Syria.

As the Islamic State (IS) chalks up gains -- territory, money, weapons, recruits -- and spreads terror through its savage online theater, it may well be able to add another success to its trophy wall. Prospects for a two-state solution don't look terribly bright as it is. But the rise of, and fight against, IS may well be one of the last nails in the coffin of a process seemingly broken and beyond repair.

Terror and terrorists have always constituted a significant threat to the any lasting Israeli-Palestinian deal. But these aren't your grandfather's terrorists. Unlike Hamas and Hezbollah, who reflect certain nationalist aspirations of Palestine and Lebanon and who have made certain tactical adjustments to deal with their state sponsors, IS ascribes to a more universal Salafi/Jihadi code which frees them from certain prohibitions like killing and torturing fellow Muslims, minorities and enslaving women. Part criminal Mafia gang, part millennial movement, they are brutally and feverishly committed to an immediate upending of any status quo they encounter. And though (unlike Hamas and Hezbollah) IS may be far from the Israeli-Palestinian theater now, it poses a unique threat to the hopes of a Palestinian state.

Crises, war, and insurgency -- and IS is surely a continuing crisis -- can offer opportunities in the Arab-Israeli arena and can be the harbinger of real change. The 1973 war set the stage for Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's visit to Israel; the first intifada set the table for the Oslo breakthrough; and the first Gulf war lead to the Madrid Peace Conference. But crisis can also preoccupy, distract, and impel various parties to become risk averse rather than risk-ready, particularly during times of great uncertainty. 

IS's rampage is likely to impel the United States and others to become more active in a campaign to check it. But it may well have a very deleterious impact on prospects for progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. And here's a list of reasons why.

The Eastern Front: The gaps between Israelis and Palestinians over the putative eastern borders of a Palestinian state are already wide -- both in terms of Israel's presence in the Jordan Valley  and how long withdrawal might take. The rise of the Islamic State will only make them wider. The presences of al Qaeda's Syrian affiliate -- al-Nusra Front -- on the Syrian side of the Golan and the hostage taking of United Nations Disengagement Observer Force Zone (UNDOF) peacekeepers could easily foreshadow the type of things to come. And while the Israelis seem to be reacting coolly and calmly to this problem, the issue of a hostile presence on their longest and least defensible border with Jordan will be an issue. Israelis are already worrying about IS cells in the West Bank. Indeed they already have the Golan Heights. IS becomes another problem entirely in the contest of a deal on the West Bank that involves Israeli withdrawal. Jordan is stable -- now. But who would have ever imagined an IS takeover of Iraq's second largest city in a matter of hours or IS's rampage in north-eastern Syria? The reality is that Israel's demands for a continued Israeli presence and a lengthy withdrawal period will only harden further. Palestinians will be faced with unpalatable constraints on their control and sovereignty of the Jordan Valley and the border.

Hamas in the Dock: Israeli officials, when making the case for why they need to be careful when it comes to giving back real estate, now routinely maintain that Hamas equals the Muslim Brotherhood equals IS. And that America's fight against IS is one and the same as theirs against Hamas. Regardless of whether this rhetoric, true or not, is merely politically convenient, this conflation will further provide ammunition against making concessions to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas so long as Hamas continues to pose a threat in Gaza with its high trajectory weapons and the Palestinian Authority (PA) lacks the ability to control and silence all of the rogue guns of Palestine. That the Israelis have recently tried to make the case that Hamas plans to launch a coup against Abbas (and he seems to concur) and to increase its influence in the West Bank won't help matters much. Indeed, while Israel may push to see the PA return to Gaza, Netanyahu will be opposed to concessions on territory as long as Hamas isn't reformed or destroyed.

U.S. Pressure on Israel? You've got to be kidding. The idea that the Obama administration will bring pressure on Israel to make moves on the peace process as the region deteriorates, IS beheads Americans and kills thousands, and Hamas advocates Israel's destruction is laughable. Forget the approaching midterms and Obama's risk-averse persona, or the million other things the president has to do. At a time when America needs allies, it's hard to imagine that it will pick a fight with Israel over settlement activity or anything else. The Iran deal on the nuclear issue will happen (or not) by November. And whatever capital it has, the Obama administration will save to persuade the Israelis to accept the deal or to restrain them from bombing Iran. It may be politically incorrect to admit it, but the behavior of certain Arab actors -- IS/Hamas/Assad -- constitutes the most effective talking points for making a pro-Israeli case and for constraining the administration from pressuring Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. With al-Nusra up on the Golan and IS on the march in Iraq, pressing Israel on withdrawal will be a tough sell, particularly if the Iran issue heads south.

Changing Arab priorities: IS has also reframed Arab state priorities, particularly on the part of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Jordan as well as created some measure of common cause with Israel. That doesn't mean the Arab states are about to open regional Netanyahu fan clubs or that the Palestinian issue is no longer salient. But the wall of silence that met the death and destruction in Gaza is stunning. The Arab states have been betraying the Arab cause for years. But the lack of support and criticism does reflect changing priorities. Simply put, key Arab states regard Hamas and the forces of Sunni jihadism as a greater and more immediate threat than they do Israel. And the budding Israeli-Egyptian relationship reflects that fact. All of this will invariably decrease the pressure on Israel and the United States to push the peace issue.

It would be nice to believe that the IS crisis would reframe the region and put Israelis, Arabs, and Americans on the same page, and create the imperative that one part (however marginal) of a campaign  to defuse the Sunni extremist threat would be to solve the Palestinian issue. And that everyone would embrace the Arab peace initiative and live happily ever after. I, for one, certainly don't want to give up on that. And Netanyahu's coy references to articulating a new political horizon means to me that he'd like to cook up something with the Arab states.

But back on planet earth, a different set of laws of political gravity are more likely to apply. Already on life support, a two-state solution is likely to be made more difficult by the distraction, diversion, and preoccupation that the rise of IS carries. Fear will replace hope; caution will edge out risk-readiness, and waiting rather than acting may well carry the day. The two-state solution was in deep trouble before IS came stalking out of Syria into Iraq, but the reality is that this new, savage kid on the block is going to further complicate that enterprise. And those who will suffer the most, of course, will be the Palestinians. It is a testament to the order of things that in the middle of the Gaza crisis with death and destruction abounding, it was the little known Yazidis being killed by IS that got more attention from the international community than the long suffering Palestinians. Such is the nature of the cruel and cold winds now blowing through the region.


National Security

NATO Owes Putin a Big Thank-You

Russia's aggression in Ukraine is making it easier for the bloated, aging alliance to pretend that it still matters.

If I were really cynical, I'd suspect some bureaucrats at NATO headquarters in Brussels are secretly glad about the crisis in Ukraine. Why? Because it gives the aging alliance something to do. This motive may also explain why hawkish Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen seems eager to defend Ukraine right down to the last Ukrainian and why the NATO members that lie closest to Russia are both worried by recent events and pleased that the rest of the alliance is finally paying attention to their concerns.

In fairness, NATO's survival after the Cold War remains something of an anomaly. Alliances normally arise in response to threats, and many previous alliances collapsed quickly once the external danger was gone. Mindful of this tendency, NATO's proponents have been searching for a convincing rationale for its continued existence ever since the Berlin Wall fell. But their efforts have been mostly stillborn; despite annual summits, earnest communiqués, and a lot of brave rhetoric, the alliance's capabilities, importance, and coherence have been visibly declining for two decades.

Things might have been different if the various "out-of-area" missions NATO took on had gone swimmingly, but they didn't. The Bosnian intervention in 1995* and the war in Kosovo in 1999 were at best partial successes; they took longer, cost more, and produced more ambiguous results than NATO's defenders like to admit. NATO's efforts in Afghanistan have been mostly a failure, and no member of the alliance wants to do anything like that again. The Libyan debacle now looks like a monument to Western hubris, even though its architects remain loath to admit just how wrong they were. The United States has been trying to "rebalance" to Asia in recent years -- an arena where NATO has little role to play -- and has been coping with the aftermath of George W. Bush's foolish attempt to "transform" the Middle East. Until the Ukraine crisis arose, NATO looked like a nearly extinct dodo that had somehow managed to last into the 21st century.

Yet NATO survived. This is partly because the alliance was heavily institutionalized, and no bureaucracy goes out of business without a fight. Its persistence also gave the United States some residual leverage in Europe and allowed Washington to pretend that its activities elsewhere had broad international support. Military bases in Europe and a long history of cooperation also facilitated U.S. interventions in other areas and didn't require Europeans to do much in return. Finally, liberal internationalists embraced NATO (and EU) expansion as a way to spread democratic institutions and values into the former Soviet empire, toward the ever-elusive goal of "one Europe, united and free."

But as George Kennan, Michael Mandelbaum, and other experts warned in the 1990s, NATO expansion turned out to be a fundamental strategic misstep. It alienated Russia without making NATO stronger; on the contrary, expansion involved extending security guarantees to mostly weak countries that would be the hardest to defend should Russian power ever recover. Instead of sticking with the early 1990s Partnership for Peace, an initiative that provided many of the same benefits as NATO expansion -- including military-to-military contacts, security dialogue, and support for civil society -- but also included Russia, Washington succumbed to hubris and decided to add to its defense burdens without getting much in return.

Undertaken, like the old British Empire, in a "fit of absentmindedness," NATO expansion rested on the assumption that these various guarantees would never need to be honored. It was not until the brief Russo-Georgian war of 2008 that a few Washingtonians (and a larger number of Europeans) begin to recognize that these commitments might actually involve some cost and risk. But by then it was too late, because any challenge in Eastern Europe would be seen as a test of U.S. credibility and NATO's resolve. Needless to say, this is precisely how most people -- including President Barack Obama, who has called the Ukraine crisis a "moment of testing" -- are now interpreting the tussle over Ukraine.

Yet even the current crisis cannot fully reconcile NATO's fundamental strategic problems. Even if one adopts a worst-case view of Russian intentions, today's Russia is nowhere near as threatening as the old Soviet Union. The USSR was a continent-sized superpower with a larger population than the United States and an economy roughly half as large; today's Russia is smaller and less populous, and its economy is roughly one-fifth the size of America's. The USSR outspent the United States on defense during most of the Cold War, but Russia today is a pipsqueak by comparison. Its only appealing products are oil, natural gas, and raw materials, and it no longer boasts an ideology that can rally supporters worldwide. It can be a regional spoiler and a local troublemaker, but it is not and will never again be a true peer competitor.

These realities also mean that Russia does not threaten the vital interests of most of Europe or the United States. It is a genuine threat to Ukraine's well-being, and it is also a potential problem for the small Baltic states, but Europe no longer has to worry about 90-plus divisions massing on the inter-German border. That's a very good thing, but the lack of a serious strategic threat is also why NATO has trouble marshaling the level of coherence and commitment that it did during the Cold War.

In fact (and in sharp contrast to the post-World War II period), Europe now has the latent wherewithal to deal with the Russian bear all by itself, if only it could get its act together. NATO's European members are notoriously reluctant to spend money on defense or create effective military forces, but it's not because they lack the basic resources. Even today, NATO Europe spends four times more on defense each year than Russia does. If these states were really worried, you'd think they would coordinate their activities more effectively, devote more money to the problem, and spend the existing amounts more efficiently, instead of maintaining militaries that are long on creature comforts and short on fighting capacity

The real challenge NATO faces is the classic dilemma of collective action, made all the worse by the modest nature of the threat to which NATO is now trying to respond. This problem is why NATO's new members are working overtime to convince others -- and especially Americans over in the Western Hemisphere -- that Russian President Vladimir Putin is History's Greatest (or Latest) Monster. If you're Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, or even Polish, you don't want to rely on British or French or Spanish help if trouble arises with Moscow. You want to make sure the White House is on your side, and you want hotheads like Joe Biden and John McCain calling for the United States to do everything it can. So these states (and countries like Georgia) spend a lot on lobbying politicians in Washington in order to convince Americans to care as much about their homelands as they do.

Unfortunately, the history of the past 50 years tells us that the more security Uncle Sam provides to others, the less the recipients will do for themselves. Confirmed Atlanticists like the late Richard Holbrooke liked to say that the United States was a "European power," but a momentary glance at the globe shows you that this is nonsense. America is located in the Western Hemisphere, folks, and the extent of its interests in Europe depend on circumstances. When a peer competitor emerges and threatens to dominate the continent, then America's vital interests are fully engaged. When no such rival exists (or when potential peer competitors are located elsewhere), U.S. interests are much reduced. Everybody knows or suspects this, of course, no matter how fervently U.S. officials proclaim their undying support for areas where few vital interests reside.

So what will NATO do at this week's summit? It has already announced plans for a new rapid-reaction force, and Obama has delivered a typically stirring speech pledging U.S. support for all the countries that managed to get themselves into the alliance before anyone thought too hard about the wisdom of this step. There will be the usually pious declarations about enhancing defense capabilities, and a new set of exercises will be planned, provided they don't cost too much. But eventually the war fever will break, and NATO Europe will return to its enfeebled military condition and diplomatic disarray.

Meanwhile, what about Ukraine? In theory, NATO could make a real contribution by forming a united front in favor of genuine diplomacy, something Germany seems especially eager to pursue. By "diplomacy," I mean a process of principled but flexible bargaining whose goal is to resolve the current crisis in a way that gives the various parties what they most need, instead of trying to obtain everything they might occasionally dream about. That process has to begin by recognizing that 1) Russia sees Ukraine's political alignment as a vital interest, 2) it has various cards to play to advance its goals, and 3) it is willing to wreck the country to prevent it from joining the West. You don't have to like those facts -- who would? -- but effective statecraft must begin by acknowledging unpleasant realities. As with most diplomatic efforts, the United States and Europe aren't going to get everything they want and should concentrate instead on getting what is most important.

As I've said before, the best possible outcome here is an agreement that reaffirms Ukraine's independence and sovereignty, ends the fighting, removes any Russian troops on Ukraine's territory, and guarantees Ukraine's status as a neutral buffer state. The status of Crimea is trickier, and I fear it won't be possible to get Russia to disgorge it. We may have to accept that change as the price Ukraine and the West must pay for our prior carelessness. To advance the ball, NATO's leaders should support Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko while simultaneously discouraging him from upping his demands. In particular, they should make it clear that their support is conditional on Ukraine cutting a reasonable deal. It's a bit like the conditional support the United States provides to Taiwan: The United States will defend that country if its independence is threatened by external military action, but all bets are off if Taiwan provokes trouble by crossing Beijing's "red lines."

Is this a perfect result? Hardly. But it is a lot better than prolonging the crisis, which will damage the still-fragile EU economy, poison East-West relations even further, and do further harm to Ukraine itself. I see little evidence that U.S. officials are thinking along these lines, but perhaps some of America's European partners can convince them otherwise. Isn't that what summit meetings are for?

*Correction, Sept. 5, 2014: NATO's intervention in Bosnia happened in 1995. An earlier version of this article said the year was 1996. (Return to reading.)

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