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It's easier than Tom Friedman thinks: a realistic Middle East strategy

Tom Friedman almost gets it, but what he leaves out is at least as significant as what he puts in. In his column in Sunday's New York Times, he informs us that we really are at a cross-roads in the Middle East, and that the two-state solution will fail if it isn't achieved very, very soon. Glad he noticed!

Friedman says there are two big problems: extremist settlers in Israel and extremist groups like Hamas among the Palestinians. And for good measure, he tosses in the obstructionists in Syria and those dangerous mullahs in Tehran, whose opposition makes solving this problem nearly impossible. We also need help from Egypt and Saudi Arabia, but it's hard to count on them. His conclusion: "whoever lines up this diplomatic Rubik's cube deserves two Nobel Prizes."

Actually it's not that hard, although I doubt the Obama administration will summon the political will and diplomatic stamina that will be necessary to pull it off. To see why, you need a fuller picture of the situation than Friedman provides.

To begin with, Friedman would have you believe that settlement expansion is just the work of some isolated religious extremists, and the only problem is that no Israeli government has "mustered the will" to face them down. In fact, settlement expansion has been the conscious policy of every Israeli government since 1967 -- Labor, Likud, and Kadima alike. If you don't believe me, just read Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar's Lords of the Land; Gershom Gorenberg's Accidental Empire, Neve Gordon's Israel's Occupation, or retired IDF general Shlomo Gazit's Trapped Fools. Thus far, Ehud Barak is the only Israeli leader to make a serious effort to negotiate a two-state solution, and even his best offer at Camp David fell well short of a viable two-state proposal. And when Oslo collapsed, Friedman's columns helped spread the false claim that PLO leader Yasser Arafat had turned down a great deal and was solely responsible for the failure, a myth that undermined the peace camp in Israel and reinforced the political dynamics that Friedman now blames for the current impasse.

Friedman also fails to mention the role that the United States has played in bringing this situation about. What was the United States doing while all those settlers were moving into the West Bank? The answer: we were helping pay for it, by continuing to give Israel billions of dollars of aid each year. Of course U.S. officials told the Israeli government that it couldn't spend our aid in the West Bank, but money is fungible and generous U.S. support inevitably freed up resources that Israel could then spend spend on the settlements, on the land-grabbing separation fence, or on the IDF forces assigned to protect the settlers themselves.

Although it was the official policy of every President since Lyndon Johnson to oppose the construction of settlements, none of them put any serious pressure on Israel to stop. The first President Bush briefly withheld some loan guarantees in 1992 over this issue, but the guarantees were authorized a few months later and settlement construction continued apace. The number of settlers more than doubled during the Oslo period (1993-2001), yet former U.S. negotiator Aaron David Miller recently reported that:

In 25 years of working on this issue for six secretaries of state, I can't recall one meeting where we had a serious discussion with an Israeli prime minister about the damage that settlement activity -- including land confiscation, bypass roads and housing demolitions -- does to the peacemaking process."

Israel has added another 70,000 settlers since 2001, and the Bush administration never took any serious action to stop them. The question you might ask yourself is: why not?

Friedman is right that Palestinian rejectionists are a big problem too. The difference is that the United States has never hesitated to turn the screws on them. Persistent U.S. pressure helped persuade Arafat and the PLO to recognize Israel, which paved the way for the Oslo Accords in 1993. Back then, Hamas had only about 15 percent support in the Palestinian community. Unfortunately, the Oslo process failed to deliver a Palestinian state and the combination of Fatah's corruption and Israel's ever-expanding occupation made Hamas more and more popular over time. So when the United States insisted on elections in 2006, Hamas ended up winning. Then Washington refused to recognize their victory and Israel imposed a crippling blockade on Gaza. The United States actively worked to destroy the Palestinian unity government and foolishly tried to sponsor a Fatah coup in Gaza, only to have Hamas move first and rout the Fatah forces, thereby solidifying its position. The recent Israeli assault on Gaza -- which the Bush administration backed and Congress voted overwhelmingly to endorse -- has deepened these divisions even more. To a considerable extent, therefore, the situation that Friedman now deplores is of our own making.

Finally, Friedman's suggestion that the involvement of Syria and Iran makes this problem nearly intractable misses the key point: it's not their policies that make our problems more difficult, it is our policies that have helped drive some otherwise unlikely allies together and given them an issue they can exploit for their own reasons. Syria has no other way to pressure Israel, so it uses the Palestinian issue (and its support for Hamas and Hezbollah) as part of its long campaign to get back the Golan Heights, which Israel conquered in the Six Day War. Similarly, as Trita Parsi has shown, Iran supports Islamic Jihad and other Palestinian groups in part to pressure the United States to acknowledge its legitimate security interests in the Persian Gulf and partly to discredit conservative Arab states like Saudi Arabia and make it harder for them to form an anti-Iranian coalition in the Gulf. This situation explains why Saudi Arabia has been pushing its own peace plan since 2002 (a plan now formally adopted by the Arab League): they know that ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would strengthen their position and undermine Iran's.

From a realist's standpoint, therefore, the obvious strategy is one of "divide-and-rule" (except that we aren't seeking to rule the region; we're just trying to protect certain key strategic interests). Achieving a two-state solution would remove one of the issues that Iran is using to bolster its regional position. Encouraging Israel and Syria to finalize their peace treaty -- an agreement whose main elements have been in place for nearly a decade -- would end Syria's support for Hezbollah and Hamas and drive a wedge between Syria and Iran. Serious diplomatic engagement with Iran and a genuine willingness to satisfy Tehran's security concerns (especially its fear of U.S.-sponsored regime change) would reduce its incentive to play the spoiler's role over Palestine and make it easier for Israel to make the concessions that are necessary for peace. Lastly, the prospect of diminishing Iranian and Syrian backing would force Hamas to confront some hard choices -- i.e., on recognizing Israel's right to exist -- especially if a two-state solution begins to take shape and they are seen as the principal impediment to it.

So solving this Rubik's cube may not be so difficult after all. If we understand how the different pieces of the puzzle fit together and we pursue the right strategy, progress on one front will facilitate progress on the others. The key step is to approach the problem from broader regional perspective and a realistic assessment of U.S. interests, and to be willing to act as an honest broker, using our influence to push all the parties in the right direction. Happily, acting in this way would not just be in the interests of the United States, it would also be in the interest of our other friends in the region, Israel included.

For an especially thoughtful set of reflections on this issue, see Bernard
Avishai's two-part essay here and here.

Alex Wong/Getty Images for Meet the Press