Mideast Briefing: Demoting the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict

March 14th, 2011

Ed Rettig, Director, AJC-Jerusalem

Just a few months ago General Jim Jones, the former U.S. National Security Advisor, told the Herzliah Conference that if God has allocated just one crisis for President Obama to resolve during his term in office, it should be the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It is, indeed, a conflict that must be resolved - for the future of both peoples, and because of its exploitation by regional actors. But waves of protest in the Arab world have undermined the delusion that somehow the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the root cause of regional instability. Whether in nations at peace with Israel like Egypt, those that sit out the conflict like Tunisia, or those like Syria that practice vitriolic hostility, Palestine was not the motivation for revolutionary confrontation with the government. Citizens are risking everything and challenging national authority in order to fundamentally rewrite the social contract.

That is not to say that the notion of Israeli/Palestinian centrality has given up the ghost; bad ideas rarely go away in a timely fashion. In this case, it serves many purposes, among them:

• Distraction from dictatorship: The assertion that critics of the regime are collaborators with Israel (or, conversely, radicals who thrive on the continuation of the conflict) has been a staple of repressive regional politics. The strategy has clearly lost much of its punch, at least temporarily. Yemenis responded with derision when beleaguered President Saleh claimed the disorder in the Arab world is masterminded “from a war room in Tel Aviv.” At the same time-an interesting example of a dictator believing his own propaganda-President Assad confidently asserted that the protests would pass by Syria because he is “opposed to Israel.” Then the riots struck his country. To be sure, the Arab world exhibits appalling levels of Jew-hatred, averaging in the ninety-percent range, according to the Pew Foundation. This may provide fertile ground for democratically elected demagogues to play the anti-Israel card in the future. But what is reshaping the region is a response to corrupt, repressive, incompetent, often inherited government, not the Palestine/Israel conflict.
• Garnering financial and political support for the PA: The idea of the centrality of the conflict provides a rationale for the U.S. and the EU to invest much political energy and incredible sums in the PA, far in excess of contributions from within the region. The Fayyad government appears to be making reasonably effective use of the money for development, and the so-called Dayton Forces - Palestinian security elements trained with U.S. support in Jordan - have made a real difference in providing Palestinians (and indirectly Israelis) with a higher level of personal safety. But given the way the Arab masses have demoted the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to more realistic proportions, it will be interesting to see how (or if) the change is reflected in lower financial contributions and perhaps reduced momentum for counterproductive Palestinian positions at the UN and in the peace process. z
• Garnering support for Israel: Ironically, over the years Israel, too, developed a stake in the perception of disproportionate importance of the conflict, mainly because it has a corollary in the West - the belief that military aid is necessary so that a strengthened Israel can more safely make concessions to resolve a conflict of seeming world significance. This did help Israel take risks for peace, but if the parties internalize the demotion of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in this era of American financial retrenchment, the alliance between the two countries may develop in new directions. To be sure, demotion of the conflict is unlikely to undermine the deep relationship between the U.S. and Israel, but that will not prevent a need for further painful Israeli concessions on the road to peace.
• An open scandal at the UN: Systemic discrimination against Israel exposes a flaw in the international organization’s structure-the unfair treatment of states that are not part of a sizable bloc. Fifty-six members of the Conference of the Islamic Organization, dozens of “nonaligned” fellow travelers, and certain larger powers that seek their favor seem eternally to confront one Jewish state. If the perception of the conflict is demoted, might we see reform at the international body through the introduction of checks and balances?
Psychologists use the term “homeostasis” to describe a situation where the players maintain an unhealthy status quo. They may be aware of its harm but they fear the unknown, and so refuse to take steps necessary for healing. International recognition of the true proportions of the conflict could mark a paradigm shift of great and healthy importance. The key balancing process in the negotiations, successful weighing of safety for Israelis and independence for Palestinians, will probably be easier without the delusion that the fate of the world also hangs in the balance.

Let us not wax overly optimistic. News that EU and UN diplomats are laying the groundwork for a new Quartet plan that would attempt to impose a Palestinian-Israeli solution suggests that the lessons of the last few months have not yet altered behaviors in some quarters. Will homeostasis prevail? Or might we be on the cusp of a new situation that could leave the parties to work out their shared future without the burden of the larger responsibilities that some in the international community continue to place on their backs?