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NEW ITEMS - They Say, We Say

APN responds to "They Say's" about the Israeli-Arab conflict and resolving the problems in the region, and as a key national security interest of the U.S.

Go HERE for the complete THEY SAY, WE SAY online publication

THEY SAY:  Why does the "peace camp" buy into the anti-Israel camp's effort to link resolution of the Israeli-Arab conflict to solving all problems in the region?  Can't you understand that this is really code for blaming Israel for everything and absolving Arab regimes of all responsibility for bad governance, corruption, and support for extremism?

WE SAY: The charge is a false.  The implication of the charge is that the "peace camp" agrees that if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were resolved, all the other problems in the region would be resolved.  No reasonably informed person could believe that.

Defenders of Israel in the U.S. have long rejected the idea of a "linkage" between the Israeli-Palestinian and Arab-Israeli conflicts and broader problems in the region, including the rise of extremist ideologies and terrorism.  This rejection stems from a not unreasonable fear that this "linkage" is, in some cases, little more than an excuse to blame Israel for everything bad that happens in the region.

Let there be no doubt: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Arab-Israeli conflict are not the source of all problems in the region.  The countries of the Middle East have enough domestic problems - including poor governance and an absence of political and economic freedoms, lack of education, regressive legal systems, and domestic religious extremism - to give rise, on their own, to plenty of domestic and regional instability.  Anyone who argues that all of these domestic problems are caused by Israel or the Arab-Israeli conflict is either simply mistaken, or is deliberately choosing to ignore the facts in order to blame Israel.

At the same time, it is also wrong to argue that there is no connection between the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict (as well as the wider Israeli-Arab conflict) and developments in other countries in the region.  Anyone who follows Middle East news knows that extremists have long been using the conflict to rally support, with popular anger stoked by daily televised images of Palestinian suffering. The conflict has also undermined the ability of the U.S. to pressure and mobilize support from Arab allies for key U.S. national security interests, with these allies arguing (not without merit) that reforms will likely empower the same extremists, while the lack of progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict exposes them to accusations of being American stooges.  Similarly, Arab regimes have asserted that they cannot be expected to provide support for U.S. policies in Iraq or elsewhere unless the U.S. provides them some political cover by achieving progress on Israeli-Palestinian peace.

The bipartisan Baker-Hamilton report on Iraq, known as the Iraq Study Group, wisely noted:  "...all key issues in the Middle East-the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iraq, Iran, the need for political and economic reforms, and extremism and terror-are inextricably linked."

And Philip Zelikow, then-Counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, stated clearly at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on September 15, 2006: "For the Arab moderates and for the Europeans, some sense of progress and momentum on the Arab-Israeli dispute is just a sine qua non for their ability to cooperate actively with the United States on a lot of other things that we care about.  We can rail against that belief; we can find it completely justifiable, but it's fact.  That means an active policy on the Arab-Israeli dispute is an essential ingredient to forging a coalition that deals with the most dangerous problems."

Certainly, the Arab-Israeli conflict is not the root of all problems in the region, and just as certainly, resolution of the conflict will not instantly cure all these problems. But clearly, there is a relationship between the conflict and the regional context, and just as clearly, recognition of this link should not be automatically viewed as an attack on Israel. Rather, attempting to craft policy without an understanding of this dynamic is a risky endeavor.

THEY SAY: Why does the "peace camp" argue that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a key national security interest of the U.S.?  Everyone knows that the conflict is only one of many problems troubling the region and that resolving it will not have a significant impact on addressing the others.

WE SAY: There are indeed many problems in the Middle East, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of them.  However, it is simply undeniable that Israeli-Palestinian (and Israeli-Arab) peace is a key U.S. national security interest, and that achieving it will have an immense positive impact on obtaining other U.S. goals in the region. 

As the bipartisan Iraq Study Group observed in its report issued December 6, 2006: "The United States cannot achieve its goals in the Middle East unless it deals directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict and regional instability.  There must be a renewed and sustained commitment by the United States to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace on all fronts: Lebanon, Syria, and President Bush's June 2002 commitment to a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine."

The reasons are clear.

First, the U.S. has a strong interest in the security, stability and well-being of Israel, its staunchest ally in the Middle East. In the long run, peace between Israel and its neighbors is the best way to provide the security, stability and wellbeing that Israel strives for.

Second, America has a strong interest in security and stability in the Arab world. Regional instability impedes America's efforts to fight terrorism. It hinders efforts to induce reform in the Arab world and jeopardizes the flow of Mideast oil to the U.S. It bolsters anti-American rogue regimes and stirs up anti-American sentiment on the Arab street.

Third, like it or not, many in the Arab world - including members of the professional and political elites - view world affairs through the prism of the Arab-Israeli conflict. They care deeply about what they see, not without reason, as the oppression of the Palestinian people by the Israelis, especially in the West Bank and even still in Gaza.  They relate to the United States through its role in the relations between Israel and the Arabs. Many of them view Israel and the United States as posing a greater threat to them than any other nations. This view may be unfounded or seem ludicrous to us, but it is ubiquitous and it has important implications for U.S. national security. Moreover, whether we like it or not, popular perceptions of the United States in the region and around the world are disproportionately shaped by developments in the Israeli-Palestinian arena - and leaders of Arab countries are necessarily sensitive to these perceptions.  As articulated by Philip Zelikow, then-Counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, on September 15, 2006:

"The significance of the Israeli-Arab dispute across these problems is, I think, obvious to all of you.Think then about what is the coalition you need to amass in order to combat those threats.You can imagine the United States, key European allies, the state of Israel and the Arab moderates - Arabs who seek a peaceful future.What would bind that coalition and help keep them together is a sense that the Arab-Israeli issues are being addressed, that they see a common determination to sustain an active policy that tries to deal with the problems of Israel and the Palestinians.  We don't want this issue to have the real corrosive effects that it has, or the symbolic corrosive effects that it causes, undermining some of the friends we need to confront the serious dangers we must face together.

"I do not believe that the Palestinian threat, per se, is the most dangerous threat to the future of the state of Israel.  If Israel, for example, is especially worried about Iran and sees it is an existential threat, then it's strongly in the interest of Israel to want the American-led coalition to work on an active policy that begins to normalize the situation.  It's an essential glue that binds a lot of these problems together.  And so ironically, even if your primary concern is not with the Palestinian danger, you have to give it primary attention while you are looking at other problems as well."

Depicting the opposite as a truism (as those who oppose Arab-Israeli negotiations frequently do) - arguing that the Israeli-Arab and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts are simply not relevant to the population of the rest of the Middle East - is simply wrong.