Sent to you by Sean McBride via Google Reader: It's easier than Tom
Friedman thinks: a realistic Middle East strategy via Stephen M. Walt
by Stephen M. Walt on 1/26/09

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
Avishai's two-part essay here and here.

Alex Wong/Getty Images for Meet the Press

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