Taking on Israeli-Palestinian Impasse

The Egyptian military has ousted President Morsi and Syria is in a civil war, but Secretary of State Kerry has invested much of his time on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Some pundits question Kerry’s priorities but they ignore how corrosive the Israeli occupation has been to U.S. interests, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Mark Landler and Jodi Rudoren in the New York Times raise the question of whether Secretary of State John Kerry and President Barack Obama have their priorities straight regarding Middle Eastern issues when Kerry spends copious amounts of his valuable time trying to get Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations under way while other situations in the region are in flames, sometimes literally.

It is appropriate to question whether Kerry’s effort is worthwhile, but not for the reasons most often mentioned. When reading in the article that “resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the magic bullet for the region that some once thought,” one has to wonder who the “some” are.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry answers a question from an Israeli reporter during a news conference in Tel Aviv, Israel, on June 30, 2013.[State Department photo]

This magic bullet is a straw man. Referring to it leads to the logical fallacy, which arises all too often with this issue, that if something doesn’t explain everything then it explains nothing. The unsettled Israeli-Palestinian conflict does not influence and explain everything in the Middle East, but it influences and explains a lot.

Despite all those flammable distractions elsewhere in the region, this unsettled conflict and the continued Israeli occupation of Palestinian-inhabited land continue to be one of the most frequently and widely cited causes, grievances and sources of resentment in the Middle East, and beyond, especially among Muslim populations.

Opinion polls consistently show that the issue has not lost the tremendous resonance it has had for decades. The issue also consistently is high on the list of issues that regional governments raise both publicly and in dealing with U.S. officials. And the issue is one of the most frequently mentioned complaints that extremists use to rationalize their violence. Even terrorists who may not care about the Palestinians exploit the issue’s appeal.

All of this matters significantly for U.S. interests. Because of the extraordinary relationship in which the United States almost automatically condones, defends and facilitates Israeli policies, the United States is paired with Israel as a target of anger and resentment. The extremist emphasis on Israel and the Palestinian issue points to one of the most direct and visible consequences for U.S. interests, which is to stoke or support terrorist violence against the United States.

Less visible and less traumatic are the responses of governments, which nonetheless can impede and complicate the pursuit of other U.S. objectives for which the cooperation of those governments is needed, and which is limited by the tolerance of their own populations.

Upheaval elsewhere in the Middle East, far from being unconnected to the festering conflict with Israel, is linked to it in numerous ways. As the Times article mentions, for example, Hezbollah cites Israel and the need to confront it as its fighters join the Syrian civil war on the side of the Assad regime.

During the two and an half years of political change in Egypt the status of the peace treaty with Israel has been an object of questioning and worry, mainly because of continued Egyptian resentment over the other half of the Camp David agreements, the part dealing with the Palestinians, never having been fulfilled.

The continued Israeli occupation is a prominent reason for skepticism and cynicism whenever the United States talks about championing political rights, the cause of democracy or national self-determination. The isolation of the United States and Israel from nearly everyone else on this issue, as reflected in many lopsided votes in the United Nations General Assembly, is also a recurring and embarrassing demonstration of a lack of U.S. power and influence.

If none of this is enough to sway one’s thinking, there is the basic injustice of the occupation. And for those who profess love for Israel and whose formula for deciding Middle East policy is to ask what is in Israel’s interest, there is something else to think about: what Israel’s future will look like as an increasingly beleaguered, perpetually at war, apartheid state if the conflict with the Palestinians is never resolved.

Former Israeli Ambassador to the United States Sallai Meridor is cited in the article as saying that most Israelis would rank Syria, Iran, Egypt and Jordan ahead of the Palestinians in “importance and urgency.”

This overlooks two distinctions. One is between importance and urgency, which are two different things. The depressing familiarity into which the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian seems to have settled after 46 years of occupation does not, through that passage of time, make it any less important.

Another distinction that is critical for U.S. policy is between what is important and what the United States can do anything about. The United States has the leverage, so far unrealized, to do a lot about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, given the extraordinary diplomatic and material largesse it bestows on Israel.

By contrast, there is much less it can do about some of those other problems in the Middle East. Without obvious levers to pull, efforts to do something are less likely to solve problems than to exacerbate them or to incur additional resentment against the United States for trying to manipulate someone else’s internal affairs.

That doesn’t stop many American participants in policy debates, of course, from pretending that the United States really can solve some of those problems. And so we get the pressure that resulted in indirect intervention in the Syria civil war that is likely to fan the flames there without getting closer to a settlement. We also get recommendations for the United States to declare “redlines” to get Egyptians to behave. (“Redlines” ought to be banished from the vocabulary of policy discourse.)

The valid basis for questioning whether the Secretary of State is making good use of his time is this: suppose Mr. Kerry somehow manages to get Israeli and Palestinian representatives to sit at the same table and to engage in a dialogue that is called a negotiation, then what? Will there be reason to believe that this will be anything other than another phase in which talk goes on and on, but so does the occupation, with the Palestinians not really getting any closer to having their own state?

Unless more is done to change incentives for the Israeli government, the answer to that question is probably no. Some members of the ruling coalition in Israel have been quite outspoken in firmly opposing a relinquishing of land for peace. Meanwhile, a start to negotiations would be a public relations plus for Benjamin Netanyahu by making it slightly easier for him to pose, similar to how, to incredulous Arab ears, George W. Bush once described Ariel Sharon, as “a man of peace.”

If these observations sound asymmetrically aimed at the Israeli side of the conflict, that is because the situation itself is highly asymmetrical. Israel is the occupier. The Israelis could end the occupation at any time. The Palestinians cannot.

Secretary Kerry and President Obama have their priorities straight insofar as they devote significant time and attention to trying to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We should applaud Secretary Kerry for his energetic efforts. But we should otherwise reserve judgment until we see whether enough else will change in U.S. policy to yield anything other than talk.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

12 comments for “Taking on Israeli-Palestinian Impasse

  1. John
    July 9, 2013 at 21:17

    Once again, only the General Assembly voted on the partition plan (not a finalized plan but an outline). The Security Council never voted on it or a finalized version, and the Palestinian people, the indigenous people, never accepted it so it is not a legal document by the UN or international law.
    Most of us are not against Jewish people in any way what so ever, we are against political Zionism as are many educated Jews who escape the constant fear mongering by abusive Zionist opportunists to further their cause. They take a lot of abuse from these fanatical poltical Zionists. Political Zionism is considered outside ethical Jewish faith by those who study the essence of the Jewish faith.
    Israel can exist within the 67 borders, something that Arafat accepted but a political Zionist killed Rabin, the only Israeli politician Arafat trusted which left him hanging with nothing. Then in 82 Israel went into Lebanon to kill or get rid of Arafat, the man who could make peace, and then they occupied the area up to the Litani river, land political Zionists consider part of the Greater Israel. Real trouble makers I’d say.
    There was no legitimate reason to enter Lebanon. That brought on Hezbolah, considered by some a terrorist group, but they had the right to fight Israeli occupation soldiers on their land. There is no solid proof to show Hezbolah has ever done any terrorist activity outside Lebanon other than try to capture some Israeli soldiers on the border to exchange for their soldiers held for an inordinate length of time in Israeli prisons. I’ve had it with political Zionism, it’s denial of the rights of the Palestinian people, and even the denial there were a Palestinian people. Excuse me there was a viable society there of Jews, Christians and Muslims living together in peace until political Zionism was invented and took root. The Palestinian Jews (indigenous to the area) didn’t want these “trouble making outsiders” coming and upsetting life as it was.
    There are times when politics and religion make people overly myopic and they just don’t see the damage that they do to themselves and others. So it is with political Zionism.

  2. just plainbill
    July 8, 2013 at 01:05

    The Palestinians were offered a contiguous state 2-3 times larger than Israel in 1948.” London warned that Jewish opinion would oppose partition “unless the Jewish share were so enlarged as to make the scheme wholly unacceptable to Arabs”It was indeed unacceptable the Palestinian Arabs and the surrounding Arab states rejected the UN plan and regarded the General Assembly vote as an international betrayal.
    Thus the first Arab-Israeli war began. The Arabs were no match for the fighting thugs of David Ben Gurion and after arms shipments from Czechoslovakia reached Israel its armed forces established superiority and conquered territories beyond the UN partition plan borders of the Jewish state.

    The age old Palestinian/Arab Muslim goal to destroy the state of Israel “and drive the Jews into the sea” began way back then-perhaps. It is however the myth that exists today that Israel uses to legitimize, despite worldwide condemnation, the continuing of the settlements with its land/water grabbing, olive tree destruction, walls and checkpoints that it being done all “for security, to free their people from the fear of the dream of Islam to annihilate the Jewish people”. Dani Dayan

    In the Israeli narrative, Jews are always the victims, constantly on guard against unprovoked attacks.
    They need get over this rant about “we are a perpetually embattled, beleaguered people who accordingly have been perpetually wronged and betrayed by the rest of the World”

  3. Lynne Kane
    July 5, 2013 at 23:08

    The Palestinians were offered a contiguous state 2-3 times larger than Israel in 1948 BUT they refused it on the advice of the Mufti of Jerusalem, who was meeting with Adolph Hitler in Berlin. The Palestinian/Arab Muslim goal to destroy the state of Israel “and drive the Jews into the sea” began way back then.
    If the Palestinians had stopped following bad advice from Arab leaders, who wanted to foment the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to divert attention from what we now see were the problems in their own Arab Middle East countries, the Palestinians would have developed an infrastructure, education, economy to do business with Israel and the rest of the world – as Israel does. THAT is the reason America stands with Israel: we are trading partners and allies with something to give each other for mutual security. Israel returned all of Gaza to the Palestinians with no preconditions, and the Palestinians continued to attack Israel (and the Palestinians destroyed hydroponic vegetable buildings that were left for the Palestinians to use).
    Please get over this anti-Jewish rant about Israel as the main problem in the Middle East.

  4. John
    July 5, 2013 at 22:45

    Very insensitive JImbo. What really matters is that Israel calls itself a democracy and attached to the West. The deeds that Europeans did to native populations in Africa, South America and North America where done at a time when communications were so slow few people knew what was really going on. Today the world is a lot smaller, communications so rapid that the old concepts of being above the native populations and treating them like in the past doesn’t work so well. We also all know that much money goes out of our country to support a Jewish based program, political Zionism, racism on a native population many of whom are descendants of Jews who converted to Christianity and Islam. Israel gets far more funding than any needy country in the world, and many of its debts are written off in an peculiar fashion. Trying to tally the real cost that each of us are paying to support practices we don’t believe in any more, is a difficult and disturbing business.
    As for other countries, most of us do care. We put money and time in to helping people under duress, not to the bullies. It is usually the government who in some cases supports the bullies out of seeking influence, or markets in weapons and the like. Unfortunately, in many of these instances we don’t hear about the realities of the operations, they are clandestine and behind closed doors. In time the truth comes out and Consortium News does a good job at that.

  5. JImbo
    July 4, 2013 at 21:51

    Same old joooooooooo derangement syndrome. Millions of Africans and Indonesians die and the world yawns. A Palestinian gets a hangnail and it’s a global crisis.

  6. Hillary
    July 4, 2013 at 12:57

    What can one expect when Israel’s President receives more standing ovations in the US Congress than the President of the United States.

  7. Erica Stuart
    July 3, 2013 at 23:48

    Sorry something happens to the spelling of the lower part of my post above.Google speller does not work here unless I change to Google’s.

  8. Erica Stuart
    July 3, 2013 at 23:13

    Any rational logical nation or person looking over the issue will find it difficult to believe it is the work of a big power nation and its intalligent people. It is downright stupid. Let us take it down to normal levels. The local police and other government agencies keeps giving a free pass to a selected group. How long do you thing the people would take it??? Think about it becasue we are headed that way, yes WE the Poeple have become secondary consideratation to Israel Interest. Then you look for some logic and what you find is greed,crime, corruption of our own poeple and some Nations that used Israel for their own drive to power. That they would be so stupid to thik that Israel would passibly reward its benefactor without demands well???? Papa Bush can tell us that when he asked Israel if we could use their territory to re-fuel I think while fighting Iraq was bluntly andopenlsy told “it wold not be in the interfest of Israel” Did not even spare the humiliation. What about the USS LIBERTY,

    Clear Nows? Sop lets all; tellB ush and Ob ama cut the…and spell olut \how we the peopel ended up being sp;ied on to satisfy Israeli Paranoya, and by the way
    get ready because Isarel request was more than spying they wanted official approval to use their force fpor action to remove troublemakers for aIsrael Plans. Bus dais No nuncostitutional but dear Mc CVainma nd Grahama nd our loyal Congress recentlyadded additkonal right for Israel; in tha Patriot Act.

  9. F. G. Sanford
    July 3, 2013 at 22:59

    I checked on the Internet to see what Israel’s boundaries are supposed to be. I found a Christian site, complete with a picture of blue-eyed Jesus sporting a magnificently groomed sandy blond beard and his imposing shepherd’s crook. It provided concise historical boundaries that are easily verifiable based on the geography which is indisputably recognizable even today. So, there should be no confusion whatsoever: “The Old Testament boundaries for the Promised Land are given in Genesis 15:18, Deut. 1:6-8 and other places. By comparing them you can readily see that it extended from the River Euphrates in the north to the Wadi al Arish (River of Egypt) in the south, and from the Jordan River in the East to the Mediterranean in the West. All these boundaries are easily found on any good map today. This area is much larger than Israel’s current boundaries and so they don’t have any to spare without violating the Biblical mandate against selling or giving away their land.”

    When I served in the military, there was this recurring problem of some young troopers going out in the evening to enjoy the nightlife and have just a few beers. On a regular, recurring basis, some of these fine young men would get the living tar beat out of them. They would end up bloodied, bruised and cut, often with a few teeth knocked out, and perhaps a concussion. They would always tell the same story. “I was sitting there at the bar, having a beer and minding my own business, and all of a sudden, these two guys…” This problem got so severe that the General finally heard about it. Of course, he wanted all the details. After hearing the particulars, he asked, “So…what are we doing to track down those two guys?”

    We’re approaching the Middle East the same way. Instead of recognizing that one party acts like an asshole and incurs animosity, we prefer to enable bar-room brawls in the hope that, sooner or later, those “two guys” will learn their lesson. A far wiser approach would be to enforce the Foreign Agent Registration Act of 1938 and remove subversive influences from Congressional lobbying. Another would be to eschew mythology as a justification for geopolitical exploitation. Given the ape-act shenanigans in our Congressional circus, neither is probable. Palestinian statehood is about as likely as a blond, blue-eyed Jesus with a flock of sheep turning up in the Negev for an encore performance.

    • gregorylkruse
      July 4, 2013 at 09:50

      Israel may want very much to restore the Old Testament boundaries, but to do that they will have to do again what they did in the first place, invade and destroy everything, killing even the chickens and goats. In the old days they just did it. Nowadays it’s done in slow motion, and while looking over the shoulder.

  10. Victor
    July 3, 2013 at 21:26

    As Paul Pillar observes, the situation is highly asymmetrical. So what does it mean to negotiate peace? In practice, it means negotiating a formal Palestinian surrender in return for some local autonomy. No one proposes a real Palestinian state. No, it would at best be an armless, legless beggar-like entity supported by international alms. The Israelis are not even interested anymore in going along with that. They think they can sit on the Palestinians indefinitely, perhaps waiting for an opportunity to push them into Jordan. They may be right about thinking the world will let them get away with this, but then again they may be terribly wrong and it may all blow up in their face. Kerry does not give the impression of having a clue about any of this. Too many years in the Senate.

    • gregorylkruse
      July 4, 2013 at 09:45

      Nice comment, but “it may all blow up in their face” is too optimistic.

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