In recent days, President Obama stated that resolving the Middle East conflict was “a vital national security interest of the United States” and explained that the conflict is “costing us significantly in terms of blood and treasure,” thus drawing a direct link among the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, the safety of American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and U.S. efforts to gain international support for sanctions on Iran. The apparent shift as described by administration officials is behind the White House’s urgent push to broker a Middle East peace deal and increases the likelihood that Obama will offer his own plan for a proposed Palestinian state.
The president’s current approach to the peace process and his embrace of the linkage theory is problematic on many levels. On several occasions, Team Obama has put the onus squarely on Israel not only to prove that it is committed to peace and negotiations with the Palestinians, but also to demonstrate that it is committed to its relationship with the United States. Yet it is the Palestinian Authority that refuses to negotiate. Palestinian politics are divided between the Hamas rulers pledged to Israel’s destruction in Gaza and the PA dominated by the Fatah party in the West Bank. Such political paralysis is hardly conducive to peacemaking.
Peace will come only when the Palestinian leadership accepts Israel’s right to exist. But there are precious few signs of a rethinking of the PA’s basic narrative and red lines. The main issue today remains not whether the Palestinian leadership will recognize Israel as a Jewish state, but whether it will recognize Israel’s right to exist in any form whatsoever. The onus should be on the Palestinians to prove that they are committed to the peace process. Moreover, a peace imposed by Washington will fail because neither Israel nor the PA will have a stake in its success. Both sides will need to own the compromises made to achieve peace, as it is the only way to end the claims that will undoubtedly follow any plan forced by the United States.
Even more dangerous to American interests in the Middle East is Barack Obama’s theory that success in the peace process is linked to efforts to affect Iran’s behavior. The pursuit of nuclear weapons is a strategic goal and the choice of the regime in Tehran. The nuclear option presents Iran’s rulers with the assurance that the West will not act against them, no matter how rogue their behavior. And they seek to overturn the regional balance of power and undermine the United States, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. A Palestinian-Israeli peace will not alter this fundamental equation in Tehran.
Obama’s linkage belief also inflates the importance of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. America has had relations with the Arab world despite the ebb and flow of the peace process. The U.S. was able to assemble both an international and an Arab coalition to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait during the 1990-1991 Gulf crisis — before the dawn of the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. The Palestinian conundrum is also not the central issue in Arab politics. Were that the case, Gulf States including Saudi Arabia would follow through on their financial commitments to the PA that could help build the infrastructure and institutions necessary to govern a state. For as wealthy as Osama bin Laden is and as important as he pretends the fate of Palestinians to be, he has contributed not a dime towards helping them build the institutions of state. Indeed, a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will have no effect on the Arab-Persian conflict, the Shiite-Sunni conflict, the inter-Arab conflict, or the nationalist-Islamist conflict within Arab states. Likewise, it will not make American troops safer in Iraq and Afghanistan or make Russia and China more willing to embrace tougher sanctions on Iran at the U.N.
The key to progress in the Middle East lies in Iran. Changing the regime’s behavior and bringing an end to its pursuit of nuclear weapons could weaken political extremists region-wide, curtail the power of terrorists groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, and, perhaps most importantly, prevent a nuclear arms race in an unstable region.
The new and dangerous path charted by the Obama administration betrays a shaky grasp of nuance in the Middle East. This misguided approach to Arab-Israeli peacemaking is bound to fail and exacerbate tensions in the region. All the while, it is emboldening Tehran and its terrorist allies as they watch the ease with which this administration has thrown its ally, Israel, under the proverbial bus. Team Obama would do well to rethink its priorities in the Middle East in a way that would genuinely benefit American interests both at home and abroad.