The havoc wrought by the Islamic State extends far beyond Iraq and Syria.
- By Aaron David MillerAaron David Miller is vice president for new initiatives and a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President.
As the Islamic State (IS) chalks up gains — territory, money, weapons, recruits — and spreads terror through its savage online theater, it may well be able to add another success to its trophy wall. Prospects for a two-state solution don’t look terribly bright as it is. But the rise of, and fight against, IS may well be one of the last nails in the coffin of a process seemingly broken and beyond repair.
Terror and terrorists have always constituted a significant threat to the any lasting Israeli-Palestinian deal. But these aren’t your grandfather’s terrorists. Unlike Hamas and Hezbollah, who reflect certain nationalist aspirations of Palestine and Lebanon and who have made certain tactical adjustments to deal with their state sponsors, IS ascribes to a more universal Salafi/Jihadi code which frees them from certain prohibitions like killing and torturing fellow Muslims, minorities and enslaving women. Part criminal Mafia gang, part millennial movement, they are brutally and feverishly committed to an immediate upending of any status quo they encounter. And though (unlike Hamas and Hezbollah) IS may be far from the Israeli-Palestinian theater now, it poses a unique threat to the hopes of a Palestinian state.
Crises, war, and insurgency — and IS is surely a continuing crisis — can offer opportunities in the Arab-Israeli arena and can be the harbinger of real change. The 1973 war set the stage for Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s visit to Israel; the first intifada set the table for the Oslo breakthrough; and the first Gulf war lead to the Madrid Peace Conference. But crisis can also preoccupy, distract, and impel various parties to become risk averse rather than risk-ready, particularly during times of great uncertainty.
IS’s rampage is likely to impel the United States and others to become more active in a campaign to check it. But it may well have a very deleterious impact on prospects for progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. And here’s a list of reasons why.
The Eastern Front: The gaps between Israelis and Palestinians over the putative eastern borders of a Palestinian state are already wide — both in terms of Israel’s presence in the Jordan Valley and how long withdrawal might take. The rise of the Islamic State will only make them wider. The presences of al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate — al-Nusra Front — on the Syrian side of the Golan and the hostage taking of United Nations Disengagement Observer Force Zone (UNDOF) peacekeepers could easily foreshadow the type of things to come. And while the Israelis seem to be reacting coolly and calmly to this problem, the issue of a hostile presence on their longest and least defensible border with Jordan will be an issue. Israelis are already worrying about IS cells in the West Bank. Indeed they already have the Golan Heights. IS becomes another problem entirely in the contest of a deal on the West Bank that involves Israeli withdrawal. Jordan is stable — now. But who would have ever imagined an IS takeover of Iraq’s second largest city in a matter of hours or IS’s rampage in north-eastern Syria? The reality is that Israel’s demands for a continued Israeli presence and a lengthy withdrawal period will only harden further. Palestinians will be faced with unpalatable constraints on their control and sovereignty of the Jordan Valley and the border.
Hamas in the Dock: Israeli officials, when making the case for why they need to be careful when it comes to giving back real estate, now routinely maintain that Hamas equals the Muslim Brotherhood equals IS. And that America’s fight against IS is one and the same as theirs against Hamas. Regardless of whether this rhetoric, true or not, is merely politically convenient, this conflation will further provide ammunition against making concessions to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas so long as Hamas continues to pose a threat in Gaza with its high trajectory weapons and the Palestinian Authority (PA) lacks the ability to control and silence all of the rogue guns of Palestine. That the Israelis have recently tried to make the case that Hamas plans to launch a coup against Abbas (and he seems to concur) and to increase its influence in the West Bank won’t help matters much. Indeed, while Israel may push to see the PA return to Gaza, Netanyahu will be opposed to concessions on territory as long as Hamas isn’t reformed or destroyed.
U.S. Pressure on Israel? You’ve got to be kidding. The idea that the Obama administration will bring pressure on Israel to make moves on the peace process as the region deteriorates, IS beheads Americans and kills thousands, and Hamas advocates Israel’s destruction is laughable. Forget the approaching midterms and Obama’s risk-averse persona, or the million other things the president has to do. At a time when America needs allies, it’s hard to imagine that it will pick a fight with Israel over settlement activity or anything else. The Iran deal on the nuclear issue will happen (or not) by November. And whatever capital it has, the Obama administration will save to persuade the Israelis to accept the deal or to restrain them from bombing Iran. It may be politically incorrect to admit it, but the behavior of certain Arab actors — IS/Hamas/Assad — constitutes the most effective talking points for making a pro-Israeli case and for constraining the administration from pressuring Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. With al-Nusra up on the Golan and IS on the march in Iraq, pressing Israel on withdrawal will be a tough sell, particularly if the Iran issue heads south.
Changing Arab priorities: IS has also reframed Arab state priorities, particularly on the part of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Jordan as well as created some measure of common cause with Israel. That doesn’t mean the Arab states are about to open regional Netanyahu fan clubs or that the Palestinian issue is no longer salient. But the wall of silence that met the death and destruction in Gaza is stunning. The Arab states have been betraying the Arab cause for years. But the lack of support and criticism does reflect changing priorities. Simply put, key Arab states regard Hamas and the forces of Sunni jihadism as a greater and more immediate threat than they do Israel. And the budding Israeli-Egyptian relationship reflects that fact. All of this will invariably decrease the pressure on Israel and the United States to push the peace issue.
It would be nice to believe that the IS crisis would reframe the region and put Israelis, Arabs, and Americans on the same page, and create the imperative that one part (however marginal) of a campaign to defuse the Sunni extremist threat would be to solve the Palestinian issue. And that everyone would embrace the Arab peace initiative and live happily ever after. I, for one, certainly don’t want to give up on that. And Netanyahu’s coy references to articulating a new political horizon means to me that he’d like to cook up something with the Arab states.
But back on planet earth, a different set of laws of political gravity are more likely to apply. Already on life support, a two-state solution is likely to be made more difficult by the distraction, diversion, and preoccupation that the rise of IS carries. Fear will replace hope; caution will edge out risk-readiness, and waiting rather than acting may well carry the day. The two-state solution was in deep trouble before IS came stalking out of Syria into Iraq, but the reality is that this new, savage kid on the block is going to further complicate that enterprise. And those who will suffer the most, of course, will be the Palestinians. It is a testament to the order of things that in the middle of the Gaza crisis with death and destruction abounding, it was the little known Yazidis being killed by IS that got more attention from the international community than the long suffering Palestinians. Such is the nature of the cruel and cold winds now blowing through the region.