Still Think Middle East Peace Doesn’t Matter?

Gaza's radiating instability proves once again that Palestine is at the center of the region's problems.

-/AFP/Getty Images
-/AFP/Getty Images

Everyone knew it was coming. Once the giddy days of the Arab uprising had passed, it was the subject of discussion at almost every roundtable, panel discussion, and bull session among Middle East analysts: What about Gaza?

How would Arab governments, newly responsive to their people, handle a replay of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead, the bloody offensive in Gaza that commenced almost exactly four years ago? At the time, U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration and President-elect Barack Obama’s team could rely on figures like Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordanian King Abdullah II to help contain the conflict and ensure that the status quo remained, even after the Israel Defense Forces withdrew their tanks and the rockets stopped flying.

That was another era. The dynamics of the Israel-Hamas conflict that led to the current fighting are similar to those of 2008, but nothing else is. With citizens throughout the region demanding a reversal of the policies of the past, observers of the region implicitly understood that the Arab world’s leaders — both old and new — would face great pressure to demonstrate that they are responsive to public opinion and hold Israel and the United States "accountable" for their actions.

At those bull sessions — invariably called, "The Middle East Undergoing Change: Strategic Implications" or something equally snooze-inducing — the response to a new Gaza war was often shrugs, sighs, and raised eyebrows. The body language meant: "Let’s hope nothing happens so that we don’t have to think about it." So despite the endless questions about what would happen, nobody succeeded in coming up with any answers. Yet when Israel assassinated Hamas military chief Ahmed al-Jabari — the keeper of the uneasy Israel-Hamas cease-fire over the last four years — last week, suddenly the conflict came roaring back to the forefront of Washington’s collective consciousness.

This is, indeed, a dangerous moment — but the sky hasn’t fallen yet. In Egypt, the new leadership has engaged in full-throated rhetorical support for Hamas, but at the same time has played a central role in diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the current fighting. This carries domestic political risks should diplomacy fail, but so far President Mohamed Morsy and his handpicked spy chief, Mohamed Shehata, have burnished their credentials as mediators. Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Qandil’s Nov. 16 visit to Gaza was particularly instructive: Qandil arrived in the strip to express solidarity with the Palestinians, but his visit was also aimed at providing a lull in the fighting to open an opportunity for negotiations.

The conflict has also not yet wreaked havoc on Israel’s other borders. Hezbollah has not opened a second front. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s dubious effort to deflect attention from his murderous campaign against his own people fell on deaf ears throughout the region. Jordan’s large demonstration last week over fuel price hikes, which included groundbreaking calls for King Abdullah II to step down, has not morphed into protests against Israel’s military operations in Gaza.

The fact that cooler heads seem to have prevailed is a relief for those fearing an escalation of wider regional violence. Yet, there is no denying that the Arab uprisings have altered the dynamics of the Israel-Hamas relationship. The visits of Arab foreign ministers, Egypt’s prime minister, and the Arab League secretary-general, as well as even reports that the Moroccans are planning on setting up a field hospital in Gaza, may all be symbolic, but this is important symbolism. For the first time since Israel came to control the Gaza Strip in June 1967 — and no doubt a good deal of time before then, when Egypt was in control of the territory — Gazans are no longer alone. Still, as Egyptian officials try to hammer out a truce, the operative word is "yet" — as in, "the sky has not fallen … yet."

What if diplomacy fails? What if, while 90 percent of a deal is worked out, Hamas’s rocketeers actually hit something of tangible value inside Israel and kill a lot of people? What if Israel’s not-so-surgical strikes kill 50, 60, or 100 people in an instant, instead of the three, four, or five victims that they have so far? What if the Israelis launch a ground invasion of Gaza? That’s the nightmare scenario, but it doesn’t seem so far-fetched in light of the last six days of violence.

The current hostilities between the Israel Defense Forces and Hamas, combined with the political changes across the region, belie the notion that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a central strategic concern of the United States. Belittling the conflict’s importance had been the refuge of observers bereft of ideas on how to forge a settlement in the Middle East, and it was often invoked in Washington to deride peace-process dead-enders — analysts who saw an opportunity to "restart negotiations" where others saw nothing but hopelessness.

Let’s not kid ourselves — the prospects for a peace agreement look as dismal as ever. It is extraordinarily unlikely that there is an opportunity for talks now after militants in Gaza threatened Tel Aviv and Jerusalem with rocket fire. For the minority of Israelis who have not already done so, huddling in safe rooms and bomb shelters in Rishon LeZion, Ashkelon, and Herzliya will convince them that an Israeli withdrawal from territory in the West Bank, which peace would require, is foolish.

But it is impossible to ignore the inconvenient fact that this conflict lies at the heart of U.S. interests in the Middle East. If Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decides he has no choice but to send in ground forces, Washington will likely express its support for Israel’s right to self-defense — and Egypt’s president will not be able to continue on his current constructive path. That may be a principled and politically sound position for the Obama administration to take, but it would not look that way from Cairo. This would place Morsy — a lifelong enemy of Zionism — in the position of having to take a tougher stand, which could ultimately lead to the unraveling of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty.

That should be enough for U.S. policymakers to sit up and take notice. The treaty has been a cornerstone of the U.S. position in the Middle East for the last 33 years — and by calling it into question, Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense has placed U.S. interests are at stake in Gaza.

Even if the Egyptians manage to avoid a bloodier conflict this time around, the result in Gaza will only be further deadlock. An updated version of the cease-fire that was shattered last week buys a few years of relative quiet, but it will not alter the dynamics of the Israel-Hamas relationship. In time, the Palestinians will rearm, someone will take a shot at someone, and the Israelis will unleash a fury in the service of bitachon (security) and re-establishing their eroding deterrent. This short-term stability — punctuated by ferocious but ultimately containable fighting — may have been an acceptable outcome when Mubarak was pharaoh, but it is unsustainable in a world where Arabs have seemingly perfected the impact of "people power."

It is true that Egyptians, Libyans, Tunisians, and others in the Middle East have myriad domestic, political, and economic problems to which they must attend, so much so that what happens in Gaza is (rhetoric aside) actually a low priority. Yet Palestine is a domestic political issue, especially in a country like Egypt where the uprising was in large part about restoring national dignity.

What does this all mean for the United States? For starters, it means Washington lacks a reliable ally who can balance the interests of Israelis and Palestinians, while also accommodating U.S. interests. This is why Mubarak was central to Washington and Jerusalem. Morsy will never play that role; Jordan’s king has his own problems; the Israelis don’t trust the Turks; Qatar has only cash to offer; and the Saudis are too circumspect to step into the breach.

The easy answer for observers is that the United States should recalibrate its approach to the conflict. In other words, it should move away from unreserved support for Israel in favor of a policy that directly pressures its ally to come to a peace agreement with the Palestinians. That sounds eminently reasonable, but there is an air of unreality to this recommendation. Analysts might point to President Ronald Reagan’s delay of F-16s to Israel in 1981 over the devastating bombing of Beirut as proof that at least a modulation of U.S. policy is possible, but three decades later the narrative is dramatically different. Regardless of the asymmetry in casualty count and cries of disproportionality among Israel’s critics, the U.S. domestic politics of the conflict in Gaza will always line up in Israel’s favor.

There are also other strategic considerations — such as the confrontation over Iran’s nuclear program. In the iterated game that is foreign affairs, the United States could never hope to restrain Israel from a unilateral strike on Tehran’s uranium-enrichment facilities if Washington did not support Jerusalem at a moment when millions of Israelis are under the direct threat of rocket attack.

Where does all this leave us? In a novel and uncomfortable situation where the United States must take the disposition of the Palestinian people into great account if it hopes to secure its interests in the Middle East. Even as this becomes abundantly clear, what to do about it remains elusive.

The United States is caught between a rock and a hard place: If it alters its approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict, it threatens to disrupt U.S.-Israel relations, which are important politically and strategically. Supporting Israel to the hilt, however, is likely to damage America’s position in a greatly changed Arab world. Observers have warned before that the relationship between Washington and Jerusalem could hurt the United States. It never turned out to be true, but now it actually seems possible. The new Middle East, indeed.

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East.

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