Is Kerry Right to Put Peace First?

Forget Egypt and Syria. Israel-Palestine is still issue No. 1 in the Middle East.

Fadi Arouri-Pool/Getty Images
Fadi Arouri-Pool/Getty Images

As Secretary of State John Kerry continues to give much time and effort to the Palestinian-Israeli issue, with plans to convene negotiations in Washington this week, his critics have come from right and left: With all the pressing issues, why is Mr. Kerry focused on this one?

Critics miss the point: No issue is more central for Arab perceptions of the United States — even as Arabs are focused on their immediate local and national priorities.

America has little influence in the events unfolding in the Arab world, from Egypt to Syria. More centrally, Arab perceptions of Washington are less dependent on short-term American policy and more a product of deep-seated Arab mistrust that ties everything the United States does to helping Israel and controlling oil. That’s why both sides of every Arab divide — the Assad regime and its opponents, the Muslim Brotherhood and its Egyptian opponents– blame the United States for supporting the other side.

Just the other day, even as many opponents of Mohamed Morsy blamed Palestinian Hamas for supporting him, leaders of the Tamarod activists who helped depose the Egyptian president refused to meet with Deputy Secretary of State William Burns because of American support for Israel.

How could this be the case? In part, it is a consequence of one of the few successes of U.S. policy over the past decade. As American officials, from the White House to Congress, have sought to project "no light" between Israel and the United States, Arabs have come to believe it. It is rare to hear the words "Israel" and "America" in the Arab world except in a pair. When Arabs are angry with Israel, they are also angry with Washington. When Arabs are asked to name the two countries that pose the biggest threat to them, they identify Israel and the United States — far more often than Iran. For example, in May 2012, 94 percent of Egyptians identified Israel and 80 percent identified the United States as the greatest threat, with only 20 percent identifying Iran. These results were roughly comparable to poll findings in prior years.

It is of course true that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not the source of most problems in the Arab world and that most Arabs wake up in the morning thinking about their daily challenges, not about Israel, Palestine, or America.

But, as my research on Arab public opinion over the past decade shows, the conflict remains the prism of pain through which Arabs view Washington and much of the world — even more so since the region’s uprisings. In October 2011, when I asked Arabs in Morocco, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, and the UAE what two steps the United States could do to improve their view of Washington, 55 percent of respondents said "brokering Israeli-Palestinian peace" based on the 1967 borders, with 42 percent choosing "stopping aid to Israel" as the second step. In comparison, only 12 percent suggested providing more economic aid to the region, and 11 percent proposed greater efforts at democratization. In a 2012 poll in Egypt, 66 percent identified brokering peace followed by 46 percent who recommended stopping aid to Israel; only 12 percent suggested that Washington do more to spread democracy.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is part and parcel of collective Arab identity; a constant reminder of contemporary Arab history full of dashed aspirations and deeply humiliating experiences. It is seemingly unending, with repeated episodes of suffering over which Arabs have no apparent control. It is an open wound that flares up all too frequently, representing the very humiliation Arabs seek to overcome. Just this month an example was provided when Arabs watched helplessly as Israel expanded settlements in East Jerusalem. If the Arab awakening is first and foremost about restoring dignity, about raising Arab heads high in the world, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict represents dignity’s antithesis.

In the absence of peace, there is another reason the Arab-Israeli conflict will remain an Arab focal point — the Israeli response to its sense of insecurity. Without Palestinian-Israeli peace, Israelis assume that war with Arabs will remain possible. The net result is that Israelis feel their security requires strategic and technological superiority over any combination of Arab states. On this they have the unreserved support of the United States and assurance from Congress and the White House that Israel will receive what it needs to maintain its "qualitative superiority" and that Arabs will be denied similar capabilities.

Seen from the Arab side, this Israeli imperative entails exactly the sort of dominance they are revolting against. In an era of Arab awakening, 350 million Arabs find it impossible to accept the strategic domination of a country of 8 million people. This is at the core of Arab attitudes on the nuclear issue: Arab publics are suspicious of Iran, but in the past decade they have consistently opposed limits on Tehran’s nuclear program in large part because they don’t accept that Israel alone can have nukes. For example, in my 2011 six-country poll, 64 percent of respondents said they opposed international pressure on Iran to curtail its nuclear program. Remarkably, that same year a majority of Arab citizens of Israel, 57 percent, also opposed international pressure.

In the absence of Palestinian-Israeli peace, Israel and the Arabs are condemned to a relationship of confrontation and occasional war, and America will be caught in the middle.  

Peace would not of course determine the outcome of the battles in the Arab world, but its absence guarantees that Israel, and therefore the United States, will be the focus of almost every faction in the ongoing battles. And if Israeli-Palestinian violence ensues, this will become even more the case.

Israelis worry that acknowledging the centrality of their conflict with the Palestinians for American foreign policy means that they will be blamed for everything that goes wrong. This is improbable; Israelis also feared they might be blamed for Arab anger toward America after the 9/11 attacks, but American support for Israel only increased. More likely, Israel would be blamed if, in the absence of peace, Americans started to see Israeli control of the Palestinians as an apartheid relationship. The recent European Union decision to stop dealing with Israeli settlements in the West Bank is a flavor of things that could follow.

The Obama administration should be applauded for understanding the centrality of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Certainly, an argument can be made that it is too late for the two-state solution; if it’s not, few believe there is much time left. But few see good American options once Washington finally concludes that a two-state solution is no longer feasible.

The administration thus cannot be faulted for active diplomacy; no time is a good time, and soon enough there may not be any time left. But it will be justifiably faulted if, as in Obama’s first term, it tries only half-heartedly and fails.

Shibley Telhami is professor of government and politics and director of the Critical Issues Poll at the University of Maryland, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is co-author of The Peace Puzzle: America’s Quest for Arab-Israeli Peace, 1989-2011, and of a forthcoming sequel on the Obama and Trump presidencies. Twitter: @ShibleyTelhami

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