COLUMN

It’s Not Washington’s Fault

Not only is it wrong to blame the Islamic State's rise on the U.S. failure to secure a two-state solution -- it's also flat-out dangerous.

By , a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Photo by Gali Tibbon - Pool/ Getty Images
Photo by Gali Tibbon - Pool/ Getty Images

In any conversation about the Israeli-Palestinian problem, I'd be the first to concede that failure to resolve it damages U.S. interests in the Middle East and undermines American credibility.

But what has become even more stunningly clear in recent years is that even if the United States could fix the Palestinian issue and produce a two-state solution, that accomplishment alone would not stabilize the angry, broken, and dysfunctional Middle East. The region is already in the process of melting down for a tsunami of reasons that have nothing to do with the Palestinians. But talking about the consequences of not fixing the Palestinian issue, particularly in Chicken Little the "sky is falling" terms, as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has been wont to do, doesn't help matters -- it makes them worse.

I realize that Kerry cares deeply about getting to a two-state solution, that he has expended months of effort working to resolve it, and that he is deeply frustrated that he can't fix it and that the parties won't make the necessary decisions. But Kerry's recent statement in which he linked the failure to resolve the Palestinian issue to the battle against the Islamic State and the jihadi effort to prey on the Arab street's rage and humiliation is both unwise and unnecessary. It makes the United States look weak, even desperate. And here's why.

In any conversation about the Israeli-Palestinian problem, I’d be the first to concede that failure to resolve it damages U.S. interests in the Middle East and undermines American credibility.

But what has become even more stunningly clear in recent years is that even if the United States could fix the Palestinian issue and produce a two-state solution, that accomplishment alone would not stabilize the angry, broken, and dysfunctional Middle East. The region is already in the process of melting down for a tsunami of reasons that have nothing to do with the Palestinians. But talking about the consequences of not fixing the Palestinian issue, particularly in Chicken Little the "sky is falling" terms, as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has been wont to do, doesn’t help matters — it makes them worse.

I realize that Kerry cares deeply about getting to a two-state solution, that he has expended months of effort working to resolve it, and that he is deeply frustrated that he can’t fix it and that the parties won’t make the necessary decisions. But Kerry’s recent statement in which he linked the failure to resolve the Palestinian issue to the battle against the Islamic State and the jihadi effort to prey on the Arab street’s rage and humiliation is both unwise and unnecessary. It makes the United States look weak, even desperate. And here’s why.

Washington isn’t responsible for the impasse. Yet every time Kerry makes one of these grim statements about the costs of failing to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian issue, particularly when they’re keyed to recent conversations with Arab leaders as this one was, the conclusion is that somehow Washington bears the primary responsibility for fixing the problem of the much-too-promised land. Here’s a news flash for you: Washington doesn’t. The primary responsibility for fixing the problem lies with Israelis and Palestinians, and the lack of resolution is a direct result of their lack of leadership and ownership.

Much of the impasse lies in the fact that the gaps on the core issues (Jerusalem, refugees, territory) are too wide and the mistrust between Israel and the Palestinians is too deep. In addition, key Arab states are now more focused on smacking down Hamas and the Islamic State and countering Iran than on making the two-state solution the priority.

Worse, Kerry’s implication that, by failing to address the Palestinian issue, we (meaning the United States — though I wonder who else Kerry was thinking about?) are implicitly enabling jihadists and their ability to recruit terrorists leads to a pretty dark place: that the United States and Israel are responsible for the Islamic State’s growing popularity because there’s no two-state solution. But this couldn’t be what Kerry meant. He’s way too smart and sophisticated for that.

Anger at the United State runs deep. The issue of Palestine resonates deeply and broadly but also emotionally and ideologically in a divided Arab and Muslim world. And there’s little doubt that the perceived treatment of Palestinians fuels anger at America and Israel. But to somehow suggest that this alone is the primary or even singular cause without additional context is wrong and dangerous.

The sources of Arab humiliation are broad and profound, including U.S. policies in Iraq and Afghanistan, drone strikes, U.S. support for Arab authoritarians, and, even among a disturbingly large minority in the region, the openness, permissiveness, and secular character of American society. And as for the Islamic State, its successes in recruitment and channeling Arab rage and dignity have much more to do with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s and former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s brutal policies toward Syrian and Iraqi Sunnis than they do with the Israelis.

The current crisis (or, to be exact, crises) in this region has much more to do with the Arabs and Muslims themselves than with Israel or the absence of a two-state solution. And watching the events of the last four years as the Arab Spring brought forth civil war, decentralization, sectarian strife, and dysfunctional governance — even with the Gaza crisis — tells its own tragic tale. "Arab civilization has collapsed," Hisham Melhem, the Washington bureau chief for Al Arabiya, argues in his stunningly grim assessment in Politico. "It won’t recover in my lifetime." There’s no mention of a two-state solution in the entire article.

Diagnosing disease without prescribing a cure. Statements by senior U.S. officials lamenting the failure to resolve the Palestinian issue and spelling out the disastrous consequences doesn’t help; it only makes matters worse. Kerry has made a number of these dire predictions. In 2013, he predicted that there could be a third intifada, extremism, isolation of Israel. Analytically, it’s all quite logical. But all that these warnings do is heighten the gap between the Obama administration’s rhetoric and action. Indeed, if things are as dire as they are made out to be, why doesn’t the administration make this a real priority now, including making it a centerpiece of its policy and using all its resources, including real pressure on the parties to press for a solution, rather than just prophesying like the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol?

Linking the Palestinian issue to the fight against jihadists really doesn’t help much in the fight against the Islamic State or bucking up the coalition of other Middle Eastern actors. The Saudis, Egyptians, Emiratis, and Israelis (against Hamas and al-Nusra Front) will continue that fight regardless of progress on the Palestinian issue. Would a two-state solution make that easier? Sure. But there’s not much prospect of one. So let’s stop talking about it and continue to focus on the business at hand.

Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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