The Middle East Muddle: Is Peace Still
March 14, 2006
By Bernard Weiner, The
run-up to the impending war against Iran - and make no mistake,
the foundations are being laid daily by the Bush Administration
- bears a remarkable resemblance to the propaganda barrage before
the U.S. attacked Iraq: Iran is the repository of all things evil,
they will destabilize the region if they get nukes, they support
terrorists, the U.N. and international community can't wait until
there are mushroom clouds in the sky, etc. etc. All that's missing
is an invented tie-in with 9/11.
Because of the thorough botch the Bush Administration has made
of the Iraq Occupation, and because there are no extra U.S. troops
to go around, it's a reasonable presumption that there will be no
ground invasion of Iran. Instead, following passage of some ambiguously-worded
U.N. Security Council resolution, there might well be an air assault
by U.S./Israeli bombers on that country's nuclear facilities. (The
experts tell us that Iran won't have nuclear weapons capability
for anywhere from three to 10 years out - in short, there is no
imminent threat to the U.S. or anyone else.)
The reaction by Iran and other Islamic countries to such an air
assault is likely to be intense, perhaps including retaliatory attacks
on Israel, and damaging the American and European economies by withdrawing
oil sales to the West or blocking ships from traversing the Straits
of Hormuz into the Persian Gulf. And, of course, one can anticipate
that the Bush Administration - unless the impending attack can be
stopped in its tracks by popular opposition - will be caught flat-footed
(again!) by its usual lack of planning for the unforeseen consequences
of its wars.
But rather than focus on what is about to go down in Iran, the
chaotic disaster that the Bush Administration's attack on and inept
occupation of Iraq has led to, or even the resurgence of the Taliban
in Afghanistan, I'd like to propose an examination of the Middle
East situation, since it serves as the kindling for the firestorms
that sweep the region.
Hamas is now on the inside of the halls of power, Israel is about
to choose its new leaders, and the situation is encouragingly fluid,
with a tenuous truce in major fighting between the two sides. Thus,
this is an especially propitious time for all parties to reflect
and meditate on how, or even whether, a just solution is still possible,
and what such a Middle East peace might mean for the entire region.
THE MEDIEVAL ISLAMISTS
A resurrected holy Muslim empire has been the dream for many decades
of a segment of the Islamic religion. Or if that is impossible,
at least of being left alone, outside the distractions and decadent
temptations of the 21st century, to implement their strict version
of the Koran.
Regardless of what the U.S. does, that Islamist resurgence is
bound to occur, even, or especially, amidst a more widespread Islam
that is willing to exist side by side with Western modernity and
But certainly in modern times, the harsh treatment of Palestinians
by Israel, a nation supported by the U.S. for more than half a century,
has been a spur to the growth of that fanatic Islamist movement
in the Middle East.
U.S. NEGLECT OF THE REGION
On the surface, American policy in the region appears to make
no sense. It seems clear that if the U.S. is after a calmer Arab
Middle East, and with it a stable flow of oil to America and Europe,
its first order of business, one would think, would be to ensure
a just peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, so as to tamp
down the fire that endangers so much in that region.
But under both Democratic and Republican presidents, the status
quo has been left to fester, partially because intervening in this
convoluted, passionate dispute rarely pays off for the U.S. and
often leads to embarrassing failures. And so Israel, America's lone
dependable ally in the region, is blindly supported by U.S. administrations,
no matter what its leaders do. The Palestinians are teased with
words about a coming Palestinian state, but nothing much really
happens from the U.S. end.
While Carter and Clinton at least tried to bring the parties together,
and actually were starting to accomplish something, the Bush Administration
promises much and delivers little, and is unwilling to use its leverage
to get its ally Israel to make the concessions it will have to make
for a lasting peace.
WHY SHOULD THE U.S. WORK FOR PEACE?
The well-armed Israelis feel insecure, the powerless Palestinians
feel humiliated and brutalized, thousands die, terrorism grows in
this atmosphere - and not much changes, decade after decade. And,
from the point of view of America's political leaders, why should
it be changed? The oil keeps flowing, so why would any U.S. administration
risk touching this dangerous third-rail of international politics?
How about because it's the right thing to do? How about because
the Middle East would be stabilized? How about because Islamist
terrorism would lose one of its most potent recruiting arguments?
How about because the U.S. would regain much of the positive prestige
it has lost as a result of Bush's wars against Muslim countries?
Even supposing a just peace could be worked out between the Israelis
and Palestinians, Islamist terrorism would still exist, would still
be capable of awful acts of mayhem and murder. But much of the passion
behind today's terrorism would be diminished or, in some areas,
even disappear were the Palestinians to obtain their own viable
state. Similarly, there would be a concomitant dimunition of Israeli
brutality and murder in the new arrangement.
Which brings us to how we get to that state of peace. Even with
the victory of Hamas, an organization dedicated to the elimination
of Israel from the map, polls continue to demonstrate that most
Palestinians prefer a peaceful, two-state solution. Most Israelis,
if their security can be guaranteed by treaty, likewise seem to
prefer peace with a Palestinian neighbor-state rather than decades
of still more bloodshed and insecurity.
WHAT WILL HAMAS AND ISRAEL DO?
It's not going to be easy. Hamas has been dedicated to the destruction
of Israel, so asking them to recognize Israel's right to exist now
that they are in charge of the Palestinian Parialment seems to make
no sense. Likewise, Ehud Olmert, Israel's acting prime minister,
wants to carry on many of the hardline policies of Ariel Sharon,
such as completing the Separation (Border) Wall and enlarging key
existing settlements in the Occupied West Bank, which antagonizes
We don't know how the new Hamas leadership will look at the compromises
that will have to be made in the movement toward peace. Will it,
can it, evolve into a government that accepts a two-state solution?
If a geographically and economically viable Palestine state were
to be created next door to Israel, would they, could they, accept
We don't know who the new leaders of Israel will be after the
upcoming election. If it's the hardline Likudist Benjamin Netanyahu,
peace prospects are minimal. But if the new Israeli leaders are
open to the idea of an equitable two-state solution, progress can
indeed be made. (And, looking at the demographics, as Sharon did,
Israel simply has to divest itself of the Occupied Territories,
lest the Jewish nature of the State of Israel be placed in jeopardy.
The probable outcome is that the bulk of the Palestinians will be
on one side of the border in their own state, with the bulk of the
Jews on the other side in a smaller, but more religiously homogenous,
WHAT A SOLUTION MIGHT LOOK LIKE
So, everyone knows, and always has known, what the eventual solution
will be, will have to be: A secure Israel, a viable Palestine, an
internationalized Jerusalem of some sort. To get there, Israel will
have to exit from virtually all of the West Bank, abandoning almost
all of the settlements there and agreeing not to attack inside the
new Palestine's borders; the Palestinians will have to recognize
Israel's right to exist, and refrain from terrorist attacks on their
Those Palestinians who would prefer to return to their ancestral
homes inside Israel will, for the most part, have to relinquish
their claims and agree to accept financial compensation for those
properties, money that will help them purchase land and buildings
inside the new Palestine state. As Ernest Partridge ingeniously
has suggested, only partially tongue in cheek, Jewish settlers in
the West Bank would be allowed to remain on condition that they
renounce Israeli citizenship and accept Palestinian citizenship.
One imagines that the settlers would leave voluntarily.
Those parts of Jerusalem that are regarded as Holy Land by three
great religions will have to be administered by an international
body of some sort.
Once the peace treaties have been signed and implemented, then
the doors will be open for bilateral treaties on water, jobs, environmental
WHAT'S BLOCKING MOVEMENT TOWARD PEACE
I suspect that there will be no significant U.S. movement toward
bringing peace to the Middle East while Bush/Cheney are in power.
It's simply not a priority for them; indeed, it's possible that
they are quite content with keeping the Palestine/Israel dispute
on the boil, thus ensuring their superpower hegemony in the region.
(Then, too, Bush & Co.'s fundamentalist Christian base requires
that Armageddon take place in the Holy Land prior to the Second
Coming of Christ, so peace is not what they're after.)
Keeping the parties at war reminds one of the reason why the Reagan
Administration supported Iraq's war against Iran in the 1980s, to
ensure that the two regional giants would battle and decimate each
other. Because of Bush Administration screwups, if current trends
hold, Iraq will be ruled by Iran-leaning Shi'ite parties, bringing
Iraq and Iran closer together. The irony of history.
In addition, nobody quite knows how to factor in Fatah, Arafat's
organization, into the Palestinian equation. Would the more moderate
Fatah, defeated in the recent parliamentary elections by Hamas,
be willing or able to serve as a mediator between Israel and the
new Palestinian rulers (since the Israelis don't want to negotiate
with Hamas)? Could Fatah, would it, work out tentative peace proposals
with the new Israeli leadership? If so, could they sell it to Hamas?
And will Hamas, now that it is the governing body rather than
the secret militant opposition, move somewhat toward the center?
In doing so, would they be willing to deal for a geographically/economically
viable Palestine by agreeing to recognize Israel's right to exist?
Would their fanatic base permit them to do this? (Sort of like the
Catholic IRA making peace with the Protestants in Northern Ireland,
which spawned "the Real IRA," those extremists eager to continue
THE HOPE THE OTHER WOULD VANISH
It seems to me that no progress whatsoever toward peace can be
made without a willingness to start at a point "beyond history,"
as it were. That is, both sides would acknowledge historical grievances
going back decades, or in some cases hundreds or even thousands
of years - but, in the interest of bringing the conflict to an acceptable
close, simply stipulate that each side has its historical grievances
and move on. No more "my victimhood was worse than yours, and you
owe me for this, that and the other atrocity."
In the past, neither party has wanted to move seriously toward
peace because, in truth, each side believed that with just a bit
more pressure or violence, the other side would disappear. The Palestinians
believed that they could force the Israelis to give in and grant
them everything they wanted; the Israelis believed they could force
the Palestinians through the brutalities of an Occupation to move
to other lands and abandon their desire to push the Jewish state
into the sea.
Now, it's possible that both sides, after ceaseless murders and
brutalities over the decades, might come to a mutual awareness that
enough is enough, that the Other is not going to disappear, that
the Israelis can destroy Palestine if they so choose, that the Palestinians
can ensure that Israel will never live in peace - but a political
accommodation will have to be made, for the sake of the children
and grandchildren, and economic viability, of both countries.
Supposing that a peace treaty can be obtained, and implemented
properly with great tact and sensitivity, peace and prosperity for
both peoples may eventually be achieved.
But, as always, how to get from here to there? Aye, there's the
rub. All we can be sure of is that Middle East peace won't be, can't
be, accomplished as long as the current U.S. administration is in
Bernard Weiner has taught at various universities, worked as
a writer/editor with the San Francisco Chronicle, and currently
Crisis Papers. To comment, write: email@example.com.
Crisis Papers Archive