May 26, 2008
Why the Middle East Doesn’t Matter
Osama Bin Laden has made Al-Qaeda’s position crystal clear in his latest tape released on May 16. He said the fight for the Palestinian cause is the most important factor driving Al-Qaeda’s war with the West and that was the primary reason for 9/11.
It sounds topical enough given the amount of attention that the Washington is presently giving the Israel/Palestinian peace quest. But, in truth, Bin Laden may well be behind the curve.
A two-state solution can no longer be a viable political goal, because: a) in terms of the demographics a Muslim majority in Israeli-controlled territory is less than a decade away, b) the Israelis have effectively created a single state encompassing both Jews and Palestinians. To all intents and purposes it imitates the South Africa of apartheid days, a unitary state with a minority group attempting to rule by oppression over a minority.
The only way to bring peace is to do what the white South Africans did under President F.W. de Klerk. As he once explained it to me, he felt compelled to negotiate with the African National Congress led by Nelson Mandela, not because of the outside world’s sanctions, but because he realized that South Africa was becoming unlivable for all and a way had to be found for the minority to live safely under the rule of the majority.
Perhaps it’s time overdue for the US and Europe to make clear that the preservation of Israel as a pure Jewish state is no longer of strategic concern whose interests must be preserved at all costs, by money, by political muscle and, in case of a showdown, by the support of the force of arms. If this penny can be made to drop in the Israeli mind and the Jewish diaspora then, as did the white South Africans, it would be time to sit down with the Palestinians and work out how to hold an election in a unitary state.
But first, for this to happen, the West has to shed its notion of the whole of the Middle East being strategically important. In an important essay last year in Prospect magazine Edward Luttwak from the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC, made a convincing argument for this.
Israel and Palestine are not at “five minutes to midnight”, he argues. “It is the same old cyclical conflict which always restarts when peace is about to break out, and always dampens down when the violence becomes intense enough.”
In strategic terms the Arab-Israeli conflict has become almost irrelevant since the end of the Cold War. The conflict has had no impact on oil prices since the 1973 Saudi embargo, the last time the “oil weapon” was wielded.
Continuously, the West seems to have bought the Israeli argument that they are up against the threat of the combined armies of the Arab world. But military expenditure in all the Arab states has fallen rapidly since the 1973 war. Even when Egypt was aided by massive Soviet military purchases and gifts in the 1960s it was quickly defeated in both 1967 and 1973.
The West made the same mistake of overestimating Iraqi military power in the 1990s. Saddam Hussein’s divisions were counted as if they were well-trained German Panzers. But when the war came the Iraqi air force fled to Iran and the tanks became target practice for the Western invaders. The second Gulf War had an even more farcical rationale (but it wasn’t that funny) with the assumptions that well-sanctioned Iraq had built a terrifying arsenal of ultra modern weapons of mass destruction.
Even with non-Arab Iran and its acolytes, Hezbollah and Hamas, we are whipped into hysterics of “fear of the terrorist”. Yet their activities are very localized, unlike the Palestinian strikes of the 60s and 70s, and Iran’s special international terrorist department has produced only one major bombing in the Middle East in 1996. Compared with what the Soviet Union threatened the West with and with what Hitler actually did, this is derisory. Even if Iran is developing nuclear weapons to say that the people of Iran patriotically support the endeavor is a large overstatement. Persian nationalism is a minority position in a country where half the population is not even Persian. Clever diplomacy would play to these cleavages.
In short, the West should de-couple itself from the Middle East, from both the Arab side and the Israeli side. It should declare it has no strategic interest in the region. This would create the space for both the Palestinians and the Israelis to look each other in the eye and realize it is they who have to find a way to peace.