Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Editorial: First Things First

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Colin Rubenstein


Outgoing British PM Tony Blair has been very compelling in explaining the reality of Islamist extremist terrorism and the need to counter its totalitarian ideology at its place of origin in the Middle East. He has also been a sincere friend of Israel. However, Blair is simply mistaken when, on two occasions in recent days, he has identified “Israel/Palestine” as the “core” of all the problems in the Middle East, arguing that tackling it again should be the first step to resolving them.

He is, of course, not alone in this error. The same week, retiring UN Secretary General Kofi Annan insisted that the Israeli-Palestinian issue cannot be seen as simply a regional issue, because, as long as it continues, “passions everywhere will be inflamed.”

AIJAC is second to no one in its desire to see Israel at genuine peace with all its neighbours, including especially the Palestinians. Achieving Middle East peace would be an extremely positive development on many levels. However, the belief that it is the key to the region’s, or even the world’s, problems, is not only incorrect and misplaced, it is counter-productive. Given the genuine urgency of peace, this makes it inexcusable.

Here’s a simple quiz. How many people think Israeli-Palestinian peace would have prevented Iraq’s invasions of Iran and Kuwait? Would it have saved the hundreds of thousands killed in Algeria’s civil war? Or Syria’s 27-year ‘peacekeeping’ occupation of Lebanon? Will it stop the ongoing Arab Sudanese ethnic cleansing of black African Muslims in Darfur? How about Iran’s ethnic cleansing of Arabs in oil-rich Khuzestan? Will it end Sunni-Shi’ite tensions and violence, or stop regional corruption? Will it provide education and job opportunities to the region’s vast number of young people?

Who condemns the views of the courageous Arab intellectuals who authored the UN’s Arab Human Development Report of 2002 and were able to honestly assess that the bulk of the economic and social problems of their region were the result of a lack of political freedom, poor governance, gender inequality, and poor education and illiteracy?

Islamist terror is based on a totalitarian Islamist ideology. Solving the Arab-Israel conflict, even if achievable, which it is not at the moment, would do almost nothing to eliminate the larger sources of anger, resentment, and susceptibility to extremism which trouble the region, and make this ideology popular.

Moreover, it is very unlikely, even if the conflict were resolved and a Palestinian state established tomorrow, that the use of Palestine as an Arab grievance would abate for the foreseeable future. Firstly, widespread Arab distrust of everything Israel does and the paradigm of viewing Israel as essentially a Western colonialist conspiracy to weaken the Arab world is too deeply embedded in the local narrative to dissipate quickly. Further, current Arab governments have little incentive to encourage it to do so. Moreover, any conceivable peace is certain to see much of Palestinian society nursing a continuing sense of grievance over the so-called “right of return” and other issues.

Finally, and most importantly, both Islamic extremists and those susceptible to their message would actually view an Israel-Palestinian two–state resolution as an additional grievance. They would see it as the West forcing Palestinians to accept Israel’s so-called theft of their land, and thus yet more evidence of a conspiracy against Muslims. It is worth recalling that the 9/11 attacks were planned and prepared at a time when the US Clinton Administration was involved in an all-out effort to bring about an Israel-Palestinian two-state solution.

In fact, the dynamic is the opposite – changes in the Middle East will have to precede a real Israeli-Palestinian peace.

The problem is not that the Israelis will not concede to the Palestinians a state. It has been very clear at least since Camp David in 2000 that the Palestinians can have a state in the West Bank and Gaza any time that they are able and willing to offer peace in return. Current Israeli PM Olmert was elected on a platform of essentially trying to give them that state even in the absence of such a commitment. Disagreements over scraps of land are not what is holding peace back. What is holding it back is primarily the perpetuation of Arab rejectionism of Israel in any borders.

Rejectionism is at the moment being strongly promoted - with money, weapons and aggressive propaganda and diplomacy - by the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Hamas axis, which is escalating its bid for regional hegemony while the US is distracted in Iraq. By essentially agreeing with their rhetoric that all the region’s problems are connected to Israel, well-intentioned outsiders are making them stronger, which is the last thing anyone who hopes for peace should want to do.

In fact, with Hamas in power in the PA and continuing to categorically reject any long-term coexistence, Fatah under Mahmoud Abbas too divided and weak to offer a genuine partner, and many moderates across the region running scared of the rejectionist wave, countering the current Iranian/Syrian bid for hegemony is an absolute prerequisite for making any Israeli-Palestinian progress at all. It is also a prerequisite for preserving the democratic gains in Lebanon and stablising Iraq.

Peace, when it comes, will be a great blessing to Israel and to the Palestinians, and will gladden people of goodwill around the world. It is therefore a terrible mistake to rely on a seriously flawed and counter-productive analysis which actually makes its onset that much more remote.

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