To be sure, peace between Israelis and Palestinians would be of real value. It would constitute a major foreign-policy accomplishment for the United States. It would help ensure Israel’s survival as a democratic, secure, prosperous, Jewish state. It would reduce Palestinian and Arab alienation, a source of anti-Americanism and radicalism. And it would dilute the appeal of Iran and its clients.
But it is easy to exaggerate how central the Israel-Palestinian issue is and how much the U.S. pays for the current state of affairs. There are times one could be forgiven for thinking that solving the Palestinian problem would take care of every global challenge from climate change to the flu. But would it? The short answer is no. It matters, but both less and in a different way than people tend to think.
As he points out, it would make little or no difference to the sectarian conflicts in Iraq or the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. And as for Iran, “Peace between Israel and the Palestinians would not weaken Iran’s nuclear aspirations. It could even reinforce them. Iran and the groups it backs (notably Hamas and Hezbollah) would be sidelined by the region’s embrace of a Palestinian state and acceptance of Israel, perhaps causing Tehran to look to nuclear weapons to compensate for its loss of standing and influence.” Haass argues that a resolution of the Palestinian conflict wouldn’t even make much of a difference with other Arab states. Would they become more democratic? Would they be more inclined to oppose Iran? (They want the U.S. to do something about Iranian aggression now.) And we are nowhere close to the point at which a viable Palestinian state might emerge.
What’s the risk of persisting in the fruitless quest for a peace deal?
The danger of exaggerating the benefits of solving the Palestinian conflict is that doing so runs the risk of distorting American foreign policy. It accords the issue more prominence than it deserves, produces impatience, and tempts the U.S. government to adopt policies that are overly ambitious.
Haass is perhaps being too generous. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the Obami are obsessed with the peace process because they have no viable policy with regard to Iran. It fills the time, it distracts attention, it takes the heat off the repressive Arab regimes, and it fulfills Obama’s own sense of grandeur and self-importance. And it provides a convenient way for Obama to demonstrate his affection for the “Muslim World” and disdain for the Jewish state.
It has also proved spectacularly unsuccessful if the real goal is a reduction of tensions and progress toward a two-state solution. And as Haass points out, we have made the vexing problem of nuclear-armed Iran even more difficult to resolve: “It is essential the two governments develop a modicum of trust if they are to manage inevitable differences over what to do about Iran’s nuclear program, a challenge that promises to be the most significant strategic threat of this decade. A protracted disagreement over the number of settlements or the contours of a final settlement is a distraction that would benefit neither the U.S. nor Israel, given an Iranian threat that is close at hand and a promise of peace that is distant.”
In short, by straining to resolve the unresolvable (at least at this stage) Palestinian problem, Obama has frittered away precious time and damaged our credibility with nearly every player in the region. (Haass doesn’t mention the degree to which our misdirected Middle East policy has increased anxiety among Israel’s neighbors, who want to know what we’re going to do about the Iran nuclear threat.) Meanwhile, democracy and human-rights activists in the region get the back of our hand, the mullahs’ move steadily ahead with their nuclear program, Syria flexes its muscles, and we are no closer to “peace” between Israel and the Palestinians. All in all, it’s the worst possible approach one could have devised for addressing the many challenges in the Middle East.