Martin Indyk’s interview with Foreign Policy this week contained many interesting nuggets, but one statement in particular shocked me: “It’s very hard to make the argument that America now has a strategic interest in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Indyk said. “It’s just one of many conflicts and it’s not the most important and it’s not the most difficult.” What’s shocking about this statement isn’t that it’s false; indeed, it’s admirably clear-eyed. But it bears no relationship to the policy actually followed either by Indyk himself or the administration he served.
Until he resigned this spring, Indyk was Secretary of State John Kerry’s special envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian talks. In other words, he spent nine months devoting all his time and energy to a problem he himself says America has no “strategic interest” in solving. Moreover, he wasn’t doing so to free up his boss for more strategically important issues; Kerry also devoted more time and energy to this issue – by a large margin – than to anything else on Washington’s foreign policy agenda.
In fact, President Barack Obama and other administration officials repeatedly cited the issue as a top foreign policy priority. In his address to the UN General Assembly last September, for instance, Obama named the Arab-Israeli conflict as one of “two particular issues” American policy in the Middle East and North Africa would focus on, declaring that while it isn’t “the cause of all the region’s problems,” it has “been a major source of instability for far too long,” and resolving it could “help serve as a foundation for a broader peace.” Back in 2010, he went even further, terming Israeli-Palestinian peace “a vital national security interest of the United States.” Susan Rice, then UN ambassador and now Obama’s national security adviser, also termed Israeli-Palestinian peace “a vital U.S. interest,” while Vice President Joe Biden deemed it “fundamentally in the national security interest of the United States.” Kerry himself hyperbolically declared it the most important issue in the world, asserting that no matter what country he traveled to, it was always the first thing he was asked about.
Such statements were always ludicrous. As I wrote more than a year ago, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict wasn’t even the most important in the Middle East; that title belonged to Syria’s civil war – a fact some Westerners belatedly woke up to after ISIS emerged from Syria to gobble up large swathes of Iraq. Since then, a few other unimportant little conflicts have erupted as well, like Russia’s invasion of Crimea and now, apparently, eastern Ukraine.
This misplaced emphasis on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict carried real costs. Not only did it harm Israelis and Palestinians themselves (as I’ve explained before), but any administration has only so much time, energy and diplomatic capital to spend. So if it wastes a large chunk of that time, energy and diplomatic capital on unimportant issues, it will inevitably short-change more important ones – some of which will then explode in ways extremely detrimental to America. That’s precisely what happened in Syria, which the administration ignored for years while devoting all its efforts to fruitless Israeli-Palestinian talks, only to suddenly discover that the Syrian civil war had spawned an “apocalyptic” terrorist group that poses an “imminent threat” to America.
It’s worth asking why this administration – and others before it – wasted so much time and energy for so long on an issue in which, as Indyk acknowledged, America has no “strategic interest.” It’s also worth asking whether, since Indyk is still advising Kerry on the Middle East, his statement means the administration has finally wised up to its mistake, or only that he himself has sobered up.
But the most important question is when this realization will finally become accepted foreign-policy wisdom. For until it does, each subsequent administration, like all the previous ones, will keep wasting time, energy and diplomatic capital on an unimportant conflict at the expense of the ones that really matter.