A Palestinian girl is seen cleaning off debris from a chalkboard inside Al Shejaia school in Gaza City. The school was damaged when Israeli forces targeted a building next to it with an airstrike.
The political landscape of the Middle East has changed drastically over the past two years, but the successful negotiation of a cease-fire last week should have demonstrated that the support and active engagement of the United States is still essential if, in Secretary Hilary Clinton’s words, a “durable solution” is to be found.
As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has once again reasserted itself on the international agenda, it’s important to step back a bit and reaffirm that a durable solution not just to the current violence but to the conflict itself remains a key U.S. national-security interest. In the week leading up to Israel’s offensive, most of Washington had been consumed by the news of retired General David Petraeus’s resignation as CIA director because of the revelation of an extramarital affair. Analysts and historians will of course continue to debate Petraeus’s legacy, but in light of the past week’s events, one particular episode in his career bears remembering.
Testifying before the U.S. Senate in March 2010 while serving as head of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), Petraeus issued a written statement that included a list of “cross-cutting challenges to security and stability in the Middle East” which “serve as major drivers of instability, inter-state tensions, and conflict.” Listed first among those challenges was “Insufficient progress toward Middle East peace”:
The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests in the AOR [Area of Responsibility]. Israeli-Palestinian tensions often flare into violence and large-scale armed confrontations. The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in the AOR and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support. The conflict also gives Iran influence in the Arab world through its clients, Lebanese Hizballah and Hamas.
Petraeus’s views were, and are, by no means an outlier in the defense establishment. Then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates quickly affirmed Petraeus’s statement, saying there was “no question” that the absence of peace in the Middle East affects U.S. interests in the region and that “the U.S. has considered peace in the Middle East to be a national security interest for decades.” Petraeus’s remarks soon received another assist, this time from Dennis Ross, former Middle East adviser to multiple U.S. administrations. In a May 2010 speech to the Anti-Defamation League, Ross said that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was “instrumental to shaping a new regional context." "Pursuing peace is not a substitute for dealing with the other challenges,” Ross continued. “It is also not a panacea. But especially as it relates to resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, if one could do that, it would deny state and non-state actors a tool they use to exploit anger and grievances.”
The idea that the continued irresolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict hurts U.S. interests has come to be known as “linkage”—in the sense that it’s “linked” to a number of other fault lines in the region. This idea is also a bête noire of pro-Israel hawks, who tend to interpret “peace process” as code for “forcing Israel to make dangerous concessions” and insist that widespread Arab concern over the Palestinian issue is simply an invention of Arab propagandists and State Department Arabists, despite significant polling data showing that it is real. In a post-Arab Awakening Middle East, though, where leaders will be more attuned to popular opinion, this sort of denialism will become more difficult.
One of the best articulations of the “linkage” view actually came from President Barack Obama, back in 2008 when he was still a senator running for president. In an interview with The Atlantic, he called the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a “constant sore, [that] does infect all of our foreign policy.” The lack of a resolution, Obama continued, “provides an excuse for anti-American militant jihadists to engage in inexcusable actions, and so we have a national-security interest in solving this.”
While it’s of course possible to overstate the centrality of the conflict and oversell the benefits of solving it, that some do so shouldn’t obscure the extent to which it does, in fact, negatively affect America’s ability to achieve its goals in the Middle East, functioning as an ever-renewing well of resentment from which extremists on all sides draw quite profitably. For example, Iran is not pursuing a nuclear program because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but the conflict—and the widespread perception of Western hypocrisy and double standards in dealing with it—provides Iran an extremely valuable tool in its revolutionary appeal to Arabs and Muslims. As former U.S. Ambassador to Israel and Egypt Daniel Kurtzer put it to me in an interview last year, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is “not the biggest problem in the region, but it is the issue on which perception of U.S. power is largely formed.”
Perceptions of that power have suffered greatly in the Middle East over the last decade for a number of reasons, the invasion and occupation of Iraq high among them. There are a number of serious challenges for the U.S. in the region—the Syrian civil war, Iran’s nuclear program, Egypt’s continuing political transition, to name three of the most pressing—currently competing for the attention of U.S. leaders. But the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains an area where the U.S. is uniquely positioned, by virtue of relationships with key players like Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, to play a constructive and necessary role in moving the parties toward a peace deal.
It must be understood that Hamas and other militant factions benefit considerably from the perception among Palestinians, not entirely unfounded, that the path of nonviolent negotiation has produced little in the way of tangible movement toward the end of Israeli occupation. For many, the lesson of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank is that ceasing violence, cooperating with Israel on security, and working on building the institutions of a state will earn them only the world’s inattention, whereas violence, for all of the suffering it brings them, launches them once again to the top of the world’s agenda. As one West Bank Palestinian Authority official told The New York Times Monday,“The most dangerous thing is the fact that what we could not do in negotiations, Hamas did with one rocket.”
While ending the current violence was the immediate goal of the agreed cease-fire, no solution will be truly durable if it does not include tangible steps toward the end of occupation and the creation of a Palestinian state. It would represent a tragic failure of leadership if, after the cease-fire, the conflict were once again placed back on the shelf and allowed to fester, to appear year after year after year on CENTCOM’s list of regional challenges.