Archive for January, 2002

[Originally published in the Burlington Free Press.]

Even when things are going well, the Middle East is an extraordinarily complicated place. Things are not going well there right now.  The situation has become much more complicated for us since the beginning of the War on Terrorism.  If we are to succeed in this war, America absolutely needs to keep “moderate” Arab states involved in the coalition. Egypt and Saudi Arabia have told us the coalition is in jeopardy if we are not able to calm down the violence and to get the Palestinians and the Israelis into meaningful negotiations

Keep in mind that the “moderate” Arab states do not include one elected, representative democracy.  They all have homegrown, fundamentalist movements intent on overthrowing their rule.  If we alienate those uneasy governments or force them to do things in the War on Terrorism that favor our policies over the perceived Arab interests, we stand the very real chance of losing any ability whatsoever to influence them and of making them more vulnerable to revolution.

So, what are the issues here?  Why can’t this region achieve some sort of peace, get on with life and permit us to pursue our other national interests?

The root problem is that both the Palestinians and the Israelis feel aggrieved and neither is in a very good position to accommodate the needs of the other.  In their official positions, the Palestinians seek the return of the land occupied during the 1967 War and the Israelis seek peace.  Why can’t they simply trade land for peace?

Let’s take Palestine first.  If they only have to give peace to get back their land, why doesn’t Yassir Arafat stop the killing and make the trade?  This raises two questions:  Does Arafat even want to make the trade and if he does, is he capable of stopping the violence?  These two questions really divide the experts.  Some say he is capable but doesn’t really want peace, others that there is no way he can shut down the violence without signing his own political and perhaps personal death warrant.

The Islamic Jihad, Hamas and Hizballah (all funded largely by Syria and Iran) are the organizations most responsible for the violence against Israel.  They are dedicated to destroying Israel and reoccupying a land they consider to be rightfully their own.  Palestinian suicide bombers and their murderous mentors do not want any peace at all.

These organizations have the support of enough Palestinians that Arafat may very well feel that he does not have the power to really crack down on them.  It is equally possible that he does not wish to do so.  In either event, it seems unlikely that Arafat is really going to make such a move.  Whatever his motivation, it would appear that the suicide bombings will continue, thus inviting Israeli retaliation and prolonging the impasse.

On the Israeli side, Ariel Sharon has shown little interest in a peaceful solution. He has moved only under extreme pressure from the Bush Administration.  His governing coalition includes the far right parties that openly advocate the annexation of Samaria and Judea (biblical provinces of pre-Christian Israel which are now part of Palestine), all hopes for which would be precluded by a peaceful settlement. They also are among those who have supported the Israeli settlements in Palestine which are seen by the Palestinians as the first step toward the eventual annexation of their land.

Even if Sharon does not share the goals of his conservative coalition partners, he is highly unlikely to act against them as that would quickly end his coalition. Besides that, his position appears to represent the desires of better than half the Israeli population.  He has no reason at this time to give up land for peace.

Palestinians and Israelis now seem committed to continued violence.  Yet, there is no solution in violence.  Despite their relatively massive military power, there will never be a military solution for Israel.  If they kill a hundred suicide bombers, a hundred more will appear from the ranks.  There are 3.5 million Palestinians.  Nor, for that matter will the Palestinians succeed with their suicide bombers.  The western world will never and should never allow the destruction of Israel.

Whether the combatants like it or not, and not all of them do, there need to be two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace.  Negotiation toward the trade of land for peace is the only answer.  It would appear that as long as Israel continues to occupy Palestine land, the Palestinians will continue their suicide bombings and Israel will retaliate.  One would think that with all the bloodshed and misery created on both sides, some accommodation could be reached.

It’s difficult to see how this situation serves or will serve either the combatants or any interested parties.  In America’s case, the violence impacts our relations with the “moderate” Arab states which in turn may impact our prospects for success in the War on Terrorism.  The moral here is that Americans should never believe that their allies share our national interests, but that they often have and pursue their own to our disadvantage.

It is frustrating for us to see that, despite the billions of dollars we have poured into the area, most notably to Egypt and Israel, we appear almost incapable of influencing anyone to do much of anything that is in our national interest.  Getting Egypt and the other “moderate” Arab states which benefit directly from our protection and beneficence to pressure Arafat, or moderating our old friend and protégé Israel’s reactions, seem out of our reach.  But then, that’s the Middle East!  This is not the first time we have been confounded there.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA Station Chief who served in Beirut and Tehran.

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