The Middle East Muddle:
Is Peace Still Possible?
By Bernard Weiner
Co-Editor, The Crisis Papers
March 14, 2006
The run-up to the impending war against Iran -- and make no mistake, the
foundations are being laid daily by the Bush Administration -- bears a
remarkable resemblance to the propaganda barrage before the U.S. attacked
Iraq: Iran is the repository of all things evil, they will destabilize the
region if they get nukes, they support terrorists, the U.N. and
international community can't wait until there are mushroom clouds in the
sky, etc. etc. All that's missing is an invented tie-in with 9/11.
Because of the thorough botch the Bush Administration has made of the Iraq
Occupation, and because there are no extra U.S. troops to go around, it's
a reasonable presumption that there will be no ground invasion of Iran.
Instead, following passage of some ambiguously-worded U.N. Security
Council resolution, there might well be a U.S.-Israeli air-bombing/missile
assault on that country's nuclear facilities. (The experts tell us that
Iran won't have nuclear-weapons capability for anywhere from three to 10
years out -- in short, there is no imminent threat to the U.S. or anyone
The reaction by Iran and other Islamic countries to such an air assault is
likely to be intense, perhaps including retaliatory attacks on Israel, and
damaging the American and European economies by withdrawing oil sales to
the West or blocking ships from entering the Straits of Hormuz into the
Persian Gulf. And, of course, one can anticipate that the Bush
Administration -- unless the impending attack can be stopped in its tracks
by popular opposition -- will be caught flat-footed (again!) by its usual
lack of planning for the unforeseen consequences of its wars.
But rather than focus on what is about to go down in Iran, the chaotic
disaster that the Bush Administration's attack on and inept occupation of
Iraq has led to, or even the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, I'd
like to propose an examination of the Middle East situation since it
serves as the kindling for the firestorms that sweep the entire region.
Hamas is now on the inside of the halls of power, Israel is about to
choose its new leaders, and the situation is encouragingly fluid, with a
tenuous truce in major fighting between the two sides. Thus, this is an
especially propitious time for all parties to reflect and meditate on how,
or even whether, a just solution is still possible, and what such a Middle
East peace might mean for the entire region.
THE MEDIEVAL ISLAMISTS
A resurrected holy Muslim empire has been the dream for many decades of a
segment of the Islamic religion. Or if that dream is unrealizable, at
least their desire to be left alone, outside the distractions and decadent
temptations of the 21st century, to implement their strict version of the
Regardless of what the U.S. does, that Islamist resurgence is bound to
occur, even, or especially, amidst a more widespread Islam that is willing
to exist side by side with Western modernity and tolerance.
But certainly the harsh treatment for nearly 60 years of Palestinians by
Israel, a nation supported by the U.S., has been a spur to the growth of
that fanatic Islamist movement in the Middle East.
U.S. NEGLECT OF THE REGION
On the surface, American policy in the region appears to make no sense. It
seems clear that if the U.S. is after a calmer Arab Middle East, and with
it a stable flow of oil to America and Europe, its first order of
business, one would think, would be to ensure a just peace between the
Israelis and Palestinians, so as to tamp down the fire that endangers so
much in that region.
But under both Democratic and Republican presidents, the status quo has
been left to fester, partially because intervening in this convoluted,
passionate dispute rarely pays off for the U.S. and often leads to
embarrassing failures. And so Israel, America's lone dependable ally in
the region, is blindly supported by U.S. administrations, no matter what
its leaders do. The Palestinians are teased with words about a coming
Palestinian state, but nothing much really happens from the U.S. end.
While Carter and Clinton at least tried to bring the parties together, and
actually were starting to accomplish something, the Bush Administration
promises much and delivers little, and is unwilling to use its leverage to
get its ally Israel to make the concessions it will have to make for a
WHY SHOULD U.S. WORK FOR PEACE?
The well-armed Israelis feel insecure, the powerless Palestinians feel
humiliated and brutalized, thousands die, terrorism grows in this
atmosphere -- and not much changes, decade after decade. And, from the
point of view of America's political leaders, why should it be changed?
The oil keeps flowing, so why would any U.S. administration risk touching
this dangerous third-rail of international politics?
How about because it's the right thing to do? How about because the Middle
East would be stabilized? How about because Islamist terrorism would lose
one of its most potent recruiting arguments? How about because the U.S.
would regain much of the positive prestige it has lost as a result of
Bush's wars against Muslim countries?
Even supposing a just peace could be worked out between the Israelis and
Palestinians, Islamist terrorism would still exist, would still be capable
of awful acts of mayhem and murder. But much of the passion behind today's
terrorism would be diminished or, in some areas, even disappear were the
Palestinians to obtain their own viable state. Similarly, there would be a
concomitant diminution of Israeli brutality and murder in the new
Which brings us to how we get to that state of peace. Even with the
victory of Hamas, an organization dedicated to the elimination of Israel
from the map, polls continue to demonstrate that most Palestinians prefer
a peaceful, two-state solution. Most Israelis, if their security can be
guaranteed by treaty, likewise seem to prefer peace with a Palestinian
neighbor-state rather than decades of still more bloodshed and insecurity.
WHAT WILL HAMAS & ISRAEL DO?
It's not going to be easy. Hamas has been dedicated to the destruction of
Israel, so asking them to recognize Israel's right to exist now that they
are in charge of the Palestinian Parliament seems to make no sense.
Likewise, Ehud Olmert, Israel's acting prime minister, wants to carry on
many of the hard-line policies of Ariel Sharon, such as completing the
Separation (Border) Wall and enlarging key existing settlements in the
Occupied West Bank, which antagonizes the Palestinians.
We don't know how the new Hamas leadership will look at the compromises
that will have to be made in the movement toward peace. Will it, can it,
evolve into a government that accepts a two-state solution? If a
geographically and economically viable Palestine state were to be created
next door to Israel, would they, could they, accept that neighbor?
We don't know who the new leaders of Israel will be after the upcoming
election. If it's the hard-line Likudist Benjamin Netanyahu, peace
prospects are minimal. But if the new Israeli leaders are open to the idea
of an equitable two-state solution, progress can indeed be made. (And,
looking at the demographics, as Sharon did, Israel simply has to divest
itself of the Occupied Territories, lest the Jewish nature of the State of
Israel be placed in jeopardy. The probable outcome is that the bulk of the
Palestinians will be on one side of the border in their own state, with
the bulk of the Jews on the other side in a smaller, but more religiously
WHAT A SOLUTION MIGHT LOOK LIKE
So, everyone knows, and always has known, what the eventual solution will
be, will have to be: A secure Israel, a viable Palestine, an
internationalized Jerusalem of some sort. To get there, Israel will have
to exit from virtually all of the West Bank, abandoning almost all of the
settlements there and agreeing not to attack inside the new Palestine's
borders; the Palestinians will have to recognize Israel's right to exist,
and refrain from terrorist attacks on their neighbor.
Those Palestinians who would prefer to return to their ancestral homes
inside Israel will, for the most part, have to relinquish their claims and
agree to accept financial compensation for those properties, money that
will help them purchase land and buildings inside the new Palestine state.
As Ernest Partridge ingeniously has suggested, only partially tongue in
cheek, Jewish settlers in the West Bank would be allowed to remain on
condition that they renounce Israeli citizenship and accept Palestinian
citizenship. One imagines that the settlers would leave voluntarily.
Those parts of Jerusalem that are regarded as Holy Land by three great
religions will have to be administered by an international body of some
Once the peace treaties have been signed and implemented, then the doors
will be open for bilateral treaties on water, jobs, environmental
WHAT'S BLOCKING MOVEMENT TOWARD PEACE
I suspect that there will be no significant U.S.
movement toward bringing peace to the Middle East while Bush/Cheney are
in power. It's simply not a priority for them; indeed, it's possible
that they are quite content with keeping the Palestine/Israel dispute on
the boil, thus ensuring their superpower hegemony in the region. (Then,
too, Bush&Co.'s fundamentalist Christian base requires that Armageddon
take place in the Holy Land prior to the Second Coming of Christ, so
peace is not what they're after.)
Keeping the parties at war reminds one of the reason why the Reagan
Administration supported Iraq's war against Iran in the 1980s, to ensure
that the two regional giants would battle and decimate each other.
Because of Bush Administration screwups, if current trends hold, Iraq
will be ruled by Iran-leaning Shi'ite parties, bringing Iraq and Iran
closer together. The irony of history.
Nobody quite knows how to factor in Fatah, Arafat's
organization, into the Palestinian equation. Would the more moderate
Fatah, defeated in the recent parliamentary elections, be willing or
able to serve as a mediator between Israel and the new Palestinian
rulers (since the Israelis don't want to negotiate with Hamas)? Could
Fatah, would it, work out tentative peace proposals with the new Israeli
leadership? If so, could the Fatah negotiators sell it to Hamas?
Will Hamas, now that it is the governing body rather
than the secret militant opposition, move somewhat toward the center? In
doing so, would they be willing to deal for a
geographically/economically viable Palestine by agreeing to recognize
Israel's right to exist -- and would their fanatic base permit them to
do this? (Sort of like the Catholic IRA making peace with the
Protestants in Northern Ireland, which spawned "the Real IRA," those
extremists eager to continue the violence.)
THE HOPE THE OTHER WOULD VANISH
It seems to me that no progress whatsoever toward peace can be made
without a willingness to start at a point "beyond history," as it were.
That is, both sides would acknowledge historical grievances going back
decades, or in some cases hundreds or even thousands of years -- but, in
the interest of bringing the conflict to an acceptable close, simply
stipulate that each side has its historical grievances and move on. No
more "my victimhood was worse than yours, and you owe me for this, that
and the other atrocity."
In the past, neither party has wanted to move seriously toward peace
because, in truth, each side believed that with just a bit more pressure
or violence, the other side would disappear. Yes, I know this attitude
doesn't make rational sense, but not much is rational in this ages-old
The Palestinians believed that they could force the Israelis to give in
and grant them everything they wanted, which would mean the effective
destruction of Israel; the Israelis believed they could force the
Palestinians through the brutalities of an Occupation to move to other
lands and abandon their desire to push the Jewish state into the sea.
Now, it's possible that both sides, after ceaseless murders and
brutalities over the decades, might come to a mutual awareness that enough
is enough, that the Other is not going to disappear, that the Israelis can
destroy Palestine if they so choose, that the Palestinians can ensure that
Israel will never live in peace. In short, a political accommodation will
have to be made, for the sake of the children and grandchildren, and
economic viability, of both countries.
Supposing that a peace treaty can be obtained, and implemented properly
with sensitivity, peace and prosperity for both peoples may eventually be
But, as always, how to get from here to there? Aye, there's the rub. All
we can be sure of is that Middle East peace won't be, can't be,
accomplished as long as the current U.S. administration is in power.
Copyright 2006 by Bernard Weiner
Bernard Weiner, Ph.D. in government & international relations, has taught
at various universities, worked as a writer/editor with the San Francisco
Chronicle for 19 years, and currently co-edits The Crisis Papers
(www.crisispapers.org). For comment, write >>