Should the US focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Yes, Egypt's exploding, but achieving a two-state solution could help alleviate the region's current dysfunction

By Mac Deford
Published July 25, 2013 9:06PM (EDT)

This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

Global PostOWL’S HEAD, Maine — As the Middle East explodes before our eyes, our new Secretary of State John Kerry devotes his time to what, under the circumstances, one can't help but consider yesteryear's problem: finding a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli nightmare. There's no doubt it remains a serious issue, at the heart of the generations-old instability that the Arab Spring has brought to the surface.

And it would indeed be an incredible boon for the Palestinians and their Arab cousins — and their Jewish cousins as well — to solve this underlying cause for so much of the Arab World's dysfunction.

Nonetheless, Kerry's single-minded concentration on this particular issue is like a home owner focusing all his efforts on renegotiating his old high-rate mortgage when the much more pressing problem is that in recent years his neighborhood has decayed and is now filled with abandoned houses occupied by street gangs.

And while, in one sense, it's admirable to see a display of such tireless and laser-focused energy, the risk is not just another failed attempt, but how a failed attempt at this time will make the decaying neighborhood that much worse off.

And failed it is likely to be. As The New York Times columnist Roger Cohen wrote earlier this week, "After the lightning Israeli victory in the Six-Day War of 1967, Messianic Jewish thinking surged. It is this [thinking] that lies behind the steady expansion of settlements in the West Bank, where some 350,000 Jews now live, with another 250,000 in annexed East Jerusalem. Nothing as yet suggests Israel is ready to abandon the maximalist territorial temptation of the past 46 years."

The Palestinians are well aware of this. A few members of Prime Minister Netanyahu's coalition government, without whom it would collapse, are considerably more hard line than even his far-right Likud Party in opposition to the concept of two states.

Under the circumstances, why have the Palestinians and the Israelis even agreed to talk? The obvious answer: because neither wants to take the blame for upending Kerry's obsession.

But once the talks begin in earnest, the gap between the two sides will be as wide as ever and as difficult to overcome. Will President Obama be willing to exert pressure on Israel? One only has to recall Netanyahu's rebuff to Obama's last attempt at peacemaking, early in his first term, when the Israeli leader, after publicly reprimanding Obama, got 34 standing ovations from the US Congress the next day.

Let's be optimistic and assume for the moment Obama's backbone was suddenly reinforced and he imitated the George H.W. Bush and James Baker ploy, threatening a reduction in aid to Israel for not accepting US terms for a two-state solution. Would Congress back him up? Would even his Democratic colleagues support him?

The result of an almost pre-ordained failure for Kerry's negotiations will be, at a minimum, to make the US, already persona non grata in Syria, and essentially so in Iraq and Egypt, even less of a force in the Arab World.

For all the damage to the Arab psyche the lack of a two-state solution has caused, it is now, more importantly, a long-term problem for Israel. As a number of foreign policy experts, including many from Israel, have pointed out, the failure to create a Palestinian state in the Israeli-occupied West Bank will result in either a non-democratic Israel, increasingly condemned by public opinion worldwide for its apartheid-like behavior, or a non-Jewish one.

It cannot retain Palestinian territories indefinitely without one of these two outcomes. The US Secretary of State cannot want to solve this more than Israel's leaders do.

Meanwhile, as Kerry focuses on Israeli-Palestinian talks, the Syrian civil war is spreading; Egyptian instability grows; Iraqi sectarian violence increases.

Earlier this week, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in a public letter to Congress, detailed the costs of an aggressive, though non-boots on the ground approach to Syria: it could cost a billion dollars a month, involve "thousands of Special Operations forces and other ground forces" in neighboring countries. Worse are "the unintended consequences of our action," which could "inadvertently empower extremists or unleash the very chemical weapons we seek to control."

So with this as background, let's skip ahead, in our thinking, five years:

Assad has left or been killed, but the civil war continues involving a mixture of Al Qaeda-backed militias, more secular ones and remnants of Assad's army.

Lebanon has been drawn in, with Hezbollah controlling most of south Lebanon and Sunnis and Shiites at each others’ throats in the north.

Jordan's King Abdullah, after more than a million Syrian refugees destabilized his country, has been overthrown; the country now ruled by its military who are facing increasing threats from Muslim Brotherhood and more extremist Islamist organizations.

An Israeli crackdown following an incipient third Intifada has strengthened Hamas and radicalized the West Bank.

The military continues to rule in Egypt, planned elections having been canceled because of the ongoing violence, its economy now in total ruin.

Saudi King Abdullah's successor hangs on as his regime takes heavy-handed aim at restless Shiites in the oil-rich Eastern Province, while countering both Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda influences amongst its Sunni population.

And, finally, there's Iraq, which has drifted into failed state status.

As he looks around from his retirement, Kerry thinks, "If only we had realized it was going to look like this in five years, we would have…" Done what?

Maybe we should be negotiating seriously with Iran, discussing behind the scenes a willingness to let them, with our recognition, regain the regional influence they had under the Shah, so long as they stop supporting terrorism.

Or work more closely with the Russians, as partners even, to address the reality that a radicalized, collapsed Arab World is not in either of our interests. What would we have to give in order to get Russian buy-in? And how much of a difference would their support make in any case?

There are situations, it seems, when nothing works, focusing on what is now the periphery — Israel and Palestine — while the center collapses, is the least bad option.

Mac Deford is retired after a career as a Foreign Service officer, an international banker, and a museum director, who lives at Owl’s Head, Maine.

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Egypt Globalpost Israel John Kerry Middle East Palestine