Is the Palestinian issue the key to the Middle East?

By Vic Rosenthal

One of the oft-repeated misconceptions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that it’s the root of all problems in the Middle East. For example:

“America’s best hope of containing the escalating tensions in the region would be to address the festering wound that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has represented for decades.” – Joshua Holland

Or, for example:

The root cause of the Israeli-Lebanese conflict is the failure to resolve the Israel-Palestine issue, an international church delegation visiting Jerusalem has said. — Ecumenical News International

Although one finds these or similar statements everywhere, it’s hard to find any actual arguments for them — they are supposed to be self-evident.

In search of the source, I found an interesting article by Ami Isseroff, who quotes American Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Harold Saunders from 1975:

In many ways, the Palestinian dimension of the Arab-Israeli conflict is the heart of that conflict. Final resolution of the problems arising from the partition of Palestine, the establishment of the State of Israel, and Arab opposition to those events will not be possible until agreement is reached defining a just and permanent status for the Arab peoples who consider themselves Palestinians…

It’s quite clear that he is talking specifically about the problems between Israel and the Arabs, and not every problem in the Middle East.

Nevertheless, I would still disagree with him. I would say that the Palestinian problem was primarily created by Arab rejectionism, and that before there can be a secure and just solution for Israel and the Palestinians, their neighbors will need to stop stirring the pot. And although probably a Palestinian state has become a necessary (although certainly not sufficient!) condition for permanent peace between the Palestinians and Israel, it’s not clear that this has to happen before anything else can.

Now, how did we get to the point that the Palestinian issue became responsible for every problem from Lebanon to the Gulf states? The misinterpretations started almost immediately after Saunders’ remarks. Time magazine reported that

Last month then Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Harold Saunders submitted a document to the House Committee on International Relations that stressed the importance of the Palestinian question as “the heart of the conflict” in the Middle East.

Isseroff points out that Time left out the phrase “in many ways”, thus implying that the Palestinian issue was the only important question. And I add that they also used the expression “conflict in the Middle East”, and did not qualify that any further. Hence was born the idea that no problem in the Middle East could be solved without satisfying the Palestinians.

It’s clear that this is even more ridiculous than what Saunders actually said. For example, how could a Palestinian state bring the Lebanese Sunnis, Shiites (several factions), Christians (several factions), and Druse together? Not to mention the pro- and anti- Syrian groups within these! Would a Palestinian state reconcile Hosni Mubarak’s regime with the Muslim Brotherhood? Or the Iraqi Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds? One could go on and on in this vein.

But even the Israeli-Arab conflict is about much more than the Palestinians. Hezbollah is not a Palestinian organization. The Palestinian refugee situation (which perhaps should be called the “Palestinian refugee descendant situation”) was created and maintained by the Arab nations and the ever-helpful UN as a club with which to beat Israel. And today’s Palestinian militias are sustained in their confidence that they can defeat Israel militarily — and therefore need not recognize Israel or renounce terrorism — by the monetary and arms support that they receive from such nations as Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia.

I am convinced that peace between Israel and the Palestinians will only come when the Palestinians decide that they cannot conquer Israel, with or without the help of their allies. At that point they may see an independent state more or less in the territories as the best way to realize their aspirations.

Therefore it is putting the cart far before the horse to think about creating a state before the issues of recognition of Israel’s right to exist and renunciation of terrorism are settled. And it may be too early to think about it when Syria, Iran, and others are actively promoting terrorism against Israel and in effect preventing a peaceful Palestinian state from coming to be.

As far as the principle that the Palestinian problem is the key to everything else, I suggest that probably the reverse is true — the more fundamental obstacles to peace will have to be overcome first.

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