The real root of the trouble

The idea that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is at the root of all of the problems in the Middle East and between it and the West keeps coming up again and again, for example in the Iraq Study Group report as well as in numerous less respectable places.

But this view is obviously and demonstrably false, as is the related one that the conflict itself is caused by the Israeli occupation of ‘Palestinian lands’, a creatively ambiguous concept that means ‘the occupied territories’ to most Westerners but ‘all Palestine, from the river to the sea’ to Arabs. Barry Rubin writes,

“The problem is, ‘as it always was’ still rooted…in Israel and Palestine.” Really? Conflict between Middle East and West isn’t rooted in decades of colonial rule over Algeria, Egypt, or Iraq? In Western support for Arab regimes past and present including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt while radical Islamists want to overthrow them? Not rooted in jealousy over the West’s greater success and power? In the Islamist view that the West is decadent and the Arab nationalist view that it is imperialistic, whether or not these accusations are true? Not rooted in murderous conflict between Sunni and Shia, advocates of capitalism and socialism, and other internal disputes spilling over as participants think they can get Western help or use anti-Western xenophobia to mobilize support? Not rooted in the false picture daily presented of Western society, religions, and culture? Not rooted in antagonism that powerful Muslim groups find in Islam itself, whether or not they “misinterpret” it?

The idea that the “essential rift between Islam and the West is still to be found in the Israeli-Palestinian divide,” is also highly inaccurate. Inasmuch as there is a rift, Islam is a different religion with its own historical culture and worldview whereas the West has been shaped by different religions. Ordinary Muslims worry about their societies becoming secular like the West, overwhelmed by Western culture and attitudes. Islamists know the West opposes its goal of turning the Middle East into the equivalent of Iran and Taliban Afghanistan. September 11 didn’t happen because of Israel but due to al-Qaida’s goal of spreading radical Islamist revolution and most immediately due to U.S. backing for the Saudi regime, their top target. To believe the problem is mainly or basically Israel is to fool oneself.

Moreover, the greatest outpouring of attacks on Israel happened after Israel made the Oslo agreement, withdrew from southern Lebanon, the whole Gaza Strip, and virtually all populated portions of the West Bank, proposed an independent Palestinian state, and so on. — Barry Rubin, Israel Is Not the Cause of All the World’s Problems

The real reason that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is so intractable is the refusal of the Palestinians and Israel’s neighbors to accept the idea of a Jewish state of any size on what they believe to be their land, and the fact that the behavior of the West encourages them to believe that they can keep trying to ‘redeem Palestine’ by war and terrorism until they succeed.

The fact that withdrawals and concessions to the Palestinians have not tended in the direction of a solution to the conflict, but rather have resulted in more violence should be a lesson to Israel about the need to develop a new strategy. This should be based on the idea that no concessions or accommodations must be made with the Palestinians until terrorism entirely stops and until there is a clear commitment to the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state in the Middle East.

What about the broader Mideast problem? From the standpoint of the West, there needs to be an understanding of the complex forces at work in the Middle East, a determination to not allow political goals to be achieved by terrorism, and a decision to take radical Islamism seriously as a threat rather than to try to appease it. Unfortunately, it’s hard to believe that this will happen until the importance of Middle Eastern oil in the Western economies can be significantly reduced.

Until then, at least keep the Israeli-Palestinian issue in perspective as just one of the many similar disputes over ‘whose land is it’ in the world today.

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