Some recent discussions have convinced me that I should take up this question again.
What is the core issue of the conflict that surrounds Israel?
Most people that I argue with tell me that it has to do with the Palestinian Arabs. Because of the 1967 occupation, because their rights are being violated, because they don’t have a state, because the security barrier impinges on their land, because of an unending list of grievances, there can’t be peace. If Israel will fix these problems, they say, there can be peace — between Israel and the Palestinians and Israel and the Arab nations.
In the past I’ve always responded that the problem is not the occupation, but the fact that the Arabs do not accept the presence of a Jewish state of any size in the Mideast. It’s easy to prove this: all you need to do is to show that violent opposition to Israel started before 1967 — the PLO, for example, was founded in 1964 — and that the Palestinians have refused to accept very fair offers from Israel, in 2000 and 2008, to create an Arab state from the occupied territories.
The real issue, I argue, has been that the Palestinians — with support from the other Arab nations — will not be satisfied with less than a reversal of the 1948 occupation — the replacement of Israel by an Arab state.
Lately some of my opponents have started to agree. The problem is the 1948 occupation, they admit, and there should not be an Israel at all. The very existence of a Jewish state, they say, is incompatible with Palestinian rights. This is a harder argument to have, because you have to bring up lots of historical facts, and there is a whole mythology to refute. But at least they are being more honest about their goal.
But now there is an additional factor, and it has absolutely nothing to do with Palestinian Arabs, and it has come to be the overriding issue that prevents Israel from living at peace.
That factor is the Iranian program to dominate the region economically, politically and religiously. Iran wants to rid the Middle East of Western (mostly American) influence, and even grandiosely challenges the position of the US as the most powerful nation in the world. Iran’s influence is growing in Iraq, and it’s hard to see how the US will be able to withdraw from there without it quickly becoming an Iranian satellite. With the US gone, Iran will be able to dominate the conservative regimes like those of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which depend on it for protection.
This means that one-third of the world’s oil resources will be under Iranian control. It means that Iran will be able to spread its revolutionary Islamism, and perhaps establish the Shiite caliphate that the Mullahs so desire.
Soon Iran expects to have nuclear weapons to provide an ‘umbrella’ for its expansionist activities. There’s just one little thing standing in its way, and it’s not hard to guess what it is.
Israel perceives the Iranian nuclear bomb as an existential threat, and if the US will not act to stop it, Israel will. Israel is a check on the activities of Iranian proxies Syria and Hizballah in Lebanon. Israel props up the regimes in Egypt and Jordan, and prevents the radical Hamas from gaining total control of the Palestinians. Israel is a close ally of the US, and provides intelligence and maybe other kinds of assistance to it. Tiny little Israel is a big fat bone in the Iranian throat, and Iran wants to dislodge it.
So today Iran has replaced the Arabs as the primary enemy of Israel and the main cause of the continuation of the conflict. Iran supplies and supports Hamas and Hizballah, with whom Israel has fought two recent wars, and there’s no doubt that Iranian funds flow to other terrorist factions.
This has been happening for years: remember the Karine A, the ship full of weapons intended for Arafat’s terrorists that was intercepted in 2002? Iran has paid for the huge Syrian missile buildup in recent years. Even in the Palestinian Authority, hardliners are encouraged by their hope that Iran’s proxies will keep the IDF occupied, and weaken Israel.
If we assume that the Obama Administration wants to ‘solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’ it is going about it in the wrong way, attacking the symptoms — Israeli-Palestinian issues — instead of the cause, Iranian expansionism. Changing the approach would actually simplify US policy a great deal, because instead of trying to achieve its ends in the Middle East by creating a Palestinian state and then getting Arab support as a result — the incoherent ‘linkage theory‘ — the US could simply move directly toward its desired goal, which is (or should be) preventing the Iranian takeover of the region.
Effective action to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons would go a long way in this direction, as would real support for Iranian dissidents.
Israeli-Palestinian peace might be a byproduct.