Israeli-Palestinian riddle won’t answer woes

Israeli-Palestinian riddle won’t answer woes

Crispian BALMER
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which once transfixed the Arab world, has lost much of its resonance in a Middle East riven by religious strife, political upheaval and economic woes.

News that the two sides had resumed peace talks last week after a three-year halt was largely overshadowed by turmoil in Egypt and the Syrian civil war, which has set Sunni and Shiite Muslims against one another. U.S. officials still hope that resolving the decades-old confrontation will help to unlock the region’s wider problems, but analysts say it no longer lies at the strategic heart of a troubled Middle East.

“That was probably the case before the Arab uprisings, but a number of other struggles have now joined it, such as the Sunni-Shi’ite struggle and an intra-Sunni conflict,” said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center think tank.

“The issue is a sideshow now, but it might take centre-stage again if there was genuine progress,” he said, underscoring deep scepticism in many quarters about the chances of a deal.

Much has changed in the Middle East since the last talks broke down in 2010. Autocratic leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen have been ousted, Islamist radicalism has spread and sectarian warfare between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims has surged.

More than 100,000 people have died in the Syrian conflict and violence has flared again in Iraq, with over 1,000 killed there in July alone, many at the hands of al Qaeda. Tensions over Iran’s disputed nuclear programme have also risen, while a struggle for power between Islamists and the military is playing out on the streets of predominantly Sunni Egypt.

Arguably, none of these crises will come any closer to being settled should, by some miracle, Israel and the Palestinians finally agree to divide the land where they live. Few people could deny that a resolution of the conflict is long overdue. However, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s devotion of so much energy to the issue, which has been drained of much violence in recent years, has raised some eyebrows given the fires raging elsewhere.
To explain American thinking, you only need listen to retired general James Mattis, head of the U.S. military’s Central Command until March. Addressing a security forum in Colorado on July 20, he said U.S. interests were being damaged because of the failure to establish an independent Palestine.
“I paid a military security price every day as the commander of Centcom because the Americans were seen as biased in support of Israel,” he said, suggesting that this was holding back moderate Arabs from endorsing U.S. policymaking.
Dore Gold, president of the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs, bristles at such a link. Gold, who used to be a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policy making circle, argues that Arab rhetoric on the issue belies the reality. Despite Iranian denials, Western experts think Shi’ite Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons. This alarms many Sunni Arab leaders as much as the Israelis.
A deal would also not end all anti-Western sentiment in the region. True, it would empty an reservoir of poison from the relationship, but suspicions of U.S. and European dealings go much deeper than simply their close ties to Israel. This was laid bare by a 2011 survey conducted in Muslim nations by PewResearch, which showed that a median of 53 percent thought that U.S. and Western policies were one of the top two reasons why Islamic nations were not wealthier.
Likewise, the median saying Westerners were selfish, violent, immoral and arrogant exceeded 50 percent, while there was no Muslim nation in which even 30 percent could accept that Arabs conducted the 9/11 attacks on U.S. cities in 2001.
“The notion of conspiracy is deeply entrenched in the Middle East and we are a central piece of it,” said Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. State Department adviser on the peace process. “Nothing in the Middle East that happens that is bad goes unattributed, and a lot of it is placed on us.”