U.S. President Donald Trump and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif are as different as night and day, but they agree on two things: that Twitter is the best thing ever, and that the Middle East’s tiny Jewish state is integrally tied to the lion’s share of its problems.
Earlier this month, Zarif tweeted that Israel’s “illegal occupation” of Palestinian land “lies at the heart of most of the calamities in our region,” a common refrain among the region’s autocratic governing elites. Former Jordanian ambassador to the United Nations Hasan Abu Nimah elaborated on this notion in a recent op-ed: “The Palestinian injustice is the root cause … and the very origin of instability, conflict, radicalisation, terror, extremist trends, cultural diseases, sectarianism, backwardness, economic problems, underdevelopment, poverty and much more.”
Trump, like many others in the West, expresses the sentiment more obliquely, pointing to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the cause of regional problems. The president has frequently boasted that the “peace between the Palestinians and Israel” he intends to forge will “lead to ultimate peace in the Middle East.” Jason D. Greenblatt, the president’s chief negotiator, maintains that a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians will “improve … security across the region.”
Such statements do not explicitly point the finger at Israel, of course, but they beg the question of why the security of the Middle East hinges on the affairs of a tiny nation inhabiting a tiny sliver of its territory. How does that work, exactly?
Some say Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians has fueled the rise of radical Islamist movements in the Arab world, which feed off of and exploit society’s most deeply felt grievances. Others say it has fueled sectarianism or enabled Iranian meddling in the Arab world.
Some maintain that Israel has poisoned the political development of its Middle Eastern neighbors by providing regimes with “a ready and convenient means of diverting public frustration” away from the lack of democracy, freedom and government accountability. A slightly different variant holds that staunch American support for Israel “prevents the United States from gaining credibility as an advocate of democracy in the Middle East,” leaving pro-democracy forces in the lurch.
While there are grains of truth to some of these arguments, there aren’t nearly enough to account for decades of unwavering conviction that Israel is responsible for the sorry state of the Middle East. The paucity of anti-Israel banners during the 2011 popular revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria demonstrated pretty convincingly that the Arab masses don’t get that worked up about “injustices” suffered by the Palestinians (at least, not when they feel free to voice other grievances).
Outside of Israel’s immediate conflict zones in Gaza, the West Bank and Lebanon, even Islamists don’t focus much attention on the Jewish state. Al-Qaeda and ISIS have virtually ignored the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As for sectarianism and Iranian meddling in the Arab world, conflict between Sunnis and Shiites—and between Arabs and Persians—was going on for more than 1,300 years before Israel came into existence.
For those who subscribe to the “theory of everything”—or what Martin Kramer and others calls “linkage,”getting Israel to sign a final status agreement acceptable to the Palestinians is the lynchpin of any serious effort to bring stability and peace to the region as a whole. Indeed, the widely used shorthand “Middle East peace” (a vague oxymoron in any other context) refers only to this particular conflict.
That’s a fine publicity pitch if the Trump administration is determined to have a go at getting Israelis and Palestinians to make nice. But the rest of us mustn’t labor under the delusion that brokering an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement will do much to improve security in the rest of the Middle East, and we certainly shouldn’t let it distract us from addressing the pathologies that have effectively destroyed Syria, Libya, Yemen and much of Iraq in a span of less than seven years.