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 You are in: Bureaus/Offices Reporting Directly to the Secretary > Policy Planning Staff > Secretary's Open Forum > Proceedings > 2001 - 2002

America and the Middle East

Mark N. Katz, Ph.D, Professor of Government and Politics, George Mason University
Remarks to the Open Forum
Washington, DC
May 22, 2002

Opening Remarks and Introduction

Photo of Mark N. KatzThe Middle East consists of far more than the Arab-Israeli conflict. It consists of a host of different states of varying sizes containing many different ethnic groups, practicing several religions, and developing economically and politically at widely differing rates

As is well known, several countries in the Middle East possess extraordinary petroleum reserves -- more than any other region of the world. Since petroleum is needed to fuel the world’s economy, anything occurring in the Middle East affecting the production or pricing of petroleum has an enormous impact.

The Middle East contains many difficult problems, including conflict between and within several nations there, chronic poverty in many countries, growing unemployment in some, lack of progress toward democracy in most, and the persistent appeal of non-democratic ideologies which promise great things but largely fail to deliver wherever their proponents have seized power. All these problems would pose a challenge for American foreign policy anywhere, but they pose an especially great challenge for it given the potential impact of events in the Middle East on the world economy.

But of all the problems in the Middle East, one has stood out both for its apparent insolubility and for its impact not just on the region, but on the world as a whole. That problem, of course, is the Arab-Israeli conflict -- especially the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For while the territory in dispute between them may be small, the inability to resolve this conflict has had profound consequences for the politics of the Middle East as a whole and the world beyond. Not least among these consequences has been the negative effect that its continuation has had on America’s relations and ability to cooperate with other countries in the region.

The United States confronts conflicting imperatives in the Middle East. Strong American support for Israel results from strong domestic political support for this in the U.S. At the same time, there are strong economic, security, and political incentives for the U.S. to have good relations with the Arab and Muslim worlds. The sources of these imperatives are worth reviewing:

Strong, sustained, domestic political support within the United States for Israel stems from several factors. As is well known, there is a large, influential Jewish population in the U.S. for whom support for Israel is of paramount importance. But let us not overemphasize this: Jews comprise only 2% of the American population. If they alone had wanted the U.S. to support Israel, it wouldn’t have happened. The fact of the matter is -- as polls repeatedly show -- a majority of Americans support Israel by at least a 3 to 1 margin over those who support the Palestinian cause.

Why is there such strong American domestic support for Israel? Some see the State of Israel as just compensation to the Jews for the barbaric treatment they received at the hands of the Nazis and the failure of the West to protect them from the holocaust. Many see Israel, despite its imperfections, as a democracy while the countries around it are all authoritarian. Many devout Christians in America see support for Israel as a religious duty. Some see Israel as a stable ally in an unstable region. Some see America and Israel as natural allies against Islamic extremists who threaten us both. While the reasons may vary or overlap, the result has been the same: strong American domestic support for Israel which neither the President nor the Congress can afford to ignore.

The imperatives behind the American desire to have good relations with the Arab and Muslim worlds derive less from American domestic politics than from external interests. Even if they didn’t have oil, the U.S. would want to have good relations with this group of nations which includes such a large proportion of the world’s population and territory. But oil, of course, is a factor, and so the U.S. has a strong economic incentive to maintain good relations with those Middle Eastern states that produce it. And since some of these -- Iraq, Iran, and Libya -- have governments hostile toward the U.S., American foreign policy has felt an especially strong incentive to maintain close relations with those petroleum-rich states which have proven willing to cooperate with the U.S.: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar.

The desire to prevent a hostile power from gaining control or influence over these traditionally friendly petroleum-rich states has provided a strong incentive for America to ally with them and many other states in the region. And there have been several such attempts by hostile powers, including the Soviet Union during the Cold War, Nasser and other Arab nationalists in the 1950s and 1960s, Iran after its 1979 revolution, Iraq in 1990-91, and al Qaeda this past year. Additional attempts at gaining control or influence over these countries may well arise in the future. We can live with some of the most important oil-producing states, such as Iran, Iraq, and Libya, being hostile to the U.S. What we don’t want to risk, however, are the consequences of one power acquiring control over all or most of the Gulf’s petroleum resources.

Concern about access to oil may not have the same emotional impact on American public opinion as support for Israel does. But as anyone who lived through the Arab oil embargo of 1973 remembers, a decision by all or most of the Gulf oil producers to cut off or severely constrain oil exports to the U.S. would have a profound impact on the American economy as a whole and on the life of each individual American.

But in addition to maintaining a steady flow of oil, American foreign policy-makers have also been concerned that the inability to resolve, or just contain, the Arab-Israeli conflict could serve to undermine governments in the region allied to the U.S., and to their replacement by hostile ones. Even most of those who support Israel recognize that this would have a negative impact on the security of the Jewish state.

American foreign policy, thus, has strong incentives both for supporting Israel and for seeking good relations with the Arab and Muslim worlds. But due to the persistence of the Arab-Israeli conflict, strong American support for Israel has greatly complicated America’s efforts to develop and maintain good relations with the latter.

American foreign policy has sought to overcome this problem through promoting a peaceful resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. As is well known, this effort has often proven frustrating. Nevertheless, it has achieved a number of successes, including:

  • the Egyptian-Israeli and the Syrian-Israeli disengagements following the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war;
  • the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement signed at Camp David in 1978;
  • the Jordanian-Israeli peace agreement signed in 1994; and
  • the Israeli withdrawal from all southern Lebanon, except for one tiny area (which the Israeli and Syrian governments claim belongs to Syria).

In addition, great progress was also made toward the achievement of a Syrian-Israeli peace agreement and even a Palestinian-Israeli agreement which would result in the creation of a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza. As is well known, however, negotiations for both of these accords broke down. Syrian-Israeli relations remain tense, but at least there has not been open conflict between these two states. Palestinian-Israeli relations, by contrast, have broken down completely and severe conflict between them has erupted. Israelis have been traumatized by the wave of Palestinian suicide attacks against them. Palestinians, in turn, have been traumatized by repeated Israeli military interventions, especially the massive one of this past spring. Further, the Arab and Muslim worlds are outraged at what Israel has done to the Palestinians, and at continued American support for Israel. Indeed, Arab and Muslim hostility toward the U.S. has grown so strong that the continued willingness of our long-standing Arab allies to continue cooperating with us not just in the Arab-Israeli peace process but also in pursuit of broader security aims against common opponents has come into question. Many Arab governments appear increasingly fearful that being allied to the superpower that supports Israel is undermining them internally.

The situation is now extremely bad not only for Israelis and Palestinians, but also for American foreign policy. This is especially sad considering how two years ago the Israelis and Palestinians seemed on the verge of a peace settlement. But as we all know, these efforts have broken down completely amidst escalating violence between Israelis and Palestinians with no end in sight.

Palestinians and Israelis were both bitterly disappointed over the failure to achieve a peace agreement which many on both sides thought was imminent. There has been, however, disagreement over why the peace process failed. Israelis -- and many Westerners -- who hoped for a peace agreement were completely stunned by Palestinian Authority Chairman Arafat’s rejection of then Israeli Prime Minister Barak’s offer to recognize an independent Palestinian state in 94% of the occupied territories, with Israel keeping most Jewish settlements and other territory there for security. Palestinians, for their part, claimed that not only did Israel seek to retain sites in Jerusalem precious to Muslims, but that the lands it proposed to keep were so extensive that Israel would effectively retain control over the new Palestinian state whose "independence" would thus be meaningless.

Since the failure of the Camp David peace process, the situation has only degenerated. Disillusioned about the willingness of the Palestinians to make peace with Israel at all, the previously strong Israeli peace movement grew weaker. Amidst escalating Palestinian-Israeli violence, Ariel Sharon -- a man long opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state and the peace process in general -- was elected prime minister. A vicious cycle then emerged of Palestinian suicide attacks against Israelis and Israeli attacks against Palestinians -- including officials of the Palestinian Authority -- in the West Bank and Gaza.

The Israelis say they will withdraw from the areas previously controlled by the Palestinian Authority when the suicide attacks stop. The Palestinians say the suicide attacks will stop after the Israelis have entirely withdrawn from the occupied territories. Each side says it wants peace, but neither believes the other does or trusts it to negotiate in good faith. Despite great efforts, American diplomacy has been unable to get either side to make the concessions that could get the peace process back on track. In the meantime, anti-American demonstrations in the Arab world have grown more frequent.

The need to make peace between the Israelis and Palestinians is more urgent than ever. Much more is at stake than the fate of these two peoples. Yet after the violence of this spring, the prospect of peace between them -- which once seemed so tantalizingly close -- now appears impossibly remote.

Indeed, it is legitimate to ask: can Israelis and Palestinians ever make peace after what has happened, and what is likely to keep on happening, between them? What would it take to get them to make peace with each other?

I think that we have to face the reality that these two peoples are now unable to make peace with each other. So long as Israeli forces are occupying the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinians attacks against Israel will continue. And so long as there are Palestinian attacks on Israel, the Israelis will continue occupying the West Bank and Gaza. As The Economist put it in its issue of May 11, "The Palestine question has degenerated into the grimmest kind of struggle, the sort in which both sides feel that their national survival is at stake, and each shrinks from compromise lest the other construes it as weakness or surrender. To an extent that is rare and frightening even for this long conflict, revenge and bloodlust are displacing rational political calculation."

If there is ever to be an Israeli-Palestinian peace, it seems increasingly clear that it will only come about through massive involvement on the part of the international community. There are currently many such proposals being floated. Here is what I think it will take to bring about a lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace:

  • The deployment throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip of a heavily armed, UN Security Council-authorized, international peace-keeping force drawn from NATO countries (including the United States), and perhaps some non-NATO ones;
  • A complete and permanent withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from the occupied Arab territories;
  • The creation of a Palestinian state in all of the occupied territories which P.M. Barak was willing to return to the Palestinians in 2000;
  • The creation of a special temporary administration operated by the international peace-keeping force and with both Israeli and Palestinian participation which will oversee the dismantling of Jewish settlements and the hand over of these territories to the Palestinian state;
  • The creation of a special permanent administration operated by the international peace-keeping force and with both Israeli and Palestinian participation to administer those sections of East Jerusalem which both Israelis and Palestinians are strongly attached to;
  • The normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab states as the above unfolds -- as Crown Prince Abdallah of Saudi Arabia proposed and the Arab League accepted at its recent meeting in Beirut;
  • The renunciation of a "right to retaliation" by both Israelis and Palestinians to any breach of the peace. Maintenance of the peace, and both the identification and punishment of any party which violates it, will be the sole responsibility of the international peacekeeping force.

In my view, this set of proposals offers something for everyone: for Israel, peace and security within its 1967 borders; for the Palestinians, a state of their own protected from Israeli intervention; and for America, the possibility of finally ending the negative impact which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has had on its broader aims in the Middle East and beyond.

I realize, however, that neither the Israelis, nor the Palestinians, nor the NATO nations I have volunteered to supervise the peace between them may accept what I have proposed here. But unless all parties accept either this or a similar proposal involving a large, well-armed international peacekeeping force, there will be no Israeli-Palestinian peace. And let us frankly acknowledge that neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians will benefit from the failure to achieve peace. Instead, this will end up hurting both of them as well as many others, including the United States.

The inability to make peace and a continued state of conflict will obviously hurt both Israelis and Palestinians in terms of still more people wounded and killed, still more property damaged and destroyed, and still more human and material resources wasted battling each other which both sides could put to far more productive uses. There are other costs, though, that the failure to achieve peace will impose on Palestinians, Israelis, and Americans.

For the Palestinians, the danger of not making peace with Israel soon is that Israel can cause far more damage to the Palestinians than vice versa, as the Sharon government has recently demonstrated. Further, nobody should doubt that it could cause even far more damage to them if it chooses to. The Palestinians need peace to forestall this possibility.

For Israel, there is also great danger in not making peace. If, as many moderate Arab governments have warned us, continued Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza really does lead to an explosion in the wider Arab world, Israel could once again find itself fighting not just in the occupied territories and along its northern border. If Islamic revolution occurs in Egypt and Jordan, Israel would once more find itself in conflict with countries that it has had peace with for many years now. If Islamic revolution occurs in Saudi Arabia, the ability of a hostile regime there to fund the Palestinian resistance would be enormous. Israel could probably defend itself against these opponents -- but only at even higher costs in terms of lives and resources than it is paying now. Israel needs peace to forestall these possibilities.

For the United States, there are three dangers that could result from the inability to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace while continuing to back Israel. First, as discussed earlier, there is the danger of an explosion in the Arab world leading to the downfall of governments friendly to the U.S. and their replacement by ones hostile to it, thus immensely complicating our foreign policy toward the Middle East.

Second, while public opinion in the U.S. strongly favors Israel, public opinion among our Western allies -- especially in Europe -- strongly favors the Palestinians. To the extent that, rightly or wrongly, public opinion in other democratic countries disapproves of American foreign policy toward the Middle East, the voting public in them may increasingly come to question the value of America as an ally. Some may think that I am exaggerating this risk, but I don’t think so. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of those issues that virtually nobody is neutral on. In that Americans have strong views on this issue, it should be no surprise, then, that the Europeans (just to name one group) do too. We simply cannot ignore the fact that we and our democratic allies differ with each other on this issue.

Third, while polls show that Americans support Israel by a 3 to 1 margin, support for the Palestinians is growing within the U.S. This should not be surprising considering how America now has an increasingly large Muslim population. Estimates concerning just how large this group is and how fast it is growing vary considerably, but the trend is clear. And just as Jewish-Americans overwhelmingly support Israel, there is virtually unanimous support for the Palestinians among Muslim-Americans. Furthermore, although it does not rival support for Israel, support for the Palestinians appears to be growing among non-Jewish, non-Muslim Americans -- as recent demonstrations here in Washington and on various university campuses have shown. If this trend continues, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will become an increasingly divisive domestic political issue in the United States. This would be a most unwelcome development.

Those who favor the Palestinian cause might think that the growth of such a political trend in the U.S. would be good if it resulted in less U.S. support for Israel. But they would be mistaken. For while those who favor the Palestinian cause blame American support to Israel as being responsible for that country’s continued occupation of Arab territories, it does not follow that reduced, or even no, American support to Israel would render Israel unable to continue the occupation. Indeed, an Israel no longer supported by the U.S. would have no need to defer to it, but would have every incentive to "solve" its Palestinian problem by force as quickly as possible.

Nor would an Israel no longer supported (or supported as strongly) by the United States necessarily lack for foreign allies. There are other, powerful, countries engaged in protracted conflict with Muslims which might be willing and able to support Israel. Nor would these states necessarily have the incentive America does to restrain Israeli actions vis-a-vis the Palestinians for fear of how they might affect the Arab world.

While the prospect of reduced American support for Israel appeals to many in the Arab and Muslim worlds, the consequences of this actually occurring would probably not be to their liking.

The bottom line is this: if the Palestinian-Israeli conflict continues, everyone will suffer. But since Israelis and Palestinians cannot, as I have argued here, achieve peace on their own, then the United States and other nations must make it for them. The egos of intransigent politicians on both sides of the conflict may have to be bruised in the process. But surely this is a small price compared to the huge one we will all pay if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains unresolved.

I would like to thank two old friends -- Adeed Dawisha (Miami University of Ohio) and Charles Dunbar (Simmons College) -- for their comments on an earlier draft of this presentation.

Released on May 23, 2002

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