Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Peace Now

Though many have denied it for years, the fact remains that engaging the Israel-Palestine issue first would greatly improve America's position in the Middle East on every other front.

Web Exclusive: 03.27.07

By Matthew Yglesias

"I don't rule out at some point that might be a useful thing to do," Condoleezza Rice told reporters late last week before flying to Egypt. "That," it turns out, is trying to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To her credit, she's right. To her discredit, the insight comes many years too late.

But better late than never, I suppose. An entire cottage industry exists to generate commentary arguing otherwise, but the fact is that settling that conflict remains the single most important thing that can be done to improve America's position in the region. Efforts to deny the existence of a linkage between the Israel issue and other problems in the region tend to deliberately misstate the case. New Republic editor in chief Martin Peretz, for example, blogged on Thursday in full straw man mode that people pushing for American engagement in the peace process think violence in Iraq "is a result of Israeli mistreatment of the Palestinians."

That, of course, is stupid.

But here's something that isn't stupid, pertaining to Iran: Both American and Iranian interests would be better served by a U.S.-Iran bargain than by a continued conflict between the two countries. Iran would be more prosperous and more secure un-sanctioned and enjoying normal diplomatic relations with the United States. The United States would be more secure with Iran voluntarily complying with a verifiable inspections regime than with bombs wrecking some unknown portion of Iranian nuclear infrastructure. A variety of experts from different perspectives agreed as much last Wednesday at a RAND Corporation symposium on Iran policy held on Capitol Hill. As Newsweek's Michael Hirsh noted, even Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, Rice's point man on Iran, seems to have gotten religion on this topic.

But what virtually nobody mentioned that day was one major potential fly in the ointment: Due at the very least (but not solely) to domestic political considerations, it's very hard to imagine an American president normalizing relations with Iran while it is openly funding Hezbollah and Hamas. At the same time, and for the same reason, it's hard to imagine the Iranian government abandoning its longstanding support for Palestinian radicals when conditions in the occupied territories are so bleak.

There's an argument to be made, I suppose, that the governments of both countries should just put domestic political considerations aside and make the right deal for their respective populations. Realistically, though, it's not going to happen. And on a topic like this, America's Israel lobby would not only have a lot of clout; they'd actually have a decent argument.

The solution to this predicament, however, isn't to blindly push for escalating tensions with Iran. The solution is to recognize that diplomatic progress on the Israel-Palestine front would make things much easier in dealing with Iran. It's unlikely that Hezbollah would agree to the terms of any such Isreali-Palestinian deal, but their refusal to ratify something agreed to by the legitimate representatives of the Palestinian people would provide a perfectly viable pretext for Iran to step away from supporting them.

Much the same is true of proposals for the United States to try to reach a rapprochement with Syria aimed at stabilizing the situation around Iraq. Re-establishing a proper diplomatic relationship with Damascus would be an excellent thing, but it's very hard to do with Syria backing radicals' attacks on our closest ally in the region. So why not get them to stop? It'd be a good idea! But, of course, it's much more easily done in the context of real progress being made toward the creation of a Palestinian state.

The argument I'm making needn't entail that there's any genuine concern about the Isreal-Palestine issue in Teheran or Damascus (though surely there's at least some). Rather, it mearly entails the observation that as long as that conflict remains an open sore, Muslim political leaders have every incentive to portray themselves as actively engaged in the struggle against Israel in one form or another.

What's more, this is true not just of adversaries in the region we should be talking to, but of allies we'll want to rely on in case talks fail and we need to move aggressively toward containing Iran. The Bush administration has made much hay out of Sunni Arab states' growing alarm over the seemingly rising power of Iran and Iranian allies in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq. Less noted has been the extent to which Sunni Arab publics have been willing to embrace figures like Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah as a hero of the Arab cause. We're talking, of course, about dictatorships that are free to ignore their publics' views -- but in practice public opinion matters even in autocracies. Indeed, the most hawkish panelists at the RAND event tended to acknowledge that if we pursued this or that hard-line policy, our allies in the Gulf would back us, "but not publicly."

Private backing, however, has little value. And that the unlikeliness of public support is conceded even by people who'd hastily deny any linkages between the Israel-Palestine issue and other conflicts in the region merely shows how wrong the linkage denialists are. Israel, and America's support for it, are one of the primary lenses through which all conflicts are seen by people in the region and it's extremely difficult, in practice, to make any diplomatic headway on anything unless we're at least seen as attempting to use our relationship with Israel in a constructive way. Rice's comments indicate that this is all beginning to dawn on her. A good thing, no doubt, but we've seen too many false dawns of a return to reasonableness from this administration. I'll believe they've figured it out when they show me.

Matthew Yglesias

Matthew Yglesias is a Prospect staff writer.

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