Too high a price for peace

By Colin Rubenstein  

The Age – December 12, 2006  

The bipartisan Iraq Survey Group report to US President George Bush makes some reasonable if unsurprising recommendations about military strategy in Iraq, but also two recommendations about wider Middle Eastern policy that are fundamentally flawed.  

It says the Israel-Palestinian conflict is central to disorder in the Middle East, and calls for a new push to resolve it.  

In fact, the recent history of the Middle East is filled with examples of conflicts that have nothing whatsoever to do with Israel – for instance the Shiite- Sunni confrontation in Iraq and Lebanon’s political crisis between Hezbollah and the Siniora Government. The belief that forcing additional Israeli concessions will lead to the holy grail of Middle East peace is a dangerous pipedream based on misreading of the region’s political map.  

The group, under the leadership of the “realist” former US secretary of state James Baker, would also have us believe that Iran and Syria can be induced to stop promoting sectarian violence in Iraq through positive “incentives” and high-level negotiations without preconditions. The logic behind this argument – that Iran and Syria have an interest in preventing the complete descent into chaos of neighbouring Iraq – is almost certainly wrong.  

Iran, motivated both by Islamic messianism and Persian nationalism, is on a mission with its Syrian ally to gain hegemonic control of the Middle East, a goal that the leadership talks about quite openly. As long as the US is bogged down and Iraq is out of the Middle East equation, this serves their purposes.  

Their price for any conceivable assistance in Iraq is likely to be prohibitive – assent to Iran’s illegal nuclear weapons program, a blind eye to both states’ support for terrorism, including sponsorship of a pro-Iranian regime in the Palestinian Authority, Syrian control over Lebanon restored, the return of the Golan Heights to Syria, and a right to a dominant Iranian-Syrian role in Iraq’s future.  

This would effectively give Tehran the regional hegemonic role it is seeking, further radicalising the whole region as other players see the way the wind is blowing and jump on board.  

Baker’s view of the Israel-Palestinian peace process contains similar misperceptions. It has no significant effects on Iraq, and there are unfortunately few prospects of major progress towards a final resolution at the moment.  

The problem is not that the Israelis refuse to concede a state to the Palestinians. It has been clear at least since Camp David in 2000 that the Palestinians can have a state in the West Bank and Gaza any time that they are able and willing to offer peace in return. Even the traditionally hawkish former prime minister Ariel Sharon said as much on several occasions. Present Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was elected on a platform of essentially trying to give them that state even without such a commitment. What is holding peace back is not disagreement over scraps of land, but, primarily, the perpetuation of Arab and Islamist rejectionism of Israel in any borders.  

And unfortunately, the Hamas Government of the Palestinian Authority is clearly part of the rejectionist trend across the region led by Tehran and Damascus. As Palestinian academic expert Mustafa Assawaf recently said, Hamas would never recognise Israel “even if the temptation was world recognition and a (Palestinian) state”. The Fatah movement of President Mahmoud Abbas might conceivably cut a deal, but it is in disarray, and there is no possibility it can deliver on a peace agreement.  

Hamas has indicated it might agree to a temporary truce in exchange for not only every centimetre of the West Bank (they already have all of Gaza), but also the fulfilment of a legally baseless “Palestinian right of return” to Israel that is a formula to destroy Israel demographically. A deal on these terms is not possible from any Israeli point of view.  

Islamist terror is based on a totalitarian Islamist ideology. Solving the Arab-Israel conflict, even if achievable, would do nothing to eliminate the economic and political deficiencies in the Arab states that make this ideology popular and were highlighted in the UN’s Arab Human Development Report of 2002.  

Moreover, Islamic extremists and those susceptible to their message would actually view an Israel-Palestinian two-state resolution as an additional grievance – the West forcing Palestinians to accept Israel’s so-called theft of their land.  

Well-intentioned outsiders, who adopt in principle the false rhetoric of the rejectionists that all the region’s problems are connected with Israel, are helping to make them stronger and peace more remote.  

Peace, when it comes, will be a great blessing to Israel and to the Palestinians, and will gladden people of goodwill around the world. It is therefore a terrible mistake to allow eagerness for peace to cause us to ignore the prerequisites for its achievement.  

Colin Rubenstein is executive director of the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council.