In a departure from a long tradition in U.S. Middle East policy of linking the Arab (Palestinian)-Israeli conflict to other regional issues, the recent administration’s moves of recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the moving of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and more recently, recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, underlines a U.S. policy that is no longer afraid of Arab reaction. Previous administrations, whether Republican or Democrat, were always cognizant of the purported “need” not to alienate the Arabs. The recent Trump administration moves show that America can side with Israel without “losing” the Arabs.
This has not been the case with U.S. policy since the beginning of Israel’s establishment in 1948. Even prior to Israel’s establishment, during FDR’s (Franklin Delano Roosevelt) administration, the “Arabist” elitists in the State Department opposed the establishment of a Jewish state even in the aftermath of the Holocaust, which claimed a third of world Jewry, a period in which the FDR administration did little to save Europe’s Jews. In fact, had FDR lived and remained president, it is unlikely that his administration would have recognized or supported the establishment of a Jewish state. It was his successor, Harry Truman, who courageously rejected the advice of his Secretary of State George Marshall, along with the Arabists of the State Department, and chose to recognize and support the establishment of Israel, albeit, not militarily (the U.S. maintained an embargo on the sales of arms to the Middle East which discriminated against Israel and favored the Arabs since they already had established armies and recognized states). In his meeting with Ibn Saud (the progenitor of the current Saudi dynasty) in February 1945, FDR pledged that he would not support Zionism or Jews at the expense of the Arabs. FDR told Ibn Saud that as president, “He wished to assure His Majesty that he would do nothing to assist the Jews against the Arabs and would make no move hostile to the Arab people. He added, “My government will make no change in its basic policy in Palestine without full and prior consultation with both Jews and Arabs.”
The Eisenhower administration was gambling on winning over Abdul Nasser, the Egyptian dictator, and demanded that Israel withdraw from the Sinai completely and unconditionally, following the Sinai Campaign of October 1956. He was confident that the Israeli withdrawal would lead to peace. The Eisenhower administration appeasement of Nasser at Israel’s expense failed to enhance the U.S. standing with Nasser or the Arab world. The U.S. position of demanding Israel’s withdrawal from the Sinai, and the British and French withdrawal of forces from the Suez Canal in 1956, was by far the worst U.S. foreign policy blunder since WWII. It proved that appeasement and linkage do not work.
Both Democratic and Republican administrations have been trapped by the misguided notion that bringing peace to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the panacea that would solve all other Middle Eastern problems. Arab leaders have been particularly eager to divert attention from their domestic situations (whether human right abuses, or corruption) and pay lip-service to the Palestinian cause, by pushing the linkage argument to western policy-makers. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak deployed this argument in a 2008 meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush in Sharm al-Sheikh. Mubarak said, “I emphasized that the Palestinian question, of course, is the core of problems and conflict in the Middle East, and it is the entry to contain the crisis and tension in the region, and the best means to face what’s going on in the world, and our region - I mean by that, the escalation of violence, extremism and terrorism.
James Baker (U.S. Secretary of State under George W.H. Bush) and Lee Hamilton (D-IN, former chairman of the House Foreign Affairs committee) chaired the Iraq Study Group, and in 2006 made recommendations on U.S. policy options in Iraq. They linked the Arab-Israeli conflict with Iraq, Iran, extremism and terrorism. With some candor on their part, they would have clearly seen that the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) had nothing whatsoever to do with the Arab-Israeli or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Saddam Hussein’s invasion and capture of Kuwait in 1990, likewise, was motivated by Iraqi economic consideration, and was unrelated to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yes, Saddam Hussein attempted to play upon the sentiments of Arab solidarity with the Palestinians by rhetorically demanding Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank as a condition for his withdrawal from Kuwait. The rest of the world did nevertheless recognize that the linkage here was a empty gesture.
The Arab states sought to influence U.S. (as well as its western allies) policy in the Middle East by portraying the conflict with Israel as a zero-sum game. They demanded that the U.S. take sides, and that any pro-Israel gesture by the U.S. would be considered anti-Arab. In later years, after Egypt and Jordan made peace with Israel, their argument was that the U.S. involvement in prioritizing and solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be a way to solve all the other regional problems.
Global events have changed the calculus in the relationship between the U.S. and the Middle East. The Cold War ended with the demise of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s, and the Arab’s no longer had the option to leverage their threat to tilt toward the Soviets. The “oil weapon” used by the Arab states through the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to force the U.S.’s hand, was no longer viable. At the onset of the 21st century, the U.S. became the world’s leading oil and natural gas producer, thanks to the American energy renaissance. Technological advances in hydraulic fracturing, and horizontal drilling increased U.S. output at home, and made the U.S. stronger economically, as well as enhancing America’s security.
The threat to the Sunni Arabs from Shiite Iran can not be linked to the Arab-Israeli or Israeli-Palestinian conflicts. The historical animus between the two branches of Islam preceded the establishment of the Jewish state, and will continue to rage in the future, regardless of Israel. The Islamic Republic of Iran is seen by the Gulf Arabs as their most serious existential threat - not Israel. And while Saudi Arabia would like to see a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and perhaps the emergence of a Palestinian state, it would not subjugate its national interests to satisfy the Palestinians.
The late Anwar Sadat, Egypt’s president, focused on Egypt’s national interests when he made peace with Israel. The Palestinian cause was secondary, at best. His aim was to recover the Sinai from Israel. President Carter assumed that at the multilateral conference in Geneva, Israel would make concessions to the Palestinians in exchange for possible (wishful thinking) recognition of Israel by the Arab states. Sadat however, did not want the Soviets involved, and sought bilateral negotiations with Israel, which is why he made the historic trip to Jerusalem in November, 1977. The Camp David Accords happened despite Carter’s efforts to involve the Soviets in the multilateral Middle East conference in Geneva.
Peace between Israel and the Palestinians would be welcomed, and the U.S. should do its best to facilitate it. But, it will not stop the bloodletting in Syria, Yemen, or Libya, nor the murderous nature of al-Qaeda or the Islamic state. The radical, terror-sponsoring regime in Tehran will continue to be a menace to the region and the world regardless of Israel. Thus, linkage has never worked and needs to be discarded for good.