M.I.T. professor and social critic Noam Chomsky explains, in the preface to his alternative classic Fateful Triangle: the United States, Israel and the Palestinians (1999), that when he is forced to title public speeches, sometimes years in advance, he can always resort to a default entry he says, "always works." That title: "The Current Crisis in the Middle East" constantly retains its relevancy
M.I.T. professor and social critic Noam Chomsky explains, in the preface to his alternative classic Fateful Triangle: the United States, Israel and the Palestinians (1999), that when he is forced to title public speeches, sometimes years in advance, he can always resort to a default entry he says, "always works." That title: "The Current Crisis in the Middle East" constantly retains its relevancy. And so few have been surprised by the recent escalation of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians over the last few days, as militant rockets rained on Israel and Israel retaliated with disproportionate vengeance.
However, as Israel reservists and IDF soldiers mobilize on the Gazan border posturing for full-fledged war, it would do us all well to recognize that today's current crisis in the Middle East represents both the potential spark that could kindle world war and, at the same time, an opportunity to usher in fundamental alterations that could put the region on a pathway to peace.
There is very little likelihood of turning crisis into opportunity however. In order for the international community to capitalize on recent turmoil and deescalate conflict, the United States would have to alter what has been its absolute preconceived pro-Israeli stance. As U.S. politicians stress Israel's rights to self-defense and the mainstream American media continues its typically bias coverage portraying an Israeli state fighting for survival, there is a tendency to view any resolution to the ongoing conflict as necessarily coming solely from the people of the region themselves. And so politicians and pundits have resorted to pressuring Egypt's new Islamic government to exert pressure on Hamas and threatening to cut U.S. aid to Egypt as a means of inducing truce. But such pressure, even if successful, can only provide a temporary fix. The United States would do better to seek a permanent or at least long term solution which would have come from the U.S. itself. The U.S. should call for immediate comprehensive negotiations around a two-state solution.
In actuality, the international community has supported a two-state settlement along recognized pre-June 1967 borders with "minor and mutual modifications" since the Arab States first proposed it to the U.N. Security Council in January of 1976. Contrary to popular opinion, Israel opposed the first resolution and the U.S. vetoed it to make it disappear. The actual historical record documents an array of resolutions and negotiations since, all of which have been consistently rejected by a U.S.- Israeli alliance that excludes any potential foundation of a viable and contingent Palestinian nation. Recent developments suggest it is time to alter that stance. The outcome of the unfolding crisis has serious implications for future region-wide conflict. Hamas claims it simply seeks to end Israel's siege on Gaza and Israel claims it seeks only to defend itself, both assertions are in fact reductionist and refuse to account for contextual animosities that could fuel full-fledged war.
In fact, Israel fears the rise of the Arab world surrounding it and is threatened by a resilient Hamas regime. Since its legitimate election in 2006, Israel and the U.S. have been doing everything possible to undermine a functioning Hamas government. Many of these efforts have drawn enhanced advocacy and intervention from countries like Turkey, Iran, Qatar, a newly Islamist Egypt, and others. By making Gaza essentially the world's largest open-air prison, Israel has not only exasperated much of the Arab and Muslim world's animosity but has confirmed claims that a U.S. hegemony partial to Israel seeks democracy and the rule of law only when it coincides with its broader self-interests. In fact, it is erroneous to begin the narrative of today's conflict with the reassertion of Hamas rocket fire into Israel. The history of repression since Hamas's election in 2006 has born witness to a disproportionate level of Israeli violence and a refusal to entertain any political resolution as long as it included the elected party. Any further oppression and especially reoccupation of Gaza would almost certainly fan the flames of regional war.
Hamas has been emboldened by the Arab Spring and expects support for its objectives. However, it is unfortunate that they have placed thousands of citizens lives on the line in a clear endorsement of violence as a means of ending Israeli oppressions. While understandable, its efforts are much more a political ploy intended to delegitimize Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas, Hamas's chief political rival, who is pursuing a veto at the UN General Assembly to grant Palestine observer-state status.
The movement has certainly been inspired by the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the recent visit and developmental aid promised by the Emir of Qatar. But their joining in on rocket attacks is clearly intended to appease jihadist criticisms and divert Palestinian desires to solicit truly democratic gains from the Arab Spring. Where Hamas once prevented attacks and preserved a ceasefire while seeking a political means to ending the embargo, their recent reliance on violence risks the enhanced international support that Palestinians have generated over recent years. These self-serving efforts could also backfire and lead to Gaza's reoccupation or propel a war with mass Palestinian casualties.
Hamas obviously seeks to pressure Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi to make a ceasefire contingent on Israel's ending the blockade. That outcome would prove a major victory for the movement. In fact, Morsi did send his prime minister to embed in the Gazan Strip as a sign of solidarity, but it is extremely dangerous to risk the reoccupation of Gaza and the lives of innocent Palestinians. The balance of power is clearly in Israel's favor. The Palestinian rocket that killed three Israelis in Kiryat Malachi may represent the deadliest rocket strike ever on Israel from Gaza but in retaliation over 100 Palestinians have already died with many hundreds more severely injured. Additionally, many of the rockets fired from Gaza have been shot down by Israel's new, U.S.-funded Iron Dome defense system. There is nothing similar in the Gaza Strip.
Hamas may be depending on a response from the Arab world but any retaliation would jeopardize Egyptian legitimacy and be at the expense of rising international support for the Palestinian cause. As expected, Britain and the U.S. have already stressed Hamas's responsibility. Israeli attacks during Operation Cast Lead in 2008 were prompted by the rocket-fire of independent militants disconnected from the Hamas regime. The fact that Hamas is participating in this wave of attacks directly only gives Israel a means to declare self-defense under international law.
President Obama has stressed Israel's right to defend itself. Just days after his reelection, it is probable that the Israel-Palestinian issue will play a predominant role in his second term. When he was first elected in 2008, Saudi foreign minister Prince Turki al-Faisal penned an op-ed in the Financial Times that stressed the need to concentrate on negotiating a two-state settlement or, he warned, the entire region could go up in flames. Obama neglected the warning and now, four years later, the Saudi prince's admonishment indeed came to fruition, awkwardly however the flames of the Arab Spring have yet to reach either Israel or Palestine. But it could easily be argued that Obama's support for Arab authoritarianism and his preservation of an absolutely pro-Israeli status quo paved the way for revolutions that ushered in Islamist political parties and that placed Hamas in today's more complicated and advantageous negotiating position. It would do a great deal of good if the Obama administration were to revisit Prince Turki's admonition, for these sparks of conflict in Gaza, if followed by Israeli occupation stand the chance of igniting World War III.
On September 27th, Benjamin Netanyahu drew his "red line" at the U.N. general assembly seeking international support for an attack on Iran and pressuring the U.S. to back such warmongering. Since then, the Iranian currency has plunged in free fall which threatens the ruling regime. In Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party recently approved joining forces for upcoming parliamentary elections with party of ultraconservative Avigor Lieberman, a definite warmonger who flatly rejects all negotiations with Palestinians. War in Gaza would present an opportunity for the troubled Iranian regime and an Israeli regime seeking reelection and international support for an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. Iran could view assistance of Palestinians as a way of warding off dwindling Arab support. The Assad regime in Syria could see involvement as a last chance prospect for its preservation. Hezbollah, Turkish or Egyptian involvement could enhance their reputations. Israel could view retaliation in Gaza as a means of reclaiming legitimacy after the damage caused to its reputation after Operation Cast Lead. Rising salafi jihadist eminence in the Sinai and Arab world could seed even more militancy. An array of unintended consequences could spark full-fledged war.
The U.S can stop the nonsense immediately by realizing the necessity of an immediate and sincere push for negotiated peace. The Obama administration should broker immediate negotiations bringing in representatives from the entire region. The should realize that a two-state settlement along slightly modified pre-1967 borders is the viable option and should mandate it with certain conditions for all parties involved. Firstly, Hamas and the general government in Palestine should be forced to hold an immediate referendum to determine the question of Israeli recognition. They have long since claimed that they would recognize Israel's existence if the Palestinian population supported such a move. Thereafter, they should be pressured to accept an unconditional ceasefire in exchange for an end to the Israeli siege. The U.S. should also make its aid to Egypt contingent on its adoption of a constitution that preserves rights for women and minorities, peace with its regional neighbors and that opens up its economy to further trade with Israeli firms. And the U.S. should make its military aid to Israel contingent on its acceptance and adherence to the two-state solution. The Saudis, Iranians, Turks and others should be included and the negotiations should involve international observers from across the globe. Such an outcome is the only viable alternative to eventual all-out war.
Such an outcome would also induce a political, economic boom leading to an era of development never before seen in the modern Middle East. Such a development could also mark the onset of a progressive era in American politics, restoring its international reputation, especially in the Muslim world while rallying domestic support for Obama's stated objectives at home as well. Accounting for the altering global political and economic dynamic actually allows for the recognition that the necessary global political will exists to make a two-state solution possible; at least if negotiations begin now.
The U.S. was not always so rejectionist. In the wake of World War I President Woodrow Wilson, author of the doctrine referred to as Wilsonian idealism, organized an American survey of the Middle East. As scholar Ilan Pappe puts it Wilson, "wished to exploit the results of the war by disintegrating the big colonial empires in the name of the right to independence and self-determination." "In the Wilsonian vision, the Arab peoples, too, were entitled to the national liberations denied them during four hundred years of Ottoman rule." The survey would be called the King-Crane Commission, after academic Henry King and Charles Crane, a Chicago businessman. The commission polled the Arab world and found that Arabs were deeply opposed to the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine and that such a development would produce long-term conflict and resentment. They considered Arab animosities and the report concluded, "with a deep sense of sympathy for the Jewish cause, the Commissioners feel bound to recommend that only a greatly reduced Zionist program be attempted... this would have to mean that Jewish immigration should be definitely limited, and that the project for making Palestine distinctly a Jewish commonwealth should be given up." That report would not have a heavy influence on U.S. policy, but it did induce a balanced "Arabist" legacy that continued to play a major role in the State Department's formulation of Mideast policy, that is up until the American Jewish community founded the AIPAC lobby in order to delegitimize all Arabist influence.
That was during the Eisenhower administration. Today the effects of the Arab Spring have enhanced sympathy for Palestinian plight and ongoing turmoil in the Middle East that serves as a drag on a struggling global economy have paved the way for a resurrection in "Arabist" sentiment amongst academics, policymakers and the general population.
It is time for a more balanced U.S. approach the Israeli-Palestinian question and a truly transformational alteration in policy dealing with the region as a whole. The unfolding debacle sets the stage for such development. If handled diplomatically and with consideration to all parties involved, the U.S. could exploit the present crisis and craft an opportunity to assert long-lasting peace. Mandating a settlement along the lines of the pre-1967 borders with adjustments and minor land swaps to accommodate the biggest Jewish settlement in the West Bank could initiate the birth of a truly New Middle East and pave the way for unprecedented development that promotes both economic well-being and self-determination for the region's citizens as a whole.
On the eve of Barack Obama's first term, Israel launched its attack on Gaza and Obama remained silent. Now, on the eve of his second term, with failed promises of transformational change behind him, there is a risk that the Obama administration will utilize Egypt only to broker a temporary ceasefire. Such a move may reduce conflict but would exasperate the variables that would ultimately lead to regional war. Instead, all parties should be discussing long-term settlement.
Senator John McCain has already suggested that a high profile figure like Bill Clinton be sent to the region to referee negotiations but the Clintons represent a continuation of the pro-Israeli status quo and the PLA he once negotiated with at Camp David has been largely sidelined by the rise of Hamas highlighted by Shaikh Hamd bin Khalifah al-Tani's visit to Gaza to see Ismail Haniyah, prime minister of Gaza, but not including Mahmud Abbas who has been marginalized due to a betrayal of the Palestinian cause. Only a truly transformation in U.S. policy persuasion can help to craft the kind of balanced and aggressive stance needed to facilitate a movement toward real negotiated peace. It would be much better to recognize the importance and necessity of assuming this stance now rather than waiting to rebuild a new Middle east from the ashes of World War III.
The Obama administration failed to get serious about a long-term resolution during its first term. As a result, the region underwent tectonic shifts that have radically altered the perspectives of all negotiating parties. This most recent episode has presented the result of these altered realities for the first time in real terms. While it is improbable the Obama administration will take such a bold and truly progressive stance, it is important to contemplate the possible consequences of an inability to broker Mideast peace. In a recent Washington Post editorial Dr. Henry Kissinger explained that religious division, the persistent threat of conflict and sustained misdevelopment in the Middle East pose not only a threat to countries in the region but to the Post-Westphalian nation state system itself. As Dr. Kissinger described it, the Sykes-Picot nation state system in the Middle East was drawn on lines completely foreign to indigenous identity. He rightfully foretold of a potential breakdown that now emboldens the voices of violence when he explained that, "the more sweeping the destruction of the existing order, the more difficult the establishment of domestic authority is likely to prove and the more likely to resort to force or the imposition of a universal ideology." "The more fragmented a society grows, the greater the temptation to foster unity by appeals to a vision of a merged nationalism and Islamism targeting western values." Sustaining the typical rejectionist and unconditional pro-Israeli U.S. position could foment such an evolution which certainly opposes the stated objective of preserving the interests of both Israel and the U.S.
Now is the time for true alteration. All parties involved have no choice but to accept such propositions. An altered policy perspective based on the advocacy of a two-state solution along prre-1967 borders would lead to the reassertion of an Arabist counter to pro-Israeli stance of most influential U.S. policymakers. This paves the way, not only for something that could look like a new King-Crane Commission but for comprehensive development that could include something like a Marshall Plan for the New Middle East. As the tension heightened over the weekend, President Obama was in Myanmar trying to complete his "Asian Pivot" away from the Mideast, but he would be better to redirect Air Force One to Cairo and in order to present a second inaugural speech in the Muslim world. However, this effort should stand in contradistinction to his merely rhetorical performance there on June 4, 2009. Instead, he should repeat his remark that it is easy, "to point fingers... but if we see this conflict only from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth: the only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security," but this time he should follow the rhetoric up with concrete action. Such proclamations and implementation would almost document the President's common claim that America is "the one indispensable nation." The other alternatives, whether they spark war tomorrow or some time down the road, could prove that all nations are indispensable, especially a Palestinian one the U.S. continues to refuse exists.
Younes Abdullah Muhammed is a Muslim American and Master of International Affairs.
He is presently incarcerated in the U.S. Federal Prison system. He is the founder of Islam Policy and can be contacted at islampolicy.com