In a recent interview, President Obama criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for allegedly seeking “to maintain the status quo” in Israel’s relationship with the Palestinian Authority and the issue of Palestinian statehood. The President’s reason? “That’s not a recipe for stability in the region,” he said. The President was referring (and not for the first time) to a dictum, now decades old, according to which the key to Middle East stability and therefore peace is resolution of the Israeli Palestinian dispute.
Over the course of those decades, some observers have called this dictum into question. They have pointed to regional and often exceptionally violent conflicts that had neither been caused by this dispute nor would have been ended by its resolution: for example, the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq in the 1980s, which produced millions of casualties; or the first Gulf War, occasioned by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
But this notion—of the centrality of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute—is particularly misleading and unhelpful in the present era. To be sure, the Middle East is awash in conflicts: on the one hand, a multiplicity of civil wars (Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen); on the other, engagement by the likes of Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf states in these wars through their support of one side or another, or even of multiple sides.
The proximate cause of every one of the present conflicts is the Arab revolts of 2011 and their aftermath. At the level of each country, all of these civil wars largely—though not exclusively—pit Arabs against Arabs. But through the engagement of other states and other ethnic groups, this amounts to an intra-Muslim regional civil war, whose most consistent feature is a conflict between Sunni and Shi‘a Muslims. In all of this, Israel is mostly an innocent and frequently apprehensive bystander.
So what of this instability? Or, what of this war, to use a less anodyne and more appropriate term to better capture the murderous results: 250,000 dead in Syria and millions of refugees; Islamic State carnage in Iraq?
Does the American administration care, and does it have a policy—other than to browbeat Israel—to address the causes, most notably the aggressive activities of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which is deeply implicated in most of these conflicts and their prolongation?
Yes, said Secretary of State John Kerry in an interview with PBS, where he addressed both the Iranian nuclear negotiations and the present conflict in Yemen:
Iran needs to recognize that the United States is not going to stand by while the region is destabilized, or while people engage, you know, in overt warfare across the lines, international boundaries and other countries. So, we’re very concerned about it and we will, well what we’ve made clear to our friends and allies is, we can do two things at the same time.
But in fact we have been “standing by” as the region has descended into massive conflict and chaos. And one has to wonder whether we haven’t meant to. In a different context not long ago, President Obama suggested a reason why America’s disengagement may be intentional. Speaking at a meeting with Cuba’s Raul Castro, described as “historic” in inaugurating a new era of “engagement,” the President said, “So often when we insert ourselves in ways that go beyond persuasion, it’s counterproductive, it backfires,” which was “why countries keep on trying to use us as an excuse for their own governance failures.” The President’s approach of “engagement” or rather “disengagement” would deprive other countries and even whole regions of such excuses. It would force them to take responsibility, if they can, for their own failures and address their own problems. In accord with this idea, and in the wake of Saudi Arabia’s recent attack on Yemeni Houthis at the head of a coalition of its own formation, White House officials expressed satisfaction that the Saudis and their partners were finally doing something active in the service of their own defense and interest, rather than relying on the United States.
Contrary to Kerry then, it would appear that apart from “persuasion” and the occasional airstrike here or there, we are prepared to stand back from Middle East instability, even if that amounts to letting the chips fall where they may, however “destabilizing” or downright bloody the results may be. Such a conclusion is by now consistent with other things the President has said and done. At the beginning of the Arab revolts, the president described them as “organic revolutions”, with “organic”—that is, lacking U.S. interference—meaning “best.” And he maintained that stance even when Syria descended into civil war, describing it as “someone else’s civil war.” In broadest terms, in an interview in the winter of 2013, he described the Middle East as a region beset by conflict due to tribal, ethnic, and especially Sunni-Shi‘a sectarian differences that would need to find its own “equilibrium.” As matters stand now, such an equilibrium is likely to be defined by the power of Iran and its growing Shi‘a empire.
This explicitly new and “transformational” American approach is ostensibly hardheaded, not to mention hardhearted. It cannot help but disconcert America’s traditional allies in the region. It already has and is forcing them to ask whether and how they can live with it. But the same question applies to America. Can we live with a Middle East that is either in conflict at unprecedented levels or under Iranian supervision? If not, the next American administration will be faced with the task of a reconstruction of American policy similarly unprecedented in terms of the challenges it will be forced to address.
It also leaves one other, narrower question for the Obama administration: Why should it be concerned at all with the state of Israeli-Palestinian relations?