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On June 20, 2017, Hudson Senior Fellow Michael Doran delivered remarks to a United Nations Security Council briefing titled “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question.” His prepared remarks are reprinted below:
Members of the Security Council,
It is an honor to appear before you today to discuss the fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 War, and the current state of Arab-Israeli peacemaking.
Please permit me to focus my remarks on the key factors that prompted Israel to take control of the West Bank in 1967, and to discuss the continued significance of those factors today.
The 1967 crisis began with a lie. In May of that year, the Soviet Union falsely accused Israel of massing troops on the Syrian border. The lie gave Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser a pretext to overturn the status quo in Egyptian-Israeli relations. Reacting to the Soviets’ false claim and recognizing that it was a green light from Moscow to heat up the Arab-Israeli conflict, Nasser demanded the immediate departure of the United Nations Emergency Force from the Sinai Peninsula. He quickly massed the Egyptian military in the Sinai, closed the straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, and organized an anti-Israel coalition with Jordan and Syria.
Nasser knew full well that Israel would regard these steps as a casus belli. Indeed, his propaganda machine boasted that Egypt had given Israel no choice but to attack, and that, moreover, the destruction of the Jewish State was imminent—a theme that leaders around the Arab world, including the Palestinian Liberation Organization, loudly echoed. Israel responded to this threat with a set of lightning attacks against Egypt, which prompted King Hussein of Jordan to open fire on Israel, a fateful decision that ended with the West Bank in Israel’s hands. Make no mistake, however: from beginning to end, this was Nasser’s war.
For all that the world has changed, Israel today still faces adversaries who operate according to the Nasserist playbook. The greatest of those adversaries is Iran, which has created an anti-status-quo coalition—made up of itself, Syria, and their proxies, Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Hamas, among others. Like Nasser’s Egypt, Iran aspires to be the leading power in the Middle East, a goal that it pursues in multiple theaters simultaneously, including the Arab-Israeli arena, where it openly advocates the destruction of Israel.
The Security Council should indeed work to advance Israel-Palestinian relations, but, in doing so, it must avoid policies that work to the advantage of Iran and its proxies, or that allow the Palestinians to duck direct negotiations. In recent years, three prevailing fallacies have prevented the United Nations from fashioning policies that meet these needs.
The first of these is the idea that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is “the core” of the larger Arab-Israeli conflict and, moreover, a center of gravity in regional politics. If Palestinian-Israeli relations were truly so influential, then we would expect the relations between Israel and the Arab states to fluctuate in accordance with the changes in Palestinian-Israeli relations. Such a pattern is not and never has been discernable. While Jordan and Egypt have both found it wise to make peace with Israel, Syria has refused. No knowledgeable observer would ever suggest that it was the Palestinian factor that prompted Syria to reject peace. If Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas were to sign a peace agreement tomorrow, neither Syria—nor Iran, for that matter—would honor it.
This point is so self-evident that it hardly seems worth noting, yet in its discussions of regional peace and security the United Nations routinely accords Palestinian-Israeli relations a special status that hardly seems justified on the basis of objective observation. At the same time, it has paid comparatively little attention to, for example, Iran’s arming, training, and equipping of Hezbollah in contravention of United Nations Security Council resolutions.
Iran, the Assad regime, and Hezbollah have exploited the fixation of the international community on Israel to deflect attention from their wider regional aspirations—aspirations which they are pursuing with particularly murderousness in Syria today. More people have died in Syria at their hands in the last six years than have died on both sides in the Arab-Zionist conflict from its inception in the 1920s until today. Many more people have been made homeless in Syria than were ever turned into refugees by the Arab-Israeli wars. If the United Nations had worked to deter Iran and its allies in the last five years, how many Syrian lives would have been saved, and how many families would have remained safe in their homes?
The second fallacy is the idea that Israeli settlements on the West Bank are the primary impediment to peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The experience of the George W. Bush administration, in which I served, taught us the opposite. It was a relatively easy matter for a president who is sympathetic to Israel’s security concerns to convince the Israeli government to limit territorial expansion of Israeli settlements. Early reports coming from the Trump administration suggest that President Trump may have reached or is in the process of reaching a similar accommodation with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Historically, however, it has proven much harder to convince the Palestinian Authority to cease its incitement of its own population, whether through the naming of squares after terrorists, encouraging anti-Israel attacks, glorifying terrorism in children’s textbooks, or paying government compensation to terrorists and their families. The extensive resources that the United Nations and its members contribute to the upkeep of the Palestinian Authority give them a right to insist that those funds be used to foster a culture of tolerance based on a vision of two states living side-by-side in peace.
The third fallacy is the idea that Israeli intransigence is the key stumbling block in Arab-Israeli relations, and that, therefore, Israeli concessions are the key factor that will create the conditions for a solution. The Israeli withdrawals from Lebanon in 2000 and Gaza in 2005 should have dispelled this idea forever. Rather than having a calming effect, however, those withdrawals only served to increase the bloodlust of Hezbollah and Hamas.
The lesson was not lost on the Israelis. Any withdrawal from territory on the West Bank, therefore, must come with ironclad guarantees of Israeli security. Given the unsettled state of the region in general, the advances of the Iranian alliance in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, the persistence of al-Qaeda and ISIS, and the split among the Palestinians between Hamas and Fatah, no Israeli government could take severe risks with respect to Israeli security on the West Bank and still hope to remain in power.
Israelis are already intensely aware that in a very short period of time they might find themselves peering across the Golan Heights at Iranian soldiers ensconced in Syria. How can the world ask them to take steps that could potentially lead to the Iranian penetration of the West Bank as well?
These three fallacies foster a general perspective that places an exaggerated importance on Israeli actions. It misinterprets the behavior of Arab and Muslim actors as a reaction to the Jewish State rather than as a product of their own regional strategies and perceptions. It encourages the Security Council, unconsciously perhaps, to reward the Palestinian Authority’s efforts to internationalize the conflict — to look to the United Nations to intercede on its behalf in negotiations with Israel.
This drift toward internationalization is fraught with danger. When the United Nations replaces the Palestinians as the interlocutor with Israel regarding the final status of the West Bank, it reduces the chances for peace, because it does nothing to allay the very real security concerns of Israel. A better path forward is to urge the Palestinians back to direct negotiations. While the likelihood that those negotiations will result in a quick resolution of final status issues is small, there is reason to be optimistic about interim accommodations that are manifestly in the interests of both sides. The new willingness of Sunni Arab states (who share Israel’s concerns about Iran) to support constructive solutions is especially heartening.
May I again remind you of the example of Gamal Abdel Nasser? A revisionist school of historiography claims that he never wanted war in 1967. His best military units were bogged down in Yemen, his economy was a shambles, and his relations with Jordan and Syria, his putative allies, were abysmal. Why would a leader in such a precarious position behave so recklessly?
The revisionists have much of the story right but they miss a crucial factor. Nasser was applying lessons that he learned a decade earlier, during the Suez Crisis. Then, as in 1967, he had precipitated a war that he could not possibly win militarily, but which he believed he could win politically, because, he gambled, the superpowers and the United Nations would intercede on his behalf. In 1956, that proved a very smart bet. In 1967, however, it utterly failed—with disastrous consequences for Egypt—to say nothing of the Palestinians. How much better would it have been for all parties if, back in 1956, the United Nations had insisted that, in return for an Israeli withdrawal from Egyptian territory, Nasser must grant Israel meaningful security guarantees?
The key lesson of 1967 war is that peace is best achieved not by United Nations intercession but by facilitating direct negotiations between the parties.
Thank you again for the honor of addressing you on this important matter.