August 22, 2001
Most Americans have still not gotten beyond the end of the Cold War and associated changes in the nature of the world when it comes to thinking about the Middle East. For decades, both before and after the formation of Israel, the United States has believed it has had a special relationship with the area to some extent inherited from the British and to some extent as a result of the evolving understanding of the American place in the world and to some extent as a result of the influence of Jewish-Americans in the political process. Beyond the emotional identification, however, there were reasonably legitimate geopolitical reasons (depending on your view of the proper role of the United States in the world) for the situation in the Middle East to loom large in American calculations.
When the Soviet Union was alive and active, the Middle East was one of the key stages on which the bipolar great power competition was played out. The oil in the Middle East, the ancient desire of Russian rulers to have access to a warm-water port, and the special position of Israel in the American psyche and as a western-oriented democracy, all made the Middle East genuinely important in the struggle for world domination/influence/whatever. American news media often covered Middle Eastern issues and even internal Israeli politics better than certain US states were covered (which is not, necessarily, to say that they were covered all that well).
It is always useful to talk to Leon Hadar, former UN correspondent for the Jerusalem Post and a research fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, to get a little perspective on Middle Eastern politics. Leon, for some years, has been pointing out that with the end of the Soviet Union and the geopolitics its ambitions helped to shape, with no real oil crisis and with no concerted threat to Israel's very existence, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become more of a localized ethnic conflict than a conflict with the potential to create global conflagration (though it could escalate into a thoroughly nasty regional conflict or even a war).
This doesn't mean the United States doesn't still have some interests in the region, but they are driven more by habit, quasi-humanitarian or globalist-imperialist impulses, or personal religious/ethnic identification than by concrete or material US interests or concerns. Indeed, the most concrete US interests in the region have to do with access to oil, most of which is controlled by Arab countries. So the United States has always had to balance ideological/geopolitical affinity with Israel against the need to be at least on a cordialenough buyer-seller relationship with the Arab countries (which we therefore conveniently define as "moderate") that the flow of oil is not seriously hampered.
This necessity to perform a constant balancing act between Israeli and Arab interests continues. In some ways, it occurs within the mind of George W. Bush. As a relatively evangelical Christian and as a Republican, most of whose friends are fairly conservative, he seems to have a special feeling for Israel as a state. As a former oil man from Texas from a family involved in the oil business, with old friends and acquaintances like James Baker, there is also that oil connection, often buttressed by business dealings and personal relationships, with Arab countries (especially Saudi Arabia) and leaders.
Leon Hadar had just returned from Israel when I talked with him last week. Like most people with actual experience, he is less interested in or eager to make predictions than some people with less knowledge or experience. He noted that in most parts of Israel proper, despite some heightened fears and concerns, life goes on and people still live relatively normal lives (insofar as life in Israel has ever been normal). They go to work and school, and take vacations. From the Israeli perspective, then, the present situation relatively low-level conflict with occasional incidents, but no escalation beyond occasional Israeli military incursions into the West Bank and Gaza, and occasional Palestinian incursions into Israeli cities can probably continue for a long time, perhaps even for several years.
A possible worst-case scenario might be for some freelance Israeli terrorist to bomb or to do serious damage to the mosque located at the Temple Mount site in Jerusalem. This could harden attitudes on both sides, especially on the Palestinian side, and lead to a larger conflict, or even to a regional war.
Mr. Hadar says there is fairly serious sentiment in Israel, surprisingly strong across the political spectrum, for Israel to withdraw unilaterally from the West Bank and Gaza and, in effect, put up fences that effectively separate Israel from Palestinian territories and keep the movement of peoples back and forth across the newly-fortified borders to an absolute minimum. That would reduce the economic potential of Israel and might well tend toward economic disaster in Palestinian regions or possibly to more effective Palestinian independence and economic development eventually. I'm inclined to think such a situation would be inherently unstable, although one might point to a place like Cyprus as an example of a physical partition that, while far short of utopian, has provided a measure of stability.
Mr. Hadar believes that while there is a certain amount of sentiment within Israel for a relatively large-scale military action to eliminate the Palestinian Authority as an effective organization once and for all - that Ariel Sharon understands the dangers to Israel that such an operation would entail. There would be house-to-house fighting and bloodshed on television, beamed around the world. There would be refugees, who could destabilize Jordan, and perhaps even Syria and Lebanon. None of these outcomes would be helpful to Israel over the long run.
One last thought: it is typical, around the world, for the weaker party in an ethnic/regional conflict to call for international intervention. This is so in Cyprus, where the Greeks typically want intervention, and in Kashmir, where the Pakistanis tend to want outside help. In the Middle East the Palestinians are the weaker party and tend to want outside forces to intervene.
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