First, a flashback: On February 11, 1985, President
Ronald Reagan welcomed Saudi Arabian King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz during a welcoming
ceremony on the White House lawn. "The people of the United States share
with the people of Saudi Arabia a deep moral outrage over the continuing aggression
and butchery taking place in Afghanistan," Reagan said, referring to the
brutal Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. "The citizens of the Western democracies
and the Muslim world, by all that they believe to be true and just, should stand
together in opposition to those who would impose dictatorship on all of mankind."
He added: "Marxist tyranny already has its grip on the religious freedom
of the world's fifth largest Muslim population. This same grip strangles the
prayers of Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike. We all worship the same God.
Standing up to this onslaught, the people of Afghanistan, with their blood,
courage, and faith, are an inspiration to the cause of freedom everywhere."
Fast-forward to the December 2007 Mideast conference in Annapolis, and there's
a sense of déjà vu. This time, President George W. Bush addressed
a meeting attended by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Saudi Arabian Foreign
Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal and called on Jews and Arabs to make peace. Bush
highlighted the ominous threat posed by the radical Shi'ite theocracy in Iran
to Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike; this supposedly explains why the Western
democracies, the Muslim world, and Israel should stand together in opposition
to Iranian regional designs.
Indeed, the notion that the United States could utilize a perceived common
strategic and ideological threat – the Soviet Union during the Cold War,
and Shi'ite Iran today – to bring together Arabs and Jews under an American
umbrella and help create the conditions for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement
has been a central concept shared by the administrations of Ronald Reagan and
George W. Bush. It also reflects the influence of the pro-Likud neoconservative
ideologues on these two conservative Republican presidents.
In a way, the neocons who played a leading role in influencing Reagan's foreign
policy – government officials like Defense Department aide Richard
Perle and the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Jeane
Kirkpatrick, as well as pundits like Irving
Kristol (père of Bill)
and Norman Podhoretz
– are not unlike the neocons who have dominated the thinking of Bush administration
policies, applying a similar grand geostrategic and ideological framework to
guide U.S. policy in the Middle East.
During the Reagan years, the Middle East, including the Arab-Israeli conflict,
was seen as an extension of the struggle with the Soviet Union. Israel served
as a strategic asset as far as U.S. interests in the Middle East were concerned,
helping Washington contain Soviet expansionism in the region. The Palestine
Liberation Organization under Yasser Arafat was depicted as a pro-Soviet terrorist
organization that served to advance Moscow's regional interests.
And in order to overcome the dilemma that was confronting U.S. policy makers
in the Middle East – how to juggle the alliance with Israel with the U.S.
strategic commitment to the pro-American Arab camp led by Egypt and Saudi Arabia – Reagan's
neoconservative advisers came up with a creative formula: promote a "narrative"
in which Israel and the "moderate" Arabs are supposedly facing common
threats – the Soviet Union, and to some extent, the revolutionary regime
in Tehran – and unite them through a so-called anti-Soviet "strategic
consensus." In that context, the conflict in the Holy Land would become
a side-show of a larger confrontation between the West and the Evil Empire and
would become more amenable to resolution as the pro-American Israelis and pro-U.S.
Arabs come to the conclusion that the need to confront the common enemy outweighed
the significance of the ethnic, religious, and territorial differences that
During the George W. Bush administration, in particular after 9/11 and the
Second Intifadah, neoconservative advisers like Pentagon Deputy Secretary Paul
Wolfowitz and State Department official, Elliott
Abrams, as well as those populating the Weekly
Standard and the American
Enterprise Institute, recycled the old Cold War paradigm as a framework
for the new "war on terror." Again, Israel was perceived as a central
ally in the war against radical Islam, while the Palestinians and Arafat were
depicted as an integral element of "Islamofascism," and their intifadah
against Israel was described as an extension of 9/11, part of the anti-Western
But just like during the 1980s, U.S. officials face a similar dilemma: how
to reconcile the partnership with Israel with the important strategic ties with
pro-American conservative regimes in Riyadh and Cairo. This dilemma has become
even more acute against the backdrop of the mess in Iraq and the rise of Shi'ite
Iran as a regional power, not to mention the increasing economic power of the
oil-rich Arab Gulf states.
At first, some of the neocons had hoped that the U.S. "march of freedom"
in the Middle East and free elections in Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine would
bring to power pro-American governments aspiring to make peace with Israel ("the
road to Jerusalem leads through Baghdad"). But as we know, that didn't
happen. In fact, the elections strengthened the radical political parties, some
of which have ties to Iran. Thus by extension, the elections helped increase
the influence of Tehran and its more radical allies (Hezbollah) and anti-Israeli
But the spin-masters in the Bush administration replaced one defective narrative
with another. Instead of the march of freedom that was supposed to bring together
Israel and the pro-American Arabs, Bush and his advisers ended up exploiting
the major disasters, like a more powerful Iran and the election victory of Hamas,
that they had helped to unleash. They decided to promote a new fantasy: Israelis
and pro-American Arabs would be brought together under the U.S. umbrella as
part of a new "strategic consensus" against Iran, just as Washington
was accusing Iran of developing nuclear weapons and supporting anti-American
insurgents in Iraq. Forget the march of freedom. Long live the Iran threat!
The meeting in Annapolis was supposed to highlight the emergence of this Israeli-Arab
"consensus" and help persuade both sides to move toward resolving
the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After all, faced with such a menacing regional
threat – Iran – Israelis and Palestinians would surely be able to overcome
their differences on Jerusalem, the Jewish settlements, and the Palestinian
This inspiring narrative helped the Bush administration write the script for
the media event in Annapolis. The problem was that the "peace conference"
had very little to do with the realities of the Middle East. In reality, none
of the major attendees was buying into the notion that the issues separating
the Israelis and the Palestinians could be resolved by unifying over the threat
The politically weak prime minister of Israel Ehud Olmert and the Palestinian
President Mahmoud Abbas (whose control of the West Bank came about thanks to
Israeli and American support) couldn't even take the first steps to overcome
their differences during the talks leading to Annapolis. So it wasn't surprising
that the meeting, once envisioned as a three-day conference to kick off the
negotiation of final-status issues, was transformed into a pathetic 24-hour
media event during which Bush played the role of MC and not that of an energetic,
The meeting failed. The Saudis attended the meeting but refused to shake the
hands of the Israeli officials. But more importantly, the Saudis don't see the
rise of Iran as a challenge to the West. They see it through the prism of the
Sunni-Shi'ite divide. If anything, they would like to see reconciliation between
the radical but Sunni Hamas and Fatah, a move that the Americans and the Israelis
Interestingly, the Syrians, facing strong U.S. opposition, had to plead their
way into the conference. The neocons have insisted that the secular Ba'ath regime
in Damascus is an anti-American ally of the ayatollahs in Iran and have pressed
Israel not to open diplomatic negotiations with Syria, which is actually interested
in distancing itself from Iran and joining the moderate Arab fold.
The notion that a perceived common threat could help produce a common Israeli-Arab
front proved to be a fantasy during the Cold War. Israel and Egypt decided to
make peace only after recognizing that the costs of their conflict outweighed
the benefits. And the Oslo peace process began in the aftermath of the Cold
War, focusing only on the real problems separating Israelis and Palestinians.
Peace will come to the Holy Land if and when these issues are resolved. Promoting
the idea of an Iranian "threat" – which the new intelligence
estimate suggests is less menacing than the Bush administration has portrayed
it – will not make that happen.
Reprinted with permission from Right Web.