The kidnappings in Gaza and Lebanon that led to Israel’s war against Hezbollah last July have unveiled a seismic shift in the region, a situation made possible by the war in Iraq and the dismantlement of its army. Wars have bequeathed to Iran a shattered Iraq – open to Iranian investment in and profit from historic links with a majority Iraqi Shiite community. The American venture in Iraq, paid for in blood, treasure and national pride in pursuit of a “new Middle East, has devolved into an exit strategy to escape the Iraqi morass and a search for regional partners to confront the real new Middle East.
The net result is that Iran, in less than four years, has emerged as a regional superpower and the guiding force of many regional assets: an emboldened and beholden Syrian regime, an ambitious Hezbollah claiming “divine victory against Israel and the anomaly of a Sunni Hamas government supported and publicly funded by Iran. The historic fault lines within the Middle East, those between the Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam, and the ethnic struggle for dominance among Arabs, Persians and Turks, were ignored for most of the 20th century and supplanted by the Arab-Israeli conflict over Palestine. However, the 20th century also introduced the concept, and thus the political reality, of the nation state to the Middle East. Greater Syria has yielded political space for Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, the virtual state of Palestine, as well as modern Syria.
Their citizens assumed and accepted new national identities and acquired new loyalties while the vested elites bolstered the new regimes. While historical unifying principles, Arab nationalism and Islamic nationhood challenged the legitimacy of the nation states, the new states have proven durable and sustainable. The central conflict of the region, between Israelis and Palestinians, has been the crucible where the conflicts between Jews and Arabs, West and East, developed and underdeveloped, and modern and tribal have simmered, overflowed and threatened the stability of the region for decades.
Unresolved, and charged with the passion and rage that the mix of injured pride, religious fanaticism, economic inequality and existential threat can engender, this conflict threatens to become a global nightmare that leads to the Armageddon of the faithful. For those who care deeply about the welfare of Palestinians and Israelis, time is running short, and failure to move with urgency risks the possibility that this corner of the globe will be swallowed up by the rising tide of religious and ideological fervor gripping the region. For the Israeli and Palestinian people, it is not enough to ask the “other to compromise. Each people must accept their painful share of the compromise. Modern Israel, dealing with the religious claim of zealot Israeli settlers on Palestinian lands, and which denies another nation the right to statehood on its own land, must confront its own demons. The metaphysical stake must be replaced by political and demographic realities.
A historic negotiated compromise that results in a viable state of Palestine on land occupied in June 1967, with mutually agreed borders and with Arab Jerusalem as its capital, is an Israeli imperative as it is a Palestinian need. It is Israel’s best guarantee to survive the new existential strategic threats and the ultimate guarantee for security and peace for both nations. As for the Palestinians, in order to achieve their freedom and viable state, they must repudiate Hamas’ regression to the olden days of rejection of Israel’s pre-1967 borders. They also must come to terms with the reality of Israel and with the fact that while refugees have rights that must be fully redressed – national rights, individual rights, property rights and even the right to an apology – four or five million Palestinian refugees are not going back to live in Israel. Neither Israelis nor Palestinians are sufficiently powerful to achieve all their aims. Only a joint venture, with Israelis and Americans working respectfully with empowered Palestinian partners, rather than clients or agents, can end this national conflict.
A strategic, coordinated effort, which marshals security, economic and political resources, including serious contributions from moderate Arabs and Europeans, must be employed. The United States, as the general partner, is the essential power that can make this joint venture a reality. The American president is the only one who can lead a regional coalition to challenge and check the regional superpower. This coalition must put the Palestine-Israel conflict on a course toward resolution. The states that can navigate together the region’s road to stability and modernity should count Palestine as their partner.
Ziad Asali is president of the American Task Force on Palestine. This commentary is published in collaboration with the Common Ground News Service.