Palestine & Global Security

Being an intensely emotional and morally significant issue to both sides, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict defies dispassionate, thoughtful analysis. Yet the conflict is not just a heart-rending story of homeland lost. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict poses very real challenges to global security, so the security ramifications of that conflict require the most careful analysis. [My thanks to Online Journal for first publishing this article.]

Five possible near-term futures for Palestine and Israel seem worth serious consideration:

1) Jordan Becomes Palestine — the transfer of Palestinians to Jordan, which would probably give Palestinians control of Jordan;

2) Two States — a sovereign and secure Palestinian state alongside the Israeli state;

3) Secular Democracy — a single, secular state in which Palestinians and Israelis are equal before the law;

4) Bantustan — a disarmed Palestinian Bantustan, next to Israel, that could in turn either lead to the destruction of Palestinian society or stimulate the desperate Palestinians to turn to a radical militia for protection; or

5) Catastrophe the longer the conflict continues, the greater the possibility of a catastrophe even worse than the current situation.

Each possibility leads, naturally, to further evolution. For example, if Palestinians are incorporated into Jordan, Israel might try to control Jordan, a civil war might ensue, the new Palestinian majority might take control. If the latter, would they be content to let their dreams of their homeland die, or would a new stage in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict arise? Alternatively, if the West Bank became an independent state, what would happen to the half million illegal Israeli colonist-settlers? How would the tiny state defend itself or even survive economically, or provide its people any measure of governance and security to fend off the neighborhood’s many advocates of extremism?

But limiting ourselves just to imagining the immediate next step already brings to mind some basic questions that, in the fog of taboo and denial and emotion, seldom receive the consideration they deserve:

  • Which of these possible futures is the situation now moving toward?
  • What is the impact of the current direction on the broader Western-Islamic confrontation?

The Current Direction. The first question would have been difficult to answer six months ago, but now seems trivially obvious: Obama has surrendered, giving up any sincere intent he may ever have had to change the course of Mideast history away from force toward conciliation. The Israeli right is winning hands down and is moving rapidly toward the absorption of desired portions of the West Bank into Israel, with the relegation of the Palestinian people to Bantustan. That blunt assessment may be wrong even as I write it and certainly might—theoretically—change abruptly tomorrow (e.g., were Obama to re-read his Cairo speech and inspire himself anew), but at least it is, I trust, clearly stated.

Supporting and disconfirmatory evidence need to be collected and assessed. Supporting evidence for evolution toward Palestinian Bantustan would include Washington refusing to hold Israel responsible for actions during attack on Gaza and Washington opening the spigots of military aid to Israel even wider in recent days. Israeli government toleration of settler violence against Palestinians is strong supporting evidence, albeit being downplayed in the U.S. Disconfirmatory evidence includes recent cut-backs in the formerly rising level of checkpoint restrictions on Palestinians, Obama’s rhetoric during the initial months of his presidency, and possibly his recent appointment of a special representative to the Islamic world (provided if the new envoy comes armed with substantive policy changes). A full analysis would require consideration of any evidence relevant to the other possible futures as well. Just as an example, two examples that seem to support the contention that the region is moving toward catastrophe are the Palestinian refugee camp violence in Lebanon and the rise of Salafi sympathies in Gaza.

Whatever the future course, we Americans need–for the sake of our own security–to understand more precisely, to recognize more honestly where the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, under (after all) our tutelage, is headed.

Impact of the Current Direction.

A full analysis would also require consideration of the national/global security implications of the other possible futures. For example, although two equal and independent states may be hard to reject as a goal on the basis of morality, creating a geographically, politically, economically, and militarily viable Palestinian state would clearly be an historic tour-de-force replete with security issues. Remarks here will be limited to the security impacts likely to flow from the rise of a Palestinian Bantustan.

Undermining America’s Reputation. Perhaps even more important than Washington’s clear anti-Palestinian stance is its pretense of fairness, which effectively undermines trust in anything else it claims to support regarding the Islamic world, with the result that the U.S. will be weakened diplomatically, i.e., the U.S. will have a harder time persuading other actors to follow its lead.

Radicalizing Political Islam. Two alternative hypotheses can easily be stated concerning the probable Muslim reaction: 1) Muslims will give up, forget about Palestine, and move on with life; 2) Muslims will be radicalized, thereby empowering extremists. Both hypotheses are probably true, as most people are likely to avoid politics, with a minority becoming upset. The damage done on 9/11 by a dozen or so angry guys and the display of resistance achieved by the few thousand of Hezbollah during Israel’s summer 2006 invasion of Lebanon suggest that those desiring peace should take little comfort from the fact that most of the time, most people tend to avoid international affairs. The Palestinian situation should be expected both to enflame the passions of those already radical and to broaden the radicals’ base in the Islamic world.

Empowering the Israeli Right. The tension with Palestinians is the foundation of the Israeli right’s hold on power. The rise of the Israeli garrison state and the decline of Israeli democracy can be expected to intensify as a function of the level of tension. The dangers of this trend are well described by Israeli thinkers such as Uri Avnery and Daniel Sokatch.

Intensifying Iran’s Nuclear Drive. Those Iranian politicians favoring the militarization of nuclear technology will be strengthened, and all who favor integration with the West or the pursuit of a moderate, conciliatory path of any sort will be weakened by regional tension. This will happen directly because repression of Palestine is a no-lose issue for hardliners and indirectly because American politicians will fall into the Israeli right’s trap of believing that Palestinian-Israeli tensions requires a hostile attitude toward Iran (not seeing that the existence of one source of tension mandates instead the alleviation of the other to prevent a vicious cycle). The falling of provincial American politicians into the Israeli right’s trap will in turn stimulate a hostile or defensive Iranian response, and whatever component of that Iranian response that is in fact defensive will nevertheless be interpreted by those American politicians as “evidence” of hostile Iranian intent.

Deepening Iran’s Influence Over Iraq. As Iraqis, now led by Shi’a with profound historical ties to Iran, strive for independence from both Iran and the U.S., the more blatant Israeli repression of Palestinians, the more likely a rise in sympathy for all who articulate an anti-Israeli position. This can be expected to strengthen Iraqi ties to Iran, provoke Iraqi nationalism and pressure on the U.S. to remove its string of military bases, and enflame domestic tensions with the pro-Israeli Kurds.

Militarizing Western-Islamic Relations. Logically, the general strategy for normalizing relations between the Islamic world and the West would be to bring to the fore as many areas as possible, especially areas in which the West has real and obviously desirable contributions to make: the heritage of evolving toward freedom, democracy, civil rights, and international law; economic support; scientific knowledge. The repression of Palestine raises the relative significance of military ties in the Western-Islamic relationship, narrowing the relationship and therefore making it more fragile.

Stimulating an Islamic anti-Western United Front. If 9/11 isolated Muslim extremists and briefly opened the door (had Washington only chosen to walk through it) to global cooperation against extremism, the Palestinian predicament pushes the world in the opposite direction, opening a very different door – toward the rise of an Islamic anti-Western united front. As the real home of extremism increasingly appears to lie in Israel, if not Washington, both neutrals and outright Western allies come to view the Iranian/Hezbollah/Hamas positions as the relatively more reasonable ones. Erdogan’s anger over Gaza transforming into a steady Turkish distancing from Israel and the mutual accommodation of Hariri and Hezbollah in Lebanon exemplify what may well become a significant trend in Islamic politics. Many factors enter into this, including how skillfully Iran plays its hand. The point here is not to make a prediction but simply to point out that the rise of a Palestinian Bantustan increases the likelihood that an Islamic anti-Western united front between the “resistance” and moderates will emerge, greatly weakening Washington’s position even if it falls short of destabilizing any of the pro-U.S. Arab dictatorships.

In sum, the region appears, with Washington’s active support, to be headed toward Palestinian Bantustan. A generous Israel might conceivably buy the support of a majority, but Israel’s continuing collective punishment of not just Gazans but all Palestinians (recall, for example, that West Bankers too are being prevented from obtaining their share of agricultural water or selling traditional products on the international market) gives little hope of Israeli benevolence. Miracles can happen, but the social dynamics of Israel’s shift to the right, most markedly illustrated by the positive attitude of Israelis toward its vicious attack on Gaza and utterly immoral follow-up campaign of collective punishment, make a generous Israeli colonial regime seem about as naïve a hope as the rise of a single, united, secular Jewish-Palestinian democracy.

This Bantustan prospect in turn can be expected to further enflame tensions in the Western conflict with activist political Islam, while empowering those elements most hostile to Western influence. Increasing Israeli militarism, consolidation of Iranian hostility, Iraqi instability, a broad intensification of Islamic hostility toward the West, a broadening of the “resistance front” to include actors currently viewed as neutral or pro-Western, and a weakening of the American position can be anticipated as a result of Washington’s neglect of Palestinians and blatant bias in favor of the Israeli right wing.

Even assuming all the above hypotheses about the impact of U.S./Israeli Palestinian policy are true, one could counter that military might is what counts and that the effect will thus be minimal. Over the short-term, military might does indeed appear impressively effective, but the more carefully one looks at the results on the ground and their national security implications, the less impressive the military victories seem. The U.S. conquest of Iraq took only days, it appeared, but then dragged on for years, and the U.S. position there remains unstable. The U.S. conquest of Afghanistan took only a few months, yet nearly a decade later, the U.S. position is widely described as getting worse. It is not clear that the utterly one-sided Israeli attack on Gaza accomplished anything of value in terms of Israeli security: the near absence of rockets now is about the same as the near absence of rockets following the summer 2008 truce with Hamas. The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006, depending on one’s count the third, fourth, or fifth in the last generation, consolidated Hezbollah’s political position as a legitimate if not dominant participant in the Lebanese government.

One could also argue that economics are what count. Washington’s financial resources may appear infinite, with its access to Chinese loans and ability to run trillion dollar deficits. Yet, questions about the financial capability of even the U.S. to continue the extraordinary pace of expenditures on wars in Muslim regions that it has maintained since 9/11 are becoming increasingly prominent.

U.S.-Israeli policy on Palestine appears to be undermining the national security of the U.S. and Israel. No effort is made here to evaluate the importance of that trend, though that would be very important to think about. Suffice it to say that despite the fact that the Israeli-Palestinian arena is a very small place, the current Palestinian policy is impacting a far larger portion of the globe in ways that are counter-productive to the goal of national security.

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