Israel-Palestine Again Front and Center

Danielle Pletka,
vice president for foreign and defense policy studies

The Middle East has a way of forcing itself on the agenda, upending the priorities of White House residents no matter their party. For George W. Bush, the attacks of 9/11 pushed al-Qaeda, Islamist extremism and Saddam Hussein's menace to the front burner. A year ago, punters might have nominated Iraq as President-elect Barack Obama's primary challenge in the Middle East. Thanks to the surge, that notion is a distant memory, and even the question of Iran's nuclear weapons has been relegated to second tier in the face of the war between Israel and Hamas. As it was in the Clinton years, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is again front and center.

The Israel-Hamas battle, deplorable in human terms, nonetheless offers a chance to define the challenges anew.

Some in Washington have greeted this renewal of overt hostilities between Muslims and Jews with dismay, a reminder of the intractable nature of the region's problems and another indicator of the failure of President Bush's efforts to reshape the Middle East. For others--particularly some associated with the incoming Obama administration--the Israel-Hamas battle, deplorable in human terms, nonetheless offers a chance to define the challenges anew.

The Bush administration came into office determined to avoid the errors of its predecessor. Unlike Bill Clinton, George Bush had no intention of personally servicing the Arab-Israel peace process. The terrorist attacks of 2001 cemented that determination as the new president concluded that decades of obsession with Israel and the Palestinians had distracted the United States from the more strategically urgent task of promoting liberal principles in the Islamic world--a distraction that had allowed Islamist extremism to take root and flourish.

As is Washington's wont, the pendulum is now poised to swing back to 2000, with the question of the Palestinians at the core of America's priorities in the Middle East. Most associated with the new administration are less than eager to latch on to a freedom agenda that has proven remarkably difficult to carry out. As one former Clinton administration official asserted to me, "democracy is dead." To be fair, the push for democracy--once a staple of the outgoing administration's rhetoric--has been largely set aside by Bush's own secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice; and while jettisoning a principle at the heart of American national purpose bothers some stalwarts at home, an end to the freedom agenda will certainly be welcome among Washington's traditional allies in the region, Egypt and Saudi Arabia in particular.

For those who fashion themselves the architects of a new agenda, the outlines of the vision are clear. "We've allowed our special relationship with Israel to become exclusive," Aaron David Miller, a Democrat Middle East advisor told the New York Times this week. "We acquiesced in too many bad Israeli ideas; we road-tested every idea with Israel first." Implied, although those with ambitions for senior positions in the Obama administration have been less explicit, is that America's special relationship with Israel will change.

The change of course laid out in a variety of reports over recent months by Obama supporters restores finding a solution to the Arab-Israel conflict to the heart of American Middle East diplomacy. In that regard, Israel will be pressed to deal directly with Syria under American auspices, and to return the Golan Heights on terms that would today be unacceptable. Aggressive American mediation will bring Fateh and the new Israeli government to the table, with a chastened Hamas offered an unofficial spot on the sidelines if it allows Fateh the leadership role. Pleased with this new American resolve to redefine the special relationship with Israel (and with the abandonment of the freedom agenda), Egypt, Saudi Arabia and others in the Gulf will join American efforts to further isolate Iran and force the Tehran regime to make concessions across the table from an American negotiator.

Does this all work? It might at the outset. The Israeli campaign in Gaza could weaken Hamas as a spoiler for the near term, enabling the temporary resuscitation of Fateh. But as before, Fateh will likely prove itself incapable of governance and of delivering what a partner for peace must: peace and security to the other side. In Syria, Bashar al-Assad will recall that his regime's raison d'etre is predicated upon a Zionist enemy; though he will play along in the hopes of extracting aid from Europe and the United States, ultimately, as his father did before him, he will walk away. Iran too will foil the best-laid plans of Washington's doves, stringing along all concerned until it has a nuclear bomb.

All too quickly, past will become prologue. The players in the region will do what they have done for the last 50 years: serve their own interests, advance their hold on power, build up their weapons systems and marshal their forces for another decade of battle.

Danielle Pletka is the vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at AEI.

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