Last week the National Security Council’s Robert Malley offered an unusually sensible statement on Middle East issues. Malley, President Barack Obama’s senior adviser on countering the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), said that the United States must resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in order to defeat ISIL and similar Islamist extremists.
Unusually for Washington, Malley knows the Middle East well from decades of engagement and understands both the nuances and the big picture. For someone in the White House with real-world knowledge to speak the truth, at least for a moment, is refreshing and might portend a more effective and coherent U.S. foreign policy in the region. Of course, White House officials often speak the truth about Arab-Israeli issues just as they near the end of their tenures, when they face few political risks and usually refrain from taking bold initiatives that match their words.
Nevertheless, he made important points during his appearance at a New York conference that was hosted by two liberal Israeli institutions, the newspaper Haaretz and the New Israel Fund. He said the persistence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict benefits ISIL in two ways: by increasing the appeal of its recruiting tools, including “constantly” referring to the Palestinians’ situation, and making it “very difficult” to secure cooperation from leading Arab states to bring about changes on the ground. Despite much behind-the-scenes cooperation, countries such as Saudi Arabia cannot openly engage with Israel while the conflict persists.
Acknowledging that resolving the conflict would not be a “magic wand” for resolving the host of other problems across the Middle East, Malley made the critical point that “the absence of a resolution is fueling extremism” and that “it stands to reason that resolving this conflict would at least help. It wouldn’t resolve, but it would be a major contribution to stemming the rise of extremism and to allow the kind of cooperation that is needed [to take on] what should be a common challenge, which is the challenge of [ISIL] and of other extremist organizations.”
He is correct, even if he carefully framed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in utilitarian terms rather than affirm the primacy of international law and the moral urgency of resolving it. If ISIL generates the will in Washington to tackle the conflict more seriously and equitably, all concerned parties should take advantage of this window and move quickly in that direction.
The reason for this is not only that Palestinians, Israelis and all others in the Middle East deserve to enjoy the fruits of national self-determination, the rule of law and stable statehood but also that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been the single most radicalizing and destabilizing force in the Middle East for nearly a century. Resolving it would contribute immeasurably to a more peaceful Middle East — just as leaving it unresolved for decades has contributed to the sort of mass frustration, humiliation and radicalization that ultimately spawned ISIL.
The U.S. has a leading role to play here because it remains the only mediator that both sides trust, despite producing zero results since the 1993 Oslo Accord. Secretary of State John Kerry said after his last visit to the region a month ago that the U.S. has no more ideas about how to break through the current stalemate in peacemaking. Perhaps a place for him to start would be to broaden the circle of mediators beyond the U.S. Washington’s total failure reflects its biased approach to the process, which favors Israeli perceptions over the equal rights of both sides.
This applies to principles (under U.S.-backed peace frameworks, Israel would keep most of the major settlements, enjoy new security arrangements in the Jordan Valley and keep the Palestinian state demilitarized) as well as strategies (the U.S. insists that commitments to Israel’s security must be guaranteed before any other gains will accrue to the Palestinians and that certain Palestinians who engage in armed resistance be excluded from negotiations while Israeli state and settler militarism remain unchecked).
A genuinely impartial mediation effort would quickly improve public perception of the U.S. throughout the Arab world. Polls have repeatedly shown that Arab public opinion has always judged the U.S. through the lens of how Washington deals with the Palestinian issue.
Beyond Washington’s reputation, many other tangible benefits would accrue to the region and the rest of the world by resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For example, the grotesque modern legacy of Arab military rulers and presidents for life traces its origins to military officers — such as Syria’s Hafez al-Assad, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, Egypt’s Gamal Abdul Nasser, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh — who seized power by arguing that only their military rule could protect Arab states from Israeli threats and promote national development. Their decades in power drove Arab economies and political systems into the ground because of corruption, incompetence, autocracy, ravaged environments, wasteful wars and misguided foreign alliances that served only their incumbency. These failures contributed to a loss of popular faith in the performance and even the legitimacy of autocratic governments, which in turn contributed to the uprisings and civil wars of the past five years.
The expansion of Israeli settlements fuels widespread Arab perceptions of Israel as an instrument of Western imperial and colonial power in the Middle East. Washington’s imbalanced diplomatic support for Israel contributes to chronic tensions between Arab citizens and their governments, which rely on Washington’s political and military support.
Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and Hezbollah have grown steadily over the past half-century, in part because of popular resentments against Arab governments’ failure to check the Israeli threat to Palestinian territories and adjacent Arab lands. The conflict has aggravated Iranian-Israeli and Iranian-Arab tensions, so ending it could improve relations on those fronts as well.
It is not clear if Malley’s statement on the urgency of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in order to defeat ISIL is a sign of White House policy or simply one knowledgeable man’s honest personal reflection. Hopefully, it’s both.