Exploding Three Middle East Straw Men

The straw man is a familiar figure in Middle East punditry -- to win the argument, just misrepresent the views of the other side. The recent Huffington Post piece by American Jewish Committee President David Harris is an example par excellence of this tactic.

First, Harris fabricates an argument about Israel and Iran, and then knocks it down based on a misreading of the evidence.

Harris argues that some people have said that "without progress on the Palestinian front, it would be impossible to mobilize Arab countries to face the Iranian nuclear threat," but that the cables released by WikiLeaks, which reveal great concern among many Arab governments regarding Iran, have "blown it [this argument] out of the water."

What Harris is implying, more broadly, is that there is no linkage between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the ability of the U.S. to mobilize support for its policies in the Middle East and beyond -- an argument that simply does not stand up to logic or facts.

Like this fact: a full (rather than selective) reading of the WikiLeaks cables shows that Arab leaders are deeply concerned both about Iran and about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- something Middle East experts have long argued to be the case. And the reality is that while the U.S., Israel and many Arab countries share concerns about Iran, it is undeniable that the failure of the U.S. to put forth a successful policy on the Israeli-Palestinian track, and the absence of progress toward peace (and continued provocative Israeli actions in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem), complicate virtually every aspect of U.S. relations with these same Arab countries, including mobilizing support for America's Iran policy.

Harris' second straw man is about settlements in East Jerusalem.

He says that critics of Israel argued that "the peace process was going to wither on the vine and die because Israel indicated its intention to continue construction within Jewish neighborhoods [of East Jerusalem]," but that the Palestine Papers have "blown [this argument] out of the water."

What Harris is implying is that when it comes to the peace, settlement construction in East Jerusalem just doesn't matter -- an argument that the experience of more than two decades of peace efforts and the undeniable facts on the ground refute.

Since the outset of the peace process in the 1990s, Israel settlement activities in East Jerusalem, from Har Homa -- the construction of which ended negotiations in 1997 -- to Ramat Shlomo -- which discredited U.S. peace efforts in 2010 -- have been poisonous to peace efforts. These same two settlements, it should be noted, didn't even exist at the start of the peace process. Their construction created new facts on the ground that today Harris and others take for granted that the Palestinians must accept, and their continued expansion continues to alter these facts in ways that make a peace agreement far more difficult to achieve. Har Homa and Ramat Shlomo are good examples of how misleading it is to frame the controversy over East Jerusalem settlement construction as simply one of people objecting to Israel indicating "its intention to continue construction within Jewish neighborhoods."

What the Palestine Papers actually reveal is that East Jerusalem settlement activity matters even more than many people realized. Why? Because the leaked documents confirm that an agreement on Jerusalem, consistent with the Clinton Parameters and the Geneva Initiative, could be acceptable to the Palestinians. This is an opportunity Israel cannot afford to squander. But current expansion of some East Jerusalem settlements, and settlement activity inside Palestinian neighborhoods, could soon do just that -- undermining the credibility of Palestinian officials who could come to such an agreement and changing the facts on the ground to the point where such an agreement will be, in any case, impossible. And if an agreement is impossible on Jerusalem, the two-state solution is dead.

Indeed, ongoing settlement activity is in many ways even more problematic than what was happening even a few short years ago, when the leaked Palestine Papers were drafted. Current settlement efforts, like those in Sheikh Jarrah and the Mount of Olives, are actually unprecedented, representing the first Israeli construction in the heart of these Palestinian neighborhoods. These projects threaten to make any future political division of the city -- deliberately -- impossible.

Harris' final straw man argument is a version of a hardy perennial, suggesting that some people (not just Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan) want the world to believe that "the root of all problems in the Middle East lies with Israel's intransigence." Harris suggests that developments in the region -- Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere -- explode this myth.

Of course the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the root of all problems in the region, nor would Israeli-Palestinian peace cure all the region's ills. Nobody serious suggests otherwise. The question Harris should be addressing is the extent to which the existence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Israel's actions and policies that contributes to the failure to resolve it, constitute a real strategic problem in the region. And let's not kid ourselves. What happens between Israel and the Palestinians -- whether it is settlement construction, the siege of Gaza, or the IDF tear gassing protesters in Bi'ilin -- reverberates far and wide. It is simply not serious to suggest that this doesn't have an impact in a region where this daily reality is beamed into nearly every home via satellite television.

The upheavals being seen today in Egypt and Tunisia, and echoing across the Arab world, are (thankfully) not about Israel, but there is an undeniable connection between the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict and developments in other countries in the region. Given current events in Tunisia and Egypt -- and the wave of protests they are sparking across the region, with people demanding more accountability from their governments -- Arab public opinion is likely to have an increasingly significant impact on the policies and outlooks of these governments going forward, including with respect to Israel.

This is not just about Israel. While Harris would likely argue that there is no linkage between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and U.S. interest in the region, the reality is that in much of the Arab and Muslim worlds perceptions of the U.S. are shaped by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for both good and bad. When the U.S. is seen as credibly leading for peace, support for the U.S. increases; when the U.S. is seen as not being an honest broker, while the situation languishes or deteriorates, anger at the U.S. rises. This has clear implications for U.S. efforts in the Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. Globally, U.S. allies and adversaries alike are judging the U.S. based on its performance in the Middle East. The conclusions that are drawn from the failures of U.S. foreign policy in the Israeli-Palestinian arena -- in Tehran or Pyongyang, when negotiating over their nuclear programs, or in Moscow, when negotiating over arms control, or even Paris and London when considering NATO interests -- have very real consequences for U.S. national security.

Enough with the straw men already. Recent developments in the Middle East do indeed shatter some myths. They shatter the myth that Israel can maintain, in perpetuity, stable relationships with its neighbors so long as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains unresolved. They shatter the myth that the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does not impact U.S. interests in the region. And if the Palestine Papers decisively explode any myth, it is the one blames Palestinian intransigence alone for the failure to reach a peace agreement.

Lara Friedman is the Director of Policy and Government Relations for Americans for Peace Now.