By Stephen P. CohenAuthor, "Beyond America's Grasp: A Century of Failed Diplomacy in the Middle East."
Until the tragic and reckless Israeli raid on the Gaza flotilla, three recent developments dominated the current environment in the Middle East and offered President Obama opportunities for successful Arab-Israeli peacemaking:•Proximity talks between the Palestinians and the Israelis finally began, creating a slim hope of breaking the impasse on that front.•A very wide international consensus emerged on further sanctions against Iran.•There were indications of imminent talks between Israel and Syria, but those hopeful signs are overshadowed by portents of further confrontations between Hezbollah and Israel, given the strong possibility that Syria is providing Hezbollah with Scud missiles.
The raid threatens to wipe out all three opportunities. Paradoxically, by vividly demonstrating (yet again) the urgency of dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it presents another opportunity. And in the broader picture, the increasing radicalization of Islam since the Cold War ended 21 years ago makes solving this conflict a critical national security need for the United States.
President Obama needs to deftly diffuse the immediate crisis. At the same time, and just as importantly, he must operate on a wide and long-range canvass by making a major policy address and by convening an international peace conference, both on the Middle East. He must do both with a sense of urgency.
In his public address, the President should tell the world that he sees the Middle East at a strategic crossroads of peace and war. He must explain the urgency of preventing further outbreaks of violence and the significance of the opportunity for cooperation in peace provided by the Israeli-Palestinian indirect talks.
Such a speech would not, by itself, impel the Israeli government to move forward as Obama might want. It would, however, demonstrate to Israelis and Palestinians that Obama wants to consolidate the US-Israel relationship while working towards a hoped-for rapprochement between the United States and the Islamic world -- especially with the Arab states that were friendly towards America during the Cold War, but alienated by the invasion of Iraq in 2003. This speech should set the strategic framework for how the United States, the Arab states and Israel, together with America's allies in NATO and Japan, can realize the opportunities for Middle East peacemaking.
Second, Obama needs to summon world leaders to an international peace conference on the Middle East. This collective meeting would inaugurate an era of peace and demonstrate that there is no room for an Iranian bomb or for further expansion of radical Islam. It would position the United States as a peaceful leader of the Free World, which would include Israel and Palestine on an equal footing with all other states in the Middle East and within the world political system.
This conference would allay fears of marginalization felt by Israel in particular, and make it clear to Israelis and Palestinians that they are both considered legitimate partners in the Middle East peace process and in the worldwide coalition of moderates to deter war and terrorism. America should move from a special relationship with Israel alone to a special relationship with Israel and with its closest Arab friends. Further, Tehran would be shown that the world will not tolerate a nuclear Iran, given its present hostile relations with other legitimate states in the world system. While the fall of the Soviet Union enabled the United States to assert full dominance over Arab-Israeli peacemaking and diplomacy, the Soviet last hurrah, its invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 (the same year as the Khomeini revolution in Iran) was a failure that brought the Taliban to power and enabled the small but extremist Al-Qaeda ideology to grow into a highly trained terrorist movement.
This radicalization of elements of Islam coupled with the exploding ambitions of Al-Qaeda and its hatred both of American power and of the Arab regimes aligned with America condemned the Middle East to a series of bloody confrontations within the region and between the United States and a series of Muslim countries.
The transition from Arab nationalism to Islamic radicalism also gave birth to a new form of Palestinian violence against Israel - suicide terrorism. Islamic radicalism penetrated Palestinian national life via Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas's use of this vicious tactic engendered a new level of hatred between Israelis and Palestinians and weakened those Palestinian leaders who sought non-violent negotiations towards a Palestinian state. Hamas aligned itself with the Iranian regime avowedly committed to wiping Israel off the map.
Islamic radicals have exported suicide terrorism from the Israeli-Palestinian arena to other parts of the broader Middle East -- including Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, where more than 180,000 American troops are on the ground -- and deployed this tactic against America itself.
Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is thus an increasingly vital and urgent American national security need, as the raid's repercussions make evident.
Stephen P. Cohen, president of the Institute for Middle East Peace and Development, is the author of "Beyond America's Grasp: A Century of Failed Diplomacy in the Middle East" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2009).