Setting The Perfect Against The Good In The Middle East

Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass turns in a very strange Wall Street Journal op-ed today (rather misleadingly titled, presumably by the Journal’s editors, “The Palestine Peace Distraction”) in which he grants at the outset the key strategic premises of U.S. involvement in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking that the piece is ostensibly devoted to challenging.

“To be sure,” writes Haass, “peace between Israelis and Palestinians would be of real value”:

It would constitute a major foreign-policy accomplishment for the United States. It would help ensure Israel’s survival as a democratic, secure, prosperous, Jewish state. It would reduce Palestinian and Arab alienation, a source of anti-Americanism and radicalism. And it would dilute the appeal of Iran and its clients.

That’s pretty much the game right there. But, for some reason, Haass decides there’s a strawman needs killin’:

There are times one could be forgiven for thinking that solving the Palestinian problem would take care of every global challenge from climate change to the flu. But would it? The short answer is no.

While this is obviously meant as a caricature, it hardly needs pointing out that there is no one — no one — who seriously believes anything like this. The only people who traffic in the idea that “solving the Palestinian problem would take care of every global challenge” are the people who do so to knock it down.


Haass goes on to list a number of problems, in addition to climate change and the flu, that peace between Israelis and Palestinians would not solve: Iraqi political infighting, counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, the Iranian nuclear program, and Arab authoritarianism. Even granting all of these — and I think there’s evidence that, even if it wouldn’t “solve” them, Israeli-Palestinian peace would impact them in a positive way — so what? Given what Haass has already acknowledged that achieving peace between Israelis and Palestinians would do, it doesn’t make much sense to back off peacemaking just because it wouldn’t also ease Iraq’s political tensions, rebuild Afghanistan, end the Iranian nuclear program, and reform Arab governments.

But it’s in his discussion of radical terrorism that I think Haass steps seriously wrong:

Alas, neither would terrorism fade if Israelis and Palestinians finally ended their conflict. Al Qaeda was initially motivated by a desire to rid the Arabian Peninsula of infidels. Its larger goal is to spread Islam in a form that closely resembles its pure, seventh-century character. Lip service is paid to Palestinian goals, but the radical terrorist agenda would not be satisfied by Palestinian statehood.

Why is “lip service paid” to the Palestinian issue? Because it’s an issue of great salience among Al Qaeda’s target audience. Resolving the issue wouldn’t end Al Qaeda terrorism, but it would blunt Al Qaeda’s appeal (just as Haass acknowledges it would Iran’s), denying it an important propaganda tool and shrinking its pool of potential recruits.

What is more, any Palestinian state would materialize only amidst compromise. There will be no return to the 1967 borders; at most, Palestinians would be compensated for territorial adjustments made necessary by large blocs of Jewish settlements and Israeli security concerns. There will be nothing more than a token right of return for Palestinians to Israel. Jerusalem will remain undivided and at most shared. Terrorists would see all this as a sell-out, and they would target not just Israel but those Palestinians and Arab states who made peace with it.

Leaving aside that Al Qaeda has already targeted moderate Palestinians and Arab states who’ve made peace with Israel, I find it hard to believe that the president of the Council on Foreign Relations is really offering “the terrorists won’t like it” as a reason to not do something, especially something that he has already acknowledged “would be of real value” to the United States in the region.


When you cut through all the atmospherics, Haass’s argument pretty much comes down to the idea that President Obama shouldn’t announce his own comprehensive peace plan, because the likely failure of such a plan “risks discrediting good ideas, breeding frustration in the Arab world, and diluting America’s reputation for getting things done.” But, of course, as Gen. David Petraeus noted in his recent report to Congress, these are also among the consequences of a lack of progress on Israeli-Palestinian peace. What Haass has given us here, then, is not an argument for abandoning the peace process, but for how important it is — for reasons of both security and credibility — that we not fail.