Yesterday morning I watched on BBC News the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, walking into the courtroom where he is to be tried for corruption. He is impossible to read- his mask makes it even more difficult. In repose his intentions and personality are inscrutable. On the most important political issue of all- whether to support a two state solution- sometimes he has said he is for it, but now he says he doesn’t. He prefers, it seems, to keep to the status quo, which means expanding Jewish settlements on Arab Palestinian land and refusing any political life to the occupied Palestinians. But we don’t really know what his inner thoughts are.
Why can’t he see that the status quo cannot be a viable political goal?
Why? First, because of the demographics- a Muslim majority in Israeli-controlled territory is less than a decade a way. In rejecting a two-state solution Israel is effectively creating a single state encompassing both Jews and Arabs with the Palestinians of the West Bank deprived of a vote. To all intents and purposes it would imitate the South Africa of apartheid days, a unitary state with a minority group attempting to rule by oppression over a majority.
The only way to bring peace is to do what the white South Africans did under President F.W. de Klerk. As he once explained to me, he felt compelled to negotiate with the African National Congress led by Nelson Mandela, not because of the outside world’s sanctions, but because he realized that South Africa was becoming unlivable for all and a way had to be found for the minority to live safely under the rule of the majority.
Perhaps it’s time overdue for the U.S. and Europe to make clear that the preservation of Israel as a pure Jewish state is no longer of strategic concern whose interests must be preserved at all cost, by money, by political muscle and, in case of a showdown, by the support of the force of arms. If this penny can be made to drop in the Israeli mind and the Jewish diaspora then, as happened with white South Africans, it would be time to sit down with the Palestinians and work out how to hold an election in a unitary state.
But for this to occur the West has to shed its notion of the whole of the Middle East being strategically important.
In reality in strategic terms the Arab-Israeli conflict has become almost irrelevant since the end of the Cold War. This conflict has had no impact on oil prices since the 1973 Saudi embargo, the last time the ‘oil weapon’ was wielded. Now the American shale boom has made the US almost independent of foreign oil supplies, Saudi Arabia’s whip hand over the oil market has been tied into knots.
Over many decades, the West seems to have bought the Israeli argument that they are up against the threat of the combined armies of the Arab world. But military expenditure in all the Arab states, apart from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, has fallen rapidly since the 1973 war. Even when Egypt was aided by massive Soviet military purchases and gifts in the 1960s it was quickly defeated in both 1967 and 1973. Moreover, without today’s American military aid and sales, Egypt’s military would be almost impotent.
The West made the same mistake of overestimating Iraqi military power in the 1990s. Saddam Hussein’s divisions were counted as if they were well trained German Panzers. But when the war came the Iraqi air force fled to Iran and the tanks became target practice for the Western invaders. The second Gulf War had an even more farcical rationale (but it wasn’t that funny) with the assumption that despite sanctions Iraq had built a terrifying arsenal of ultra modern weapons of mass destruction.
Even with non-Arab Iran and its terrorist acolytes, Hezbollah and Hamas, we are whipped into hysterics of ‘fear of the terrorist’. Yet their activities are very localized, unlike the Palestinian strikes of the 60s and 70s. Iran’s own special international terrorist department has produced only one major bombing in the Middle East and that was in Saudi Arabia in 1996. Other belligerent activities have been rather minor. Iran’s relationship with Al Qaeda and ISIS has long been one of hostility.
Even if Iran is developing nuclear weapons (which it is probably not) which could be aimed at Israel, to say that the people of Iran patriotically support the endeavor is a large overstatement. Persian nationalism and anti-semitism is a minority position in a country where half the population is not even Persian.
In short, the West should decouple itself from the Middle East, from both the Arab side and the Israeli side (and Iran). It should declare it has no strategic interest in the region and certainly not with Israel. This would create the space for both the Palestinians and the Israelis to look each other in the eye and realize it is they who have to find a way to peace- either a two state arrangement or a unitary democratic state. If they need an interlocutor the UN is able call upon the services of many experienced and admirable negotiators. Only when Israel no longer can count on US support will it bite on the bullet of compromise and good sense.