It’s unclear who is behind the recent bus bombing in Jerusalem and the waves of rockets coming from Gaza. Yet the intent of these attacks is obvious—to change the subject from massive popular discontent with Arab regimes to one that both the region’s endangered rulers and the world’s political and intellectual elite are more comfortable with: the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
The fact that a wave of revolutions has shaken the foundations of Arab politics without the slightest apparent connection to popular outrage against Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians should be surprising to most experts and politicians in the West. For over four decades, the driving idea behind the West’s approach to the Middle East has been the supposed centrality of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to Arab popular anger at the West and its key to ensuring the stability of the West’s favored regimes. That the price tag for this American diplomatic instrument has been thousands of dead Jews and several lost generations of Arabs has, in the upside-down world of Mideast policymakers, made the achievement of an ever-elusive peace deal seem all the more important with every passing year.
This idea was a convenient point of agreement between Washington policymakers and Arab regimes. For Washington, the peace process was a good source of photo ops and a chance to show concern for human rights in the region without interfering with the propensity of America’s Arab allies to torture and murder their political opponents. As for the regimes, they were happy to escape criticism of their own failures—rampant corruption, lack of basic human rights and freedoms, and violence against the Arabs they rule—by blaming Israel.
Now the notion that the genie of revolution in the Arab world can be put back in the bottle by blaming Israel is laughable. Even Arab populations with no special love for the Jewish state know that the regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and now Syria were not loved or hated by their people because of their adherence or opposition to the Palestinian cause. In fact, one of the most baffling things about the current wave of Arab revolutions to professional Middle East watchers must be the complete absence of any mention of the Palestinians in popular demonstrations and regime counter-propaganda alike.
However there is a clear connection between the Palestinian cause and the wave of popular discontent that has upended the foundations of Arab politics. By pushing the centrality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for the past four decades, the West has helped to underwrite Arab repression at home. The rationale behind the emergency laws in places like Syria and Egypt (even now after Cairo’s “revolution”) is that because of the war with Israel, the Arab security states must be ever-vigilant and therefore forbid their people from exercising basic rights like freedom of speech—or, in the words of Gamal Abdel Nasser, “no voice louder than the cry of battle”—diktats that they enforce through torture and murder.
If the recent wave of revolutions in Arab countries has proven anything it is that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process isn’t even a convenient fiction by which Washington can make nice to the Arabs. Rather, it has been a recipe for failure on a grand scale—social, political, and economic—that has now been laid bare. While the Arab regimes are being held responsible for their failures by their fed-up populations, Washington seems to feel no need to hold itself accountable for the collapse of a set of enabling fictions that has greatly diminished our position in a region that is of crucial strategic importance for the United States both militarily and economically.
So, who might have an interest in the sort of disruption and realignments the Jerusalem bus bombing has caused? Maybe it was the Syrians tapping a few of their Palestinian assets to heat things up in Israel. With so many people on the streets of Syrian cities burning pictures of President Bashar al-Assad and toppling statues of his father, Hafez, from whom he inherited this authoritarian Baathist regime, the leadership in Damascus could sure use a lifeline. And the U.S. administration, always on the prowl for another go at the peace process, is happy to throw it one.
Or perhaps it was the Islamic Republic of Iran, attacking Israel through proxies in order to signal to Washington that maybe they’re ready to come to the table at last. If this turns out to be the case, it will be worth remembering that President Barack Obama failed to support the protesters who took to the streets for Iran’s Green Revolution in June 2009—because he wanted to engage an Iranian regime he thought was ready to deal on a host of Israel-related matters, such as Hezbollah and Iran’s nuclear program.
Of course even then the blame couldn’t fall exclusively on Obama. It’s all a matter of perspective, for in reality everyone plays the same vicious hand, from U.S. presidents to Arab regimes, as well as Arab “liberals,” and even the government of Israel itself.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, for example, reached out to Syria when he embarked on a quiet round of negotiations with Damascus under Turkey’s supervision in 2007. Up until then, President George W. Bush’s administration had put the Syrians in isolation after their suspected involvement in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. But Olmert was facing a domestic crisis, including charges of corruption, and he knows how the game works—as soon as the international community gets a whiff of the peace process, everything else is put aside: The Arab regimes get a free pass for killing Arabs if they say they’re willing to talk to the Jews.
Still, Olmert’s opening freed the Syrians from their separation and brought the rest of an international community back to Damascus on bended knee—with France in the forefront. So what if the Syrians tortured their own people, murdered Lebanese journalists and political figures, and helped kill U.S. soldiers and American allies in Iraq, as well as Palestinians and Israelis? Olmert needed some breathing space, and the rest of the world was happy to comply.
Whoever attacked Israel last week knows how the game works, too, and sure enough in short order the U.S. policy community jumped to attention. Instead of pushing to cut off the regime in Damascus as the Syrian people braved death to go the streets, American policymakers like Sen. John Kerry and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered their bona fides. “There is a different leader in Syria now,” Clinton said of the man believed responsible for ordering the murder of Hariri. “Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a reformer.” Never mind that her own State department says rather that Syria is a state sponsor of terror; Washington will do nothing to help the Syrians who’ve come out against their own government, because the U.S. president is going to make good on his word to engage dictators, no matter how many Arabs have to die as he proves his point.
The pro-Israel community in the United States must also share in the blame, or at least that large segment of it that has invested its energy and money in backing the peace process. Some say peace talks have to bring in the hardliners, like Hamas and Hezbollah—even as that means empowering those who have most to gain through murder. Those who want to keep the terrorist outfits out of negotiations are less stupid than they are cynical, for they know that in truth any agreement without Hamas and Hezbollah isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. Others say that the peace process is phony, but it’s a diplomatic tool that Washington uses to keep our Muslim allies off our back.
And finally there are the Arab “liberals,” those Western-educated intellectuals who fill the editorial pages of the U.S. press with pleas to push harder on the peace process lest we empower the radicals. But at this stage the peace process does nothing except empower radicals by providing them with a staging ground.
The peace process wasn’t so bad when it started. Sure, President Jimmy Carter nearly undermined the prospects for an Egyptian-Israeli treaty when he tried to bring in the Palestinians and Syrians, but Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was savvy enough to escape the American president’s grand plans. And surely Sadat’s idea of reorienting Egypt from the Soviet Union toward the United States was a good thing for the Egyptian people. There’s also a Jordanian-Israeli deal on the books. But we’re just now beginning to see how high the price is.
There are the thousands of Israelis who were killed and injured when Hezbollah, Hamas, and other Palestinian factions negotiated on behalf of Syria, Iran, and others through the use of terror. And there are the thousands of Arabs killed and injured when the Israelis responded. But this is no “meaningless” cycle of violence; rather, it is the product of a deliberate diplomatic process overseen by the world’s oldest democracy. It was the United States that kept going back to the well over and over, with U.S. policymakers telling themselves that anything was worth the chance of peace.
Suicide bombing and the attacks of Sept. 11 were the logical conclusions to a strategy that started with a fund of surplus Arab youth that the regimes could dispose of as they saw fit. It is that same disposable youth that have taken to the streets these last three months—Arab men under the age of 30 who have no prospects because their regimes turned their countries into economic basket-cases and physical torture chambers, with Washington’s blessing. What they got in return for their suffering were the other-worldly fictions of a peace process that have now been laid bare.
Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).