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Why Palestine won’t remake the Middle East.

The most durable myth in the Middle East is: "It's Palestine, stupid." It lies at the heart of Barack Obama's Middle East diplomacy, which is why the president has been pummeling the Israelis and pushing the Palestinians to resume talks. According to this myth, the most urgent problem is not the Iranian bomb or Syrian ambitions. It is not Egypt, once an anchor of stability and now slipping into precarious irrelevance. It is not Iraq, which is tottering between occupation and anarchy. It is not Al Qaeda in Yemen, the return of the Taliban, or the ticking time bomb that is Pakistan. Nor is it despotism, illiteracy, and misery, or the oppression of women, sects, and creeds.

No, the problem is three slivers of land known as Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank, and this on a geostrategic stage that extends from Ankara to Afghanistan. Defuse that issue, and everything will fall into place. A paradigmatic example of this thinking came in a CNN interview with Jordan’s King Abdullah earlier this year. For him, “all the conflicts lead to Jerusalem.” Iran’s bomb project? Never mind, for “if we solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem, why would Iranians want to spend so much money on a military program? It makes no sense.”

Solve the Palestinian problem, the king opined, and then we can “start to unwind all the other pressure points inside of the Middle East.” So let’s start with Iran. The nuclear program goes back to the Shah. Iran was then Israel’s closest ally in the Middle East, and the last item on Reza Pahlavi’s far-flung agenda, if it was there at all, must have been Palestine. Today, Tehran is reaching for the bomb for the usual reasons: as deterrent, as badge of great-power status, as keystone of regional supremacy. Will the Khomeinists really ditch their nuclear venture once the Israeli oppressors have been driven from the Temple Mount, with its Al Aqsa Mosque? Of course not.

As for the region’s other conflicts: If Palestinians had a state, would Hamas and Fatah stop killing each other? They kill for power, not for Palestine. And if they have Hebron, what about Haifa? The Palestinians do deserve their own state, but it would be a revisionist one from the get-go, not a pillar of stability.

How about Syria? Once the Palestinian flag flies over Jerusalem, would Assad Junior call for free elections at home and take his heavy hand off Lebanon? Think again. Assad rules as head of the tiny Alawite minority; free elections would be his end. Also, Damascus has been claiming Lebanon as part of “Greater Syria” ever since France and Britain drew the borders after World War I—long before Israel was founded in 1948.

What about Egypt? Anwar Sadat made peace with Israel at Camp David not to liberate Palestine, but to regain the Sinai. Interestingly, that peace has held, cold as it is, for 30 years—never mind the occupation or Israel’s bloody foray into Gaza at the end of 2008. Again, let’s go back in history. Egypt’s dictator Nasser spent the ’50s and ’60s reaching for hegemony over the region—for the benefit of Egypt, not of Palestine.

Saddam Hussein fought the longest and bloodiest war in recent Middle Eastern history against Iran in order to diminish Iraq’s ancient rival and seize the oil fields of Khuzestan. Once in possession of the oil, Saddam did not intend to turn around and liberate Palestine. Nor did he grab Kuwait in 1990 as a way station on the road to Jerusalem. The game was regional supremacy.

And what about the Hashemites? In 1970, during “Black September,” Abdullah’s father, Hussein, killed more Palestinians—up to 25,000, they claimed—than Israel did in two intifadas (1987-1993, 2000-2005). If Palestine ever comes into being, Jordan will be the first to establish military oversight of the young state, which is not a pleasant prospect for amicability.

This does not end the tally of conflicts that have nothing to do with Palestine. Farther afield, think about civil war in Algeria, which claimed about 150,000 lives. Think about ethnic cleansing in Sudan; Libya’s belligerence and its nuclear program until 2003; Egypt’s war in Yemen in the ’60s, followed by civil war there in the ’90s. Even the most florid imagination fails to relate all this mayhem to Palestine.

Now shift to the domestic pathologies of the region. An independent Palestine will heal none of them. It will not end illiteracy, the second-class status of women, the mass unemployment of the young, the “state socialism” that asphyxiates economies. Nor will it end the rule of the few, be they king or colonel. It will not spawn research universities, independent media, or free institutions in general. Arab authoritarianism, not the situation of Palestine, is what stifles development and growth, while enshrining isolation from the rest of the world.

Despotism, of course, needs the enemy at the gate to distract peoples from their own lack of freedom. This, in the end, is where Palestine does play a role—but not in the sense that King Abdullah and others believe. It is a most convenient diversion that allows regimes to mobilize hatred against the Other that is Israel. Let the people imbibe this heady brew, and they will forget what really ails them—from poverty to repression. “Busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels,” Shakespeare’s Henry IV advises his son and successor. The point here is that the real sources of conflict lie at home.

Some argue that the resolution of the Palestine issue will soothe the souls of the masses and so at last allow the regimes to cast their lot with the United States. This assumes that despots are captives of their peoples; it is the other way around. It also assumes that Palestine overwhelms all other interests in the Arab calculus—that Arab leaders truly cherish America, but dare not commit as long as Washington keeps Israel on a long leash. Yet it is impossible to envision peace in Palestine turning Damascus or Tehran into U.S. allies, or causing Saudi Arabia to leap off the fence and join an American-led alliance against Iran. Nor will it stop Al Qaeda, which launched its crusade not for the sake of Palestine, but against the despoiler of sacred Islamic soil that is the United StatesBy all means, let’s have a Palestinian state. But let’s also dispatch the myth that such a state will “start to unwind all the other pressure points.” Shoddy myths make for faulty policy. 

Josef Joffe is editor of Die Zeit and a senior fellow of the Institute for International Studies, and an Abramowitz Fellow at the Hoover Institution, at Stanford. This article ran in the September 23, 2010 issue of the magazine.

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