June 21, 2015
There are those in the international community who have long claimed that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the root cause of the Middle East's problems.
Among the more prominent voices articulating this notion has been Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. He has asserted that the absence of a Palestinian state is the crux of all problems in the Middle East.
And former British Prime Minister Tony Blair once wrote: "How can we bring peace to the Middle East unless we resolve the question of Israel and Palestine?" Achieving peace, he continued, "would not only silence reactionary Islam's most effective rallying call, but fatally undermine its basic ideology."
The widespread use of the words "Middle East Peace Process" (MEPP) has served to reinforce this view that if the heart of the region's problems is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, then, ipso facto, solving it could usher in a Kantian era of "perpetual peace."
Consider, for instance, the job titles of these officials dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian agenda: Nickolay Mladenov, United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process; Fernando Gentilini, the EU Special Representative for the Middle East Peace Process; and Tony Blair, until recently the Representative of the Quartet to the Middle East Peace Process. (For the record, the American counterpart position is named U.S. Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations.)
Or this statement from the Irish Ministry of Foreign Affairs: "Ireland has a long record of support for a lasting peace in the Middle East based on a two-state solution."
But, of course, there's one fundamental flaw in this reasoning — it defies the facts on the ground.
Needless to say, an enduring accord between Israel and the Palestinians would remove one of the long-standing conflicts in the Middle East. No doubt about that. Moreover, peace in and of itself is a sacred objective.
But the idea that such a settlement is the pathway to wider peace in the Middle East, or that it would take the wind out of radical Islam's sails, is unsupported by the facts. Apropos, when al-Qaeda listed its "grievances" prompting 9/11, the Palestinian issue wasn't even mentioned.
Let's assume for a moment that Israel somehow added a peace treaty with the Palestinians to those it's enjoyed with Egypt since 1979 and Jordan since 1994. Or, for that matter, let's go a step further and, for a minute, remove Israel from the regional picture entirely, as if it did not exist.
Would that prove Erdoğan right? Would the Middle East achieve peace?
Not even close.
Would Iran abandon its nuclear ambitions, ICBM program, regional destabilization, apocalyptic eschatology, support for terrorist groups, and human rights oppression?
Would Syria's civil war, with its heavy outside involvement, suddenly come to a halt? Would the massive killings cease? Would all the various groups turn their swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks? Would the millions of refugees confidently return home to live happily ever after? Would the collapsed state be rebuilt?
Would Yemen overnight end its civil war that has drawn in Iranians and Saudis on opposite sides? Would the country stop serving as a sanctuary for al-Qaeda and its leaders who plot against Americans, among others?
Would the Shi'ite-Sunni split, with its profound political and strategic ramifications, just evaporate into thin air? Would the deadly bombings of one another's mosques come to a halt?
Would Iraq magically transform itself into a unitary nation? Would Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds gather around campfires to sing "Kumbaya?" Would Iran end its interference in Iraq's affairs?
Would Islamic State disappear, abandoning its quest for a caliphate, withdrawing from areas it's captured in Iraq and Syria, leaving the Yazidis alone, and calling on its affiliates, such as Boko Haram, to stop their spree of killings and kidnappings?
And would it reconsider its chilling ultimatum to Christians — leave, convert, or be killed?
Speaking of Christians, would the dramatic outflow of persecuted Christians from the Arab Middle East instantaneously come to an end?
Would the millions of Kurds, scattered across Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, enjoy self-determination and a nation of their own?
Would Turkey withdraw its troops from northern Cyprus where they've been deployed for the past 41 years, release imprisoned journalists, ease the conditions of the Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul, and become more cooperative in dealing with the flow of "foreign fighters" en route to and from Iraq and Syria?
Would Saudi Arabia stop exporting its Wahhabi model of Islam, with its narrow, obscurantist view of the world and rejection of non-Muslims as so-called infidels, across the globe?
And would it allow women to drive, permit construction of churches, and teach respect for all faiths in its school system?
Would the radical Muslim Brotherhood just close up shop in Egypt, Gaza, Jordan, and elsewhere?
Would disintegrating Libya awaken the next morning as a stable and unified country, with a central government, control over its borders and weaponry, and no significant trace of Islamic State?
Would the International Criminal Court indictment against Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes — an indictment ignored by South Africa during Bashir's recent visit — be withdrawn?
Would democracy replace the filial dynasties and occasional coups d'etat in the region?
Would women gain full equality of opportunity and protection under the law?
Would the poverty and illiteracy that dampen hope and create a fertile recruiting ground for Islamist movements suddenly be alleviated?
Would the non-stop migration, mostly headed towards Europe, screech to a halt, because of a new era of political freedom and economic prospects?
Would the majority of the region's religious leaders heed the words of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi at Cairo's Al Azhar University, and begin preaching peaceful coexistence and mutual respect?
The painfully sad truth is that it is political oppression, human rights abuses, religious dogmas, intellectual suffocation, and gender discrimination that explain, far more than other factors, the chronic difficulties of the wider Middle East.
To be sure, there are no overnight or over-the-counter remedies for these deeply entrenched maladies that would allow the region to unleash, at long last, its vast potential, but let's be clear: they, and not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, are at the true epicenter of the problem.
It's long overdue to get real about the region — and stop living in the world of illusions. A first step would be to drop the misleading term "Middle East Peace Process." That's not simply wordsmithing, but rather changing the way we think about this vital and volatile region.