Favorite "Key Issue" Fizzles Out
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With the civil war in Syria grinding through its third year, Egypt descended into ethnic and inter-religious barbarism, and the American Secretary of State reduced to promising "unbelievably small" action by the world's only super-power, it is hard to find any chinks of light. But one, perhaps, exists. It is that we may finally have seen the explosion of one of the most embedded and central myths of our time: the idea that the Israel-Palestinian conflict is the "key" to sorting out the problems of the Middle East.
After seeing what has happened since the "Arab Spring" began, this might be an appropriate moment to ask whether or not every Western foreign minister deserves simply to be sacked and sent back to school. Rarely in diplomatic history has so much been got so wrong by so many people for so long.
For at least the twenty years since the Oslo Accords, the idea that the Israel-Palestinian conflict was the "key" to unlocking the problems of the Middle East was the leitmotif of any discussion about the Middle East and North Africa areas. So pervasive was it that people could refer to the "Middle East" problem as though everyone agreed that there was only one problem across that whole set of benighted lands.
While of course it would be nice if all disputes could be solved — Cyprus, Kashmir, Turkey, Morocco, Tibet -- what is worse is that the allegation came from every side of the political spectrum. Politicians of the left said it. Politicians of the right said it. The idea that solving the Israel/Palestinian question was the key to unlocking the problems of the region was what everyone who wanted to sound as if they knew what they were saying was most delighted to say: "What was that about Yemen? Well of course the real problem we need to solve is the Israel/Palestinian issue." "A bomb was planted in which Western city? Well what we really need to do is solve that border dispute issue of the Israelis."
Further, one of the oddest things about all this is that for some reason, when the alleged centrality of the issue should have been swept aside most completely, it became instead even more central.
After 9/11, when Western cities began to be places on the frontline of a global effort to express innumerable Islamist grievances and extort endless Islamist demands, the free world's leaders instead decided to play this long-defunct tune one more time.
For instance there was the whole Bush era push to address the "key" issue. Tony Blair boasted in his memoirs of his determination to persuade George W. Bush that the quid pro quo for support for the war in Iraq must be a boost to the Israel-Palestinian peace process. Blair's belief in the centrality of the issue was endless -- as it remains. Then, as now, it was confirmed by a particular type of politician on the ground. Blair recalls a meeting with the Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora in September 2006 in which Siniora stressed that there could never be peace in the region until "Israel/Palestine" was resolved. "With it, everything is possible; without it, nothing is," he said. Blair clearly nodded this through, "I pledged again to do what I could to get the U.S. president to refocus our efforts on it."
Elsewhere Blair recalls another period of mulling on the Israel/Palestinian issue. "With that [the peace talks] stalled, all manner of bad things were going to happen." This idea was not just the pet theory of the Prime Minister. It permeated the Foreign Office establishment as well as Blair's disciples and heirs in Parliament. David Miliband, his former Foreign Secretary was still talking about the centrality of the dispute just last year when, by then in opposition, he used a television interview on something else entirely to talk about that this dispute being the one that was "key" and most in need of addressing.
This is not, however, just a Labour party problem. The Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron has repeated the same theme ad nauseum. And so has the Foreign Secretary William Hague and every one of the current political establishment with barely one exception.
If a list of exponents of this fallacy were ever compiled in full it would outrun the patience of the most diligent reader. The message, needless to say, ran across Europe. Catherine Ashton -- the lamentable EU Foreign Minister -- has spent her time in office even since 2009 parroting the "key to the region" motif. She has shown a remarkable ability to hold this thought in her head even as her period of office has seen the Middle East fall apart almost everywhere other than in the Israel/Palestinian areas. Even the former head of the British domestic intelligence service, MI5, has said that the "grievance" over the Israel/Palestinian issue is a factor we must address for domestic security reasons.
I have dwelt on Britain, but the same story can be told anywhere in the West. It can be told by the bucket-load in each and every European country. And of course the same story can be told in the U.S. -- where the current administration as well as their predecessors seem to have swallowed the motif hook, line and sinker.
In three years of uprisings, overthrows, revolutions and counter-revolutions, barely a protestor in any country has come out onto the streets to express their irritation at current housing arrangements in East Jerusalem. In every instance they have come out to demand a say in their future or to demand work, fair pay, opportunities or simple amenities such as food. The demands of the Palestinian people and their propagandists in the West have not even been at the bottom of the list of demands in a single one of the Arab uprisings. And just as Israel has played no part in their revolutions, so it has played less-than-no part in their ensuing civil conflicts.
It is time to face up to the fact that in almost all Western countries, entire foreign ministries and political establishments have been caught repeating a motif so wrong-headed, so completely mistaken that if they had any shame, they should now be silent. In the meantime we should tell them that although it is possible we will listen to them at some point in the future, we will not do so until they have gone away for a time and successfully retuned.
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