A few days ago I came across a 2008 interview with a renowned author in which, without going into detail, the writer spoke about the need for new ideas to solve “the conflict in the Middle East.” It wasn’t that many years ago when that was shorthand for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or perhaps, more broadly, for the tensions between Israelis and Arabs.
Today, the vague term conjures up something quite different: a storm of complicated, multifaceted, military, ideological, political, sectarian, tactical and strategic divisions.
If I say “Middle East conflict,” what comes to mind?
Perhaps you think of the rise of the Islamic State; or the catastrophic civil war in Syria; or the plight of the Kurds; or the fighting in Yemen, or in Libya; or the crackdown against Muslim Brotherhood supporters in Egypt; or al Qaida-linked fighters in Sinai and in Syria or deep political strains between Qatar and its neighbors in the Persian Gulf. I could go on – and on and on.
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To be sure, the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, tragically, remains with us. But the one aspect of Middle East turmoil that one might have expected to have been swept away in the mayhem is the obsessive need to blame everything that goes on in the Middle East on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
That’s why it was face-slappingly baffling to hear Secretary of State John Kerry revive that old phony linkage. Blaming all the problems of the region on the lack of an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians was always an absurd twisting of the facts. It was always wrong, but by now the notion really should have been dead and buried.
During a ceremony at the State Department in Washington to mark the Muslim feast of Eid al-Adha, Kerry spoke of the need to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and then he made a statement that is as foolish as it is dangerous. That conflict, he said, is fueling recruitment for ISIS. “People need to understand the connection,” he said, explaining “it has something to do with humiliation and denial and absence of dignity.” Hogwash; dangerous, unfounded, and counterproductive rubbish.
Kerry is handing the Palestinian cause to ISIS, which is not driven in any way by concern for Palestinians, but by a loudly proclaimed wish to rule Muslims all over the world, all the lands that ever belonged to any Muslim empire, and revive an ancient caliphate. ISIS does not want to help the Palestinians. It wants to rule over them. It wants to impose its brutal ways over them, subjugate or kill anyone that opposes them. ISIS has absolutely nothing to do with Israelis and Palestinians, except that it wishes to conquer the territories where they both live.
The State Department denied Kerry had linked the two, saying the remarks were taken out of context. I believe the secretary has nothing if not good intentions, but I also think the old linkage idea lives on as a dated, but unkillable, cliche in diplomatic circles.
Kerry obviously yearns for an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. So do I. So do millions of people. The goal is worthy in itself, but it doesn’t need to be justified with absurd connections that somehow disembody it from its many intrinsic challenges. We don’t wish for peace between Israelis and Palestinians because it would stop the rise of extremism. We need it because when two peoples live side by side in peace they all live better lives; because reaching a good, stable and lasting agreement that ends decades of tensions that regularly explode into war would be a wonderful thing all by itself.
It is distressing, depressing, demoralizing to see that peace between them looks so distant, and any good ideas for resolving the conflict, any successful efforts to find a peaceful and lasting solution would be cause for celebration.
But let’s not fool ourselves. Peace between Israelis and Palestinians will not end extremism. It will not help “degrade and destroy” ISIS. It will not bring Sunnis and Shiites together. It will not extinguish radical ideologies. Even after there is peace in that part of the region, the “conflict in the Middle East” will not be over.
Frida Ghitis writes about global affairs for the Miami Herald.