Few regional conflicts attract more diplomatic energy, media coverage and attention on the part of human rights activists than that between Israel and the Palestinians. From President Donald Trump, who tantalizingly promises a “deal of the century” to end seven decades of strife, to the thousands of pro-Palestinian demonstrators I saw march through the streets of London earlier this month, figures on all sides of this intractable dispute endow it with an awesome significance demanding our utmost concern.
“Without doubt, the path to peace in the Middle East goes through Jerusalem,” former President Jimmy Carter, who oversaw the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace agreement, declared in 2008. “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the single most combustible and galvanizing issue in the Arab world,” his national security advisor, the late, estimable Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote four years earlier. At the United Nations Human Rights Council, resolutions criticizing Israel regularly outnumber those targeting Syria, Cuba, Russia, China, Venezuela and North Korea – combined.
Just how profoundly many people in Washington take the view that a near-mystical force connects Palestinian statelessness to all manner of global conflicts was encapsulated in a 2011 speech I witnessed by President Barack Obama’s national security advisor, James Jones. “I am of the belief that had God appeared in front of President Obama in 2009 and said if he could do one thing on the face of the planet, and one thing only, to make the world a better place and give people more hope and opportunity for the future,” Jones told an Israeli audience, “I would venture that it would have something to do with finding the two-state solution to the Middle East.”
Not a cure for cancer, not the emancipation of the world’s women, not even a panacea to arrest global warming. No, according to the then-senior-most national security counselor to the most powerful man in the world, it’s the failure to create the world’s 23rd Arab state on the eastern Mediterranean that keeps the Almighty up at night.
Jones’ intervention was particularly ill timed. Just two weeks earlier, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down under the weight of protests to his 30 years of corrupt and oppressive rule. In nearby Syria, Bashar Assad would soon unleash merciless state violence against a peaceful uprising to his dynastic regime. The Syrian conflict erupted into a civil war that has taken the lives of at least half a million people, destabilized whole swaths of the Middle East, and created a refugee crisis that sparked a populist revolt in Europe. Neither of the upheavals in Egypt and Syria, each of enormous geopolitical significance, had anything whatsoever to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
By investing the Palestinian cause with such monumental importance, politicians and polemicists mistake a regional quarrel for a global struggle. Even before the state of Israel was founded more than 70 years ago, Arab regimes and their Western sympathizers began pushing a narrative that the proverbial “Arab street” is stirred by nothing more deeply than the fate of Palestine. Yet, as the so-called “Arab Spring” demonstrated, what really motivates the Arab masses are not Israeli settlements in the West Bank but the daily indignities of their own lives, blame for which lies with their rulers, not the Jews. And as for those rulers, Shia Iran’s growing assertiveness on a variety of fronts — a nuclear program on the threshold of weaponization, suborning the genocidal Assad regime, fueling the ruinous war in Yemen — has led the Sunni Arab states to reach a historic realignment with the nation they used to lambaste as “the Zionist entity.”
The human cost of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is also marginal compared with other contemporaneous world conflicts. Since five Arab armies invaded the nascent Jewish state in 1948, the total number of casualties incurred on both sides pales in comparison to the lives lost in the Congolese civil war, the Russian carpet-bombing of Chechnya, or North Korea’s politically engineered famines. As you read this, some 1 million Uighur Muslims are languishing in Chinese reeducation camps, suffering a fate far more heinous than that endured by the average Palestinian.
The amount of global resources heaped upon the Palestinians appears wholly disproportionate when contrasted to the measly efforts expended upon other stateless peoples, like the Tibetans and Kurds, whose claims are at least as justified and whose tactics have been nowhere near as morally objectionable. (It was the Palestinians, after all, who pioneered the scourge of terrorism in the 1960s and ’70s.) And as for the argument that U.S. military aid to Israel validates heightened attention to the conflict, a comparison with U.S. commitments — in actual blood and treasure — to treaty allies in Europe and Asia renders it hollow.
That the Palestinians lack a state is a tragedy, but it is a tragedy largely of their own making. More than once have they been presented with the opportunity to create a sovereign country alongside Israel; each and every time they responded with violence. On the long and growing list of world problems, the absence of a Palestinian state ranks somewhere between the conflicts over Transnistria and Western Sahara, neither of which you are likely to read about on newspaper front pages.