The Myth of Mideast Stability

By Elliot Jager
Monday, September 26, 2011

The U.S. Ambassador to Israel recently told the International Conference on Economic Regional Cooperation in Tel Aviv that unless Israel and the Palestinians resume negotiations, "the lack of peace will decrease stability dangerously" in the Middle East. The Ambassador was merely repeating an idea that has become diplomatic dogma—the notion that the absence of a peace deal contributes "dangerously" to regional instability.

But the Israeli-Palestinian impasse, in relation to Middle East instability, is like a lighted match tossed into a three-alarm fire.  The number of Arab League member-states not riven by violence and upheaval can be counted on one hand, with fingers to spare.  The reasons for the Mideast's rolling boil are unconnected to the Jewish state.

Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began this year, remains a desperate place, in which unemployed teachers have threatened to commit suicide.  After months of quarrels with other political groups, the Islamist party has agreed to elections for an assembly that will write a new Tunisian constitution.  Given the Islamists' ascendancy, the odds that a Western-style democracy will emerge are low.

In post-Mubarak Egypt, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is baiting Israel in his bid to establish Turkey's regional leadership, continued his campaign with a trip to Cairo.  Having won the adoration of Cairo's masses, old guard Muslim Brotherhood leaders pointedly warned the premier of non-Arab Turkey against making a play for Middle East hegemony.  "We welcome Turkey and we welcome Erdogan as a prominent leader," said Essam El-Erian, the Brotherhood's deputy leader, "but we do not think that he or his country alone should be leading the region or drawing up its future."  The Egyptians discouraged Erdogan from visiting Gaza or Tahrir Square; and Erdogan's Obama-style speech at the Cairo Opera House, meant to rally the Muslim world against Israel, was not broadcast live in Egypt.  No matter who rules Egypt, its rivalry and tensions with Persia and Turkey will continue.

In near-forgotten Iraq, Sunnis and Shi'ites are still at each others' throats. In Syria, violence perpetrated by President Bashar al-Assad has claimed more than 2,400 lives, with no end in sight.  The Shi'ites in power in Iran will likely stand by their client Assad, though they have backed off their public support.  But Saudi Arabia's Sunni leaders have sided with the Sunni Syrian street, while Sunni Turkey has openly hosted anti-Assad opposition groups.  Even the possibility that Syria will fragment can't be ruled out.  Israel is nowhere in the picture.

Lebanon's fate is ever more precarious.  The country's neighboring Syrian hegemon lies politically stricken, while Beirut's more distant Persian overlord is riven by acrimony between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.  No wonder Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikatia puppet of Lebanese Hezbollah, allied with Syria and Irancomplains, albeit with notable understatement, about the "unhealthy mood" in Lebanon's polity.  Lebanon's Maronite Patriarch, Bechara Boutros al-Rai's, with Hezbollah's boot on his neck, finds himself praising the Assad regime. Other Christian leaders feel emboldened enough to challenge Hezbollah's corruption. 

Instability driven largely by the absence of political legitimacy is endemic throughout the region.  Take oil-rich Libya: Centrifugal tribal forces, fractious Islamists beholden to the Gulf States, and comparative modernizers all vie for control.  It's anyone's guess whether the country will cohere in the hoped-for post-Qaddafi era.  Neighboring Sudan has been partitioned, yet north-south fighting continues along the new border.  The situation is no less bloody in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia is trying to finesse a deal to protect Riyadh's Sunni interests against those of the Iranian-backed Shi'ite Houthis.  Here, too, the question is whether a war-ravaged country can hold together.  Meanwhile, a similar Iranian-Saudi rivalry plays out in Bahrain.

Israel and the Palestinian situation are no part of these equations. Nor are they factors in the foreboding that regional turmoil continues to produce among the Christian, Druse, Alawite, and Berber minorities in the regionnot to mention the Kurds, whose homeland stretches across parts of Iran, Iraq, and Turkey and whose rightful case for self-determination has been oddly shunted aside by champions of the Palestinian cause.

Conversely, there is no reason to think that UN approval of Palestinian statehood will increase regional stability.  Certainly it will not increase prospects for long-term security in Jordan's Hashemite Kingdom.  For the past several weeks King Abdullah, ostensibly angered over an Israeli remark implying that Jerusalem might pursue a "Jordan is Palestine" strategy, has lashed out at Israel and protested his fidelity to the idea of Palestinian statehood.  Yet the king knows that Israel is his bulwark and that the threats to his throne come from Jordan's internal Islamist opposition, deep-seated economic woes, and the kingdom's episodically restive Palestinian Arab majority, not to mention the nightmare scenario of a Hamas takeover in the West Bank.

Speaking of Hamas, the UN's recognition of Palestinian statehood on the terms proposed by the Palestine Liberation Organization, which rules the West Bank, will not even increase stability within the Palestinian polity, let alone throughout the region.  Can anyone imagine Hamas granting Mahmoud Abbas safe passage to visit Gaza?

The turmoil in the Arab world will persist irrespective of what happens on the Israeli-Palestinian track.  To be gripped by the delusion that solving the "Question of Palestine" will deliver stability to the Middle East requires overlooking intrinsic regional, tribal, ethnic, and religious fault lines.  The Middle East will continue to boil no matter how much "Palestine" is empowered, no matter the extent to which Israel's security interests are denigrated, and no matter how much diplomatic capital is invested in an attempt to fill the bottomless pit of the Palestinian sense of victimization.

Thus, no matter how much the international community wishes to cater to the Arabs on the "Palestine" issue, Israeli security cannot realistically be traded for regional stability.  Misguided UN action on the Palestinian issue can have no significant constructive impact on regional unrest and will not provide breathing space for Arab and Muslim rulers threatened at home or abroad.  

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