There has long been a conventional wisdom in some foreign policy circles that runs like this: solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and you will harmonise the Middle East, crush the recruitment strategy of jihadists and keep the misery of the modern Arab world far from our screens and our shores.
Jordan’s King Abdullah said as much at a press conference at the White House in April: ‘The Israeli-Palestinian conflict … is essentially the core conflict in our region’. Barack Obama’s former chief advisor on countering Isis, Rob Malley, expressed a similar view albeit in more judicious terms when he said ‘… one of the reasons to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict… is that it would help diffuse an issue that is fuelling extremism,’ as though a jihadist will be de-radicalised upon reading of mutually agreed land swaps and greater co-operation on water access by Israel and the Palestinians.
While the theory never made much sense anyway, events in the past few years have decisively debunked the notion that the Israeli-Palestinian issue is anywhere near the heart of the chaos in the Middle East or that its resolution would impact on the broader strife.
The rise of Islamic State in Libya, Syria and Iraq, the hegemonic designs of Iran, the increasing authoritarianism of Erdogan in Turkey, violent conflict between Sunni and Shia in Bahrain, Yemen and Saudi Arabia have precisely nothing to do with Israel and the Palestinians.
A peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, while noble and important in its own right, would have zero impact on the massacre of civilians on European streets, the destruction of cultural sites, the genocide of ethnic minorities or the titanic struggle between the rival successors to the prophet Mohammed that is at the heart of the Shia/Sunni schism.
It is for this reason that Foreign Policy magazine, in releasing it annual list of ‘10 conflicts to watch’, made no mention of the Israeli-Palestinian issue, instead leading with Syria/Iraq and closing with Putin’s annexation of the Crimea and President Trump’s looming stand-off with Mexico over the possible mass deportations of millions of undocumented immigrants from the United States.
The second wobbly old plank of conventional foreign policy wisdom is that by altering our behaviour and changing our posture towards adherents of radical Islam, détente could be reached.
In its most extreme forms, this expression of western angst and self-loathing descends into the realms of the comical.
Christine Shawcroft, who sits on British Labour’s National Executive Committee argued that ‘… having cups of tea might actually be the best kind of system of defence and national security that you could have.’ How very British though certainly not in the Churchill ‘we will fight them on the beaches…’ way. In essence, Shawcroft was urging hearing out the jihadists and presumably seeking to make concessions over warm beverages to those who view the slaughter of children in concert halls and pub-goers on a Saturday night in London, not as a cowardly abomination but as a glorious victory on the battlefield.
Similarly, during the 2014 Israel-Hamas war, British presenter Jon Snow harangued Israeli spokesman Mark Regev, urging him to talk it out with Hamas, in the midst of a war during which Hamas fighters had successfully rocketed Israeli cities including Jerusalem and had killed Israelis through raids conducted by sea and air and via a network of underground tunnels passing under Israeli villages and communal farms.
‘Why don’t you talk to Hamas? Why not talk? Why not be brave and talk directly to them? Why not? Why won’t you speak with Hamas directly? You haven’t got the courage,’ Snow assailed, ignoring the madness of having a good old chat with a group constituted with the sole mission of destroying any autonomous Jewish presence in the Middle East.
Of course, there is a great appeal to this sort of thinking. If by tempering our language on terrorism, extracting ourselves from foreign conflicts, and getting the Israelis to down tools on the latest apartment block or kids playground in disputed territory, we could prevent the suffering and carnage that has become normal, it would mean that the problem was readily solvable.
Leaving aside the sweeping arrogance and self-absorption of such thinking, it is plainly divorced from reality. Run that logic past the Copts of Egypt, who just buried their dead after 29 of their people were ambushed by jihadists while travelling to a monastery south of Cairo. Tell them that if only their foreign policy outlook or posture towards radical Islam were more accommodating they wouldn’t suffer periodic massacres. Tell it to the enslaved Yazidi or the beleaguered nation of Assyria. Tell them that is their conduct and their policies that are at the root of their own misfortune.
In our desperation to conceive of a coherent strategy for insulating ourselves from the medieval barbarism emanating from parts of the Middle East, we inevitably rationalise and search for change by looking inward at our own conduct or else outward not at the culprits but at rational actors like Israel whose conduct we feel we can control. We foolishly assume that the fundamentally unreasonable will respond to reason.
The hard truth is that evil has always existed and it can never be satiated, negotiated with or reformed.
The murderers of civilians in London and Manchester or Christian pilgrims in Cairo, the vandals of Palmyra and the arsonists of Joseph’s Tomb in the West Bank are moved by irrational hatred and a compulsion to destroy things of beauty until our lives take on the misery of theirs. The greatest mistake we could make in our war against jihadism is to respond to irrational acts with our own irrational thinking.
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