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The Dynamics for Peace in the Middle East

21 Jul 2009 17:4319 Comments

The three critical dynamics determining whether the Middle East conflict moves towards peace: US-Israel relations, Israeli compliance with international laws and norms, and the capacity of the Arabs to engage meaningfully in promoting a credible peace process.

By RAMI G. KHOURI in Beirut | 21 July 2009

One of the most important political dynamics in the Middle East these days is the escalating war of words between the United States and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the international demand to freeze Jewish settlements and colonies in Arab lands occupied in 1967. It is surprising yet heartening that the Obama team has come out strongly demanding that Israel freeze the expansion of all settlements and colonies, with no exceptions for natural growth, pre-approved projects or anything else.

More unusual has been the American president's public reiteration of this position, including in the presence of the Israeli prime minister in the White House. The United States took this stance one significant step forward a few days ago when it publicly called for the reversal of official Israeli approval for building a new Jewish housing project in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Arab east Jerusalem.

Settlements expansion is only one of many core issues comprising the Palestinian-Israeli and Arab-Israeli conflict; yet it has become the litmus test of three critical dynamics that may determine whether this conflict moves towards peaceful resolution or continues to radicalize and destabilize the entire Middle East as it has for over 60 years. These three are US-Israel relations, Israeli compliance with international laws and norms, and the capacity of the Arabs to engage meaningfully in promoting a credible peace process.

President Obama has taken a very strong, public position against continued Israeli colonization probably because he understands that this position enjoys the backing of international law, American public opinion, every other country in the world, and probably a majority of Israelis themselves who would sacrifice their colonization program for a genuine, lasting, and comprehensive peace agreement with all the Arab neighbors.

If Obama runs into problems with his economic reform and health care programs, the pro-Israeli zealots in the United States could jump on the president's vulnerability to help him inside the US if he backs off pressuring Israel on its colonization ventures. Much of this will depend on how the debate is framed, which raises the second point: Will Israel finally be forced by global pressure to comply with international law and UN resolutions, or will it forever decide where it complies and where it defies the rest of the world's sense of right and wrong?

A few days ago, replying to Washington's demand that Israel stop colonizing Arab east Jerusalem, Netanyahu said: "United Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish people and the state of Israel. Our sovereignty over it cannot be challenged. We cannot accept the idea that Jews will not have the right to live and purchase in all parts of Jerusalem."

Well, the whole point of living by the rule of law is that your rights are restricted by the rights of others -- in this case, Israel's right to live in West Jerusalem is restricted by its acceptance of the rights of the Palestinian Arabs to enjoy sovereignty in East Jerusalem. Israeli settlements and colonies are an illegal, criminal activity, and even the United States now has the basic decency and courage to say this out loud. Israeli "sovereignty" over all of Jerusalem is rejected by the entire world, other than a few Christian fundamentalist nut-cases in the United States and their equally extremist Likud-run pro-Israeli lobbyists.

The third issue that must be clarified soon is whether the Arab world will watch this political drama on television as disinterested bystanders, or get serious and engage in tough diplomacy by clarifying to Israel our will to coexist on the basis of equal and simultaneous rights for Arabs and Israelis without perpetually making one-sided concessions due to our own collective weakness.

President Obama and his family touched the world earlier this month when they visited Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, the former depot of the transatlantic slave trade that reminds the world of the evils and inhumanities of the colonial era. Obama said there: "As painful as it is, I think that it helps to teach all of us that we have to do what we can to fight against the kinds of evils that sadly still exist in our world, not just on this continent but in every corner of the globe."

One of those evils in our corner of the globe, in the view of the entire world, is Israeli colonization in occupied Arab lands that many of us see as perhaps the last, lingering remnant of the sort of 18th and 19th Century colonization that included the transatlantic slave trade.

Our common challenge is to reconcile the two legitimacies of Israeli and Arab nationalism in Palestine by creating two adjacent states and resolving the refugee issue. The twin first steps to this must be Arab acceptance of Israel -- this has been offered and reiterated repeatedly since 2002 -- and Israel's reciprocal acceptance of Palestinian statehood through the proxy act of agreeing to cessation of Jewish colonization as a first step on the road to genuine peace and coexistence.

Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon.

Copyright (c) 2009 Rami G. Khouri -- distributed by Agence Global

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Let us also not forget the horrid living conditions which exist in Gaza and the West Bank. I applaud Obama for his efforts to date but this issue must also be addressed. Unfortunately efforts and statements by former President Carter have largely been ignored.

Bijan / July 21, 2009 2:48 PM

Well said. Obama taking on Israel lobby will be fun to watch

Al A / July 21, 2009 2:54 PM

No peace - VICTORY! There is a difference.

Radical Guy / July 21, 2009 4:23 PM

I think that despite this long but aproximative analysis, the Radical Guy's statement "NO PEACE-VICTORY" that obviously means to get rid of Istrael, as Ahmadinejad's Iran and Hizballah substain, represents still now the core of the palestinian-israelian issue. In fact Hamas, that substains and practice this concept expressed by Radical Guy. When will exists a rapresentative and affordable palestinian subject that really wants a palestinian state, then will exists also a chance for a real peace tractative. On the necessity to freeze and roll back abusive insediaments I obviously agreed. But as you can see tanks to a simple and meaningfull statement of a guy here, that share identical palestinian point of view, that of settlements can not be considerate as the primary issue. Primary issue at the moment is and remains Hamas, Hezbollah, and also Kamenei-Ahmadinejad's iran, to accept Isral existens tout court.

Mikael / July 21, 2009 6:09 PM

I think the biggest problem is the so many of the Palestinians do not want peace unless it comes via the dwestruction of Israel, as illustrated here by Radical Guy, or in the real world by Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Khamenei regime in the IRI. If this were a conflict between Israel and (e.g.) Denmark, it'd have been over in a week, tops. But when it's between Israel and those who are religiously, irrevocably committed to its destruction (or even merely dependent politically/economically on those who are so committed), it's harder to find common ground, no matter how many concessions Israel would (otherwise) make.

BTW, with Hamas out of the picture, the West Bank is doing _relatively_ well now. See, e.g., http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/73851 and the New York Times article to which it links, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/17/world/middleeast/17westbank.html?_r=2&hp .

Still a long way to go, but a lot better than before, with a lack of radical Islamist control being one key factor in its economic development.

No such progress under Hamas in Gaza, which is no surprise--such progress is not a serious goal for them, except insofar as it furthers their (and others') key goal: the destruction of Israel, a blasphemous non-Islamic entity in the heart of the Ummah, as they see it.

John / July 21, 2009 6:13 PM

I understand the 'victory' as wish for some, instead of 'peace'. But peace would be nice to start with, just for all the families sake!!

olli / July 21, 2009 6:49 PM

BTW, regarding Israel's "colonization" of Arab lands as being analogous to 18th-19th century imperialism or the slave trade, perhaps the analogy would be apt IF the slaves or would-be colonists first tried to utterly destroy, say, England, England then responding by counter-attacking and holding on to a small amount of border land for security purposes, freeing any captured along the way on the condition that they not try to destroy England.

In other words, right or wrong, what Israel has done bears virtually no resemblance to either imperialism (British or Islamic) or the slave trade, even though those analogies are of great comfort to leftist and Islamic radicals (who share a great deal in common, though as Khomeini made clear after he gained power, not everything).

BUT: my comment here does assume that Israel has a right to exist. Those who see the (re-)creation of Israel or the existence of non-dhimmi Jews in the Middle East per se as an abomination won't really care about these analogies or my rebuttals to them, since Israel must be destroyed regardless.

John / July 21, 2009 6:57 PM

Personally, I'm sick of the U.S/Israeli alliance. It seems to only work for Israel. We give them aid. We give them weapons. We promise to defend them to the death. And the U.S. gets what in return? Nothing but trouble. They spy on us. They bribe our politicians. They buy our elections. Hell, during the Gulf War, we had to beg them not to retaliate against Iraq if they attacked with SCUDs. They knew Hussein was doing it to try and draw them into the war so the coalition would fall apart but we still had to make all kinds of promises and give them all kinds of goodies and still ask them to please not retaliate. Pretty please with a cherry on top? What? Screw that!!

And now they're going to try and screw up the reform movement in Iran because they're worried about its effect on Israel and who cares about everyone else, right? How about Israel go it alone? They rely on us for their very survival and still want to do whatever they want no matter how bad it screws America? I don't think so. Besides, how is the alliance beneficial to America? It's not. In fact, it's because of our support for Israel that over a billion Muslims hate America. Throughout history, alliances come and go. I say it's time for this alliance to go.

And before anyone starts calling me an anti-Semite, just stop right there. I don't give one crap about religion or race. That's just a tactic used by pro-Israeli folks to keep any critics of Israel on the defensive or keep them quiet altogether.

Dave In America / July 21, 2009 7:58 PM

I wish President Obama luck, but i dont think he can beat the Israeli lobby. AIPAC will destroy the American economy before the will let Obama strong-arm Israel. It is sad to, because Obama is the first President in decades to talk with the Muslim world with respect and dignity, and that alone makes Obama an enemy in Israel's eyes. Which one of the reasons why he could not even land in Israel after his Cairo address.

eric / July 21, 2009 9:51 PM


Obama often says things much better than Bush ever did (though sometimes with less content, though that's usually not the issue in diplomatic speech), but I don't think there's any evidence whatever that Bush ever spoke about the Islamic faith or world with anything but extreme respect.

(Perhaps Bush's greatest failing was that he never bothered to reply to the many straw-man versions of himself peddled by his enemies. While in one sense it's noble and strong to ignore petty sniping and let history be the judge, in political terms it's very costly, since unrefuted nonsense equals the truth in many minds.)

John / July 22, 2009 12:10 AM

I have deep respect for Rami Khouri. When he speaks, we would all do well to listen. Thank-you Mr. Khouri.

Anna / July 22, 2009 1:22 AM

The seizure of even more Palestinian land makes peace even further away.

Israel doesn't seem to be able to exist without expansion - bulldozing villages, uprooting trees, spreading their fundamentalism.

Of course people will react by supporting resistance - Hizbollah from the 80s and Hamas from the 90s. Who knows what will be next?

Nazih Musa / July 22, 2009 7:08 AM


The Bush years will go down as the most horrific and discriminatory for muslim Americans in the history of America. Bush's false muslim-American "sleeper-cell" comments made every muslim-American a suspected terrorist. The Patriot Act was designed specifically for muslim-Americans. The free hand that Bush gave Israel was repugnant even to many in the Republican party. No sir, you can pat Bush on the back, and justify his horrific years. I, however, can give the man no credit.

eric / July 22, 2009 2:37 PM

I may agreed with Rami Khouri conclusive statement: "The twin first steps to this must be Arab acceptance of Israel -- this has been offered and reiterated repeatedly since 2002 -- and Israel's reciprocal acceptance of Palestinian statehood through the proxy act of agreeing to cessation of Jewish colonization as a first step on the road to genuine peace and coexistence.". I Think Israel can and will negotiate on his settlements, this happened and there is not reason for it doesn't happen again.

I can not omit that thaking a north africa map, then trying to find Israel, one will see israel it's poorly visible within the Arab region; the issue of an Israel "expantionism" in arab territories appears also a bit seeing.

But the article, correct in abstract, blatantly does not consider the lack of a Palestinian authority with whom to treat and that is reliable for agreements. Who should negotiate for palestinian? Hamas? Hamas refused in his costitutive act Israel existence, then hasn't that requisite stated by Rami Khouri. Al Fatah APN, may be, should, but is too weak after Hamas massacred his people. The drama is just that: actually there is no one on palestinian side that may negotiate anithing.

Ahmadinejad arming and substain Hamas vs APN and Israel, does not contribute for sure to improve this situation, saying nothing here about Iran direct threat to wipe out Israel from this planet.

Mikael / July 22, 2009 5:05 PM

Iran nuclear weapon.

Another not least aspect in Middle-East peace dinamics analisys, lies in Iranian theocratic dictature getting nuclear weapon. The article author commits an inexplicable and severe error not considering that. And it appears more strange in pubblishing this article on Teheran Bureau that is supposed to concern mainly about iranian regional role.

Yesterday Mrs Clinton, assure Persian Gulf countries and ather allies that USA will provide a "protective umbrella" if (when) Iran obtain nuclear weapon.

This is the most evident demonstration of Obama's failure iterpretating middle-east situation. Tis sound as an hand over about iranian nuclear weapon run, and the defeat of Obama's dialogue and legitimate strategy of the actual iranian dictatorship in his cairo statements. Obama was so sure Ahmadinejad and Katami surrender on his offer legitimacy and dialogue, that neither provide any "B" plan, id that offer has been refused. Now that offer has been refused and Obama's remedy is a promise of protection and eventuqally reaction 'after' an iranian nuclear attack. But, once Iran has nuclear weapon very likely may shares it with Hizballah and however, it's all but reassuring for the interested counties think to the day after and to know that Mr. Obama's strategy, to evitate the nuclear arming of an aggresive theocratic dictatorships, is just ended, it has no more to say that an implicit menace of a (nuclear) retorsion against iran.

A well-known exponent of the Iranian regime (Ali Rafsanjani) recently said: "The use of even one nuclear bomb inside Israel will destroy everything", whereas a counterstrike on Iran will merely "harm" the Islamic world; "it is not irrational to contemplate such an eventuality".

I wonder as anybody should, if Israel can be supposed to accept this perspective.

Wasn't it better to prevent? Yes, surely it was, but Mr. Obama has demonstrated itself to be to too confident in his poor meddle-east knowledge.

Somebody before me, talk cinically about a new "tactic" point of view in US strategy, that inmpies Israel abandon to his fate, even a nuclar Olochaust.

Then what about a Gulf nuclear war menace? What kind of 'tactics' is that?

Evem though Israel appears the main target, Saudy Arabia, Egypt and ather countries in that middle east region feels heavily threatened by iranian run to get nuclear armament.

How can this theme, allarming worldwide, be so understimate by the article author since he didn't talk at all of that about middle-east peace dinamic?

Does he think that the main power and aggresive country in that contest, meaning actually Iran, doesn't literally exists?

Mikael / July 23, 2009 3:47 AM


Yah, instead of a President Obama, and President Mccain, and Vice-President Palin's Iran strategy of bombing them would have been much better. But dont you worry, because there will be a Palin/Jeb Bush 2012 presidential ticket. So relax and take a deep breath.

eric / July 23, 2009 9:50 AM


I can claim that Obama was wrong without regret Bush or (OMG) that horrible Palin.

If you read again with less prejudices, I don't criticize at all the dialogue itself, but the simplistic way it has been actuated.

Everyone knows that a dialogue means a negotiation and a tractative to defuse a

threat must be accompanied by a factor of deterrence on both sides. On this point Obama's tactics, not respecting Mrs. H. Clinton recomandations to start with severe sanctions, and presenting himself armed only with good words, seems a bit naive in that scenario. That was not a matter of a bad boys band in Chicago. This is a potential nuclear war issue.

The Obama's remedy we can listen now, to reinforce allied armament a nuclear umbrella in the Gulf and menace a nuclear retaliation against Iran appear now an excalation in mutual threat. Should we say it's a good achievement?

There isn't a real effectiveness in menace, now, a nuclear retaliation against Iran: given the Shia commitment to martyrdom, mutual assured destruction is not a deterrent. It's an incentive.

It is this Obama error that can actually lead to a very higher tension in the area.

Sorry, Eric but I can't breath as easy as you, knowing that soon, if nobody stops him, Ahmadinejad will obtain the possibility to press "that button".

Mikael / July 23, 2009 12:17 PM

dear Mr. Khouri,

If the evils of the current Zionist expansionism are analogous to the 17&18 century Trans-Atlantic slave trade ,

then are the many centuries of Moslems trade in African slaves analogous to the evils of dhimmihood for non-Moslems ?

bushtheliberator / July 23, 2009 1:53 PM


I must say I don't think there's much truth to any of your assertions in reply to my note. This is just a cartoon caricature of reality, part of the "Bush invaded Iraq to steal their oil and kill Muslims" fantasy that intoxicates many on the left (and in Al Qaeda). But if you look at the actual statements, laws, and actions in question, as opposed to radical interpretations of them, you'll see that there isn't and never was some sort of anti-Islamic US govt conspiracy.

Part of the redundant evidence of this is that Obama, of whom you apparently approve, has continued nearly every Bush national security program, albeit with his own much more left-appealing packaging. Warrantless wiretaps of communications with terrorist-affiliated groups, rendition, military tribunals, Guantanamo, etc. etc. are all still there, because they're still (in Obama's opinion now, not just Bush's) necessary (for the time being) to protect innocent lives (and not just American) from terrorist attacks. They're not designed at all to target Muslims--they're designed to target terrorists and their facilitators, of whom violently radical Muslims constitute the greater share at the moment.

John / July 23, 2009 5:52 PM