US Root Cause of Isreali Wars

October 23rd, 2023 - by Stephen M. Walt / Foreign Policy

US a Root Cause of Latest Israel-Palestine War
How 30 Years of US Policy Ended in Disaster
Stephen M. Walt / Foreign Policy

(October 18, 2023) — As Israelis and Palestinians mourn the dead and fearfully await news of those now missing, the tendency to look for someone to blame is impossible for many to resist. Israelis and their supporters want to pin all the blame on Hamas, whose direct responsibility for the horrific attack on Israeli civilians is beyond question.

Those more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause see the tragedy as the inevitable result of decades of occupation and Israel’s harsh and prolonged treatment of its Palestinian subjects.

Others insist there is plenty of blame to go around, and that anyone who sees one side as wholly innocent and the other as solely responsible has lost any capacity for fair-minded judgment.

Inevitably, arguing over which of the immediate protagonists is most at fault obscures other important causes that are only loosely related to the long conflict between Zionist Israelis and Palestinian Arabs. We should not lose sight of these other factors even during the present crisis, however, because their effects may continue to echo long after the current fighting stops.

Where one begins to trace causes is inherently arbitrary (Theodor Herzl’s 1896 book, The Jewish State? the 1917 Balfour Declaration? the Arab revolt of 1936? the 1947 UN partition plan? the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, or the 1967 Six-Day War?), but I’ll start in 1991, when the United States emerged as the unchallenged external power in Middle East affairs and began trying to construct a regional order that served its interests.

Within that broader context, there are at least five key episodes or elements that helped bring us to the tragic events of the past two weeks.

1991 Gulf War and the Madrid Peace Conference
The first moment was the 1991 Gulf War and its aftermath: the Madrid peace conference. The Gulf War was a stunning display of US military power and diplomatic artistry that removed the threat that Saddam Hussein had posed to the regional balance of power. With the Soviet Union nearing collapse, the United States was now firmly in the driver’s seat.

Then-President George H. W. Bush, Secretary of State James Baker, and an experienced Middle East team seized upon this opportunity to convene a peace conference in October 1991, which included representatives from Israel, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, the European Economic Community, and a joint Jordanian/Palestinian delegation.

Although the conference did not produce tangible results — let alone a final peace agreement — it laid the groundwork for a serious effort to construct a peaceful regional order. It is tantalizing to contemplate what might have been achieved if Bush had been reelected in 1992 and his team had been given the opportunity to continue their work.

Yet Madrid also contained a fateful flaw, one that sowed the seeds of much future trouble. Iran was not invited to participate in the conference, and it responded to being excluded by organizing a meeting of “rejectionist” forces and reaching out to Palestinian groups — including Hamas and Islamic Jihad — that it had previously ignored.

As Trita Parsi observes in his book Treacherous Alliance, “Iran viewed itself as a major regional power and expected a seat at the table,” because Madrid was “not seen as just a conference on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but as the defining moment in forming the new Middle East order.” Tehran’s response to Madrid was primarily strategic rather than ideological: It sought to demonstrate to the United States and others that it could derail their efforts to create a new regional order if its interests were not taken into account.

And that is precisely what happened, as suicide bombings and other acts of extremist violence disrupted the Oslo Accords negotiation process and undermined Israeli support for a negotiated settlement. Over time, as peace remained elusive and relations between Iran and the West deteriorated further, the ties between Hamas and Iran grew stronger.

The 9/11 Attacks
The second critical event was the fateful combination of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the subsequent US invasion of Iraq in 2003. The decision to invade Iraq was only tangentially related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even though Ba’athist Iraq had backed the Palestinian cause in several ways.

The George W. Bush administration believed that toppling Saddam would eliminate the supposed threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, remind adversaries of US power, strike a blow against terrorism more broadly, and pave the way for a radical transformation of the entire Middle East along democratic lines.

What they got, alas, was a costly quagmire in Iraq and a dramatic improvement in Iran’s strategic position. This shift in the balance of power in the Gulf alarmed Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, and perceptions of a shared threat from Iran began to reshape regional relationships in important ways, including by altering some Arab states’ relations with Israel.

Fears of US-led “regime change” also encouraged Iran to pursue a latent nuclear weapons capability, leading to a steady increase in its enrichment capacity and ever-tighter US and UN sanctions.

Trump Abandons the JCPOA
With hindsight, a third key event was then-US President Donald Trump’s fateful abandonment of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran and his adoption of a policy of “maximum pressure” instead. This foolish decision had several unfortunate effects: Leaving the JCPOA allowed Iran to restart its nuclear program and move much closer to an actual weapons capability, and the maximum pressure campaign led Iran to attack oil shipments and facilities in the Persian Gulf and Saudi Arabia, to show the United States that its attempt to compel or overthrow them was not without costs and risks.

As one would expect, these developments heightened the concerns of the Saudis and increased their interest in acquiring nuclear infrastructure of their own. And as realist theory predicts, perceptions of a growing threat from Iran encouraged quiet but significant forms of security cooperation between Israel and several Gulf states.

The Abraham Accords
The fourth development was the so-called Abraham Accords, in some ways a logical extension of Trump’s decision to leave the JCPOA. The brainchild of amateur strategist (and Trump’s son-in-law) Jared Kushner, the accords were a series of bilateral agreements normalizing relations between Israel and Morocco, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Sudan.

Critics noted that the accords did relatively little to advance the cause of peace because none of the participating Arab governments were actively hostile to Israel or capable of harming it. Others warned that regional peace would remain elusive as long as the fate of the 7 million Palestinians living under Israeli control was unresolved.

The Biden administration continued along much the same path. It took no meaningful steps to stop Israel’s increasingly far-right government from backing violent actions by extremist settlers, which led to a surge in Palestinian deaths and displacements over the past two years.

After failing to fulfill a campaign promise to immediately rejoin the JCPOA, Biden and Co. focused their main efforts on persuading Saudi Arabia to normalize relations with Israel in exchange for some sort of US security guarantee and perhaps access to advanced nuclear technology.

The motivation for this effort had little to do with Israel-Palestine, however, and was mostly intended to keep Saudi Arabia from moving closer to China. Linking a security commitment to Saudi Arabia with normalization was primarily a way to overcome US congressional reluctance to a sweetheart deal with Riyadh. Like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his cabinet, top US officials appear to have assumed that there was nothing that any Palestinian group could do to derail or slow this process or draw attention back to their plight.

Unfortunately, the rumored deal gave Hamas a powerful incentive to show just how wrong this assumption was. Recognizing this fact in no way justifies what Hamas did and especially the intentional brutality of the attacks; it is simply to acknowledge that Hamas’s decision to do something — and especially its timing — was a response to regional developments that were driven to a considerable extent by other concerns.

The Oslo Accords
As I noted in my last column, the fifth factor is not a single event but rather the United States’ enduring failure to bring the so-called peace process to a successful end. Washington had monopolized stewardship of the peace process ever since the Oslo Accords (which, as the name implies, came about due to Norwegian mediation), and its various efforts over the years ultimately led nowhere.

Former US Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama repeatedly declared that the United States — the world’s most powerful country in the full flush of its so-called uni-polar moment — was committed to achieving a two-state solution, but that outcome is now farther away than ever and probably impossible.

These background elements are important because the nature of the future global order is up for grabs, and several influential states are challenging the intermittently liberal and inconsistently followed “rules-based order” that the United States has championed for decades.

China, Russia, India, South Africa, Brazil, Iran, and others openly call for a more multi-polar order, where power is more evenly shared. They want to see a world where the United States no longer acts as the so-called indispensable power, as one that expects others to follow its rules while reserving the right to disregard them whenever they prove inconvenient.

Unfortunately for the United States, the five events I just described and their impact on the region provide potent ammunition for the revisionist position (as Russian President Vladimir Putin was quick to point out last week).

“Just look at the Middle East,” they might say. “The United States has been managing the region by itself for more than three decades, and what has its ‘leadership’ produced? We see devastating wars in Iraq, Syria, Sudan, and Yemen. Lebanon is on life support, there is anarchy in Libya, and Egypt is lurching toward collapse. Terrorist groups have morphed and mutated and sown fear on several continents, and Iran keeps edging closer to the bomb.

There is no security for Israel and neither security nor justice for the Palestinians. This is what you get when you let Washington run everything, my friends. Whatever their intentions may have been, US leaders have repeatedly shown us that they lack the wisdom and objectivity to deliver positive results, not even for themselves.”

One can easily imagine a Chinese official adding: “May I point out that we have good relations with everyone in the region, and our only vital interest there is reliable access to energy. We are therefore committed to keeping the region quiet and peaceful, which is why we helped Iran and Saudi Arabia reestablish ties last year. Isn’t it obvious that the world would benefit if the US role there declined and ours increased?”

If you don’t think a message like this would resonate outside the comfortable confines of the trans-Atlantic community, then you haven’t been paying attention. And if you are also someone who thinks that addressing the challenge of a rising China is a top priority, you may want to reflect on how the United States’ past actions contributed to the present crisis — and how the shadow of the past will continue to undermine the US standing in the world in the future.

To their credit, over the past week Biden and his foreign-policy team have been doing what they do best, namely, managing a crisis that was at least partly of their own making. They are working overtime to limit the damage, prevent the conflict from spreading, contain the domestic political fallout, and (fingers crossed) bring the violence to an end. We should all hope that their efforts succeed.

But as I noted more than a year ago, the administration’s foreign-policy team are best seen as skilled mechanics but not architects, and in an era where the institutional architecture of world politics is increasingly an issue and new blueprints are needed. They are adept at using the tools of US power and the machinery of government to address short-term problems, but they are stuck in an outdated vision of America’s global role, to include how its handling of its various Middle East clients.

It is obvious that they badly misread where the Middle East was headed, and applying Band-Aids today — even if it is being done with energy and skill — will still leave the underlying wounds untreated.

If the end result of Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s current ministrations is merely a return to the pre-Oct. 7 status quo, I fear that the rest of the world will look on, shake its head in dismay and disapproval, and conclude that it’s time for a different approach.

Stephen M. Walt, a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University