Israel-Arab dispute is a local affair

By Naomi Shepherd, December 23, 2009
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The world seems to be obsessed with the Israel/Palestine conflict. It figures near the top of the pile of documents on the American President’s desk. Tempers rise in debates at the United Nations, which are punctuated by walk-outs. Diplomats and mediators shuttle wearily between Jerusalem and Ramallah, while vast media coverage has led to more complaints about partisan reporting than on any other news topic. All this for a struggle over a territory without oil or other significant reserves and with a total population, including Israelis and Palestinians, of around 10 million.

The establishment of the state of Israel, challenged by its Arab neighbours from the outset, was supported or opposed for reasons which now have little relevance in world politics. Today, the conflict is widely seen as the focal issue in the confrontation between the West and radical Islam. Both sides to the conflict, in their propaganda, claim it is so, and this belief is hardening into received opinion in Europe and the States.

Yet, however seductive the belief may be, it is nonsense. Were the conflict to be resolved tomorrow, the hostility between radical Islam and the West would remain precisely as it is today.

Moreover, the assumption that Israel/Palestine is the key to a wider reconciliation is actually prejudicial to the prospects of finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It raises the stakes in what otherwise would be a localised dispute. The mediators become participants, unable to exercise influence, concerned not to trigger a greater explosion.

The belief that solving the Israeli- Palestinian conflict is the key to world peace is in fact a barrier to a solution

World involvement in the conflict can only be divisive. Zionism was legitimised politically by the fiat of an imperial power in the twilight of colonialism; in the current climate, Israel relies almost entirely on American political support, which confirms the Arab view that it is a neo-colonial implant.

The recognition of Israel as a state, involving the partition of Palestine, was voted for in the post-war UN, when many of those African and Asian states that today side with the Arabs had no independent existence. Opposing Israel is now a means of self-assertion and rejection of their past. But to insist that the conflict is a dominant issue in world politics is to add fuel to the flames.

Since 9/11, the West’s “war against terror” has been a godsend for those seeking to talk up the Israel/Palestine dispute. The warring parties themselves argue that their conflict has ramifications far beyond territorial rivalries. Israeli politicians frequently maintain that they are the advance guard in the war against radical Islam — most recently in their confrontation with Iran. Iran’s nuclear warheads, they argue, threaten not only Israel — or pro-Western states like Saudi Arabia — but the West in general. Hamas, the rising Palestinian force, regards Israel as the enemy not only of the Palestinians but of Islam as a whole and, in tandem with Iran, calls for devout Muslims to destroy the Jewish state, invoking both ancient Islamic tirades against the Jews and Western antisemitic rhetoric, notably Holocaust denial.

The notion that the Israel/Palestine conflict is central to Islamic-Western reconciliation has spread well beyond the Middle East. It encourages European and American politicians to think that the resolution of the conflict will pacify Islamic extremists, improve relations with Muslim states, and reassure discontented minorities in their own countries. There is no evidence for any of this.

Paradoxically, the parties to the conflict have not been able to maintain the unquestioning support of those outside forces that initially backed them. Neighbouring Arab states that fought Israel in successive wars (for their own reasons rather than on the Palestinians’ behalf) are now chary of further confrontations. Israel has virtually exhausted the population reserves it had hoped for in world Jewry. And Jews in Europe and America no longer provide unqualified support for Israeli policies.

So, both Israel and the Palestinians are more intent than ever to court Western public opinion, and what better way to do this than to give their unending battle a global dimension? But widening the conflict is much easier than confronting the real issues that face both parties on their home ground. It is also more dangerous.

Naomi Shepherd is the author of a number of books on Israel and the Middle East

    Last updated: 3:57pm, March 25 2010

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