Josef Joffe, the editor of the distinguished German newspaper Die Welt, has a commentary (in the Wall Street Journal and reproduced at Real Clear World.com) in which he denies the centrality of the Palestinian issue to the Middle East. He claims that the Arab Spring unrest demonstrates that lack of democracy, poor governance, and oppression are the real central issues of the Middle East. He claims that the Palestine issue was really a red herring used to distract Arab publics from their appalling domestic situation by autocratic and corrupt rulers. I think this is true. Nationalism usually rests not only upon a common language, territory and past but also upon a common enemy or enemies. In the case of the Arabs these enemies were Israel and colonialism, often conflated together. Israel takes up about one percent of the territory of the region--maybe two percent with the West Bank and Golan. Yet before the American invasion of Iraq it took up about 80 percent or better of the Arab media's attention. In 2004 I regularly watched broadcasts of Al Jazeera's Arab broadcasts and two items always jointly occupied about 80 percent of the news--Iraq and Israel. Qatar, which owns Al Jazeera, used the network to disguise the fact that it is an American ally with an important American base on its soil.
Stephen Walt was at the same time going on about his pet hobby horse, Israel. Walt claimed that his criticisms of Israel had been oversimplified. He claims that he never said that Israel had no utility to the United States. And he claims that he never claimed that the Israel lobby is all powerful. But he did claim in his Foreign Policy article and in the subsequent book, written with John Mearsheimer, that the Israel lobby was responsible for the American invasion of Iraq. He again asserts that claim by arguing that pro-war editorials by Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak are proof that Israel wanted the U.S. to invade Iraq on its behalf.
The truth is that Israel wanted the U.S. to invade Iran, which it perceived as a much greater threat to it than Iraq. Netanyahu and Barak probably placed the editorials in the American press as a way of currying favor with the Bush administration, which was determined to invade in any case. See Dan Fleshler's refutation of Walt and Mearsheimer's book in his own book on American Jewry and Israel, which can be ordered off of his website.
Walt is correct that Israel is much less of an American asset than it was during the Cold War. But so are America's other regional allies. It was Egypt and Saudi Arabia that produced the 9/11 hijackers with their political oppression and, in the case of the Saudi authorities, support for Wahhabi fundamentalism. The United States has few dependable regional allies without baggage. The peace process, used to circumnavigate the fact that Washington supported Israel while the countries of the region hated it, looks unlikely to actually produce peace anytime soon. See this interview with former long-time State Department official Aaron D. Miller for an understanding why this is so. (Or simply read the back posts of this blog.)
This is why I advocate that we disentangle ourselves as quickly and expeditiously as possible from the region and leave Israel on its own with occasional sales of arms in order to preserve the military balance. This is basicly what Cato Institute fellow Leon Hadar advocates. Until we can do this I advocate vigorously pursuing the peace process whenever the situation appears ripe for success.