Protesters at the Gaza Strip border with Israel in May 2018.
CHAOS IN THE MIDDLE EAST, AGAIN
It was approximately March of 1999 and I was on the steps on the backside of Congress listening to Congressman Brad Sherman (D-CA) speak to my students and myself. He was our local representative in Congress, and he had given us a brief tour of the House of Representatives and was making some final remarks on the steps outside.
“And I promise to do all I can to help get our United States embassy moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem where it belongs!” he concluded. Everyone applauded.
I was chaperoning my students from the Milken Community High School of the Stephen Wise Temple during our annual Washington D.C. visit. It was a private Jewish school, and everyone present (including Congressman Sherman) was Jewish, except for me.
This idea of moving the American embassy to Israel to Jerusalem seemed to be popular among the American Jews clapping for Congressman Sherman. Not being Jewish myself, I did not understand. I was curious what this was about.
Later that day I did some research and discovered that many American Jews had wanted the United States to recognize Jerusalem as the rightful capital of Israel and consequently move the embassy there. Successive American presidents had considered such a move inflammatory to the Arabs in the region and therefore harmful to American interests, and declined to move the embassy away from Tel Aviv. The Palestinians claimed east Jerusalem as their rightful capital. The Israelis claimed Jerusalem for their capital. The Muslims demand this, the Jews demand that; bitter imbroglio and endless rage. The same as it has been for decades.
In this context it seemed highly prudent not to move the American embassy to Jerusalem, as I first researched the situation. Try to play nice with both the Arabs and the Israelis, if at all possible, splitting the difference. This would be in the best interests of the United States. This had been long standing official American policy.
In watching Congressman Sherman and this embassy question back in 1999, I was left to wonder if some American Jews had more the interests of Judaism in mind, as they saw it, than the American national interest. The two were not the same.
Fast-forward to 2016 and presidential candidate Donald Trump promised to move the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, if elected. In this he was seeking to garner support from prominent American Jews such as Sheldon Adelson and from powerful evangelical Christians who also supported the move (for reasons of prophecy). Trump won the 2016 election, and on May 14, 2018 the United States opened the new embassy in Jerusalem. Adelson and prominent evangelical Christian ministers were on hand in Jerusalem to celebrate the opening of the new embassy, which to them was a great victory. The United States had recognized Jerusalem as the rightful capital of Israel; the preeminent world power had recognized Jerusalem as the home of the Jews.”What a glorious day!” exulted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
At exactly the same time, large crowds of Palestinians attempted to breach the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel. They wanted to overwhelm Israeli border forces and storm into Israel proper to go back to villages their families had been evicted from and/or fled in 1948 during the violence creation of the Israeli state. In the midst of plumes of dark smoke from burning tires and tear gas, thousands of Palestinians surged toward the Israeli border where soldiers used rubber and live bullets to push them back. Palestinians launched kites with inflammatories over the border towards Israel trying to set the landscape on fire. Dozens were killed and thousand were wounded.
What a mess!
And forty miles away from Gaza and Israelis and Americans celebrated the opening of this new embassy.
Many Palestinians, and others worldwide, blamed the Americans for the bloodshed in Gaza, although these bloody border scrapes had been going on for some time. They screamed that America and Israel were the same in their minds: enemies of Palestine, and the Arabs in general. They knew that not far away the American and Israelis were celebrating the new Jerusalem embassy. It seemed to them that President Trump has taken the Israeli side — he has decided that Israel is the place to sink American interests in the Middle East, at the expense of others countries in the region. It will be hard for America to put itself forth as an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
On the other hand, is there really any worthwhile Palestinian governing force that can negotiate with the Israelis? Hamas in Gaza? The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank? There is a reason peace negotiations have gone nowhere in the past twenty years.
And further complicating the situation is the Trump Administration’s decision to exit from the Iran nuclear deal. Previously President Obama has negotiated the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” with Iran to provide confiscated money to Iran if they agreed not to further develop their nuclear weapons program. Obama and his supporters claimed this was the best deal the United States could get that would keep Iran as a non-nuclear weapon nation. This seemed reasonable. President Trump claims that Iran has taken the money and then aggressively moved into Iraq and Syria as a sponsor of terrorism and its interests in the Middle East, and that the U.S. should isolate and confront it. President Obama did not have a legal treaty ratified by Congress, and so President Trump simply exited the agreement. Majority Sunni Arab nations such as Saudi Arabia applauded the exit from the JCOP, and the consequent move to take a more confrontational stance versus Iran. And looking at Iranian expansion in combat soldiers in the Syrian Civil War and violence towards Israel, this makes sense.
So if the American move to switch our embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem has angered parts of the Muslim Middle East, it has maybe been more than compensated by others who are pleased that President Trump and the United States will forcefully side with Sunni Islam against Shia Islam in a regional cold/hot war. The Palestinian cause is no longer the unifying force that it once was for Arabs in the Middle East. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman even recently claimed, “I believe that each people, anywhere, has a right to live in their peaceful nation. I believe the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land.“ This is a far cry from the days when all Arabs seemed to unify against Israel’s right to even exist. But things change: the enemy of my enemy is my friend; politics makes for strange bedfellows, etc. Many Sunni Arabs seem to care more about the expansion of Iran than they do the Palestinian question.
But I imagine few Arabs anywhere like to see desperate Palestinians dying on the Gaza border.
I suspect nobody likes to see it.
The United Nations was highly critical of Israeli actions on the Gaza border:
The Security Council expresses its outrage and sorrow at the killing of Palestinian civilians exercising their right to peaceful protest. The Security Council calls for an independent and transparent investigation into these actions to ensure accountability.
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu replied on Twitter:
The Hamas terrorist organization declares it intends to destroy Israel and sends thousands to breach the border fence in order to achieve this goal. We will continue to act with determination to protect our sovereignty and citizens.
Does Israel not have the right to defend its border? Can they use force, at times lethal force, in the struggle to control its border with tens of thousands of often raucous protesters seeking to burst into Israel proper? Some of these protesters women and children? Resulting in scores of dead and thousands of injured?
How about the 1.8 millions of desperate Palestinians in Gaza? They have been been blockaded for eleven years by Israel and Egypt. The Gaza Strip appears to be essentially a giant prison with millions of persons with no real future. Those assaulting the Israeli border often claim they have little to lose if they are indeed shot dead trying to return to their ancestral homes. These are men in their early twenties who have never had a real job, can barely read, and have little in their life except for a hatred of the Israelis on the other side of the border — a people who they have almost never seen in their lives.
And Israel and Iran, almost on the verge of a hot war due to threatening Iranian forces inside Syria near Israel. There was for the first time last week a direct exchange of fire between Israeli and Iranian forces last week in the Golan Heights area on the Syrian border.
And what about the bloody Syrian Civil War and the some 400,000 dead from it? Bashar al-Assad and his butchering regime? The use of chemical and nerve agents against his own people? The use of Russian and Iranian forces in the conflict?
And the Islamic State, and all the beheadings and burning prisoners in cages that will titillate readers decades from now to read about. (“Did that actually happen?” they will ask.)
And Iraq, torn asunder by Sunni and Shia internecine conflict. Seemingly broken by the American invasion.
And Egypt, which had a brief, ill-fated “Arab spring” in 2011 and is now led by grim military dictatorship.
Or Libya, which after NATO helped get rid of the dictator Muammar Gaddafi has descended into clan conflict and warlord chaos.
Or Afghanistan, the mess of all messes, irreconcilable and irremediable.
Or Pakistan, military dictatorship with a thin veneer of democracy.
Or Bahrain, Sunni aristocracy sitting on masses of Shia dissafected.
Or Yemen, the site of an open proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Iran, the embittered and aggressive Shia “Islamic Republic” whose mullahs are bent on expanding its influence with military forces extending across the Levant from Iran to Iraq to Syria and to the shores of Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea.
And all the Sunni nations who will fight Iranian influence and expansion. With America, seemingly on their side against Iran.
It is enough to overwhelm anyone with confusion. It is complicated. There are few easy answers. Fewer easy choices.
I was an International Relations student while at UCLA. So the power dynamics of the Middle East are not new to me. Shifting alliances and the conflicting and harmonizing interests of powers large and small. So it has ever been. “Wars and rumors of wars.” The “great game” of nations jockeying for advantage and influence.
But there was also a reason after so much university study of international relations I did not want to go into that field as a career. There seems little to be gained, in the end, from these great power dynamics — but much to be lost. It can be a brutal dynamic. Lives (and nations) will be crushed underneath it.
The Middle East, China, Russia — the world is a dangerous place.
I would look to American politicians and diplomats (and military forces) to at least not make things worse. To show good sense and mature judgement. To make the least bad choice between the bad option and the worse option. That is not easy. I recognize this.
But I have been unimpressed with the foreign policy choices made by my country, the United States of America, since the ill-advised Iraq invasion of 2003, the feckless response to the Syrian Civil War and rise of ISIS, and into the Trump Administration with the Iran treaty and embassy move to Jerusalem. This is a part of the world with little to be gained and much to be lost — tread lightly, contain conflict, and try not make things worse.
And seek to minimize American involvement. Especially military involvement.
It might take decades. But I remember back in the 1980s when American military forces played only a slight role in the region. Let’s try and get that back.
We Americans have better things to do. The Middle East is a tar baby which will sully anyone who touches it. Let us have the wisdom to act wisely.
Beyond that, I have no solutions to offer for intractable, complicated problems. The Middle East is what it is.
But let us act wisely.
MILITANTS WITH GUNS
“I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.”
George Bernard Shaw
P.S. No war with Iran. The United States gets only one major war in the Middle East, and President George W. Bush (père y fils) chose Iraq. I personally would have preferred a war with Iran compared to Iraq, considering the history and nature of the “Islamic Republic”. But Iraq it was. You don’t get a second major war. “No” to another war in the Middle East. If it can at all be avoided.