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Broken Peaces: The Israeli-Palestinian Hyperconflict

Oslo is history. Twenty years have passed since the last significant peace accord between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The intervening years have been marked by an intifada and three military interventions in Gaza by the Israel Defense Forces that have left around seven thousand Palestinians and one thousand Israelis dead. The so-called “Peace Process” is in tatters and there seems to be no way of re-stitching it.

But the West still can’t let go of the nostalgic image of Bill Clinton inviting the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to shake hands with Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat in September 1993. The handshake was real, but the accord itself was illusory. It would take a satirist rather than a photographer to capture President Obama inviting Benjamin Netanyahu to come to America to shake the hand of Hamas leader Khaled Mashal.

After twenty years of failed attempts, it is time to abandon the belief that a “local” agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians would pacify the region. It is time, too, to acknowledge that this conflict, which has reignited again and again in the last two decades, has less to do with Jerusalem and Ramallah than with all of the Middle East. Indeed, a real peace accord should be considered as the final goal of a stable Mideast region, not as its starting point.

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Is it too far-fetched to see the fall of the Berlin Wall as an analogy? Decades of efforts to tear it down resulted in very little. Although it echoed resoundingly in the West, John F. Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech did not penetrate those concrete blocks. The wall fell only when the factors that shored up its foundation—most notably, the USSR’s support for the East German regime—collapsed. The wall fell in Moscow, in other words, and not in East Berlin.

Similarly, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is actually a “hyperconflict” influenced by local, regional, and global factors. It is no accident that the main accords producing temporary stability have been reached in periods of relative calm for the whole Middle East. The Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel were signed in 1978, after oil prices had been falling steadily since the crisis of 1973–74, which in turn reduced the aggressiveness of producing countries in the region. Moreover, Iran was still ruled by the shah at that time, and more prone to accept Western influence than the radical regime of Ruhollah Khomeini would be. Later, the Oslo Accords were reached in the mid-1990s, at a time when Russia—a disruptive player in the Middle East before and since—had no political, military, or financial means to disrupt or influence the outcome.

In the last twenty years, many things have changed, most notably Iran’s growing role in subverting the Peace Process. The Islamist regime has supported all the major factions that reject an agreement with Israel, from the militias of Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon to Hamas in Gaza. The Shiite crescent has grown into a significant anti-Zionist arsenal through the Tehran-Damascus connection that supplies weaponry and financial support to military groups around Israel.

In 2006, Iran offered to help Hamas financially, after the latter’s victory at the Palestinian elections resulted in the decision of the US and Israel to isolate a Hamas-led government. Ever since, various estimates put aid from Iran at between $20 million and $24 million per month. Without Iran, Hamas would have never managed to build a sophisticated ballistic arsenal, capable of targeting almost all of Israel. In March 2014, the Israel Defense Forces intercepted a Red Sea cargo ship transporting dozens of Syrian-built missiles (with a range of up to one hundred and twenty-five miles) that had come through Tehran on the way to Gaza. In recent months, there have been some problems in the relationship due to differing views on the unrest in Syria, yet ties have never been cut.

Because of this large-scale outside influence, it makes little sense for would-be peacemakers to focus obsessively on a local agreement. If such an agreement were ever miraculously reached between Israel and Hamas, the external powers, notably Syria and Iran, would just reshuffle their strategy to favor other irreconcilable groups that were still committed to the struggle against the Jews, such as the Salafists.

Nor is it a matter of chance that Iran has grown to such position of power. To call up the Berlin Wall analogy again, it is worth remembering that Nikita Khrushchev once said of East Berlin, “It is the testicle of the West. When I want the West to scream, I squeeze on Berlin.” The same might be said of the squeezing that now takes place of Israel. It is done primarily by Syria and Iran, but behind these regional players stands Russia.

Moscow has supported the nuclear program of Iran, thus forcing the US to keep imposing sanctions on the Islamist state and dooming attempts at a rapprochement that might relieve the pressure on Israel. In 2013, Russia even resumed its shipments of advanced weaponry to Tehran, including batches of S-300 antiaircraft missiles, making a clear statement about the Russian position on any possible Western strike against the Iranian nuclear installations. As for Syria, Russia is the main supplier of weaponry to the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and has constantly blocked any international intervention against Damascus since the civil war began in 2011.

Hamas certainly understands the strings Russia pulls. In June 2014, when its leader, Khaled Mashal, received an official invitation to visit the Russian capital for diplomatic talks, one top representative of the organization commented that Moscow “knows that Hamas is able to promote Russia in the Arab and Muslim worlds, as a result of its ideological influence in those worlds. Inviting Hamas is a bold Russian move to re-establish Moscow’s presence in the Middle East, albeit through exploiting the Hamas card, amid America’s domination in that regard.” A leaked Hamas internal document called Russian President Vladimir Putin “the most influential man in the Middle East today.”

 

Such troublemaking may bear Putin’s distinctive stamp, but it is also consistent with Moscow’s Mideast policies since World War II, which have focused on using proxies rather than direct intervention to concentrate on three main objectives.

The first one is countering the political influence of the West. In the Soviet era, this was done mainly through the cooptation of Arab governments in and around the region. By 1980, the USSR had connections with Syria, Iraq, South Yemen, Sudan, Oman, and Libya. In some cases, these connections took the form of outright political alignment, whereas in others Moscow leveraged its influence less directly by arms
sales and military aid.

The second Russian objective, related to the first, is radicalization of anti-Western ideology in the Middle East. In Soviet times, the goal was never to foster “socialist revolutions” in the region, but to detect and support those political movements that could propagate anti-US ideology. Realizing the effect that the Palestine Liberation Organization was having on Arab opinion, for instance, Moscow began providing significant aid to the group in 1974 and urged it to eschew terror in favor of “national liberation.” A few years later, after helping the PLO achieve its makeover, Moscow recognized it as “the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.”

The third Russian objective is related to the energy sector. In the early 1960s, thanks in part to the Suez Canal blockade during the 1956 crisis, Soviet oil became a global factor. During the energy crises following the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the 1978 Iranian Revolution, skyrocketing energy prices turned into hard-cash booms for Moscow. The political lessons were clear: Tensions in the Middle East equal higher revenues for oil prices, and higher oil prices turn into higher demand for Russian energy exports.

These objectives went dormant for a time in the 1990s, not only because of Russia’s post-Soviet weakness, but also due to momentary oil price deflation and the time required for Russia to recover from defeat in Afghanistan. Yet the Kremlin’s goal of influencing the Middle East to counter Western influence was not dead, merely sleeping. With the advent of Putinism, new possibilities arose. Egypt and Jordan may have learned to live with Israel, but Iran, until 1979 the Jewish state’s primary supplier of oil, definitely had not. Playing the Iranian Card gave Russia a renewed relevance in the region.

The conflict in Gaza last summer showed that Russia’s three objectives are still very much in play: The influence of the West was blunted, and anti-Western (not to mention anti-Semitic) ideas became radicalized. Oil prices were falling, but this was due to global economic conditions, whose dynamics were too powerful to be influenced by the Gaza tragedy.

Russia’s game in the Middle East might have seemed new, but it was played by old rules. Instead of directly intervening in the region, Russia is patiently and persistently targeting Israel (and the West) through its Hamas and Hezbollah proxies. A variety of impressionistic evidence suggests that Russia’s “long game” is working: in the Negev, the desert surrounding Gaza, some people have fled due to fear of the Hamas tunnels, and there are reports of Israeli children being affected by stress disorder due to Hamas’s incessant rocketing of their communities. The political cohesion of Israel is being tested by the pressures it faces. Never has the rift between conservatives and moderates been so wide; elements of the Israeli population report a growing feeling of encirclement and are starting to think about the unthinkable—leaving the country.

The “wall” built in the West Bank to prevent devastating terror attacks succeeded in that objective but also had other consequences, particularly in the international demonization of Israel. It also interrupted a desultory process of political accommodation between Palestinian and Israeli moderates.

Israel seemed to have attained its military objectives in the 2014 war: limiting the military capability of Hamas, destroying the tunnels that the organization had meticulously prepared for terrorist attacks into the Israeli territory, and limiting Hamas’s capability of launching missiles. Yet Israel lost in other ways, especially because the moderate Arab leadership is now embarrassed for not criticizing Israel and less likely to seek even furtive openings with the Jewish state.

It is also true that the 2014 war showed the growing daylight between Israel and the US. When the 1973 Yom Kippur War quickly escalated into a fierce and consuming conflict, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger flew to Moscow to negotiate a cease-fire. This time, when US Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Jerusalem instead of Moscow, it showed the genius of Moscow’s current strategy, which allows it to be everywhere present in the Middle East but nowhere responsible. Visiting Jerusalem was Kerry’s way of ignoring Moscow’s constant intrigues in the region and taking the easy way out by assigning sole responsibility for the conflict to Israel.

The recent developments of the Middle East make for few clear conclusions. But one is inescapable: The Russian agenda has been much more effective than the US agenda (or lack thereof). Feeling defenseless, the Israeli government has chosen to transform its growing isolation into “fortification.” Washington has not only failed at fostering the Peace Process but has also been so paralyzed by its adherence to this moribund strategy that it has been unable to create alternative approaches that will take it—and Israel—out of the present defensive crouch.

Stefano Casertano is an author, postdoc, and lecturer in international politics at Potsdam University, in Germany.

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