by Efraim Karsh   August 29, 2006

In discussions of the contemporary Middle East, few
arguments have resonated more widely, or among a more
diverse set of observers, than the claim that the
Palestinian-Israeli conflict constitutes the source of all
evil and that its resolution will lead to regional peace and
stability. No sooner had the guns fallen silent on the
Israel-Lebanon border than Prime Minister Tony Blair of
Britain, fresh from his summer vacation in the Caribbean
island of Barbados, announced his intention to embark on a
mission to the Middle East next month in an attempt to both
stabilize the situation in Lebanon and to resuscitate the
stalled peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.
This sense of urgency was echoed by the American former
national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who claimed
that “Today, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to
separate the Israeli-Palestinian problem, the Iraq problem
and Iran from each other.” And the Jordanian commentator
Rami Khouri put it in even stronger terms: “Every major
tough issue in the Middle East is somehow linked to the
consequences of the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Its bitterness kept seeping out from its Palestine-Israel
core to corrode many other dimensions of the region.”

While there is no denying the argument’s widespread appeal,
there is also no way around the fact that, in almost every
particular, it is demonstratively, even invidiously, wrong.
For one thing, violence was an integral part of Middle
Eastern political culture long before the advent of the
Arab-Israeli conflict, and physical force remains today the
main if not the sole instrument of regional political
discourse. At the domestic level, these circumstances have
resulted in the world’s most illiberal polities. Political
dissent is dealt with by repression, and ethnic and
religious differences are settled by internecine strife and
murder. One need only mention, among many instances, Syria’s
massacre of 20,000 of its Muslim activists in the early
1980s, or the brutal treatment of Iraq’s Shiite and Kurdish
communities until the 2003 war, or the genocidal campaign
now being conducted in Darfur by the government of Sudan and
its allied militias, not to mention the ongoing bloodbath in
Iraq. As for foreign policy in the Middle East, it too has
been pursued by means of crude force, ranging from terrorism
and subversion to outright aggression. In the Yemenite,
Lebanese, and Algerian civil wars, hundreds of thousands of
innocent civilians perished; the Iran-Iraq war claimed
nearly a million lives.

Nor have the Arab states have ever had any real stake in the
“liberation of Palestine.” Though anti-Zionism has been the
core principle of pan-Arab solidarity since the mid-1930s –
it is easier, after all, to unite people through a common
hatred than through a shared loyalty – pan-Arabism has
almost always served as an instrument for achieving the
self-interested ends of those who proclaim it.

Consider, for example, the pan-Arab invasion of the newly
proclaimed state of Israel in 1948.This, on its face, was a
shining demonstration of solidarity with the Palestinian
people. But the invasion had far less to do with winning
independence for the indigenous population than with the
desire of the Arab regimes for territorial aggrandizement.
Transjordan’s King Abdullah wanted to incorporate
substantial parts of mandatory Palestine into the greater
Syrian empire he coveted; Egypt wanted to prevent that
eventuality by laying its hands on southern Palestine. Syria
and Lebanon sought to annex the Galilee, while Iraq viewed
the 1948 war as a stepping stone in its long-standing
ambition to bring the entire Fertile Crescent under its
rule. Had the Jewish state lost the war, its territory would
not have fallen to the Palestinians but would have been
divided among the invading Arab forces.

During the decades following the 1948 war, the Arab states
manipulated the Palestinian national cause to their own
ends. Neither Egypt nor Jordan allowed Palestinian
self-determination in the parts of Palestine they had
occupied during the 1948 war (respectively, the West Bank
and the Gaza Strip). Palestinian refugees were kept in
squalid camps for decades as a means of whipping Israel and
stirring pan-Arab sentiments. “The Palestinians are useful
to the Arab states as they are,” Egyptian President Gamal
Abdel Nasser candidly responded to an inquiring Western
reporter in 1956. “We will always see that they do not
become too powerful.” As late as 1974, Syria’s Hafez
al-Assad referred to Palestine as being “not only a part of
the Arab homeland but a basic part of southern Syria.”

If the Arab states have shown little empathy for the plight
of ordinary Palestinians, the Islamic connection to the
Palestinian problem is even more tenuous. It is not out of
concern for a Palestinian right to national
self-determination but as part of a holy war to prevent the
loss of a part of the “House of Islam” that Islamists
inveigh against the Jewish state of Israel. In the words of
the covenant of the Islamic Resistance Movement, better
known by its Arabic acronym Hamas: “The land of Palestine
has been an Islamic trust (waqf) throughout the generations
and until the day of resurrection…. When our enemies usurp
some Islamic lands, jihad becomes a duty binding on all

In this respect, there is no difference between Palestine
and other parts of the world conquered by the forces of
Islam throughout history. To this very day, for example,
Arabs and many Muslims unabashedly pine for the restoration
of Spain, and look upon their expulsion from that country in
1492 as a grave historical injustice, as if they were
Spain’s rightful owners and not former colonial occupiers of
a remote foreign land, thousands of miles from their
ancestral homeland. Edward Said applauded Andalusia’s
colonialist legacy as “the ideal that should be moving our
efforts now,” while Osama bin Laden noted “the tragedy of
Andalusia” after the 9/11 attacks, and the perpetrators of
the March 2004 Madrid bombings, in which hundreds of people
were murdered, mentioned revenge for the loss of Spain as
one of the atrocity’s “root causes.” Within this grand
scheme, the struggle between Israel and the Palestinians is
but a single element, and one whose supposed centrality
looms far greater in Western than in Islamic eyes.

This is not to deny that resolution of the
Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a pressing issue. But the
regional ramifications of any settlement will be far
narrower than is widely assumed. Quite to the contrary, the
best hope of peace between Arabs and Israelis lies in the
rejection of the spurious “link” between this dispute and
other regional and global problems.

The pretense of pan-Arab or pan-Islamic solidarity has long
served as a dangerous elixir in Palestinian political
circles, stirring unrealistic hopes and expectations and, at
key junctures, inciting widespread and horrifically
destructive violence. Self-serving interventionism under
these false pretenses had the effect of transforming the
bilateral Palestinian-Israeli dispute into a multilateral
Arab-Israeli conflict, thereby prolonging its duration,
increasing its intensity, and making its resolution far more
complex and tortuous. Only when the local political elites
reconcile themselves to the reality of state nationalism and
forswear the false notions of pan-Arab and pan-Muslim
solidarity, let alone the imperialist chimera of a unified
“Arab nation” or a worldwide Islamic umma, will the long
overdue regional stability will be finally attained and the
Arab-Israeli conflict resolved. Not the other way round.

Professor Karsh is head of Mediterranean Studies at
King’s College, University of London, and author most
recently of “Islamic Imperialism: A History,” available from
Yale University Press.