A Bird’s-Eye View of the Middle East

For an extraordinary bird’s eye view of U.S. relations with the Greater Middle East, the impact of the “Arab Spring” and the increasing isolation of Israel, among other subjects, a lecture delivered last week by Amb. Chas Freeman (ret.) to the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow is both comprehensive and chilling, especially for those concerned with maintaining U.S. influence in the region and/or the future of Israel.

The following is taken from the section on Israel, but the whole presentation is worth reading, if only because the lens through which Freeman sees the region and the world is so wide and so strategic (which is why it was such a great loss when he felt compelled to withdraw from his appointment to chair the National Intelligence Council (NIC) as a result of opposition from the Israel lobby. After his withdrawal, he indicated in an interview with LobeLog what kinds of long-term issues he felt the NIC should be addressing.)

The United States no longer makes any pretense of the evenhandedness that once enabled it unconditionally to support Israel while simultaneously maintaining cordial relations with the major nations of the Arab world.  The U.S. effort to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians has lost all credibility in the region and internationally.  Israel has deliberately overwhelmed the two-state solution with “facts on the ground” in the form of illegal settlements in the occupied territories of the West Bank.  As a byproduct of this strategy, Israel has evolved a political order that treats the Arabs in its charge as second-class citizens in Israel proper, as helots — wards of the state with no rights — in the West Bank, and as objects of sadistic punishment in Gaza.

A shrinking part of the Jewish population outside Israel remains identified with Zionism and prepared passionately to defend it.  A clear majority does not wish to bear the taint of such association.  A growing number of Americans, including Jewish Americans, are disturbed by Israel’s policies and resentful of its leaders’ contemptuous dismissal of U.S. interests and views.  The more thoughtful members of the Jewish communities in the United States and elsewhere understand the risks to their standing in their own societies of their being implicated in Israel’s morally unacceptable behavior. Still, a significant minority remains committed to Israel, right or wrong.  This minority contains many individuals of considerable wealth and consequent political influence.

The question of how to deal with the issues posed by Zionism and its consequences for the Arab population it has subjugated promises to be increasingly divisive in the United States and other countries long committed to the Jewish state.  The United States remains committed to Israel but demands for boycotts, disinvestment, and sanctions against Israel are growing.  Racism of the sort now built into the Israeli political system is a problem Americans understand from our own experience, see as fundamentally wrong, and have repudiated.  Similarly, the world decisively rejected apartheid in South Africa.  It is most unlikely to accept it in Israel.

Meanwhile, the Arab uprisings promise to strip Israel of even the minimal acceptability that past American diplomacy had won for it in its region.   The Arab world is no longer sleepwalking through history.  Its governments now seek legitimacy in the support of their people, not in endorsements or subventions from foreign protectors.  Arab political parties increasingly identify with Islam and reject secularism.  The clear trend is toward both greater religiosity and greater identification with the Palestinian cause.

Arab governments have long been prepared to make peace with Israel but Arab peoples have yet to be convinced that Israel can be an acceptable part of the Middle East mosaic.  Israel’s cruelties to its captive Arab population, its scofflaw settlement practices, its periodic maimings of Gaza and Lebanon, and its short-sighted, self-destructive alienation of powerful neighbors like Turkey call into question the continuing viability of a U.S. Middle East policy aimed at achieving a secure place for Israel in the regional order.  It is becoming harder to paper over the gap between American and Israeli values and the tensions between Israel’s purposes and competing American interests and strategic concerns.

Since 1979, the Camp David accords have been the linchpin of U.S. policy in the Levant.  They are now in jeopardy.  Egypt has begun to demand that Israel, too, fulfill its promises at Camp David.  (Israel’s treaty commitments included its withdrawal from the territories it seized in 1967 and facilitation of Palestinian self-determination there.  Instead, it has swallowed up the land for itself, while ghettoizing its Palestinian inhabitants.)  Jordan now faces simultaneous demands for domestic political reform and a less accommodating posture toward Israel.  The Camp David accords were conceived as a platform on which to build a broader peace.  With no such peace in the works, the platform itself is beginning to wobble and show signs of future collapse.

Egypt and Jordan are not the only neighbors of Israel whose future orientation is in doubt.  Despite the hard line Damascus has traditionally taken on Israel-Palestine issues, Syria has been reliably passive as an enemy of Israel.  In contrast, Syria today is a wild card in Middle East politics.  No one can be sure of its future roles and orientation vis-à-vis Iran, Israel, and Lebanon, not to mention Turkey and the Arab Gulf states.  It is hard to predict when and how Syria will emerge from its current anarchy but it is even harder to imagine that, when it does so, it will sustain its past pattern of coexistence with Israel.

The existing diplomatic mechanisms for managing Israeli-Palestinian relations no longer have credibility.  Talk of a resumption of the so-called “peace process” evokes cynical sarcasm.  The convening of the “Quartet” is greeted with indifference.  Things have changed.  Everyone in the region knows that Israel is obsessed with land.  No one now believes it is interested in peace.  Mr. Netanyahu’s mid-November assault on Gaza has simply reinforced the regional view that Israel is an enemy with which it is impossible peacefully to coexist.

The Palestinian leadership in the West Bank remains committed to a two-state solution based on self-determination in a mere 22 percent of the original Palestine Mandate.  Hamas has indicated that it is prepared to go along with this.  But it has been almost twenty years since there has been any progress toward peace between Israel and the Palestinians.  Israel’s seizure and settlement of land beyond its 1967 borders now effectively preclude a separate Palestinian state.  The trend in Palestine and abroad is therefore shifting rapidly toward support for a struggle for equal civil and human rights within an unpartitioned Palestine.

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.



  1. It almost shocks one to hear such lucid and precise assessments of US foreign affairs, compared to the policies we actually follow, and the “facts” we accept widely. This dichotomy IS evidence of a domestic propaganda campaign. This IS coordinated between our press and gov’t in some way. It keeps the majority of people utterly ill-informed; and, makes “democracy” devoid of meaning.

  2. Mr. Freman’s views are refreshing in many aspects but I have a deep skepticism towards the assumption that US policy visavis Arab-Israeli conflict has changed. Popper’s thesis about truth of a hypothesis is that if you can’t refute it with any evidence, the hypothesis is true. Israel is a creation of US; UK wrote the Balfour declaration, US implemented it. Going back to 1944, both democrats and republicans put in their plank what Balfour declaration had said: colonization of Palestine and a jewish state. Truman implemented this program. Differences between Israel cannot be even called differences among family members because they are often fake. US has feigned protest here and there but everything it has done was to bolster Israel including Camp David and Oslo. If it has lodged phony objections it was to please Saudi Arabia and other vassals in the region, for Saudi Kings it was hard to jusftify their friendship with America while their “bretheren” were mistreated. Give me one evidence contradicting what I said. If not, based on Popper’s thesis I am right!

  3. I read Freeman’s piece the day it was posted — 29th or 30th, I think — and found it depressing because true. Since Washington can’t or won’t “save Israel from itself” and refuses even to acknowledge the destruction of Palestine, it should just get out. Further meddling, including making stupid comments about it, only hinders any progress that might otherwise be made.

    As Freeman notes, Arabs are no longer sleepwalking through history. And he’s right when he says that they no longer believe — if they ever did — that Israel is capable of belonging in the Middle East. Once the West gets back on its economic feet, we’re going to see Exodus 2.0. Those second passports Israelis have been acquiring will be coming in handy soon. Then, we’ll see an Israel overwhelmingly dominated exclusively by Rabbis and Generals in possession of a couple hundred nukes.

  4. I am a retired college teacher and have an extensive email circle of very educated former class mates and colleagues–all of whom voted for BO and are liberal in some sense.

    Yet a minority of us see Israel as Freeman does, The majority have been coached by the one-sided media into a kind of sleep-walking.

    Lately lots of observers see changes about to happen to reduce Israel’s tyranny, but I simply do not see any significant movement among the American Jews–who are really Zionists now because their grandparents would surely not stand for an atrocity a day–just read the daily Mondoweiss!

    The one significant change has been in the non-Jewish commentators beginning with Walt and Mearsheimer in 2006. But despite their tenacity and brilliance, at least among my friends–there seems to be mostly a wish to turn to a more pleasant subject.

    I think BDS is the only way. We can expect nothing from the congress and from CNN-NBC, but this should begin among the Real Jews–and maybe then J Street will give up its acting and begin to walk the walk.

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