“But What if Nobody Takes Notice?”

Alastair Crooke

“But what if nobody takes notice?” is the question posed by Robert Malley and Hussein Agha in an article in the recent New York Review of Books concerning the putative ‘shelf agreement’ being discussed between President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert. A ‘shelf agreement’ is an exercise in outlining some principles for the settlement of the Palestinian issue, rather than to attempt a full solution. It is a document, the culmination of the Annapolis process, intended not for implementation; but rather immediately to be set aside — on the ‘shelf’ — whilst all parties, Bush, Abbas and Olmert declare the document to represent a huge triumph — whilst shamelessly waving this Chamberlinesque ‘peace in out time’ paper before their electorates in order to ‘help’ in their respective elections, or to cement legacies.

Israel is expected to go to parliamentary elections shortly — whether or not Olmert survives the threat of a criminal indictment hanging over him. Olmert’s strategy has been to persuade Israelis that the ‘agreement’ is somehow an achievement. And in one limited sense, it may be seen by Israel to be an ‘achievement’. But not in bringing any change on the ground: the Occupation and the grinding life of Palestinians will continue as before. Indeed almost all Israelis and Palestinians understand that the much fêted ‘shelf agreement’ will be inoperable — neither Olmert nor Abbas can implement it, even if they wished so to do.

Change will be shelved. Olmert’s ‘achievement’, if it comes, will be in terms of pocketing further Palestinian concessions: Concessions on the Right of Return for refugees; on settlements; and in ambiguity on borders and Jerusalem. This is the ‘gift’ that President Bush hopes to present to Israel on its 60th birthday this year. Mahmoud Abbas may believe that Palestinians, desperate for any hope, will endorse it — and throw a lifeline to Fateh, Abbas’ fractured movement — in elections due in 2009. And Bush will have a ‘legacy’.

But it is the wrong question: Malley and Agha raised it essentially to highlight the likelihood of such a ‘shelf-agreement’ being ignored; and therefore to focus attention on what, in their view, must be done to rescue the ‘two-state solution’ from this shelf-process, which they suggest, by feeding Palestinian and Israeli scepticism and cynicism about yet another meaningless, unimplementable deal, will end up “dooming” for good the two-state solution, rather than strengthening it.

But reality is different: In the region — beyond the Ramallah hothouse — there is no “what if?” The failure of the two-state solution is expected, and discounted, as thinking has evolved in a different direction: The cheer-leaders among Europeans desperate to ‘rescue’ it are stuck in denial from this perspective.

They are in denial about the failure of the incremental process initiated in Oslo in 1993; in denial about the changed psychology of much of the region; and, as Henry Siegman, the former head of the Middle East programme at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York has noted, are “delusional” in believing that accommodating this ‘shelf’ agreement would be an act of friendship for Israel; or atone for what befell the Jews in Europe.

Even if the Israeli Prime Minister belatedly were to recognise that its policy ultimately has not served Israeli interests, the theft and fragmentation of Palestinian lands, without let-up over forty years — as even a child understands — makes any meaningful independent Palestinian state now virtually an impossibility. Palestinians have understood this for a long time. It is hardly surprising however that Israeli premiers find it difficult to resist the acquisition of Palestinian land — as we observe to be the case even in the midst of the Annapolis process — in the absence of any international blow-back to settlement expansion.

What is astounding is the international community’s denial in pretending to believe Israel’s claim that it is somehow ‘the victim’; and that, by allowing this devastating Palestinian dispossession to continue, as Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy’s virtually uncritical support for Israel clearly conveys, can lead to Israeli ‘moderation’. Plainly it achieves the opposite.

Will an un-implementable statement of principles ‘doom’ a two-state solution as Malley and Agha fear? Of course. Have European leaders still not woken up to this? It is a conclusion that has been shaping thinking beyond Europe’s circle of pro-western ‘moderate’ Arab friends for some time now. As polls show, despite western ‘peace politics’, Muslims overwhelmingly view Israel as a threat, and not as a partner for peace: 95% of Muslims in the six mainly Sunni moderate Arab states polled by Zogby and the University of Maryland see Israel as the main threat to security in the region — and 88% also see the US in the same light, rather than as a peace broker — whereas, by comparison, a mere 6% view Iran as a threat.

There is perhaps a fine irony here: As Israel has contributed to the self-destruction of President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fateh movement, by undermining its credibility and by continuing with the settlement project; so too, perhaps, has Fateh slipped a suicide pill to Israel. Israel’s and America’s blindness to the sea-changes taking place in the region — or the contempt with which they are viewed — may stem in part from their overly close association with the ‘moderates’ in Fateh.

Israel has become so accustomed to Palestinian negotiators running to talks with Israel — irrespective of the deaths of Palestinians or new announcements of further illegal settlement construction — that Israel and the US Administration take the “Palestinians desperate for any hope” narrative so seriously that they believe that an Israeli ‘signal of peace’, however cynical its motive, is enough to placate the region — and to allow Israel and the US the quiet with which to continue with their plans.

But if this is what they think, then it is little wonder that the West so regularly misreads the ground in the region: Not all Palestinians are ‘desperate’ for hope from Israel. Far from it, many are making ready against the possibility of conflict.

The feeling among Islamists, many secularists, Christians, and a number of states is of being at the cusp of fundamental change. Change is coming; and the region will not again be what it is today: This major current does not foresee the coming era to be the one that Europe or the US envisages; but something very different. Islamic movements and states such as Syria and Iran increasingly are concerned to judge the evolving strategic shifts accurately. This is more important to them than to make some tactical and short term political accommodation with western powers — no one wants to be caught on the wrong side of events.

Underlying this psychological mood-shift is the realisation that neither Israel nor the US seems able to come to terms with the key outcome from the two Gulf conflicts: the inevitable emergence of Iran as a pre-eminent regional power. Similarly, the consensus is that the US is incapable also of coming to terms with the prospect of Islamist empowerment; and therefore of adjusting its secular, free-market vision for the region. And there is no sense that Europe or Israel or the US understands the nature or the energies being released by the growing forces of ‘resistance’. Unlike those in the region, Europe seems unaware that its policies of espousing ‘moderates’ against ‘extremists’ is mobilising more and more Muslims into the resistance against the ‘western project’.

In short, there is no real sense that Israel or its US and European friends possess the political resources to make a strategic change of direction; or even to come to terms with Iranian or Islamist empowerment.

Belatedly, the West is now showing some understanding that the impact of globalisation on the region has been one of falling real wages and social fragmentation: Stock markets may have boomed for the tiny Arab élite; but for the majority it has brought the erosion of community support structures, and a poverty widening into what remains of the middle class, that is threatening to unloose a wave of political frustration and anger. It is a tide that will re-shape the region.

Many will turn to Islam — an Islam that increasingly does articulate an alternative social vision for the future. The experience of Iraq has soured Muslims toward the Western vision of nation-state building. They look to a new vision — and almost certainly this will be an Islamist one.

But they see also the darkening political shadows from the West’s inability to internalise what a real settlement in Palestine would entail; or to internalise the consequences of its wars that facilitated Iran’s rise to pre-eminence. They understand that a pre-eminent Iran critically challenges the West’s own standing. They understand, too, that the West feels troubled and vulnerable from the rising tide of Islamism and anti-western sentiment in the region — and of Iran’s leadership of it. They see too that the West does not know how to manage these phenomena — and thus, feeling events slipping away from it, dwells heavily on its fears.

The dynamic of waning western power to shape events as the West would like, is that sooner or later, the risk of a clash between the polarised forces of the West with some part of the ‘axis-of-resistance’ becomes much greater. When Annapolis, Iraq and the current Israeli overtures to take Syria out from the ‘axis’ fail; when western options narrow; and when its ‘peace initiatives’ come-up empty, logic argues that a frustrated West is likely to resort to military means to weaken or break the ‘resistance’.

Syria and the Lebanese understand that they are in the frontline in this event — as much as Iran; and all are mentally stiffening themselves against this prospect. The region is not ‘desperate’ for peace: It would welcome it, of course; but much of it is also preparing and judiciously expecting the worst. It is the West’s lack of recognition of the strength and rigour of this new psychology of resilience towards prospective conflict, and of lack of understanding why western policies are seen as so dangerously inadequate and misconceived, that pushes many in the region to believe that a West, sunk in deep denial, carries with it the probability of conflict — whether inadvertent or deliberate. Unless it is understood that it is this strategic focus that preoccupies Iran, Syria, Hesballah and Hamas, their thinking cannot begin to be judged accurately — and grave mistakes may occur.


  1. alan reilly wrote:

    excellent article. Thank you for bringing this to my attention, i find what you have to right is insightful and original. I had heard mention in the recent past of the demise of the ‘two-state’ solution but this article helps to place this in some context. I also think it predicts an inevitable collision should America/Europe/Israel not change policy direction and that it would be fair to say that many in the middle east are preparing for such a possible outcome. Also, i believe that those who live in the region and prepare for conflict are doing so as a reaction to a continuous malign meddling in their affairs that has no end in sight. It really does shine a light into the dark crevices of the neocon mind, surely they understand this and expect it.

  2. Excellent and most helpful commentary piece.

    But will the United States alter its foreign policy on Palestine? Which is to say, Will the US foreign policy elite alter its policy?

    It seems to me that the United States has a profound structural problem politically: the “pro-Israel” Lobby composed of Jews as well as a bloc of about 50 million American Christian Zionists. AIPAC and other similar organizations such as John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel (CUFI) routinely can obtain three-quarters of the votes of the US House and Senate in favor of the “pro-Israel” legislation for which they lobby. The White House is similarly influenced.

    This profound structural problem inside US domestic politics, in turn, creates a profound structural problem within the international community and international system. In a “unipolar” world this has been particularly pronounced.

    However, the world today is evolving in a “multipolar” direction. The US “hegemon” (which has its own demographic, economic, and financial issues) will be increasingly constrained within this new evolving and emerging complex multipolar world. American hard and “soft” power are on the wane, albeit a slow downward drift. International polling data such as you point out are clear indicators of the erosion of US credibility and leadership potential present and future.

    This new international situation opens the way for the stategic shifts you indicate. A new correlation of forces is coming into being at the global and regional levels.

    New regional powers such as Iran have emerged. New global players such as China and India are on the stage. Russia is coming back as a strong player and the Japanese and Chinese seem to be composing some of their differences. Major world powers and regional powers are concerned about energy security. Iran can play a significant role in this regard, for example.

    IMO, within this context, inappropriate and counterproductive use of US military power (such as the “preventive” Iraq War) will serve to accelerate the emerging multipolar strategic environment. Countries like Egypt, for example, have other options today like China.

    Given this overall situation, and takinginto consideration demographic trends over the next 25 years in historic Palestine, aren’t we really looking toward an eventual “one-state” solution one way or another? Yes, the era of a so-called “two-state” solution appears to have passed as you suggest.

  3. michael breen wrote:

    So, Israel has rebuffed Syria’s peace overtures for decades and now it is too late: Syria, looking to its own longer term interest, is no longer likely to allow itself to be picked off from a broader front in the piecewise way that Israel has managed its neighbours in the past.

    The two-state “solution” is already dead, a corpse propped up by those on both sides whose interest is served by it. Public recognition is only now catching on to the idea that there is another course. Those who merely say “time is running out” are off the pace. When people who see themselves as moderate realize that the “impossibility” of one state is based mainly on popular opinion against it whereas the two states idea is truly impossible, that same popular opinion is likely to change with surprising speed. All the more so given the moral clarity of an argument based on equality rather than a muddy, zero-sum negotiation about borders – and the very fact that seeking equality emphasizes its absence. Talk of a one-state solution is slowly but steadily gaining in the mainstream media as a recent article in the Los Angeles Times shows. Over time, the hysterical reaction of the kind that Tony Judt encountered will increasingly be seen for what it is and decay. For those who do not even want the one-state solution to be discussed, this is already a defeat.

    Israel became so complacent in its superpower status that it seems to have lost the capacity to see longer term changes. As a new younger generation grows up in the US, including Jews who tend to be more secure and less susceptible to seeing Israel through the lens of the Holocaust, and as knowledge grows with the increasing willingness of intellectuals to challenge the terms of public discourse (even if they still pay a high price for doing so), the clock is perceptibly ticking. Israel was mistaken in thinking it could maintain indefinitely the PR dominance it still enjoys. It used to be that there was no such thing as a “Palestinian”. Now even the word “Nakba” is breaking out everywhere, to the dismay of Nakba-deniers like Tzipi Livni. Though it may take a long time to reach the strength of what is now conventional thinking, these voices are becoming louder and will not remain isolated. There will be an acceleration in the pace of change of public opinion – a tipping point – when those who have been repressed by the threat of being called “anti-Semitic” suddenly get the courage to speak out. They will be quickly followed by those whose main concern is to be “politically correct”.

    The unpredictable elements – which ultimately will decide whether the path to a single state is protracted and violent or comparatively peaceful and orderly, as well as the fate the region in general – are the decisions of governments: short-term thinking with long term effects. And here the greatest unpredictability lies not in a strengthening Iran but in the weakening and so even more volatile US and Israel. There’s a lot of time for the fearful, the zealous, and the blind to engage on some desperate course to try to disrupt current trends, perhaps doing something that will become even more infamous than the Iraq war. It is, sadly, entirely possible that a bellicose, deluded John McCain will be elected in the US and that dismal European complacency will continue for some considerable time to come. And Bush’s sabre-rattling this week in Israel is a sobering reminder that his administration still has time to wreak murderous havoc.

  4. Foppe Dykstra wrote:

    I suppose what I write will be moderated away, moderation is the 1984 word for censorship, so I’ll keep it short.

    Yesterday evening on VPRO Tegenlicht I saw a report on Conflicts Forum that talks to ‘terrorists’.

    Both my wife and I wondered if the people of this forum are as naive as they pretend to be.

    After a night sleep I even wonder if they are not just the agents of the USA, Israel or whatever dark forces we have these days.

    I wonder if these people have not the slightest idea of what the so called free west perpetrated in the ME since 1880.

    For example, do they not know that Churchill in 1918 ordered poison gas to ne used in Damascus to destroy the independent Arab state promised in return for driving the Ottomans out ?

    Ths history of the ME is one long history of brutal western colonisation, and now we are suprised that they resist us.

    If you are interested I can explain what we did there, but I do not suppose you want to know, you talk to ‘terrorists’.

    There is no such thing as terrorism in my view, there is some feeble resistance to western and jewish brutal colonialism.

    And I am not afraid of Islam, I just am afraid of the USA and Israel.

  5. Hassan Mansour wrote:

    In addition to what has been posted, discussed elucidated in this article, USA uses the govs. of the countries starting from Morocco all the way to Afghanistan to implement and carry out its projects in terms of economy, military and cultural invasion to name a few and suppress the peoples, leaving illiteracy to skyrocket, use up the natural resources in the region. it s a new form of neocolonialism tough musked with democracy-promises to bewitch and turn the crowds. For what? to keep isreal on the surface of earth and turn the wool over the general public eyes by using deceptive media coverage that plays fast and loose with facts which does a disservice to the american people.

    the targeting of Iran and hizbullah and propaganda to bring it into conflict with other muslim countries will certainly fail like it did fail in Lebanon. we are one people, one body from Morocco to Malizia though under different cultural identities. we still have one single identity in common and that s enough to bring us into unity.

    In short it s a declared war against muslims and resistance movements have the right to use any way they see fit to put the crusader in their place and it is a religious duty upon muslims to answer.
    “Ina Hizballahi humu l ghaliboun”

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