A few days ago my wife and I were watching the PBS show Frontline that was reporting on the Syrian conflict and the immense suffering that it has caused, especially to children. My wife asked me, “Why don’t we do something about it?” I thought for a bit and had to say, “It’s complicated.”
In 1947, the U.N. voted to create Israel and Palestine and determined Jerusalem was capital of both states. Israel agreed to the concept termed, in Latin, “corpus separatum” or “separated body.” The Arab states rejected the plan, choosing, instead, to settle the issue with war. Later, when war failed, there was an effort to return to the concept of treating Jerusalem as a special international entity but nothing ever came of it. Time passed with no solution.
In October 1973, Israel’s neighbors attacked in the Yom Kipur War. I remember the calls for volunteers to help stem what, in the early days, appeared to be a rout and end of the Jewish state. Then a few Israeli tanks crossed the Suez Canal and cut off the Egyptian supply lines to the Egyptian troops in the Sinai Dessert. A clock began to tick that forced the world to seek a prompt cessation of fighting to prevent the tragedy of thousands of Egyptian soldiers dying of thirst in the Sinai a looming specter that was justifying the U.S.S.R. becoming involved in the conflict and the ultimate fear of a nuclear war.
Now, over 40 years after the Yom Kippur War and 67 years after the U.N. voted to create Israel, most Americans accept, without question, the idea that Jerusalem is solely a part of Israel. The problem is the Islamic world has never accepted the concept. Also, if military gains are necessarily permanent, then why don’t the U.S. and Britain control all of Western Europe and the Russians the rest? The reason is that military gains are not, in a modern civilized world, permanent. When one nation seeks permanent gain from war all that generally results is another war.
We justify not helping the poor people of Syria, not just because we are war weary, but also because we fear what might come next could be a militant Islamic state that would threaten Israel. This view is misguided because, if we choose not to become involved in Syria, what will come will certainly be a new Syrian state, militantly Islamic or otherwise, that will threaten Israel because it will have a score to settle for its people suffering so much, abandoned by the United States to be murdered by Assad. Ultimately, Israel will be blamed and so will the U.S. Jerusalem will continue to be the rallying cry for more holy war.
Because we, in the United States, as a nation, continue to ignore the status of Jerusalem, the real issue in the Mideast conflict, we cannot form true alliances with the moderate Islamic states like Jordan, Egypt, the Gulf Emirates and Saudi Arabia in order to form alliances that are needed so we can intervene in conflicts like Syria. Simply stated, these moderate Islamic nations need to keep their distance from us when Israel is involved because we ignore the Palestinians and Jerusalem and simply pretend that Syria’s agony isn’t happening.
At the time of the Yom Kippur War Israel was seen as a wedge to be used against Soviet Union’s influence in the region. Now, the thing that stops us from acting to limit our reaction to Russia is our concern for the impact on Israel. The U.S. is unable to take more strident opposition to Russia’s role in Syria and the Ukraine and Russia is knows it is free to continue to assert the rights of a superpower in the region. From a realpolitik perspective, the cost, political and economic, of the United States alliance with Israel can no longer be justified based on a strategic benefit to the United States. The cost is justified based on U.S. domestic politics and a perceived shared ideology. Ironically, domestic politics and shared ideology are the same forces that drive the political and social ideology in adjacent Islamic states towards supporting continued conflict.
President Obama, in his recent visit to Israel, spoke to Israeli college students and implored them to put themselves in the Palestinians’ shoes. We all need to put ourselves in their shoes but also the shoes of the Syrian and Ukrainian people. If we conclude we need to consider Jerusalem capital of Israel then why not the capital of Palestine too? That is what the laws passed by the U.N. in 1947 provided, the same laws that created the Jewish and Palestinian states. It was recognized, back then, that all people should be free to visit Jerusalem and pray there, but only in peace and only in a world that accepted Israel’s right to exist. Any claim that the Palestinians should remain stateless cannot withstand the historical fact that both Israel and Palestine were born of the same act. If Iran, Russia and others continue to threaten Israel despite peace with its neighbors and justice for the Palestinians, the U.S. and Israel will need, more than ever, the support of the moderates in the region to meet that threat.
Tim Hogan 2014
PS @johnkerry. In 1986 I helped form the University Democrats at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. You’re welcome.