Media Foreign Affairs and National Security 2020.02.27
A small meeting was held last Friday at the Japan Arab Association for its 171st issue of The Arab Quarterly magazine. The association, established in 1958, is one of the oldest private entities in Japan to promote friendship with the Arab countries as well as to contribute to peace and stability in the Middle East. All the editors involved in the publication agreed that the next issue would feature the moribund Middle East peace process.
Everyone knew that the Trump administration's "deal of the century" would not resolve the long-standing dispute between Israel and the Palestinians over the control of the Holy Land. At the meeting, this author, a veteran of the so-called Oslo process in the 1990s, reminded the editors of the lessons of the negotiations to solve the Palestinian issue.
In many serious negotiations, the first offer is the best offer and the Palestinians failed to seize a golden opportunity in 2000. History is often made by the assassinations of such brave statesmen as Egyptian President Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Palestinian National Authority President Yasser Arafat, however, was just a politician, not a statesman.
What's worrying is that many young Japanese may not even be familiar with United Nations Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, which urged Israel to "withdraw from territories" it occupied in 1967. Nobody talks about the Camp David and Oslo Accords anymore, and the issue of the magazine needs to cover the facts for the record.
The timeline has been complicated. Israel declared independence and armistice agreements were signed in 1949. The Camp David Accords were reached in 1978 and led to signing of the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty the following year. The Oslo Accords were signed in 1993 and the Israel-Jordan peace treaty followed 1994. So far, not so bad.
Many of those involved in the peace efforts were cautiously optimistic about the future -- until the Camp David summit in 2000, where U.S. President Bill Clinton hosted Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. In retrospect, many people believe that this summit was the turning point.
Barak reportedly offered Arafat more than 90 percent of the West Bank and the whole Gaza Strip if 69 Jewish settlements were ceded to Israel. The Palestinian right of return would be solved financially. Arafat rejected this offer but, ironically, what U.S. President Donald Trump recently offered in his "ultimate deal" is far too less than that of 2000. What went wrong?
1. The peace process is brain dead
In a Jan. 17 Wall Street Journal essay titled "The Middle East isn't worth it anymore," Australian-American scholar and diplomat Martin Indyk wrote that "the U.S. has had two clear priorities in the Middle East: to keep Gulf oil flowing at reasonable prices and to ensure Israel's survival" but "the free flow of their oil is no longer a vital interest" for the United States.
"As for Israel," he continued, "its survival is no longer in question" and "Hard as it is for me to admit it, a two-state solution to the Palestinian problem is not a vital American interest." Inkyk was a highly respected Clinton administration National Security Council official. If he said this, the peace process might be almost over.
2. Is the Middle East not worth it anymore?
When Indyk says of "a vital interest," it means something America must protect even by force. Now he refers to the "21st-century reality" that "there has been a structural shift in American interests in the Middle East, one that Washington is having a hard time acknowledging."
Honestly, it is surprising that Indyk would say something like this. The exception may be Iran, and he wrote, "Preventing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East does remain a vital U.S. interest -- the one current case where the U.S. might need to resort to war." His conclusions, however, seem to be only half right.
3. Internal threats are equally serious
Indyk is right about the Iranian nuclear ambition to survive American domination in the Middle East. Having said that, threats in the Middle East can come not only from outside but also from the inside as well. Internal threats may destabilize the region if the death of the peace process triggers domestic political turmoil.
Indyk, one of the best and the brightest people to lead the U.S. Middle East policy in the 1990s, could be wrong in the long run, because a lack of hope for Palestinian independence may eventually create a new political movement not only in the West Bank and Gaza but also in countries such as Jordan and even those in the Gulf area.
4. The peace process is still worth it for Japan
That is the very reasons why Tokyo has been working on nation-building for Jordan and the Palestinian territories, which are potentially vulnerable to the political turmoil that would follow the death of the peace process. Chaos in the Palestinian territories or Jordan could immediately destabilize the oil and gas-rich Arabian Peninsula.
The Middle East is still worth Japan's vigilant attention and sincere efforts. Although the nation is heavily dependent on the Gulf region, Tokyo has neither the intention nor ambition to protect its vital interests in the Middle East by force. Japan doesn't play hardball in the Middle East and softballs often work better.
5. Consistent attention is required
Recently, the number of competent Middle East experts in Japan has increased not only in the government but also in the private sector and in academia. What the Mideast hands in Japan really need, however, is for policymakers to pay continuous, not sporadic, attention to the changing political and military situation in the Middle East.