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America’s failures in the Middle East: an interview with Patrick Tyler

Patrick Tyler is the Chief Correspondent for the New York Times. He was staioned in Cairo as Washington Post Middle East Bureau Chief. During the 1990s, before the start of the First Gulf War, he was based in Baghdad with the New York Times. He returned to Iraq in 2003 to establish the Times’ first Iraq Bureau. He now lives in Washington D.C. His latest book is entitled A World of Trouble: America in the Middle East.

Jonathan Mok: Can you tell me why the Israel/Palestine conflict has defeated the repeated efforts of American presidents?

Patrick Tyler: First of all, the conflict is extremely difficult to resolve, given that it represents rival national claims on the same land. Second, very soon after the Arab-Israeli conflict erupted into full scale combat in the wake of World War II, the overlay of the Cold War added a dimension of almost permanent competition between the superpowers, with Moscow arming and supporting the Arab camp, and Washington (and the West) increasingly pushed toward a defense of Israel.

Borders, refugees and Jerusalem became towering obstacles to peace and the rise of Nasserism, pan-Arabism and Israeli militancy under David Ben-Gurion left any nascent peace camp on the defensive. The end of the British mandate had left no clear border arrangements other than the armistice lines of 1949, and neither side was happy with those. The 1967 Six Day War left Israel with even more Arab land by conquest.

American presidents were simply unable to muster sufficient political support at home, and international support to bring the parties to a compromise. Where there has been peace, it has evolved from national conditions, such as those that drove Sadat in the late 1970s to make the Camp David compromise, those that drove Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat in 1993, King Hussein of Jordan in 1994 and Syria’s Hafez al-Assad in 1999. Not all of these efforts succeeded, thus the peace agenda remains unfulfilled.

Jonathan: While pro-Israel lobbies have exerted tremendous influence in shaping American Middle Eastern policy, how influential , in your opinion, have Evangelicals have been in making the policy?

Patrick: Increasingly more influential. It is a strange circumstance that fundamentalist Christians would offer, and Israelis would accept, the unconditional support of a set of believers who hope that all the Jews of the world would return to the Holy Land in order to set the stage for the Second Coming of Christ and the demise of the Jews at a Christian Judgment Day.

The evangelical influence has expressed itself largely in the swelling of conservative ranks in the Republican Party, and in unconditional support for the Israeli right. Whether that support can consistently overwhelm the counter-veiling instincts for negotiation and compromise between Arabs and Israelis has yet to be seen.

picture by Susan Biddle
picture by Susan Biddle

Jonathan: On page 154 of your new book, you argue that ” the Arab oil embargo” was “a crisis that Nixon and Kissinger’s policies had engendered”. How significant was the oil embargo in affecting American Middle Eastern policy? Do you agree that the Nixon administration, state department officials and pro-Israel groups did not except Arab states to employ oil as the weapon?

Patrick: The Arab oil embargo was triggered by the open tilt of the Nixon administration toward the Israeli side in the Yom Kippur War. Nixon and Kissinger feared that pro-Israeli senators, like Henry M. Jackson of Washington state, would lead a revolt against the Nixon administration at a time when Nixon desperately needed to preserve his base in the Senate in the event of his impeachment over Watergate crimes.

In truth, Nixon wanted to be the neutral broker who brought peace to the Middle East, as Eisenhower had done in ending the Suez Crisis. He wanted to restrain arms supplies to Israel during the Yom Kippur War – and did so initially — so Israeli leaders would realize that conquest was not a long-term option, and that peace brokered by the superpowers was the best course.

But as the war unfolded, the American re-supply was incompetently managed by top Nixon aides, and when Senators learned of the mess, Nixon opted for a full blown tilt toward Israel, which triggered an intensely negative Arab reaction – hence the oil embargo. It might have come anyway, but Nixon gave up all public pretense of balance in the war; he falsely blamed the Soviets for a “massive” re-supply to the Arabs, and he acted cynically to protect his domestic position, which was under siege due to Watergate.

Jonathan: Among all American presidents, Jimmy Carter has arguably been the most anti-Israeli leader, in the eyes of some. William Safire, as you mentioned on page 186, accused Jimmy Carter of ” selling out Israel”. Still, Carter was able to help achieve a permanent peace deal between Egypt and Israel. Can we talk about Carter’s approach to the peace process? Also, do you find the accusations of anti-Semitism against Carter justifiable?

Patrick: I don’t think Jimmy Carter is anti-Semitic. And the Camp David Treaty is the most durable peace achievement in the history of the modern Middle East. But from the beginning of his administration, Carter trampled on Israeli sensitivities by talking about Palestinian political rights, something that set off neuralgic reactions in the Jewish community.

His differences with the Jewish community, to my mind, were always disputes over the correct “tone” and a lack of personal sentimentality for the Zionist narrative in history. I would argue that Carter unquestionably accepted that narrative – he believed in the Jewish state – but his personal sympathies were for making progress for the Palestinian community, which he saw as the underdog, much the way he had seen African Americans during the Civil Rights movement in the United States. But American Jews and Israelis never forgave him for his emotional detachment from them, and he lost their votes in the 1980 election, the first time a Democrat had done so in the post-war era.

a-world-of-troubleJonathan: While you did not agree with criticisms against American excessive support to Israel due to the involvement of pro-Israel lobbies, as you mention in the preface of the book, what are the reasons for America’s massive financial, military and political support to the Jewish state?

Patrick: Essentially, American support for Israel is part of the fabric of American politics. It is bigger than the Jewish community.

The post-war imagery of displaced Jews trying to reach the Holy Land affected Jews and Christians and even non-believers in the United States. Therefore, the question of Israel is part of the constituent politics of American society. Given that, Americans have divided loyalties; they have supported arms sales to Arab countries, they have been appalled by civilian casualties in Israeli military ventures. So the question of American support for Israel is a complex one. Yet the bedrock of support for protecting a Jewish state in the Middle East exists and often finds itself in conflict with other American objectives in the region.

Jonathan: One of the challenges for American presidents to deal with seem to be the differences between American Jewish leaders and Israeli leaders. For example, when Yitzhak Rubin visited the United States after signing the Oslo accords, leaders of mainstream American Jewish organizations weren’t too pleased with him. Can we talk about that?

Patrick: It is true that Rabin was not enamored with AIPAC and the other institutionalized organs of Israeli influence in American politics. The reason was two fold: Rabin did not like to subordinate his duties as prime minister to any third party that wanted to be the “link” between him and an American president. Rabin wanted to be that link. He wanted personal relations. He also understand that the pro-Israeli lobby in Washington often had parochial considerations — such as fund raising – that at times drove it to accentuate threats where Rabin believed none existed, or at least not at the same level. He understood that the American lobby was more content to have a Likud prime minister in office than an Labor prime minister working for the resolution of conflicts. And so he simply worked around the lobby, and that explains their “cool” view toward him.

Jonathan: What suggestions you would offer to the President Obama about bringing peace to the Middle East? How should Hamas be engaged?

First and foremost, President Obama has to work in more than one political dimension and the expectations are very high. He has to prepare the Middle East for peace, the Palestinians, the Israelis and the Arabs; then he has to prepare the American public for peace, because America will bear much of the cost and the burden of maintaining the peace.

A president has to be opportunistic. If the Palestinians need some time to mend the relations between Fatah and Hamas, then the United States can test the waters with Syria, to see if Bashar al-Assad is as ready as he has hinted he is for peace with Israel; the new President will also have to pay attention to the Arab peace initiative, which Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah feels very strongly about, and seems to have the support of the Arab League. So what a new American leader faces is a broad constellation of requirements for diplomacy, intelligence gathering and then opportunistic initiatives for peace, whether that could come first with the Palestinians, with the Syrians, or through a broad agreement in which the Arab League is a party.

And when all of that is done, he must turn to Iran and reach a new modus vivendi if he to enhance long term stability. Iran has elections, too, this year, and Obama will make decisions after he sees a new leadership.

Jonathan: Finally, what would be the issues you believe the most difficult to deal with in the peace negotiation between Israel and Palestine. For example, how should the status of Jerusalem, the settlement and the refugees’ right of return be resolved?

Patrick: The basic construct for Jerusalem must allow both sides to declare the city an eternal capital. To me that means the Arab neighborhoods go to the Palestinian state and the Jewish neighborhoods to Israel.

The Old City can also be divided roughly along these lines, but the Temple Mount, the Noble Sanctuary, cannot be under dual sovereignty. This will take the longest time to settle, and must be blessed by religious authorities on both sides, but it is not impossible.

Right of return is also difficult, because Palestinians want Israel to acknowledge the right even if the refugees are restricted from returning to their homes in Jaffa, Haifa and Ramle. Compensation and donor assisted development of a new Palestinian economy will be crucial to solving this problem, but Israel will have to feel that the Jewish character of its state will be protected by the settlement. Even if this issue is settled, Israel faces a difficult challenge in the long term assimilation of its Israeli-Arab population, whose members still live as second class citizens, and who have become more vocal in asserting their rights in an ethnically diverse state.

6 thoughts on “America’s failures in the Middle East: an interview with Patrick Tyler

  1. The so-called “right of return” is a disastrous idea. Secondly, everyone seems to forget about the Jews who were expelled and driven out of Arab lands following the 1948 war. Where is their compensation?

  2. “But American Jews and Israelis never forgave him for his emotional detachment from them, and he [Nixon] lost their votes in the 1980 election….”

    Egad! It’s trouble enough dealing with an estimated three million illegal Mexican votes in US presidential elections, but now you’re saying the Israelis are doing the same thing too? Oh the humanity!

  3. Uhhhh….sorry. In the above post, “Nixon” should read “Carter” of course. I have Nixon on the brain. I was just down at the Nixon Library in Orange County last week. Beautiful place.

  4. Lots of reasons contributed to Carter’s failures. Let’s look at the Christian Right. The inability of looking beyond peace in the Middle East led voters in the Bible belt stray for Reagan.

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