By Ambassador (ret.) Yoram Ettinger
While the election of President Trump represented a setback to political-correctness, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's interview on May 14, 2017 NBC's Meet the Press reflected the State Department's political correctness on US-Israel and US-Arab relations, the Palestinian issue and the relocation of the US Embassy to Jerusalem.
The interview may have sent a message of US procrastination on the relocation of the US Embassy to Jerusalem, the ancient core of Judaism and Jewish history, which inspired the early US Pilgrims and Founding Fathers. Procrastination would be interpreted by Arabs as US retreat in the face of Arab pressure and threats, eroding the US posture of deterrence, triggering further pressure and emboldening anti-US Islamic terrorism.
Secretary Tillerson embraced the State Department's zero-sum-game philosophy. He assumes that enhanced US-Israel relations undermine US-Arab relations. However, since 1948, and especially in recent years, US-Israel geo-strategic cooperation has surged dramatically, simultaneously with expanded US-Arab security cooperation, and unprecedented counter-terrorism cooperation between Israel and Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Jordan and Egypt, despite the lack of progress on the Palestinian front.
Contrary to conventional Western wisdom, the pro-US Arab regimes distinguish between challenges which are primary (e.g., the Iranian threat) and secondary/tertiary (e.g., the Palestinian issue). Therefore, when the machetes of Iran's Ayatollahs and other Islamic terrorists are at their throats, the pro-US Arab regimes recognize that Israel is the only reliable "life insurance agent" in the Middle East, regardless of the Palestinian issue.
Secretary Tillerson insinuated that the relocation of the US Embassy to western Jerusalem - which is within the boundaries of pre-1967 Israel – could undermine the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. Thus, he provided tailwind to the 69-year-old Department of State's view – which contradicts the position of the American people and their representatives in the House and Senate - that there is no legitimacy to Israel's sovereignty over any part of Jerusalem. It radicalizes the Arabs, forcing them to outflank the US from the maximalist side, deluding themselves that they have nothing to lose and time is, supposedly, on their side.
Tillerson also seems to subscribe to Foggy Bottom's view that the Palestinian issue is a core cause of the Arab-Israeli conflict and Middle East turbulence, and a top priority for Arab policy-makers. Therefore, he assumes that the relocation of the US Embassy to Jerusalem could fuel anti-US terrorism and undermine US cooperation with pro-US Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia, against the mutual threats of the Ayatollahs of Iran and additional sources of Islamic terrorism.
However, anti-US Islamic terrorism has been totally divorced from the Palestinian issue and Israel, as demonstrated by the blowing up of the US Embassy and Marines barracks in Lebanon in 1983 (300 US Marines murdered), at a time when the US brutalized Israel over its hot pursuit of the PLO. In fact, the 1998 suicide car-bombing of the US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania (300 persons murdered), and the October 2000 suicide attack on the USS Cole in Aden, Yemen (17 US Marines murdered), occurred while President Clinton refrained from relocating the US Embassy to Jerusalem, as prescribed by 1995 legislation, and while Israeli Prime Minister Barak offered the Palestinians a full Israeli withdrawal, including Jerusalem's Temple Mount.
Moreover, since 1948, contrary to the Department of State's conventional wisdom, Middle East reality has documented top-heavy pro-Palestinian Arab talk, but anti-Palestinian, or indifferent, Arab walk.
For example, no Arab-Israeli war was ever ignited by the Palestinian issue. It was highlighted by the conclusion of the 1948-49 war, when Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and Syria occupied Gaza, Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) and Al-Hama, but never contemplated transferring these areas to the Palestinians, strictly constraining Palestinian activities.
In addition, none of the recent Arab tectonic eruptions from Tunisia, in Northeastern Africa, through Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Bahrain in the Persian Gulf are related, directly or indirectly, to the Palestinian issue or Israel.
The assumption that the relocation of the US Embassy to Jerusalem would undermine US-Saudi cooperation in the face of the Ayatollahs and additional sources of Islamic terrorism, ignores the Saudi – and all other Arab regimes - view of the Palestinians.
They have always considered the Palestinians a role model of intra-Arab treachery and subversion. Hence, the severe constraints of Palestinian maneuverability in their countries, and the meager financial assistance to the Palestinians (compared with the US foreign aid to the Palestinian Authority), and the absence of military support. For instance, no Arab regime ever got involved in any of the Palestinian-Israeli wars in Lebanon, Judea and Samaria and Gaza.
In contrast to the recent Arab talk and State Department political correctness, the Arab countries have never considered Jerusalem to be their top holy city – status reserved for Mecca and Medina - capital or cultural center. Jerusalem was largely neglected during Islamic rule, serving – at most – as a political platform in their conflicts with "the infidel."
Reality-based political incorrectness motivated Israel and Egypt, in 1977, in defiance of US President Carter, to negotiate and conclude a bilateral peace accord with no Palestinian, regional or international involvement. It also motivated Israel and Jordan, in 1994, to conclude another bilateral peace accord. The US played a critical deal-closing role in both
cases, but only after the two parties reached the framework of bilateral agreement.
Moreover, a litany of peace initiatives, launched by the US, failed when attempting to subordinate reality to the US own benevolent political correctness, which stipulated a multilateral peace process, focusing on the Palestinian issue.
Will President Trump and Secretary Tillerson embrace Middle East reality, and reject political correctness, by avoiding procrastination on the relocation of the US Embassy to Jerusalem, thus sparing the US further erosion of its posture of deterrence in the Middle East and beyond?