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The peace process, Iran and the law of unintended consequences

At a luncheon panel on Israel and Iran at the Century Foundation yesterday, I was taken aback by some thoughts shared by Trita Parsi, author of the new and highly regarded Dangerous Alliance -The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the United States, and Daniel Levy, the former Israeli negotiator who is now Director of the Foundation’s Prospects for Peace Initiative, among other things. Stay with this and you might surprised, too:

Parsi said the rhetoric of Yitzhak Rabin and the Labor Party during the Oslo years inflamed Israeli-Iranian tensions and helped to usher both countries along the path of confrontation. One of Rabin’s principal explanations and justifications for the peace process, of course, was that peace with Israel’s immediate neighbors, including the Palestinians, would help to protect it from far more dangerous threats on the periphery, notably Iraq and Iran. The idea was that progress towards solving the Palestinian problem would make it easier for relatively moderate Arab and Persian Gulf states to help Israel, because it would give the leaders of those states more political cover to act as a buffer against Iran or Iraq, and either openly or tacetly ally themselves with Israel. Levy, in turn, said Rabin’s rhetoric was mainly a function of domestic politics, a tool used to sell the Oslo process to the Israelis.

I used to make the same argument just about every time I tried to sell the Oslo process to American Jewish audiences or ghostwrote op-eds for dovish American Jewish and Israeli leaders. In 1998, I created an ad for Israel Policy Forum that appeared in the corner of the New York Times op-ed page. There was a photo of a nuclear-tipped missile. The headline read something like “The U.S. and Israel are trying to develop a new anti-ballistic missile system. It’s called peace.” The copy was a reprise of Rabin’s periphery theory, and it was all about the dire threats that Iraq and Iran posed to Israel and the U.S. People told me it was pretty clever.

I still think the argument is sound. But, if I understood Parsi correctly, calling Iran an arch enemy and hammering away at the idea that it was an existential threat to Israel only served to alarm and anger Iran’s ruling elite. It was among the many factors that helped to encourage Iranian weapons development. Ouch, I thought. Did I, a very very tiny cog in the pro-peace machine, do that?

In the Q&A, I remarked that they had given a frightening illustration of the law of unintended consequences. I mentioned another: when it was time for Rabin to sell the Oslo process in the U.S., one of his first moves was to try to get AIPAC off his back. So he gave them the Iran portfolio, which they eagerly embraced, to put it mildly. They were actively involved in drafting and pushing the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act and, in a variety of ways, have helped to escalate the tensions that exist today. Mearsheimer and Walt were wrong about the role of AIPAC in the Iraq War, Parsi told me before lunch, but, by and large, they were right about AIPAC and America’s Iran policies. Had there been no Oslo process, perhaps AIPAC would not have poured as much energy into their Iran-related shenanigans.

My question to the panelists was related to another, possible producer of unintended consequences: America’s own “periphery theory,” as articulated by the Baker-Hamilton Commission and many other reasonable people. The Baker-Hamilton gang -like Dan Fleshler- has asserted that getting more engaged in pushing for peace between Israelis and Palestinians will help America deal with Iran and the mess in Iraq. It would do so by making it easier to establish a coalition of moderate Sunni states. But would an energized peace process also ratchet up tensions with Iran and somehow add fuel to the smoldering fire? (My actual question was less articulate).

Neither answered the question –one of many that were posed to them– directly. But Daniel did say that, of course, certain players had a vested interest in disrupting an Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and he included Iran on the list.

So I was left to my own devices, which are not adequate to this task. I will make a shocking confession that will distinguish me from just about every other pontificater on the Middle East in the blogosphere: I don’t know enough about Iran to predict the consequences of any action, any diplomatic proposals, anything.

No one who spoke yesterday implied that the U.S. should hesitate to encourage the enduring peace settlement that Israelis and Palestinians clearly and desparately need. Of course it should. Parsi and Levy clearly endorse that as ardently as I do. But they remind us that when we make even a small step in a certain direction in the Middle East, we are playing with forces that could have unexpected effects, with objects that may well collide with each other in unforseen ways.

16 thoughts on “The peace process, Iran and the law of unintended consequences

  1. My assumption is that Iran IS trying to achieve regional ascendancy to the status of dominance. It conflicted with Iraq’s former attempt to achieve regional ascendancy to the point of dominance. And, it conflicts with the Saudi and UAE attempts to achieve ascendancy through the marketplace and as Islamic trustee primarily.

    It is impossible to control more local squabbles (more local than global), for any purpose, neo-colonial dominance, market stability, or advocacy of literal (single-state) or multi-cultural democracy.

    Unintended consequences are the expected consequences.

    Unlike the weather, the mathematical formulations of a model of likely consequences, are unpredictable. (The weather is a good model for politics, forces and patterns of interractions are identifiable, but the sequence of the model unfolding can result in radically different outcomes. A small difference in even an apparently insignificant variable, results in either “the rain in its time” or “the great flood”.)

    I think your description of the concept of Iraq and Iran being a remote power to Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, etc. is still accurate.

    The Rabin urging of the peace plan is not accurately a cause of Iranian obstinacy, as much as the local picture of a rational regional approach.

    Its effect is divisive in the Arab world, pitting Sunni Muslim against Shia Muslim, and civilist assimilated Muslim against isolated purist waqf, and figurative Muslim against literalist. (Not unlike in the Jewish community, or “patriotic” community for that matter.)

    The dilemma for Israel includes that opposition to Israel, and formerly opposition to Jews, is/was a propaganda method of unification of nearly all opportunists. When Hamas wants to reconcile with Fatah, they conduct a militant action that evokes an Israeli response (on Fatah, Hamas and unaffiliated Palestinians) that all can agree Israel overreacts to, and forge unity.

    Iran does the same, in supporting and encouraging periodic opportunism on the part of Hezbollah, or even Hamas, for pan-Islamic unity.

    The democratic commitment is a form of “never again”. Never again will accept being scapegoated, and never again will I scapegoat.

    That would be what distinguishes the liberal approach from either the militant, or the overly strategic. No liberal can afford to ignore strategy or plausible sequence of outcomes, nor can they ignore the need for backbone.

    But, the primary commitment to acceptance of the other person/peoples and needs as a global and regional social norm, is permanent while the strategic is very temporary.

  2. So now I know why we are in this perilous situation, a time in which the President of the United States warns about World War III. It’s Dan Fleshler’s fault!!!!!

    Seriously, it was not the peace process itself that may have added to Iranian insecurities; it was the rhetoric about the peace process. The Oslo promoters perceived the need to exploit what Afram Burg used to call “catastrophic Judaism,” a permanently embattled state of mind that defines the Jews only in relation to their enemies, past, present and future.

  3. One problem here: Mr. Fleshler has repeatdly denounced M-W for saying that it was largely the Israel lobby’s fault for the Iraq war. Yet, he also says that he used to help the peace process by talking about the threat from Iran and Iraq.

    Sounds slightly contradictory.

  4. Jim S,

    I should let Dan respond but more often than not he doesn’t always comment on the comments.

    If you look at “Mainstream American Jews should stand up tp the preemptive war hawks” (https://www.realisticdove.org/archives/166), he writes

    “For all of its many flaws, the new book by Mearsheimer and Walt makes a vitally important point about the invasion of Iraq that has been obscured in the ongoing war-for-Israel debate: “There was hardly any opposition to the war among the major American Jewish organizations,” they write. That is, sadly, true.

    “Those who try to absolve the organized American Jewish community of any responsibility for the Iraq war are engaging in strained revisionism. Except for the Workman’s Circle, no group in the Presidents Conference publicly opposed the invasion.”

    He points out that the Zionist left “didn’t raise a peep about the war,” and one reason was the perception that Saddam was a threat to Israel.

    So some Jewish groups and people did push hard for the invasion. Others were more like the centrist Democrats in calling for military action as a last resort. Others didn’t say a thing.

    None of that means the “Israel lobby” was the most important reason or even among the top five reasons why the U.S. went to war. Of course it, and Israel’s interests, were a factor. But to say these were by far the most important factors, as Walt and Mearsheimer do, is just plain wrong.

    I don’t see anything contradictory in Dan’s post.

  5. I don’t know about groups organized AS Jewish groups, but the majority of Jews that I know, even conservatives, opposed the US invasion of Iraq.

    If asked, they/we would have stated “as Jews we oppose the invasion”. If asked as human beings, they/we would have responded “as human beings, we oppose the invasion”. If asked as Americans, they/we would have responded “as Americans, we oppose the invasion.”

    I like that Dan is asking himself “Did my actions result in some harm that I could have possibly foreseen and then acted differently?”

    That is the thought-process of a mensch, a human being.

    I like Teddy’s joke. It reminds me of a scene in the film, “The Russians are Coming”. Alan Arking is yelling at Carl Reiner. “If we can’t get across the street without being seen, and get our submarine off the sandbar, and the US air force destroys the sub, it will be WW3, and it will ALL YOUR FAULT”.

    And, the idea of Tikkun, is that seemingly insignificant good efforts, sometimes ironically also “change the weather”, to something kinder.

  6. Thanks, Rachel. You summed up my views quite well and I’m flattered that you took the time to do so. If you’d like some pro-bono work as a ghostwriter, please let me know:)

    Jim S, I joined in two demonstrations to try to stop the invasion of Iraq and thought it was a disaster. But like most people, I also thought Saddam had the capacity to use WMDs. I was fooled like everyone else. And, yes, I was worried that he could use them against Israel. Do you find something intrinsically wrong with that?

  7. I think the issue is not so much what the consequences of a US push for an Israeli-Palestinian might be. Rather, I think it is more important to consider the nature of that peace and the overall course of regional politics and US> diplomacy. If “peace” is meant as a means to isolate and pressure Iran, Syria, Hizbullah, and Hamas, it will surely lead to further conflict with them and will not be sustainable.

    However, if it is recognized that Israel will have to make peace with a significant majority of Palestinians including many supporters of Hamas (and probably with Hamas itself or part of it), that’s a very different sort of “peace”–certainly more viable in the long run.

    Similarly, if the US were to engage Iran and Syria in serious discussions about their real interests and security and give them a role and stake in regional stability, a real Israeli-Palestinian peace process wouldn’t be a problem.

    I think the US and Israeli modus operandi since the 1970s has been to engage one Arab country or actor at a time. The result is that peace
    has heightened tensions with other actors. It’s long past time to create a truly regional process based on internationally-accepted principles for ending the Arab-Israeli dispute and creating stable regional security institutions, perhaps like those in Europe during
    the Cold War.

  8. Any thoughts on what is going in Israel now?

    Still constructing new homes in East Jerusalem, still conducting military operations in Gaza, still maintaining 500+ roadblocks in the West Bank, still prohibiting travel and international trade in and out of Gaza?

    Why is the process of acknowledgement and reconciliation so slow?

  9. Dan,
    I have a confession to make. In the spring of 1995 I worked as a research assistant/intern at AIPAC. Because I had written about economic sanctions against Rhodesia and S. Africa as part of my doctoral dissertation, I was given the job of researching sanctions precedents. I looked at the American embargo of Cuba as well as Rhodesia, and S. Africa. Essentially I did the operational research for AIPAC’s action report on Iran. I was just trying to get a policy job in Washington.

    I haven’t read Parsi’s book. But I find it very convenient that he blames Israel for Iran’s Mideast policy. Iran since 1979 has been attempting to both protect itself against Saddam’s Iraq and to subvert the Sunni Arab regimes in the region. The way to do this is to accuse them of being soft on Israel. Muammar Kaddafi also used to be more Palestinian than the Palestinians. And by supporting the PAC in South Africa he tried to be more African than the ANC.

    It is extremely unlikely that Israel will be able to establish an anti-Iranian alliance with the Sunni Arab regimes. The latter just want to conclude peace with Israel so that they can concentrate their military efforts against Iran. Remember that during the Iran-Iraq war both belligerents accused the other of being in league with the Zionists against them.

    Even if Parsi is making an anti-regime argument in his book, he has to also be anti-Israeli in order for the argument to be acceptable to Iranians.

  10. Tom,

    So now Teddy has someome else to blame for the confrontion with Iran. Join the club.

    I don’t understand the following:

    “It is extremely unlikely that Israel will be able to establish an anti-Iranian alliance with the Sunni Arab regimes. The latter just want to conclude peace with Israel so that they can concentrate their military efforts against Iran.”

    The second sentence argues for, at the very least, the possibility or (or wish for) a tacet alliance between Israel and Sunni states, or at better relations. In the first sentence, do you mean there won’t be a formal or public alliance?

  11. There are days that I am very despondent about the prospects for peace for Israel.

    I read just now in Haaretz, that current housing minister is pursuing the construction of 10,000 new homes for Jews in East Jerusalem.


    “Min. pushes new E. J’lem neighborhood for Jews
    By Meron Rapoport, Haaretz Correspondent
    Tags: Israel, Atarot, U.S.

    Housing Minister Ze’ev Boim has given the green light for planning a new Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem. But senior American officials say that Israel had promised not to move forward with the neighborhood.

    The neighborhood, near Atarot, is slated to contain more than 10,000 apartments, making it the largest Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem.


    At some point, we should start assisting the emigration of Jews out of Israel.

  12. You know Richard, I haven’t been folowing this blog stuff like I used to but I hate to see another Jew bow down to these pychotic ant-semites, particularly the ones that inhabit Phil Weiss’s blog, himself included. You can prostrate yourself all you want, they still hate you.

  13. You have the wrong idea Bill about pandering.

    The assertion of the conditions that create peace in the region are an action of intentional creation, a building of a functional business if you will, rather than a business doomed to failure for poor design.

    Gambling doesn’t result in success.

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