First, a flashback: On February 11, 1985, President Ronald Reagan welcomed Saudi Arabian King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz during a welcoming ceremony on the White House lawn. "The people of the United States share with the people of Saudi Arabia a deep moral outrage over the continuing aggression and butchery taking place in Afghanistan," Reagan said, referring to the brutal Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. "The citizens of the Western democracies and the Muslim world, by all that they believe to be true and just, should stand together in opposition to those who would impose dictatorship on all of mankind." He added: "Marxist tyranny already has its grip on the religious freedom of the world’s fifth largest Muslim population. This same grip strangles the prayers of Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike. We all worship the same God. Standing up to this onslaught, the people of Afghanistan, with their blood, courage, and faith, are an inspiration to the cause of freedom everywhere."
Fast-forward to the December 2007 Mideast conference in Annapolis, and there’s a sense of déjà vu. This time, President George W. Bush addressed a meeting attended by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal and called on Jews and Arabs to make peace. Bush highlighted the ominous threat posed by the radical Shiite theocracy in Iran to Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike; this supposedly explains why the Western democracies, the Muslim world, and Israel should stand together in opposition to Iranian regional designs.
Indeed, the notion that the United States could utilize a perceived common strategic and ideological threat—the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and Shiite Iran today—to bring together Arabs and Jews under an American umbrella and help create the conditions for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement has been a central concept shared by the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. It also reflects the influence of the pro-Likud neoconservative ideologues on these two conservative Republican presidents.
In a way, the neocons who played a leading role in influencing Reagan’s foreign policy—government officials like Defense Department aide Richard Perle and the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Jeane Kirkpatrick, as well as pundits like Irving Kristol (pere of Bill) and Norman Podhoretz—are not unlike the neocons who have dominated the thinking of Bush administration policies, applying a similar grand geostrategic and ideological framework to guide U.S. policy in the Middle East.
During the Reagan years, the Middle East, including the Arab-Israeli conflict, was seen as an extension of the struggle with the Soviet Union. Israel served as a strategic asset as far as U.S. interests in the Middle East were concerned, helping Washington contain Soviet expansionism in the region. The Palestine Liberation Organization under Yasser Arafat was depicted as a pro-Soviet terrorist organization that served to advance Moscow’s regional interests.
And in order to overcome the dilemma that was confronting U.S. policy makers in the Middle East—how to juggle the alliance with Israel with the U.S. strategic commitment to the pro-American Arab camp led by Egypt and Saudi Arabia—Reagan’s neoconservative advisers came up with a creative formula: promote a "narrative" in which Israel and the "moderate" Arabs are supposedly facing common threats—the Soviet Union, and to some extent, the revolutionary regime in Tehran—and unite them through a so-called anti-Soviet "strategic consensus." In that context, the conflict in the Holy Land would become a side-show of a larger confrontation between the West and the Evil Empire and would become more amenable to resolution as the pro-American Israelis and pro-U.S. Arabs come to the conclusion that the need to confront the common enemy outweighed the significance of the ethnic, religious, and territorial differences that separate them.
During the George W. Bush administration, in particular after 9/11 and the Second Intifadah, neoconservative advisers like Pentagon Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and State Department official, Elliott Abrams, as well as those populating the Weekly Standard and the American Enterprise Institute, recycled the old Cold War paradigm as a framework for the new "war on terror." Again, Israel was perceived as a central ally in the war against radical Islam, while the Palestinians and Arafat were depicted as an integral element of "Islamofascism," and their intifadah against Israel was described as an extension of 9/11, part of the anti-Western Global Intifadah.
But just like during the 1980s, U.S. officials face a similar dilemma: how to reconcile the partnership with Israel with the important strategic ties with pro-American conservative regimes in Riyadh and Cairo. This dilemma has become even more acute against the backdrop of the mess in Iraq and the rise of Shiite Iran as a regional power, not to mention the increasing economic power of the oil-rich Arab Gulf states.
At first, some of the neocons had hoped that the U.S. "march of freedom" in the Middle East and free elections in Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine would bring to power pro-American governments aspiring to make peace with Israel ("the road to Jerusalem leads through Baghdad"). But as we know, that didn’t happen. In fact, the elections strengthened the radical political parties, some of which have ties to Iran. Thus by extension, the elections helped increase the influence of Tehran and its more radical allies (Hezbollah) and anti-Israeli players (Hamas).
But the spin-masters in the Bush administration replaced one defective narrative with another. Instead of the march of freedom that was supposed to bring together Israel and the pro-American Arabs, Bush and his advisers ended up exploiting the major disasters, like a more powerful Iran and the election victory of Hamas, that they had helped to unleash. They decided to promote a new fantasy: Israelis and pro-American Arabs would be brought together under the U.S. umbrella as part of a new "strategic consensus" against Iran, just as Washington was accusing Iran of developing nuclear weapons and supporting anti-American insurgents in Iraq. Forget the march of freedom. Long live the Iran threat!
The meeting in Annapolis was supposed to highlight the emergence of this Israeli-Arab "consensus" and help persuade both sides to move toward resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After all, faced with such a menacing regional threat—Iran—Israelis and Palestinians would surely be able to overcome their differences on Jerusalem, the Jewish settlements, and the Palestinian refugees.
This inspiring narrative helped the Bush administration write the script for the media event in Annapolis. The problem was that the "peace conference" had very little to do with the realities of the Middle East. In reality, none of the major attendees was buying into the notion that the issues separating the Israelis and the Palestinians could be resolved by unifying over the threat of Iran.
The politically weak prime minister of Israel Ehud Olmert and the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (whose control of the West Bank came about thanks to Israeli and American support) couldn’t even take the first steps to overcome their differences during the talks leading to Annapolis. So it wasn’t surprising that the meeting, once envisioned as a three-day conference to kick off the negotiation of final-status issues, was transformed into a pathetic 24-hour media event during which Bush played the role of MC and not that of an energetic, honest broker.
The meeting failed. The Saudis attended the meeting but refused to shake the hands of the Israeli officials. But more importantly, the Saudis don’t see the rise of Iran as a challenge to the West. They see it through the prism of the Sunni-Shiite divide. If anything, they would like to see reconciliation between the radical but Sunni Hamas and Fatah, a move that the Americans and the Israelis oppose.
Interestingly, the Syrians, facing strong U.S. opposition, had to plead their way into the conference. The neocons have insisted that the secular Ba’ath regime in Damascus is an anti-American ally of the ayatollahs in Iran and have pressed Israel not to open diplomatic negotiations with Syria, which is actually interested in distancing itself from Iran and joining the moderate Arab fold.
The notion that a perceived common threat could help produce a common Israeli-Arab front proved to be a fantasy during the Cold War. Israel and Egypt decided to make peace only after recognizing that the costs of their conflict outweighed the benefits. And the Oslo peace process began in the aftermath of the Cold War, focusing only on the real problems separating Israelis and Palestinians. Peace will come to the Holy Land if and when these issues are resolved. Promoting the idea of an Iranian "threat"—which the new intelligence estimate suggests is less menacing than the Bush administration has portrayed it—will not make that happen.
Leon Hadar, a Washington-based journalist and contributor to the International Relations Center’s Right Web program (rightweb.irc-online.org), is author most recently of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (2006). He blogs at globalparadigms.blogspot.com.