When the Arab armies of Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, and Syria attacked Israel in May 1948, it was not to liberate the Palestinian people, but to capture the region for themselves. Like the British, Ottomans, Romans, Greeks, Persians, and Babylonians before them, the goal was conquest, not liberation.
The Arab despot that “drove the Jews into the sea” would be the ultimate unifier of the Arab people. Not only would he gain the popular support of the Arab street, but he would also occupy the territory needed to geographically unify the Arab states, linking Egypt, with Syria, Iraq, and Jordan.
Hence the prize for the fledgling ruler that captured the territory was the control of Pax-Arabia, the very same pan-Arab state nearly created a decade later with Gamel Abdul Nasser’s United Arab Republic of Egypt and Syria. So while these states were fighting a common enemy in Israel, they were also competitors, vying for hegemony in the region.
In today’s Middle East, Arab nationalism has taken a back seat to Islamism, but the goal of regional supremacy remains the same. Thus far the battlegrounds for competing Sunni and Shi’ia Islamist ideology have been in states once securely controlled by Arab nationalist despots, but the region of “Palestine” (Israel and the territories) remains the ultimate prize for the same reasons mentioned above: popular appeal and hegemony.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s Israel-Palestine peace proposal could well provide the means for Islamists to compete for the prize of Palestine. The plan will reportedly call for land swaps based on the 1948 armistice lines, and security arrangements in the Jordan Valley.
The proposal would also require the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state and relinquish any Palestinian “right of return” to Israel proper. This seems like a sound plan for Israel and if the Palestinians accept its parameters, Israel may well succumb to international pressure and agree to it.
This would be a mistake. Military presence in the Jordan Valley – even an Israeli one – would not be enough to prevent Islamist actors from trying to capture the region’s ultimate trophy. Indeed, not even the current paradigm of Israeli counter-terrorism forces patrolling the entire West Bank has been able to prevent an Islamist presence from growing there.
In an apparent attempt to gain a stronger foothold in the West Bank, Iran has reportedly begun providing financial and military support to the West Bank-based Palestinian terrorist group the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). Although the PFLP itself is a leftist, Arab-nationalist and not Islamist movement, Iran’s support for the movement is indicative of its regional strategy of supporting as many factions as possible in order to enhance its overall influence.
Sunni Islamist actors are also improving their footing. In December, al Qaeda for the first time claimed to have operatives in the West Bank when it announced that three men killed in Hebron in November belonged to the al Qaeda affiliate – the Mujahideen Shura Council.
Al Qaeda’s presence was confirmed on January 22nd when Israeli officials announced they had disrupted a suicide bombing plot aimed at multiple targets inside Israel including the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv. The operatives of this failed mission were traced to al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri.
This new posturing should be considered within the context of the possible creation of a Palestinian state; it is no coincidence that it has occurred during the peace talks.
And it should sound familiar. In Iraq and Syria the very same players are diametrically lined up against each other with Iran backing Maliki and Assad, while the al Qaeda aligned group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) leads the Sunni Islamist opposition.
The entry of the Sunni-Shi’a conflict onto Israel’s most vulnerable border would almost certainly draw Israel into the conflict, and if the final arrangement in the Kerry peace deal calls for an American or NATO presence in the Jordan Valley, the United States could also be drawn in.
Working to solve the Israel-Palestine issue in a vacuum is a mistake. Forcing an agreement could inflame the Middle East’s larger Islamist conflict and bring both the United States and Israel to the front lines. Policy makers should instead focus on suppressing Islamist competition by working to subdue the influence of its chief benefactors, namely Iran, and al Qaeda and its allies and supporters.
The author is a former analyst in the Bureau of Political Military Affairs at the U.S. State Department. He tweets @EytanSosnovich