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May 22, 2017 4:43 pm

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s Political Correctness

avatar by Yoram Ettinger


US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Photo: Exxon Mobil via Wikimedia Commons.

While the election of President Donald Trump represented a setback to political correctness, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s interview on the May 14 episode of NBC’s “Meet the Press” reflected his department’s ongoing political correctness regarding US-Israel and US-Arab relations, the Palestinian issue and the relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem.

In the interview, Tillerson embraced the State Department’s zero-sum game philosophy. He assumed that enhanced US-Israel relations would undermine US-Arab relations — even though US-Israel geo-strategic cooperation and US-Arab security cooperation have both surged dramatically in recent years, while Israel has also engaged in unprecedented counter-terrorism efforts in concert with Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Jordan and Egypt. All this, despite the lack of progress on the Palestinian front.

Yet, Tillerson also seemed to subscribe to Foggy Bottom’s view that the Palestinian issue is a core cause of the Arab-Israeli conflict and Middle Eastern turbulence, as well as a top priority for Arab policy-makers. Contrary to this 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.

Indeed, again contrary to the State Department’s conventional wisdom, Arab leaders since 1948 have exhibited intense pro-Palestinian talk, but anti-Palestinian, or at the least indifferent, walk.

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No Arab-Israeli war has ever been ignited by the Palestinian issue, as highlighted by the conclusion of the 1948-49 war, at which point Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and Syria occupied Gaza, Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) and Al-Hama — but never contemplated transferring these areas to Palestinian control and, in fact, strictly constrained 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.

Tillerson also seemed to send a message that procrastination is US policy on the embassy relocation issue, which Arabs may interpret as American retreat in the face of pressure and threats, thus eroding the US posture of deterrence and emboldening anti-American Islamic terrorism. Additionally, Tillerson insinuated that moving the embassy to western Jerusalem — which is within the boundaries of pre-1967 Israel — could undermine the peace process, thus providing a tailwind to the 69-year old State Department 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. This position radicalizes the Arabs as it forces them to outdo the US position and take an even more maximalist approach.

Furthermore, any fear that moving the embassy would result in anti-US Islamic terrorism fails to recognize that such terror has been totally divorced from the Palestinian issue and Israel: the 1983 bombings of the US Embassy in Lebanon and of US Marine barracks in Beirut (368 killed in the two attacks) occurred at a time when the US was badgering Israel over its hot pursuit of the PLO. Meanwhile, the 1998 car-bombing of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania (224 persons murdered) and the October 2000 suicide attack on the USS Cole while it was refueling in a Yemen harbor (17 murdered), occurred as President Clinton refrained from relocating the US embassy to Jerusalem, as prescribed by 1995 legislation, and while Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered the Palestinians a full Israeli withdrawal, including from Jerusalem’s Temple Mount.

In contrast to recent Arab rhetoric and State Department political correctness, the Arab countries have never considered Jerusalem to be their capital, main cultural center or top holy city — status reserved for Mecca and Medina. Indeed, 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 then-US President Jimmy 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’s 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?

A version of this article originally appeared in Israel Hayom.

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