The Real Reason the I-P Conflict Isn’t Ending Anytime Soon

When writing my previous piece that laid out why Washington prizes its special relationship with Israel so highly, I began to entertain what many scholars and seasoned observers of international affairs would quickly dismiss as a zany notion–could it be possible that the obstinate Israeli-Palestinian conflict is also among the strategic benefits of the U.S.-Israel alliance? Sounds crazy and counter-intuitive, right? Doesn’t logic dictate that it just has to be a strategic liability? Former General David Petraeus, when he was head of CENTCOM, had this to say, after all, about the linkage between the occupation of the Palestinians and Islamic extremism: “The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in the AOR [area of responsibility] and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support. The conflict also gives Iran influence in the Arab world through its clients, Lebanese Hizballah and Hamas.”

Hillary Clinton also once criticized the overall Israeli-Arab antagonism as “a source of tension and an obstacle to prosperity and opportunity for all the people of the region” and “is at odds also with the interests of the United States.” Obviously, the U.S. would benefit a ton from peace, as its primary goals in the Middle East are stability and prosperity. So why hasn’t Washington used its considerable heft to end the dispute? Why does the U.S. government turn a blind eye as pro-Israel U.S. citizens send hundreds of millions in tax-deductible donations that fund illegal West Bank settlements? It appears as if Washington does indeed secretly support the occupation and does so out of concern for what a resurgence of Arab nationalism would mean for the U.S.’s unrestricted access to Middle East oil, as David Mizner explains:

“The reason behind US support for Israel becomes clear if you consider what would likely happen if Palestinians became autonomous or if they became the majority in a democratic, multi-ethnic state. Either development would upend American-enforced “stability.” Palestinians in Jordan and elsewhere would attempt to exercise their right of return. Repressed peoples across the Middle East would rise up to demand the kind of freedom from dictators that the Palestinians secured from Israel. Palestinian liberation would trigger a chain of events that could entirely free the region from the American grip as people demand that they—not monarchs and not Western corporations—benefit from their oil.”

Washington isn’t about to risk a scenario that lets the region’s people meddle with its most treasured Post-WWII acquisition—what the State Department in the 1940s deemed “a stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in world history”–and Stephen Maher concisely summarizes why:

“As FDR’s “oil czar” Harold Ickes advised, control of oil was the “key to postwar political arrangements” since a large supply of cheap energy is essential to fuel the world’s industrial capitalist economies. This meant that with control of Middle Eastern oil, particularly the vast Saudi reserves, the US could keep its hand on the spigot that would fuel the economies of Europe, Japan and much of the rest of the world. As US planner George Kennan put it, this would give the United States “veto power” over the actions of others. Zbigniew Brzezinski has also more recently discussed the “critical leverage” the US enjoys as a result of its stranglehold on energy supplies… should opposition threaten US control of oil resources, a major source of US global power is placed at risk.”

Having their hands on the spigot was also crucial in U.S. planning for a hypothetical Third World War as it would ensure that, not only would the U.S. have a substantial advantage should that war erupt, it would prevent such an eruption in the first place by being in a position to swiftly cut off these oil reserves to its opponents. But the leading reason the U.S. thought it was a necessity to secure cheap Middle East oil was that the economies of Europe and East Asia had to be kept humming in order to keep the U.S.’s economy prosperous and thereby fend off another Great Depression. Walter LaFeber in America, Russia, and the Cold War tells of how “the Ghosts of Depression Past and Depression Future” haunted U.S. policymakers, who accordingly shaped postwar America’s grand strategy to skirt further devastating economic downturns, writing “Washington officials believed another terrible economic depression could be averted only if global markets and raw materials were fully open to all people’s on the basis of economic opportunity.”

Maintaining an Open Door World has the paramount objective of guarding against domestic labor unrest that wells up during times of long-lasting high unemployment, which could be channeled into a revolution against the plutocracy. As Melvin Leffler put it in Preponderance of Power, “Geopolitical considerations provided the connecting tissue between foreign economic distress and the prospective decay of liberal capitalism at home.” So the whole point of U.S. foreign policy, then, is to uphold capitalism and prevent its overthrow in favor of a sustainable, equitable economic model. In this context, Washington obviously must consider the instability caused by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to be less dreadful than the capitalism-ending “instability” that could occur were it to be solved. What this means is that the world isn’t going to see peace there until U.S. policymakers can thread the needle of creating a Palestinian state without triggering an unstoppable wave of Arab nationalism.