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Commentary

Time for “Benign Neglect” in Mideast?


     
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Muslims and non-Muslims have been fighting over this territory for years, resulting in thousands of casualties and hundreds of thousands of refugees, as negotiations mediated by foreign governments have failed to resolve the conflict.

But nobody is calling on Washington to launch a new peace initiative. Why? Because we're not talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we're talking about the Armenians and Azeris clashing over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Most Americans know what is happening in the West Bank, thanks to the prominent news coverage the Arab-Israeli conflict receives. For years, pundits have been warning that unless Washington does something to end the bloodshed—revive the “peace process,” send a new special envoy to the Middle East, convene a peace conference—the entire region could unravel, triggering another oil embargo or even World War III.

But Nagorno-Karabakh receives little attention. Yet, this territory has been the source of a bitter dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan since the beginning of the 20th century. The two nations fought over the disputed territory in the final years of the Soviet Union. Since the war ended in 1994, most of Nagorno-Karabakh has remained under Armenia's control, while the parties continue to hold talks.

There is no doubt that the United States and the rest of the international community would welcome a resolution to the conflict. Indeed, many have been trying to help the Azeris and Armenians overcome their differences.

Washington also has been trying for some 30 years to resolve the dispute between Greece and Turkey over Cyprus—and to end the Turkish occupation of the northern part of the island.

In all likelihood, however, we are going to learn to live with such conflicts, ranging from the dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir and the civil war in Sri Lanka to the bloody disputes that continue to ravage sub-Saharan Africa.

The fact that Washington focuses so much of its energy and attention on the Arab-Israeli conflict, while turning a blind eye elsewhere, indicates that U.S. foreign policy has lost its focus.

In the past the test was simple: Are vital U.S. national security interests at stake? During the Cold War, any nation that served as a buffer or counterweight to the Soviet Union could legitimately be considered a vital ally. With the Soviet threat long gone, it's time to reevaluate.

The U.S.-led “peace process,” as even a casual observer realizes, has accomplished little. Yet, like the Energizer Bunny, it keeps going, and going, and going. Indeed, President Bush recently announced plans to convene an international conference to help restart Israeli-Palestinian talks.

Has anybody considered the possibility that America's preoccupation with the Arab-Israeli conflict—motivated by the commitment to Israel and the need to appease the Arab oil-producing states—may be doing more harm than good? By pursuing the illusion that the United States has the power and moral authority to broker a “peace” in the Middle East, Washington has created unrealistic expectations that cannot be fulfilled. Meanwhile, America's repeated failures as an “honest broker” ends up producing an anti-American backlash, which creates even more pressure on Washington to “do something” or else.

It may be time for Washington to consider a new policy of “benign neglect” toward the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, not different from the policy it employs in dealing with Nagorno-Karabakh and other conflicts.

The United States should be more than ready, if necessary, to work with other international players to facilitate a resolution to the conflict but only if and when both sides are ready to make peace, and deal seriously with core existential issues, such as Israel's right to exist securely and in peace, the fate of the remaining Jewish settlements, and the status of Arab refugees and the city of Jerusalem.

Even in that (unlikely) case, Washington should refrain from making long-term security and economic commitments. If the two sides want even a fragile peace to work, they will make it work—with or without U.S. involvement.

Such “constructive disengagement” from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could actually create incentives for the two sides to achieve real peace. If they fail, they will—not unlike the Azeris and the Armenians—have no one to blame but themselves.


Leon T. Hadar specializes in foreign policy, international trade, the Middle East, and South and East Asia.






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