Palestine: Still key to stability in the Middle East

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

The United States has long treated Palestine as irrelevant to its “war against terrorism”, a premise that remains in place as the superpower leads a campaign to degrade and defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Last month, however, comments made by key figures on opposing sides of that campaign once again reaffirmed that Palestine remains central to any serious effort to counter extremism in the region.

When Rob Malley, the Obama administration’s chief adviser on countering ISIL, was asked whether the group had any relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he replied: “There are many reasons to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict … one of the reasons is that it would help diffuse an issue that is fuelling extremism.” While admitting that resolving the conflict would not be “the magic wand that would put an end to all of the problems that have been plaguing the Middle East”, Malley reiterated that “the absence of a resolution is fuelling extremism”.

Released two weeks after Malley’s comments, a statement from ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi seemed to confirm Malley’s point: “The Jews thought we forgot Palestine and that they had distracted us from it. Not at all, Jews. We did not forget Palestine for a moment. With the help of Allah, we will not forget it … The pioneers of the jihadist fighters will surround you on a day that you think is distant and we know is close. We are getting closer every day.”

A continuous pattern

Baghdadi’s threatening message adds him to a long list of Middle Eastern political figures who invoked the Palestinian issue – whether sincerely or not – as a political tool. 

Historically, Arab rulers used the Palestinian cause to build legitimacy for their rule. In 1977, for example, Muammar Gaddafi was central to the establishment of the Steadfastness and Confrontation Front in protest of Egypt’s negotiations with Israel.

The Front included, among others, Hafez al-Assad and Saddam Hussein. Ultimately, however, instead of doing something for Palestine, the members leveraged its plight to legitimize and sustain their iron-fisted rule over their own peoples.

Nearly 40 years later, the pattern continues as Palestine is still at the center of the Middle East’s political discourse. A former Iranian diplomat recently told me that the war in Syria is all about preserving Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah’s “Axis of Resistance” that opposes Israel and the United States while supporting the Palestinian cause.

From this perspective, the issue is not Bashar al-Assad remaining in power but ensuring that Syria remains a committed member of the Axis.

In a recent speech during Friday prayers in Tehran, the deputy commander of the Revolutionary Guard, Hossein Salami said, “[…] we tell the Americans that we will further expedite enhancement of our missile capabilities as long as they massacre the Palestinian children, as long as they bury Yemen’s oppressed children in their houses, as long as they displace the Muslim nation of Syria …”

In Yemen, the Houthis’ slogan is “God is great, death to America, death to Israel, curse on the Jews, victory to Islam”. Even as they advanced on Yemen’s capital in 2014, they did not lose sight of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, adopting a secondary slogan of “we fight in Sanaa while our eyes are on Jerusalem”.

Wrong methods to fight extremism

The US will never be able to build a credible coalition in the Middle East against ISIL, al-Qaeda or others as long as it continues its open and unconditional support for Israel. What the US touts as a 60-country coalition against ISIL is, at least in the Middle East, a coalition with governments that largely lack legitimacy with their own people.

Thus, public support for the fight against ISIL will be difficult to obtain. Governments cannot contain and defeat extremism by themselves. If they could, NATO could have eliminated al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and the US drones could have finished off al-Qaeda in Yemen. Instead, they have failed. Iraq’s governmental forces, for their part, collapsed astonishingly quickly when attacked by ISIL.

It is the people who represent the main recruitment pool for extremist groups who are able to neutralise extremism, and this happens only when their hearts and minds are opposed to it. It is the people, not the governments, who can make any campaign against extremism legitimate.

In the case of the Arab world, the people are against the US and its complete bias in favour of Israel. It is very difficult to trust the US while it pours excessive support to Israel and prevents Palestinians from achieving their national aspiration of a state of their own.

During a recent visit to Jordan, I repeatedly heard a sentiment of being opposed to ISIL but also being totally against partnering with the US government, which is viewed as the guarantor of a Zionist project in Palestine. This image of the US, along with its history of interventions in the region, foments distrust among Arabs and hampers the formation of a partnership to counter extremism.

The great unifier

The rise of ISIL has understandably shaken the region, captured the world’s attention, and elicited an urgent response. Since 1948, many crises and incidents have done just that, including Anwar Sadat’s 1977 visit to Jerusalem, Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent Gulf War, and more recently the Arab Spring.

Yet, as these crises rise and recede, the issue of Palestine continues to cast its shadow over the region. As severely as these and other crises have divided the region along a variety of lines, Palestine remains the great unifier.

Sooner or later, the war in Syria will end, but the people of the Middle East, whether Arab or Persian, Sunni or Shia Muslim, secular or Islamist, will still desire justice for Palestine. ISIL may be degraded or defeated, but the extremism that has destabilised the Middle East will continue to feed on the issue of Palestine.

Washington must understand that every time it vetoes a UN Security Council resolution on Israeli settlements or Palestinian statehood, it is sabotaging its own efforts to counter extremism.

It looks like Baghdadi, currently the world’s most famous extremist, has recognised the value of using Palestine to appeal to the hearts and minds of the region. Let us hope that Malley can convince his boss of the value of Palestine not only for countering extremism but also for the stability of the region in its entirety.

This article originally appeared in Al Jazeera.