In September of this year, King Abdullah of Jordan appeared on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart to discuss the latest round of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. While the Daily Show may seem like an unlikely venue for a Middle Eastern head of state to discuss matters of peace and war, the show’s domestic audience, according to research by the University of Pennsylvania’s National Annenberg Election Survey, represents Americans with relatively high levels of education and political awareness. As such, the Daily Show was a strategically selected stage for King Abdullah to explain his views on the importance of the Palestinian-Israeli peace process to security and stability in the Middle East and beyond.

King Abdullah spent significant time stressing the importance of resolving the Palestinian-Israeli crisis: “Not only do we as Arabs and Israelis pay the price” for the failure to resolve the decades long conflict, he stated, “but your loved ones in harm’s way will continue to be in the trenches with the rest of us.” To once again miss the opportunity to achieve peace would be “to resign the Arab people to another decade or two of destruction.” So long as the conflict remains unsolved, King Abdullah pleaded, the voices of ‘moderates’ would continue to be marginalized in favour of “extremist” actors such as al-Qaeda, which exploit the injustice facing Palestinians to further their own regional goals.

Understanding Arab Perceptions of Western Favoritism

King Abdullah was correct in at least part of his assessment – the Palestine question has long occupied a central role in the Arab psyche, albeit in a manner more complex than the narratives presented by the King and other regional leaders. For most Arabs, the occupation and dispossession of the Palestinian people reflect the favoritism and double standards in Western policy towards Israel. This sentiment is reinforced when news and reports documenting the conditions of the occupied Palestinian population surface, only to be vetoed or ignored by the West.

The now infamous Goldstone Report, backed by the UN Human Rights Council, accused the Israeli government of committing war crimes during its December 2008 -January 2009 offensive in Gaza, and called for credible investigations by the Israeli government into these allegations. The United States was one of the few countries that opposed the report, arguing that it would set back hopes for Middle East peace.

In yet another incident, following the June 2010 Israeli attack on the flotilla of activists delivering aid to Gaza, Charles Krauthammer of the Washington Post wrote: “The world is outraged at Israel’s blockade of Gaza. Turkey denounces its illegality, inhumanity, barbarity, etc. The usual UN suspects, Third World and European, join in. The Obama administration dithers.” Soon enough, the incident was brushed off by the Western media and never addressed as a serious breach of international law.

The Widespread Regional Effects of the Conflict

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been and continues to be a contradictory dynamic that resists simple generalisation, but which is woven into many of the conflicts in and around the region. In Lebanon, Hezbollah has rallied hundreds of thousands of Lebanese in its call to resist Israeli and American encroachment on Arab land. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has garnered many Arab supporters by pledging his allegiance as a friend and supporter of the Palestinians. Even in the remote highlands of northern Yemen, the Houthi tribe has maintained a five-year rebellion against the government on the basis of the regime’s alliance with the United States, specifically highlighting Israeli policy as a primary factor for the revolt. For many across the Arab and Muslim world, Western governments are seen as lacking in genuine support for Palestinian self-determination and advocating for Israeli policies in the region, a combination that undermines their claims to support principles of human rights, freedom and democracy. So long as such ‘hypocrisy’ is perceived to exist, any form of Western, and particularly American, engagement in the region is unlikely to succeed.

Indeed, United States General David Petraeus, Commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, delivered this same message before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this year, stating that insufficient progress towards a comprehensive Middle East peace presents “distinct challenges” to advancing American interests in the region, and that the conflict “foments anti-American sentiment due to a perception of U.S. favouritism for Israel.” General Petraeus’s decision to emphasize this point to U.S. policymakers seemed to represent an unprecedented breakthrough in the debate over U.S. policy in the region.

‘Moderates vs. Extremists’ or Change vs. Status Quo

And yet, despite this breakthrough, there is still need for a fundamental shift in thinking in order to resolve the problems plaguing the region. While the King of Jordan may have been correct in stressing the centrality of the Arab-Israeli conflict to the region’s future, his conceptualization of the issue’s significance does not fully capture its symbolism.  The Palestinian struggle is not one between ‘moderates’ and ‘extremists’, as the King, General Petraeus, and many others in the region – including al-Qaeda – tend to portray it. Rather, the ongoing and inevitable struggle represented by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one between those seeking ‘change’ and those working to maintain the ‘status quo’, from which both al-Qaeda and many so-called ‘moderate’ Arab regimes benefit. And so it is for this reason that the cause of Palestine is so ubiquitous in the rhetoric of regional leaders and movements, whether “moderate” or “extremist” – rather than seeking a just resolution to this conflict, these actors have co-opted the Palestinian issue for self-interested reasons. With no interest in changing the status quo, they seek little more than to consolidate their power at the expense of the region and the betterment of its people.

If a fair and just settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians can be achieved, allowing 57 Arab and Muslim countries who make up approximately a third of the world to have normalized relations with Israel, then all those who wish to use the Palestinian issue for their own political ends will suffer.  And Al-Qaeda, the greatest of the United States’s foes, is likely to be amongst them.

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