The Future of the Middle East: Ominous Scenarios and a Possible Solution for Israel

Let’s think about the next 10 or 20 years in the Middle East.

If we think hard, we can envision that Israel, the U.S., and the cause of moderation and modernization in the Middle East all have a real chance to make solid gains. But we will need to be alert to opportunities as they arise—and be ready to jump on them, making tough choices.   

We can identify three likely future scenarios, potentially dangerous and, for sure, consequential:

First, despite international pressure, Israel will not agree to the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank.  

Second, the oftentimes violent struggle over modernity in the Arab Middle East will continue to rage ominously.   

Third, Iran—a non-Arab but Muslim country—will be a nuclear power or near-nuclear power.  

The U.S. has clear interests in each of these areas, albeit limited powers.  But maybe, come to think of it, we have more power than we realize.   

Let’s look at each of these scenarios in turn:

First, no Palestinian state. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has long opposed the creation of a Palestinian state, albeit quietly. And then, on March 16, on the eve of the Israeli election, he opposed it—loudly. And as a result, he rallied the nationalist right within his country and was re-elected by a wide margin, far wider than most experts had anticipated. Since then, under enormous pressure from the Obama administration and the media, Netanyahu has sort of backed down—except, of course, that he doesn’t mean it. He doesn’t want a new Palestinian state, and neither do Israelis.  

As a result of this flareup, whatever lingering wisps of affection that might have existed  between Netanyahu and President Obama have now vanished.   So the immediate challenge for Israel will be to ride out the deep hostility of the Obama administration.   

An additional challenge for Israel is that much of the Democratic Party in the U.S. is becoming dismissive, even hostile, to the Jewish State. Many top Democrats are coming to regard Israel in the way that an earlier generation of Democrats came to regard Taiwan in the last century.   

It will be recalled that anti-communist Taiwan became independent from Maoist “Red China” in 1949. In the 40s, 50s, and 60s, the Democrats, as well as Republicans, supported Taiwan’s independence from Red China. But by the 70s, Taiwan had become an almost exclusively “Republican” cause; for their part, Democrats couldn’t wait to break relations with Taiwan in favor of the mainland, formally known as the People’s Republic of China (PRC). And that’s exactly what President Jimmy Carter did in 1978. Today, Taiwan exists as a sort of non-country country, doing its best to avoid being swallowed by the PRC.  

So Israel, today, is faced with what might be called “Taiwanification.” That is, if the Republicans are in charge, things are fine, but if the Democrats are in charge—watch out.        

Most obviously—and ominously—the Obama administration and the Democrats will seek to re-start the “peace process” between Israelis and Palestinians, as well as continue the US nuclear negotiations with the Iranians—more on the latter initiative in a moment.  

The idea that “final settlement” negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians could be restarted is great news for international diplomats who have gotten used to living an expense-account lifestyle in fancy cities such as Geneva and New York. And yet even after all the room service and all the champagne, it’s perfectly obvious that nothing is going to happen, Palestinian-state-wise.  

Not only has the just re-elected Netanyahu made his views on the matter clear, but friends of Israel, too, have made their views visible and clear.   

As Charles Krauthammer wrote on March 20, the recent record of international guarantees of peace deals is not at all reassuring to small countries. Addressing critics of Netanyahu who insist on a deal, Krauthammer’s pen drips with appropriate contempt:  

“Well, say the critics, Israel could be given outside guarantees. Guarantees? Like the 1994 Budapest Memorandum in which the United States, Britain and Russia guaranteed Ukraine’s “territorial integrity”? Like the red line in Syria? Like the unanimous U.N. resolutions declaring illegal any Iranian enrichment of uranium — now effectively rendered null?”

In other words, Krauthammer is saying, Israelis should not make the mistake of trusting the Democrats, or the international community, or anyone, on the issue of their own security. And, indeed, the Israelis won’t.    

As an aside, we might recall that there might have been a time when a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians could have worked. If we go as far back as the 1960s, we can recall an Arab world that was mostly secular and thus not particularly interested in sectarianism; that is, we can say, that half a century ago, the Arabs held the keys to progress in their hands—secularism and anti-sectarianism.   

But then, in 1975, came the first eruption of Lebanon’s civil war; it was a complicated 15-year struggle between a half-dozen religious groups that caused the death of at least 120,000 people—this in a country of less than 5 million. And as Americans recall to their sorrow, our good-hearted but naive attempt to stop the fighting ended in disaster: On October 23, 1983, the world got a striking lesson in the new power of Islamic radicalism, when Shia suicide terrorists truck-bombed US Marines temporarily based in Beirut as part of a peacekeeping effort, killing 241 Americans.   

The fact that Lebanon—the Arab country once seen as the most advanced and tolerant—could so quickly degenerate into a vicious slaughterhouse should serve as an object lesson to the rest of us: For many reasons, the murderous passions of the Arabs are never far below the surface.  Indeed, had we absorbed that lesson, we might have avoided tragic mistakes in the Muslim countries of Afghanistan and Iraq in the last decade, where we blithely assumed that American GIs could bring the blessings of liberty to populations that mostly yearned to slit the throats of all foreigners—or of their neighbors.   

Americans, happily, can avoid this bloodthirstiness by the simple expedient of not sending troops into those badlands.   But the Israelis, of course, don’t have that option—they are already there.   So they have to be vastly more careful; they can’t afford to make a single mistake.    

Moreover, the Israelis have had the bitter experience of seeing what has happened in the Gaza Strip over the last decade: Israel withdrew from that patch of Palestinian territory in 2005, and soon it was completely taken over by the fundamentalist radicals of Hamas. Indeed, recent history shows that every few years the suicidal killers of Hamas get it in their heads to fire off thousands of rockets into Israel, seemingly for the fun of it.   

So with that precedent in mind, how can the Israelis have any confidence in the future of an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank? How can they know that the exact same thing won’t happen in an even larger territory, closer to the population centers of Israel? Would Israel be wise allow a little bit of Lebanon, or Afghanistan, or Iraq, or Gaza, to blossom up just across the border from Jerusalem? 

The lesson here is that the moment of making a deal with moderate Palestinians—if it ever truly existed—is long gone.  With the benefit of hindsight, only the willfully blind can’t see that peaceful multiculturalism—to say nothing of free democracy—is an illusion. Yes, it’s possible for countries to be multi-ethnic, provided that those ethnicities can coalesce around a common culture and set of national values. But if one part of a society wants, say, civic or common law and another part wants Sharia law—there will be blood. And lots of it.  Tolerant multi-ethnicity can work within a single country, but not intolerant or fractious multiculturalism. We can consider that to be a hard lesson learned.  

To be sure, not every American has learned this lesson; lots of US leaders—including some on the right—are still given to mouthing such dumb platitudes as “diversity is our strength,” as they seek open-borders policies for the US itself.  But the Israelis have figured out that political correctness leads to death, and that’s why they re-elected Netanyahu. And he is no more likely to agree to a Palestinian state than he is to chomp down a ham sandwich.    

So that’s the first reality of the near term: no new Palestinian state. In other words, the American diplomats of the future could save themselves a lot of time if they would find something else to worry about, other than the phantom “peace process.” And for our part, we shouldn’t worry: Even if the diplomats have less fun enjoying the high life, the ritzy hotels of Manhattan and Switzerland will manage just fine, even without the “peace process” business. 

The second likely scenario is that the struggle in the Arab world over moderation and modernization will continue. And it is a struggle, one that could go either way. The recent massacre at the tourist-oriented Bardo Museum in Tunis, Tunisia, is just one more disastrous incident, reminding us that terrorism—under the banner of Al Qaeda, or ISIS, or whatever—is a real threat to the Middle East, as well as the West: “Tunisia rampage raises new fears about reach of Islamic State groups,” reads the headline in The Washington Post.  

Yet here’s something interesting: As The New York Times reported, the Tunisian terrorists do not speak for all Tunisians; there is a real fight within that country, and within all Arab countries, over their destiny.   

As the Times noted, terrorists have had the idea, in the past, of killing off the tourist trade by killing tourists.  And yet in Egypt, two decades ago, that bloody strategy didn’t work—it boomeranged on the terrorists:

“Scholars of extremism said this attack harkened back to an earlier era of jihadi violence, like the massacre by Egyptian militants with assault rifles of more than 60 people outside an ancient temple in Luxor in 1997. Then, too, the extremists hoped that driving away tourists would undermine the economy and thus weaken and topple the state.

Instead, the cruelty of the slaughter and the damage to the economy alienated average Egyptians and strengthened support for President Hosni Mubarak. The Luxor attack cleared the way for a decisive crackdown.”

In other words, the 1997 attacks on tourists at Luxor caused a backlash and inspired the Egyptian government to crush the terrorists. And that, of course, is the outcome we Americans should want—and support.  

Now it will be remembered that in 2011, the Obama administration supported the so-called “Arab Spring” that overthrew the government of Hosni Mubarak. The Obamans’ stated hope was that the revolutionaries of Tahrir Square in Cairo would usher in a new era of democracy. And yet for reasons that the Lebanese, or Afghans, or Iraqis, as we have seen, could have explained, that positive outcome was never going to happen. Instead, after Mubarak’s fall, Egypt got the rule and misrule of Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. Happily, the Egyptian military, led by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, overthrew Morsi in 2013, and, Egypt’s recovery tentatively began.   

Now in power, el-Sisi has made it clear: Egypt must moderate and modernize. That is, it must move forward with a secular model, not backward into Sharia medievalism. Now of course, this modernization process won’t be easy; indeed, it will likely be opposed by big majorities in Egypt—a recent Pew Center poll found that 75 percent of Egyptians support the imposition of Sharia law.

But fortunately, Egypt is not a democracy, and el-Sisi seems to be an energetic and enlightened dictator, albeit tough-minded.  And so there’s a chance that he will succeed in his stern efforts at moderation and modernization.  

Indeed, there’s a precedent for success in the Muslim world. The history of the Turkish autocrat Kemal Ataturk is worth studying, because his leadership of Turkey in the 1920s and 1930s showed what modernization can do; using dictatorial means, Ataturk forced Turkey into both secularism and prosperity.   

Nearly a century ago, Ataturk could see that the big problem of Islam was fatalism and passivity; so he used all his powers to jumpstart the Turks into the modern world.    

Today, the big problem of Islam is not fatalism, but, rather, a tendency toward violent extremism; perhaps el-Sissi can be as effective as Ataturk in solving this new problem.   

In the meantime, el-Sisi makes no apologies as he tells the West that he needs our help.   Indeed, it certainly seems logical that Israel and the West should hope el-Sisi succeeds. And so we should offer to assist him in any way we can—and just as certainly, American nitpicking about human rights issues in Egypt will not help.  

Yet we might pause to note that gains for modernity in the Muslim Middle East are often tenuous. In Turkey, for example, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems determined to undo Ataturk’s gains and re-Islamify Turkey. And Erdogan might succeed, even if that means pushing Turkey out of its once-close relationship with Europe and the West.   If so, that would be a huge loss for Turkey, as well as for the West. Perhaps we can find a way to stop Erdogan from turning back the clock in his country; perhaps not. And if not, then it’s all the more important for us that el-Sisi should succeed in Egypt.       

Once again, if el-Sisi does succeed in bringing Egypt into the 21st century, it will be because he has gone into the teeth not only of Egyptian public opinion, but also of Muslim opinion. It is true, we might note, that the same Pew Center poll found that the vast majority of Muslims, worldwide, support Sharia law.   

So we can see, if progress in the Muslim world is to be made, it will be made by dictators, not democrats. But in the battle of el-Sisi vs. ISIS, our interests are clear: We should be helping him, just as we should be helping the non-democratic Muslim leaders of Jordan, the Gulf States, and a few other pro-modernization places within the Muslim Ummah.          

So that’s our second reality: In the ongoing Arab struggle, the modernizing dictators are our friends.   

Third, Iran will become a nuclear power or near-nuclear power.   

The idea of a nuclear Iran is a hard point to swallow, to be sure, but we must start our assessment by acknowledging that the current American government is now cheerleading for Iran. Yes, Netanyahu’s re-election victory has genuinely outraged our American President; a March 18 New York Times headline put it bluntly: “Obama May Find It Impossible to Mend Frayed Ties to Netanyahu.” The Times article went on to suggest that Obama might see a US agreement with Iran as a kind of payback to Bibi: “You will have an Iran deal,” said Aaron David Miller, a former State Department official, to the Times. “The Israelis will not like it. But in the end, Israel will not be able to block it.”

If Miller is correct in his prediction, then we will find ourselves in an interesting situation: The Obama administration and the Iranians will want the deal, but it will be strongly opposed by the Republicans and the Israelis.    

So what will happen? When these hostile forces collide? It’s hard to say, but it seems certain that the deal will not not cause any real cessation of tensions in the Middle East. That is, if the Israelis hate the deal—joined, most likely, by many Sunni Arab countries who have long opposed Shia Iran—then it’s possible that Israel will seek to wipe out the Iranian nuclear program via air strikes. And that could happen at any time, which would keep things tense.    

Thus it seems a safe bet that the Iranians, deal or no deal, will continue with their nuclear ambitions. If early reports of the proposed agreement are accurate, the Iranians will be able to have their deal—and the lifting of sanctions, which is what they really care about—and still be able to continue with their nuclear ambitions, albeit at a perhaps slower pace.   So maybe Iran will be a nuclear power in ten years, instead of five.  

So we see the three features of a likely future: First, no Palestinian state; second, an Arab Middle East in a state of conflict, modern vs. anti-modern; and third, a nuclear or semi-nuclear Iran.   

If those conditions obtain, the elements of a prudent Israeli strategy seem clear enough.     

First, Israel will need a quantitatively big defense establishment, big enough to supervise down the Palestinians in the West Bank. And it will also need a qualitatively better defense establishment, one that can repulse, for example, the next rocket barrage from Gaza. Fortunately for the Israeli civilian population, Israel has the Iron Dome missile defense system, and yet even so, in the last decade, 33 Israeli civilians have been killed by Palestinian rocket fire. Adjusted for population, that would be as if more than fifteen hundred Americans had been killed by rockets from, say, Mexico.  

So the Israelis will have to improve on their military technology, and if the Republicans wish to help Israel, they can make that happen. (Come to think of it, a 100 percent foolproof missile defense system would be a good investment for America, too.)

Finally, the Israelis might give serious thought to improving their overall national-security situation, in terms of the willingness of the population—the whole population—to participate in the defense of the country.   

The last few decades have served to remind us that democracies—indeed, societies—really only function when people are inclined to want to live together. If they don’t wish to be in the same country, they have many negative, even violent, ways of expressing themselves, as we have seen.    

The problem: If Arab nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism are running white-hot in the Middle East, as seems to be likely for many years to come, it’s impossible that the two million or so Palestinians currently living on the West Bank will be happy being under Israel supervision.   

And so, since the Israelis believe that they need the land of the West Bank, permanently, for their own physical security, perhaps it’s best if the Palestinians depart. Okay, if one wants to put it more bluntly, perhaps it’s best if the Palestinians are forcibly removed from the West Bank.  

In world history, we’ve learned that when there’s a dispute over territory, it’s often best simply to settle the matter, and not leave it to fester. That’s what the United States did on many occasions in the 19th century, moving the Indians out of their ancestral homelands to new lands in the West.  Was it a nice policy?  No, not really.  Was it necessary?  Yes, really; a new and secure America had to be built.   

More recently, we might note that one of the reasons that Europe has been mostly peaceful since 1945 is that European borders were finally mostly rationalized—that is, one people, one country. This rationalization, we might note, involved huge population transfers; some 12 million ethnic Germans, for example, were forcibly transferred out of Eastern Europe to Germany. It wasn’t a happy process, that’s for sure, but it was nicer than mass-killing, or another war.   

In Israel today, the idea of removing the Palestinians is known as “transfer.”   Indeed, Breitbart News’s Ben Shapiro endorsed the idea back in 2003:  

Here is the bottom line: If you believe that the Jewish state has a right to exist, then you must allow Israel to transfer the Palestinians and the Israeli-Arabs from Judea, Samaria, Gaza and Israel proper. It’s an ugly solution, but it is the only solution. And it is far less ugly than the prospect of bloody conflict ad infinitum. When two populations are constantly enmeshed in conflict, it is insane to suggest that somehow deep-seated ideological change will miraculously occur, allowing the two sides to live together.

Shapiro concluded: “Transfer is not genocide. And anything else isn’t a solution.”  

Transfer would be controversial and it would not be easy. But if, in the next ten or more years, the three scenarios we have described come to pass—that is, the Palestinian problem continues to fester, the Muslim world continues to be shaken by sectarian strife, and Iran continues its march toward nuclearization—not to mention whatever else might be happening in the world, then Israel could have the opportunity, as well as the obligation, to change the demographic facts on its ground while the rest of the world might be preoccupied with other issues.    

Moments in history such as that don’t come very often.   


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