Pay Attention to Israel/Palestine, but Don’t Forget About the Rest of the Region

By Peter S. Henne

Disclaimer: These opinion pieces represent the authors’ personal views, and do not necessarily reflect the official policies or positions of Norwich University or PAWC.

P Henne Article 2024

I teach a course on the international politics of the Middle East each fall. On the first day, I discuss what the course is (and is not) about. One thing I clarify is that this is not a course on Israel/Palestine. Obviously, there are sessions on the topic, and it comes up more often than other issues in other countries do, but I don’t teach Middle East politics as an extension of the region. I encourage students to think about topics that may not be in the headlines and not reduce every regional event to the Israel-Palestine dispute. I’d encourage the same of observers of the Middle East.

The role of Israel in the Middle East

It is undeniable that the dispute between Israel and Palestine is a crucial aspect of the Middle East. The 1948 Arab-Israeli war was the first major international event in the region as European powers withdrew. The Palestinian refugee crisis has driven political instability in surrounding states such as Lebanon and Jordan. And the internationalization of Palestinian terrorism—to use Bruce Hoffman’s term—expanded regional disputes into the rest of the world.

The Israel-Palestine dispute may also have broader effects on the region. The need to prepare for a fight with Israel meant Middle Eastern states maintained large armies; even though two of Israel’s neighbors, Egypt and Jordan, have peace treaties with Israel, the military maintains an outsized role in regional politics. Some have also argued that Middle Eastern governments use the excuse of tensions with Israel to justify the continued repression of their people.

There are also obvious reasons to focus on Israel/Palestine right now. Israel’s democracy has been under threat since before the October 7th Hamas attacks due to Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempts to expand his power. The attacks themselves were horrific, and some aspects—such as sexual violence against Israeli women—are still being uncovered. Israel’s subsequent war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip has led to almost 35,000 deaths among Palestinians, even though early estimates of deaths among women and children were exaggerated. This is a humanitarian disaster and also threatens to lead to a broader war in the region (as nearly happened when Iran launched strikes against Israel in retaliation for the Israeli attack on Iranian military leaders in Syria). The fact that US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said the region was “quieter than it’s been in two decades” just before the October 7th attacks indicates the danger of not paying enough attention to Israel/Palestine.

But there are also reasons to avoid placing Israel/Palestine at the center of all regional politics. The biggest regional event of the 21st century—the Arab Uprising—occurred independently of developments in Israel. That is, both the spread of protests—which took down several regimes—and the stagnation of the move towards democracy had little to do with Israel. The fight against the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group drew in most of the region but did not involve Israel. The move by several Arab states toward normalization of Israel suggests there are motivations beyond concern for Palestinians among Middle Eastern policymakers.

Reductio ad Israel

I would encourage observers of the Middle East to pay attention to warnings about focusing too exclusively on Israel/Palestine. Doing so leads us to ignore many aspects of regional politics. This is problematic on humanitarian grounds. It is also problematic on strategic grounds, as little-noticed issues can suddenly explode. Focusing too much on Israel/Palestine also leads to a reductio ad Israel—modifying Robert Lieber’s phrase on the role of the Iraq war in US politics—in which observers ignore local conditions by interpreting everything in light of development in Israel/Palestine.

There are several areas of Middle Eastern politics that threaten to be ignored by the current focus on Israel/Palestine:

  • A massive earthquake struck Morocco in September 2023, killing 3,000 and displacing over six million. There has been significant reconstruction, but many are still suffering. While there was some international attention to this disaster when it occurred, it has primarily been displaced by concern for Palestinians.
  • In February 2024, six Syrian Kurdish fighters were killed by a strike claimed by IS in a US base. Many Americans may not even realize the US still has troops in Syria. Even those who do may not realize the continued risk IS poses.
  • Opposition parties achieved a significant victory in the April 2024 Turkish elections, threatening the autocratic rule of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). Turkey is both a crucial US ally and an increasingly difficult partner. The future of its regime is of significant importance to US strategic interests.

These and many other examples have nothing to do with Israel/Palestine. If observers of the Middle East focus exclusively on this topic, however, they risk ignoring significant developments in other areas that could negatively affect both the people of the Middle East and the United States.

There are also many aspects of Middle East politics that observers have tied to Israel/Palestine. In the process of doing so, they miss important local dynamics that lead to poor analysis:

  • The Houthis of Yemen briefly became big news when they began launching missiles at international shipping. This led some in the West to celebrate them as principal anti-imperialist champions of the Palestinians. As I have explained, however, the Houthis’ struggle has primarily been against the Yemeni government and its Saudi supporters. What’s more, the Houthis have been brutal rulers of areas they control, something Western progressives should not support.
  • Iraqis have been more muted in their support for Palestinians than many may expect. Like most in the region, the people of Iraq sympathize with the Palestinians. However, they have not pressed their government to take action on Gaza as they are still recovering from their own wars and are wary of being caught in the middle between Israel and Iran.
  • Conservative Islamic Persian Gulf states have maintained ties with Israel despite anger over the treatment of Palestinians. Saudi Arabia is reportedly still moving ahead on normalization with Israel, although it hopes to tie this to Palestinian statehood. Similarly, while the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has been critical of Israel’s war it has also defended its continued ties to Israel and business deals between Israeli and UAE entities have persisted.

Someone focusing solely on Israel/Palestine would expect all regional states to cut ties with Israel, all regional publics to be up in arms over the Gaza Strip, and all groups taking action—like the Houthis—to be acting in the best interest of the Palestinians. Such an assumption would lead to a dangerous misreading of Middle East politics.

Keep a wide focus

Again, Israel/Palestine is the most important issue currently facing the Middle East. It would be negligent to ignore it. But it is not the only issue facing the Middle East. Just as some observers may have been eager to look past the unresolved nature of the Israel-Palestine dispute in order to focus on areas of greater interest, I worry that some are now funneling all analysis of regional politics through the lens of Israel/Palestine. Observers of the region must be able to maintain a broad focus, reacting to current events while keeping an eye out for developing threats.

Peter S. Henne is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of Middle East Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Vermont. He is the author of Religious appeals in Power Politics (Cornell, 2023) and Islamic Politics, Muslim States and Counterterrorism Tensions, (Cambridge, 2017). Henne has also written numerous articles for scholarly and popular publications. He previously worked with the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland, the Pew Research Center, and as a consultant on counterterrorism with the US government.

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