How Tillerson Can Reverse Decades of Mideast Failure

by LT. COLONEL JAMES G. ZUMWALT, USMC (RET) January 30, 2017

U.S. State Department Initiatives for an Israeli-Palestinian Peace: "When Will They Ever Learn?"

Originating from a traditional Russian Cossack folk song, the Kingston Trio's version of "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" became a hit as the war in Vietnam raged on during the 1960s. A refrain in the anti-war song repeatedly queried, "When will they ever learn?"

It is a query, and perspective, Rex Tillerson, assuming his nomination as our next secretary of state receives Senate approval, should reflect upon concerning the Israeli-Palestinian issue and State's abysmal track record in truly understanding the Middle East mindset.

It is said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result. By this standard, the U.S. State Department's historic and consistent approach to obtaining a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian issue represents absolute insanity. As former Israeli ambassador Yoram Ettinger points out, State Department policy has met with little success since Israel's 1948 founding.

Twelve U.S. presidents have served since Israel's founding, with Donald Trump now the 13th. Each has had the notion, he could solve that which no president before him could.

The most recent secretary of state to enter office determined to do so yet leaving office empty-handed was John Kerry. Hoping to referee an agreement, Kerry left the game looking more battered than the adversaries. Twelve administrations later, we remain no closer to a resolution.

The most significant role such a referee plays is maintaining neutrality. Sadly, the Obama administration failed to do this. In a move defying logic, President Barack Obama removed a stack of bargaining chips from the Israeli side of the table before leaving the Oval Office. By the U.S. abstaining and failing to use its vote to block a U.N. Security Council resolution tabled on Dec. 23 targeting Israeli settlements in the so-called occupied territories, the international body can now demand their removal.

It was a shameful act by the outgoing U.S. president against our most reliable ally. By allowing the U.N. resolution to pass, Obama has made resolution of the issue between the parties much more difficult. As a president who has consistently favored Muslim interests over non-Muslim interests, it perhaps should have come as no surprise.

But Ambassador Ettinger, recognizing the damage Obama has done and previous U.S. administrations' lack of success, suggests a logical path still exists for the Trump administration to follow. Doing so, however, requires the State Department recognize a complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship it has rejected for almost seven decades now.

Ettinger delineates how conventional wisdom at the State Department has repeatedly led to U.S. foreign policy failures in the Middle East. These included initially courting Iraq's Saddam Hussein, only having to fight him later; betraying the shah of Iran to support the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini who then aided and abetted the 9/11 attackers; deserting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to embrace the Muslim Brotherhood - a group that declared war against America; etc.

Quite simply, the State Department fails to understand the Middle East mindset because it endeavors to apply Western logic to it. As Ettinger notes, "The State Department has sacrificed the 1,400-year-old complex, disintegrating, unpredictable, volcanic, violently-intolerant and frenzied Middle East reality on the altar of well-intentioned, but oversimplified and futile attempts to reset the Middle East in accordance with a Western state-of-mind and values. ... Thus, Western establishments attribute much credibility to the philo-Palestinian Arab talk, while failing to examine the Arab/Palestinian walk."

As much as such conventional wisdom wants to believe it, "Arab policy-makers have never considered the Palestinian issue a top priority, nor a core-cause of regional turbulence, nor the axis of the Arab-Israeli conflict. All Arab leaders have been preoccupied with domestic, regional, intra-Arab and intra-Muslim lethal challenges - such as the threats posed by the megalomaniacal ayatollahs and Islamic terrorism - which are unrelated to Israel's existence and the Israel-Palestinian dispute."

The good news is that the fallout from the Arab Spring has resulted in "an unprecedented counter-terrorism cooperation with Israel, which they (pro-U.S. Arab leaders) perceive as a regional stabilizing force, contrasted with the unreliable Palestinians."

For 1,400 years, Ettinger says, "Arabs have been unable to produce intra-Arab peace ... (so it is not) realistic to assume that a dramatic Israeli concession (such as Obama just made) would induce the Arabs to accord the ‘infidel' Jewish state that which they have denied each other - intra-Arab peaceful coexistence."

State's most glaring misunderstanding about the Palestinian mindset, which was only further underscored by Obama's parting U.N. action, is that the size of Israel (i.e., expanding settlements) has never been the issue, it is the very existence of Israel that will always be the issue for the Palestinian leadership. This is because that leadership believes Israel exists on an "abode of Islam."

Perhaps the most difficult advice for the State Department to accept from Ettinger is that U.S. involvement becomes critical only in the late stages of direct Israel-Arab negotiation, for two indisputable reasons:

1)   All State Department initiatives to date have failed; and

2)   Two Israeli initiatives, directly negotiated with the Arabs, "produced two peace accords with Egypt. ..."

Thus, failed U.S. initiatives only reduce the Arab incentive to negotiate directly with Israel "... further radicalizing Arab expectations and demands" while successful initiatives - the foundations for which were negotiated directly by Israel with Arabs - have achieved positive results.

The bottom line is the U.S. must refrain from any involvement in the peace process until the Israelis and Palestinians have laid a foundation through direct negotiations.

Ironically, then, when it comes specifically to considering a U.S. initiative for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Trump needs to follow Obama's trademark foreign policy standard - and do nothing.

Failing to do so will leave yet a future secretary of state pondering about his department's Israeli-Palestinian peace sages, "When will they ever learn?"

A version of this piece also appeared on    

Lt. Colonel James G. Zumwalt, USMC (Ret.), is a retired Marine infantry officer who served in the Vietnam war, the U.S. invasion of Panama and the first Gulf war. He is the author of "Bare Feet, Iron Will--Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam's Battlefields," "Living the Juche Lie: North Korea's Kim Dynasty" and "Doomsday: Iran--The Clock is Ticking." He frequently writes on foreign policy and defense issues.

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