Despite all this, the specific and general effects of the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict influence all these conflicts — and only in a negative direction. There are no positives — for anyone. Let’s look at some of these more closely.
Obviously, the Sunni-Shi’a animosity, which has its origins in a 7th century controversy over who should lead the Muslims after the prophet Mohammed’s death, has nothing to do with Jews or Israel. However, Iran, which is the only Shi’a-led country (apart from Iraq since the American invasion of 2003) has seized the mantle of championing Palestinian rejectionism, and is more “Palestinian” than most Palestinians on this issue. This resonates among many Arabs, who otherwise would have little respect for Iran because of its Shi’ism. Thus, settlement or amelioration of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would go a long way to reducing Iranian influence in the (80% Sunni) Muslim world. Iran’s interests are largely national; something that would isolate it if it were not able to wave the Palestinian flag. (Interestingly, just to show how conspiracy theories are interwoven, I recently met an Iraqi Sunni journalist who told me a story, which he said was widely distributed, that a Jew had instigated the conflict in the 7th century.)
A similar calculation is relevant to Hezbollah, composed of Lebanese Shi’a, which directly threatens Israel with tens of thousands of missiles. While its leadership is ideologically anti-Israel and might not be at all affected by a Palestinian-Israeli peace, its support base would likely cease to care much about Israel if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were to die down. This is even more true of non-Shi’a Lebanese, who have no interest whatsoever in Israel or Palestine. Any settlement would have to give Palestinians in Lebanon, who are in the worst situation of all Palestinian refugees, an option to return to a Palestinian state, which would remove a further problem in Lebanon.
In the larger sense, Palestine serves as an agent for focusing Arab and Muslim anger against the US and the West in general. Again, no one can seriously claim that most or all Muslim anger against the West, justified or not, would dissipate should peace break out. But anyone who listens to Muslims, whether in the US, the Middle East or elsewhere, immediately sees that Israel-Palestine is near the top of their list of grievances. They may know little or nothing about the specifics of the conflict but it is clearly a major grievance. A lot of that would simply disappear if they hear that Palestinians have achieved their dream of statehood.
What effect would this have on convinced jihadis, who are ideologically committed to fighting the West? Indirectly, I would argue, a lot. Although their ideology and specific hatred of Israel would remain, their constituency, i.e., the hundreds of millions of ordinary Muslims, would no longer see them as standing up against the “obvious injustice” that Israel represents. While the widespread distaste for Israel would likely last for years, the blazing anger one so often hears would no longer be fueled by frequent violence, weekly or monthly or, every few years, by a new war.
Is this utopia? Hardly. Of course there would be individuals and groups who would continue the fight — and grievances would continue to be aired. Different conspiracy theories would flourish. But, contrary to the belief of many Israelis, Israel’s actions, not its existence, are primarily what fuels the hatred, even if it is expressed in existential terms. The proof of Israel’s illegitimacy, for most Arabs and Muslims, is what it does, not what it is, even if they argue the opposite. It is hard to wage jihad based on events 60 or 100 years ago if they are not vividly related to the here and now. The Balfour Declaration and the Nakba will not resonate with many if Palestinians have their own state and incentives to maintain a peace with Israel.
Part of the Israeli perception of the opposite goes back to the Holocaust. Nazis hated and exterminated Jews for what they were, not for what they did. On the other hand, Palestinians and, by extension, their Arab and Muslim brothers, have real grievances against Israel, much as they may have been embroidered over time. The adoption of Nazi and other rhetoric in the Arab world is due to the usual human desire to delegitimate one’s enemy, although it takes on the garb of ideological hatred. We have to remember that there is not a holocaust waiting around every corner, that every enemy is not Hitler, and that Jews are far from powerless as they were in the 1930s.