The Fundamental Conflict
№3 2009 July/September
Yevgeny Primakov


Full Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, President of the Russian Federation Chamber of Commerce and Industry, member of the Editorial Board of Russia in Global Affairs, former prime minister of Russia (1998-1999).

Research in the field of international relations and world
economics would be untenable without an analysis of regional
conflicts, among which the Middle East one takes a special place.
This is, perhaps, the longest regional conflict in the world. It
has already surpassed other conflicts in the number of states
involved and the frequency of its evolving into the crisis stage –
large-scale armed clashes. Yet this is not all there is to
determine the impact that the Middle East conflict has on the
dynamics of the international situation.


The Middle East conflict is unparalleled in terms of its
potential for spreading globally. During the Cold War, amid which
the Arab-Israeli conflict evolved, the two opposing superpowers
directly supported the conflicting parties: the Soviet Union
supported Arab countries, while the United States supported Israel.
On the one hand, the bipolar world order which existed at that time
objectively played in favor of the escalation of the Middle East
conflict into a global confrontation. On the other hand, the Soviet
Union and the United States were not interested in such
developments and they managed to keep the situation under

The behavior of both superpowers in the course of all the wars
in the Middle East proves that. In 1956, during the
Anglo-French-Israeli military invasion of Egypt (which followed
Cairo’s decision to nationalize the Suez Canal Company) the United
States – contrary to the widespread belief in various countries,
including Russia – not only refrained from supporting its allies
but insistently pressed – along with the Soviet Union – for the
cessation of the armed action. Washington feared that the
tripartite aggression would undermine the positions of the West in
the Arab world and would result in a direct clash with the Soviet

Fears that hostilities in the Middle East might acquire a global
dimension could materialize also during the Six-Day War of 1967. On
its eve, Moscow and Washington urged each other to cool down their
“clients.” When the war began, both superpowers assured each other
that they did not intend to get involved in the crisis militarily
and that that they would make efforts at the United Nations to
negotiate terms for a ceasefire. On July 5, the Chairman of the
Soviet Government, Alexei Kosygin, who was authorized by the
Politburo to conduct negotiations on behalf of the Soviet
leadership, for the first time ever used a hot line for this
purpose. After the USS Liberty was attacked by Israeli forces,
which later claimed the attack was a case of mistaken identity,
U.S. President Lyndon Johnson immediately notified Kosygin that the
movement of the U.S. Navy in the Mediterranean Sea was only
intended to help the crew of the attacked ship and to investigate
the incident.

The situation repeated itself during the hostilities of October
1973. Russian publications of those years argued that it was the
Soviet Union that prevented U.S. military involvement in those
events. In contrast, many U.S. authors claimed that a U.S. reaction
thwarted Soviet plans to send troops to the Middle East. Neither
statement is true.

The atmosphere was really quite tense. Sentiments both in
Washington and Moscow were in favor of interference, yet both
capitals were far from taking real action. When U.S. troops were
put on high alert, Henry Kissinger assured Soviet Ambassador
Anatoly Dobrynin that this was done largely for domestic
considerations and should not be seen by Moscow as a hostile act.
In a private conversation with Dobrynin, President Richard Nixon
said the same, adding that he might have overreacted but that this
had been done amidst a hostile campaign against him over

Meanwhile, Kosygin and Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko at a
Politburo meeting in Moscow strongly rejected a proposal by Defense
Minister Marshal Andrei Grechko to “demonstrate” Soviet military
presence in Egypt in response to Israel’s refusal to comply with a
UN Security Council resolution. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev took
the side of Kosygin and Gromyko, saying that he was against any
Soviet involvement in the conflict.

The above suggests an unequivocal conclusion that control by the
superpowers in the bipolar world did not allow the Middle East
conflict to escalate into a global confrontation.

After the end of the Cold War, some scholars and political
observers concluded that a real threat of the Arab-Israeli conflict
going beyond regional frameworks ceased to exist. However, in the
21st century this conclusion no longer conforms to the reality. The
U.S. military operation in Iraq has changed the balance of forces
in the Middle East. The disappearance of the Iraqi counterbalance
has brought Iran to the fore as a regional power claiming a direct
role in various Middle East processes. I do not belong to those who
believe that the Iranian leadership has already made a political
decision to create nuclear weapons of its own. Yet Tehran seems to
have set itself the goal of achieving a technological level that
would let it make such a decision (the “Japanese model”) under
unfavorable circumstances. Israel already possesses nuclear weapons
and delivery vehicles. In such circumstances, the absence of a
Middle East settlement opens a dangerous prospect of a nuclear
collision in the region, which would have catastrophic consequences
for the whole world.

The transition to a multipolar world has objectively
strengthened the role of states and organizations that are directly
involved in regional conflicts, which increases the latter’s danger
and reduces the possibility of controlling them. This refers, above
all, to the Middle East conflict. The coming of Barack Obama to the
presidency has allayed fears that the United States could deliver a
preventive strike against Iran (under George W. Bush, it was one of
the most discussed topics in the United States). However, fears
have increased that such a strike can be launched by Israel, which
would have unpredictable consequences for the region and beyond. It
seems that President Obama’s position does not completely rule out
such a possibility.


Another aspect of the highly negative impact of the Middle East
conflict on the international situation is the 21st-century
challenge – terrorism. The Middle East, or rather the Arab-Israeli
conflict, has become an incubator of international terrorism. Many
extremist and terrorist organizations and groups, including
Al-Qaeda, have emerged and develop under the influence of this
conflict. Military actions taken by Israel to oppose terrorists,
which often are disproportionate and which cause suffering to the
civilian population, not only fail to narrow the scope of terrorist
activities but, on the contrary, broaden it.

The danger of this “vicious terrorist circle” can be seen in the
theory of the “clash of civilizations,” which has become widespread
in the West. Humankind has hardly recovered from the ideological
confrontation between Capitalism and Communism, which divided it,
when a new division of the world is now predicted – this time along
religious and civilizational lines. This theory is particularly
full-blown in works by American political scientist Samuel
Huntington. He views clashes of civilizations as the basic conflict
of the present and argues that such clashes are inevitable. The
popularity of this theory is seen in the frequency that
Huntington’s works are cited in various publications, including
monographs on geopolitics.

Unfortunately, the works by Russian scholars are lacking proof
of the invalidity of Huntington’s theory. Meanwhile, there is a
dire need to study the impact of globalization on various
civilizations and analyze the effects of the convergence of not
only their material parts but also cultures and the dialectics
which does not negate the individuality of the civilizational
development of nations when such convergence takes place.

Tensions between the Western and Islamic civilizations do exist,
and it is no use shutting one’s eyes to it. But these tensions stem
not from the essence of these so-called “irreconcilable
antagonists” but from the crisis of dialogue between them, which
has been replaced with confrontation and even armed struggle. The
Middle East conflict plays a special role in this context, which
certainly increases the price of its settlement.

The Arab-Israeli conflict has one more important dimension, as
it has a destabilizing effect on the entire Middle East region,
which has 68 percent of world oil reserves (not including Arab
North Africa, which has also been affected by the Middle East
conflict). One will hardly see a recurrence of the events of 1973
when Arab states stopped oil supplies to the West. Yet the U.S.
military operation against Iraq, which accounts for almost 10
percent of the world’s oil resources, has already placed this
country outside the list of major oil exporters for years.

Despite the development of alternative energy sources, oil and
gas will continue to be primary energy resources for the next few
decades. Therefore, stability in the Middle East is and will be of
paramount importance, especially at a time when the main consumers
of Middle East oil start overcoming the present recession. The
jocular saying “The energy crisis has made the light at the end of
the tunnel go off” is in fact not that jocular.

I would also like to emphasize that the Middle East region,
which has been least hit by the global economic crisis, will be of
special value in the post-crisis period as an object of foreign
investment. Huge financial resources accumulated in the Gulf area
provide good prerequisites for that.


What capabilities does the international community now have to
settle the conflict in the Middle East? What does history teach us
in this respect?

First of all, it must be said that the Middle East conflict
cannot be settled militarily. This was confirmed, yet another time,
by Israel’s latest major military operation in the Gaza Strip
against the Palestinian Hamas movement. Interference from the UN
Security Council made Israel stop combat actions and withdraw its
troops from Gaza. This time, the United States departed from its
usual practice of vetoing Security Council resolutions critical of
Israel. There are grounds to believe that the U.S. will continue to
abide by this position with regard to Israel’s military offensives
because of a possible reaction from the Islamic world. In any case,
the United States, along with the other permanent members of the
Security Council, will oppose a military solution to the
Arab-Israeli conflict.

The use of force is unproductive from the point of view of the
objective interests of Israel itself. It has military advantages
over Arab countries, but it has very limited capabilities to use
these advantages in order to annex occupied Arab territories – not
only because of the absence of international support. If Israel
annexes the Arab territories it occupied in 1967, it will soon
cease to be a Jewish state as the ratio between the Jewish and Arab
populations in it will inevitably change in favor of the latter due
to its birth rates. There are grounds to believe that not only the
leaders of Israel but also the bulk of its political class are
aware of this.

The impossibility of a military solution to the Middle East
conflict emphasizes the need for its all-embracing settlement. Back
in Soviet times, there were two contrasting approaches: the Soviet
Union stood for a comprehensive settlement, while the U.S. favored
separate agreements between Israel and individual Arab countries.
As a result, Israel signed peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan.
Was the Soviet Union right in its approach? In retrospect, some
authors support the American policy line. I do not belong to them.
Obviously, the ability to reach an all-embracing settlement was
simply ignored during the preparation of the agreements with
individual Arab countries. Moreover, it was not even provided that
those would be interim agreements paving the way to an overall

Aware of the complexity of the process and the impossibility of
achieving settlement overnight, the Soviet Union never opposed
intermediary measures leading to a clearly defined and mutually
agreed goal – all-embracing settlement. At the same time, the
Soviet logic was dictated by the fact that the conclusion of
separate agreements removed one Arab country after another from the
settlement process and thus complicated the solution of another
issue – the settlement of Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Syrian
relations. Both these “tracks” involve basic territorial problems.
And it is not accidental that, despite the Egyptian-Israeli and
Jordanian-Israeli peace settlements, endless armed clashes have
been going on in the region for more than 30 years now, including
two Israeli interventions in Lebanon – in 1982 and 2007. Both
interventions were comparable in scale and the number of casualties
with the wars of 1967 and 1973, which took place before the
conclusion of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.

Without an all-embracing settlement, it is impossible to put an
end to the state of hostility between Israel and the Arab world in
general and to guarantee stability of what has already been
achieved in Israel’s relations with Egypt and Jordan. Without an
all-embracing settlement, radical Islamist forces have good chances
to destabilize the situation in the region, especially in key Arab
countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

The foundation for an all-embracing settlement of the Middle
East conflict was found in the following formula: the territories
occupied by Israel in the course of the 1967 war in exchange for
peace in Arab countries’ relations with Israel. This implies not
only the recognition of the Israeli state but also the
establishment of full-scale diplomatic and other relations with it.
This formula, established at the Madrid Peace Conference (1991),
meant universal recognition of the undeniable truth that Israel’s
withdrawal from Arab territories, on the one hand, and guarantees
for Israel’s security, on the other, were the only way to achieve
settlement in the Middle East. I would like to emphasize: the
assent of all Arab states and the Palestine Liberation Organization
to the “Madrid formula” means their absolute waiver of the demand
that Israel withdraw into the borders originally defined for it by
the UN General Assembly. (As a result of the first Arab-Israeli War
of 1948-1949, Israel’s territory was largely expanded.)


The settlement of the Palestinian issue implies the solution of
several problems, the main of which is the creation of a
Palestinian state, as was provided for back in 1947 by the UN
General Assembly’s decision on the partition of Palestine into
separate Jewish and Arab states. There is now a global consensus on
this issue, which includes the United States and the European
Union. The previous Israeli government, led by Ehud Olmert, also
recognized the need to create a Palestinian state. I do not think
that the negative position of the incumbent Israeli prime minister,
Benjamin Netanyahu, on this issue is final, although he is likely
to make his consent to the establishment of a Palestinian state
conditional on some concessions from the latter. The process of
creating a Palestinian state involves difficult negotiations also
on such issues as borders of this state, the rights of refugees,
and the future of Jerusalem, which must become the capital of the
two states.

I do not share the point of view of those who think that all
these problems are insoluble, as they can be solved if Israel
renounces its practice of establishing settlements in the occupied
West Bank. The expansion of existing Israeli settlements and the
establishment of new ones is done notwithstanding UN Security
Council resolutions and the negative attitude to this practice from
a majority of states, including not only Russia, China and European
countries but now also the United States.

Borders. They could be defined by means of a
minor rectification of armistice lines and even an exchange of some

Refugees. The right to their return does not
mean that all refugees will want to return. Most of them may choose
financial compensation, which will let them give up living in
Palestinian camps and settle in the future Palestinian state or in
some other Arab country. The separation of the issue of refugees’
right to return from the issue of a mechanism for implementing the
return, including compensation, was discussed at informal talks
between former Israeli minister Yossi Beilin and member of the PLO
leadership Yassir Abd Rabbo. The two parties reached an

Jerusalem. It was none other than U.S.
President Bill Clinton who proposed dividing Jerusalem into Israeli
and Palestinian sections in his settlement plan.

As regards the Israeli-Syrian track, success in this field
depends entirely on Israel’s consent to Syria’s sovereignty over
the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since the war of 1967.
Damascus has expressed its desire to enter into negotiations with
Israel. Factors that make such negotiations possible include the
position of those in the United States who are not interested in a
further rapprochement between Syria and Iran, which would
inevitably happen if a Syrian-Israeli settlement is not reached.
The new Israeli government is divided over this issue. Foreign
Minister Avigdor Lieberman has publicly rejected a possibility of
returning the Golan Heights to Syria. Defense Minister Ehud Barak,
who represents the Labor Party (Avoda) in the government, occupies
a different position.

Success in the Syrian-Israeli peace process would also help to
solve Israeli-Lebanese problems.


Attempts to achieve a Middle East settlement have been made in
three forms: direct Arab-Israeli negotiations, an intermediary
mission by the United States, and an international intermediary
mission by the U.S., Russia, the European Union and the United
Nations – the present Quartet on the Middle East. The past
experience has demonstrated the futility of two of these three
forms: attempts by the conflicting parties to come to agreement on
their own, without the involvement of outside forces, and the
monopolization of an intermediary mission by the United States.

Recent examples of that include the termination of the
Israeli-Palestinian negotiating process after the Netanyahu
government came to power in Israel and the failure of the promise
given by former U.S. president George W. Bush to achieve a peace
settlement in the Middle East before his presidency expired. The
White House did not confine itself to words. U.S. Secretary of
State Condoleezza Rice actually moved the Quartet aside and spent
more time in the Middle East in 2008 than in any other region of
the world. It was not fortuitous that the White House named the
U.S. city of Annapolis as the venue for a Middle East summit,
intended to mark the start of the home stretch for settlement.

I would like to mention just one of the factors for the failure
of the process started at Annapolis. In order to ensure the
broadest possible Arab participation in that meeting (including
Syria, of course), Rice said that the Annapolis summit would be
followed by an international conference on Middle East settlement
in Moscow. This implied the continuity of the process, with the
active participation of Russia and other members of the Quartet.
Given all that, Moscow decided to support the American initiative
to convene an international meeting in Annapolis. President
Vladimir Putin, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, his deputy
Alexander Saltanov, and other Foreign Ministry officials played the
main role in that.

I too took part in the settlement efforts. Shortly before the
Annapolis summit, on behalf of President Putin, I met with
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Israeli Prime
Minister Olmert and Israeli Defense Minister Barak, Syrian
President Hafez al-Assad, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and
Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa. In Damascus, I also met
with the head of Hamas’s political bureau, Khaled Mashaal. The
keynote of all those meetings was the idea of continuity of the
Middle East settlement process, which the planned Moscow peace
conference was to ensure several months after the Annapolis
meeting. For example, President Assad of Syria linked his consent
to send a Syrian delegation to Annapolis to the idea of holding a
follow-up conference in Moscow. His position was shared by the
other officials, with whom I talked.

However, the Moscow peace conference never took place. It was
repeatedly postponed throughout 2008. Then it was announced that
the conference would be held in the spring of 2009. The main reason
why the Moscow conference was not held as scheduled was the
unwillingness of the United States, which quoted the opinion of
Israel, while Israeli leaders, in turn, quoted Washington’s

In view of the changes in the political leadership of Israel and
the differences among Palestinians which have divided them into
supporters of the Fatah and Hamas movements, I think holding a
peace conference in Moscow in the present circumstances and without
thorough preparations would be counterproductive.

But this conclusion does not mean that headway in the Middle
East settlement process is now impossible. Despite the enormous
difficulties and obstacles that have piled up on this way, chances
for success do exist.

First, there is reason to believe that U.S.
President Barack Obama, concerned over the situation in
Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan, will take the Middle East
settlement problem much more seriously than his predecessor.
Washington can exert a decisive influence on Israel to press the
Netanyahu government to solve problems with Palestinians and
Syrians. Naturally, the strong pro-Israeli lobby in the United
States will stand in the way of the White House’s resolute measures
to influence the Israeli leadership, but today this lobby has
somewhat lost its strength as many former supporters of Israel’s
radical measures now feel the need for a peaceful settlement.
Another encouraging factor in this regard is that President Obama
has not let neo-conservatives, famous for their anti-Arab lobbying,
into his team.

Second, Arab countries, above all Egypt and
Saudi Arabia, have taken a constructive position and have a
positive impact on Palestinians.

Third, before Israel attacked the Gaza Strip,
Tel Aviv and Fatah had come closer to each other on some sensitive
issues – in any case, the refusal to discuss them had given way to
exchanges of views.

Finally, Moscow’s role and policy can be a very
important reserve of settlement. In contrast with the other Quartet
members, Russia has established good relations not only with
Israel, Iran and Syria, but also with Fatah, Hamas and

Using the experience gained, the Quartet could work out a
compromise plan on all major settlement issues. This plan should be
handed over to the conflicting parties as a collective decision of
the United States, Russia, the EU and the UN. Let us remember how
Israel was created. Didn’t the international community dictate its
decision on the partition of Palestine and the creation of Israel
and an Arab state in Palestinian territory then?

The proposed plan should include the establishment of a
nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. This problem is exacerbated
still further today. Israel’s nuclear armaments and concerns about
the possession of nuclear weapons by Iran encourage nuclear
ambitions among other countries in the region. Israel opposes the
establishment of a nuclear-free zone. But its position may change
if an Arab-Israeli settlement is linked to a verifiable
renunciation by Iran of nuclear weapons.

Of course, the path to a Middle East settlement is difficult.
This task cannot be solved overnight. But active efforts in this
field must be made.