President Obama recently said it was a "vital national security interest of the United States" to resolve the Middle East conflict. Last month, David Petraeus, the general who leads U.S. Central Command, testified before Congress that "enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests." He went on to say that "Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples . . . and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world."
To be sure, peace between Israelis and Palestinians would be of real value. It would constitute a major foreign-policy accomplishment for the United States. It would help ensure Israel's survival as a democratic, secure, prosperous, Jewish state. It would reduce Palestinian and Arab alienation, a source of anti-Americanism and radicalism. And it would dilute the appeal of Iran and its clients.
But it is easy to exaggerate how central the Israel-Palestinian issue is and how much the U.S. pays for the current state of affairs. There are times one could be forgiven for thinking that solving the Palestinian problem would take care of every global challenge from climate change to the flu. But would it? The short answer is no. It matters, but both less and in a different way than people tend to think.
Take Iraq, the biggest American investment in the Greater Middle East over the past decade. That country's Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds are divided over the composition of the new government, how to share oil revenues, and where to draw the border between the Kurdish and Arab areas. The emergence of a Palestinian state would not affect any of these power struggles.
Soon to surpass Iraq as the largest U.S. involvement in the region is Afghanistan. Here the U.S. finds itself working against, as much as with, a weak and corrupt president who frustrates American efforts to build up a government that is both willing and able to take on the Taliban. Again, the emergence of a Palestinian state would have no effect on prospects for U.S. policy in Afghanistan or on Afghanistan itself.
What about Iran? The greatest concern is Iran's push for nuclear weapons. But what motivates this pursuit is less a desire to offset Israel's nuclear weapons than a fear of conventional military attack by the U.S. Iran's nuclear bid is also closely tied to its desire for regional primacy. Peace between Israel and the Palestinians would not weaken Iran's nuclear aspirations. It could even reinforce them. Iran and the groups it backs (notably Hamas and Hezbollah) would be sidelined by the region's embrace of a Palestinian state and acceptance of Israel, perhaps causing Tehran to look to nuclear weapons to compensate for its loss of standing and influence.
Nor is it clear what effect successful peacemaking would have on Arab governments. The Palestinian impasse did nothing to dissuade Arab governments from working with the U.S. to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in the Gulf War when they determined it was in their interest to do so. Similarly, an absence of diplomatic progress would not preclude collaboration against an aggressive Iran. Just as important, a solution would not resolve questions of political stability and legitimacy within the largely authoritarian Arab world.
Alas, neither would terrorism fade if Israelis and Palestinians finally ended their conflict. Al Qaeda was initially motivated by a desire to rid the Arabian Peninsula of infidels. Its larger goal is to spread Islam in a form that closely resembles its pure, seventh-century character. Lip service is paid to Palestinian goals, but the radical terrorist agenda would not be satisfied by Palestinian statehood.
What is more, any Palestinian state would materialize only amidst compromise. There will be no return to the 1967 borders; at most, Palestinians would be compensated for territorial adjustments made necessary by large blocs of Jewish settlements and Israeli security concerns. There will be nothing more than a token right of return for Palestinians to Israel. Jerusalem will remain undivided and at most shared. Terrorists would see all this as a sell-out, and they would target not just Israel but those Palestinians and Arab states who made peace with it.
The danger of exaggerating the benefits of solving the Palestinian conflict is that doing so runs the risk of distorting American foreign policy. It accords the issue more prominence than it deserves, produces impatience, and tempts the U.S. government to adopt policies that are overly ambitious.
This is not an argument for ignoring the Palestinian issue. As is so often the case, neglect will likely prove malign. But those urging President Obama to announce a peace plan are doing him and the cause of peace no favor. Announcing a comprehensive plan now-one that is all but certain to fail-risks discrediting good ideas, breeding frustration in the Arab world, and diluting America's reputation for getting things done.
As Edgar noted in "King Lear," "Ripeness is all." And the situation in the Middle East is anything but ripe for ambitious diplomacy. What is missing are not ideas-the outlines of peace are well-known-but the will and ability to compromise.
The Palestinian leadership remains weak and divided; the Israeli government is too ideological and fractured; U.S.-Israeli relations are too strained for Israel to place much faith in American promises. The West Bank is the equivalent of a fragile state at best. What is needed are sustained efforts to strengthen Palestinian economic, military and governing capacities on the West Bank so that Israel will come to see the Palestinian Authority as a partner it can work with.
Also needed are efforts to repair U.S.-Israeli ties. The most important issue facing the two countries is Iran. It is essential the two governments develop a modicum of trust if they are to manage inevitable differences over what to do about Iran's nuclear program, a challenge that promises to be the most significant strategic threat of this decade. A protracted disagreement over the number of settlements or the contours of a final settlement is a distraction that would benefit neither the U.S. nor Israel, given an Iranian threat that is close at hand and a promise of peace that is distant.
Mr. Haass is president of the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of "War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars" (Simon & Schuster, 2009).
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