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Americans and the Middle East It's Palestine, Stupid!

Americans and the Middle East

by MOHAMMED HAKKI

During the presidential contest between Bill Clinton and George Bush Sr, a phrase was coined that became the most-quoted rallying cry of all election campaigns since; "It’s the economy, stupid." Something very similar is happening between America and the whole Arab world. Someone should be shouting out: it’s Palestine, stupid. All problems that exist between the US and the Arabs, including the most recent and continuing illegal and unnecessary war against Iraq, has its roots in the Palestinian problem. It has poisoned not only relations, but modes of thinking, upset the traditional sense of fairness, sense of justice, and any useful attempt at dialogue between the two sides. It blew any faith in international law, or that Security Council resolutions have any practical value.

Now almost everyone has come to the conclusion that the peace process is finished, but few, unlike Tony Judt writing in the New York Review of Books, see clearly that it "did not die, it was killed". Unfortunately, it was not killed by Ariel Sharon alone. It was killed with the help of an accessory who ironically was the one who coined the term "roadmap" to push the peace process forward: President George W Bush. No one had any illusions about Ariel Sharon or his intentions. The man was clear about his goal every step of the way. He opposed the peace process, opposed the idea of a Palestinian state, opposed the decade-long rapprochement with the PLO that began in Oslo. He declared back in 2001 that the Palestinian Authority was "an entity that supported terror". He never wavered in his determination to continue to build and expand Israeli settlements on Palestinian land in cynical disregard of the "roadmap". But everybody is disappointed in President Bush. Bush never critici! sed Sharon. He continued to call Sharon a "man of peace". When Sharon called Arafat irrelevant President Bush said that the Palestinians deserve a different leadership. He allowed Sharon to imprison Arafat in Ramallah and re-occupy nearly the whole of Palestine. Finally, as Tony Judt asserts, the president of the United States has been reduced to a ventriloquist’s dummy, painfully reciting the Israeli cabinet’s line: "It’s all Arafat’s fault."

After having tried everything with America and having failed, the Arab countries turned to Europe. Almost all Arab diplomats that I have talked to said that "they don’t want to listen," meaning the American side. They put their faith in the Quartet’s efforts to revive the roadmap. But that too has come to a dead end. Sharon made sure to kill that too.

Geoffrey Aronson, director of the Foundation for Middle East Peace thinks that the Quartet is now playing to Sharon’s tune. In a comment in the Financial Times, Aronson says: "Mr Sharon believes time is on Israel’s side. A campaign to de-legitimise Arafat, and as a consequence the Palestinian national liberation movement, as the interlocutor for Palestinian national aspirations, has proceeded in tandem with the destruction of the PA’s institutions." Aronson goes on to say: "Mr Sharon has been gratified beyond his wildest expectations by US and international complicity in his campaign against the elected Palestinian president. While foreign capitals shared Mr Sharon’s tactical objective — removing Mr Arafat’s influence from Palestinian councils — they failed to comprehend just how much Mr Arafat’s removal served Mr Sharon’s strategic goal — the destruction of the capacity for Palestinian self-rule."

Aronson thinks that the Quartet’s efforts to resurrect a "reformed" PA without Arafat is doomed. Sharon thinks that as long as Arafat breathes he remains an obstacle to Israel’s desire to end the possibility of sovereign Palestinian rule, but a virtual PA would not survive Arafat’s death at Israel’s hand. "It may well be too late to arrest this process," he says.

Last weekend’s destruction by Israeli forces of 1500 Palestinian homes, reported on the BBC, was not even mentioned by any of the mainstream media in the US. With the exception of Colin Powell, not a single leader in the Bush administration has visited the West Bank or Gaza. Not a single one has denounced the monstrosity Israel is building under the pretext of Israeli security. The London-based Economist describes the first phase of the planned wall as trapping 15 Palestinian villages with 13,600 residents between the Green Line and the barrier. These unfortunates are prohibited from entering Israel to the West, and physically barred from reaching their lands, businesses and extended families in their West Bank hinterland to the east. A reported further 30,000 farmers who live on the east side of the barrier are now cut off from their orchards, groves and farms on the western side.

The Economist goes on to say that thousands more Palestinians have lost their access to schools, hospitals, government services and universities in the main urban centres of Jenin, Tulkarm, Qalqilya and Nablus. According to B’tsalem, an Israeli human rights research centre, 210,000 Palestinians living in 67 Palestinian towns, villages and refugee camps have been "directly affected" by construction. What a roadmap!

Sooner or later an American statesman is going to have to tell the truth to an Israeli prime minister and find a way to make him listen.

Commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Camp David Accords, President Carter said in an opinion piece in the Washington Post that the only choice for the Israelis is to withdraw from the settlements in the occupied territories. But in the same article he explained one of the main reasons that the US is not tempted or even forced to do the right thing. There is an "important and fundamental change" in the motivation of the US as mediator, he writes. "At Camp David we Americans knew that our nation’s strategic interests were directly involved in the peace process. Cold War alliances had resulted in a direct nuclear confrontation between the superpowers as Egypt and Israel fought during 1973 war … Today, except for the fact that the Palestinian issue has become one of the foremost causes of international terrorism, our strategic interests are much less involved in the Israeli-Palestinian violence … Confident that our support is unshakable, Israeli leaders eventually began! to assert their independence, and real American influence has reach its lowest ebb in 50 years. In the face of certain rebuffs, why would any American president become deeply involved in a balanced mediating role?"

But this absence of any strategic threat has been there since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Besides, it should not dissuade America from pursuing a policy of self-interest; of even-handedness based on justice and moral values. Actually, there is another motive, sick as it may be, that puts Israel and the US in the same bed. That is the misguided notion forwarded by the Israel-blinded zealots who dominate this administration — that the US is now fighting the fourth world war.

Philip Bobbitt, a University of Texas law professor, wrote a book last year that finds resonance in the intellectual atmosphere in Washington. The Shield of Achilles: War and Peace and the Course of History conceives of World War I, and World War II, and the Cold War not as discrete events but as phases in a single protracted conflict — what he calls "the Long War". All were constitutional struggles in which liberal democracy hunted down a series of challengers to its right to govern. World War I brought an end to the dynastic empires, but did not settle the question of what form of rule would succeed them. First fascism and then communism staked their claims, and defeating them was not complete until 1991. That left liberal democracy triumphant. It was declared "the end of History".

Several writers picked up on that theme and on what they term America’s war against Islamic totalitarianism, or Islamism as they call it. They may not necessarily reflect the views of the fundamentalist Christian right, or evangelicals like Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell, but there is an echo. One of those writers is Jonathan Rauch who writes for the National Journal. He asserts that Islamists propose a system of government that has imperial aspirations and that seeks to abolish the private sphere and secular politics. Others like him think that the US is locked in a life or death struggle with Islamists. Rauch is right in saying that for 50 years America was complicit in presenting the Arab world with a false choice between corrupt authoritarianism and militant Islamism. Worse, the US took the side of corrupt authoritarianism. In that limited sense America was complicit in the rise of militant Islamism. But then he loses his argument, and his common sense, saying that what ! America is doing is trying to establish a competent, honest, stable Palestinian state (along with stable Afghan and Iraqi states).

No one I know thinks there is any other alternative than for Israel to withdraw and dismantle all of the settlements and return to the 1967 borders, in exchange for real Arab recognition; but nobody believes that the US is expending one ounce of effort to achieve that. Judt believes it is already too late. Too many settlements, too many Jewish settlers, and too many Palestinians, and they all live together, albeit separated by barbed wire and laws of passage. He thinks that those hundreds of thousands of settlers will die — and kill — rather than move.

A lot of Jews are very pessimistic not only about the Middle East, but about the future of Israel itself. Richard Cohen, the Washington Post columnist, who thinks that there is "a perpetual war against Israel" and supports Israeli assassinations of Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders and militants, concludes by admitting that Israel is losing. He too says that Israel must return to the Green Line, and dismantle "most" of the settlements. He says that by building the fence to encompass the settlements, Sharon is ensuring the continuation of his problem. He needs to get out.

Israeli Labour politician Avraham Burg recently wrote: "After two thousand years of struggle for survival, the reality of Israel is a colonial state, run by a corrupt clique which scorns and mocks law and civic morality." Unless something changes, Israel in half a decade will be neither Jewish nor democratic. Tony Judt concludes: "The depressing truth is that Israel’s current behaviour is not just bad for America, though it surely is. It is not even just bad for Israel itself, as many Israelis silently acknowledge. The depressing truth is that Israel is bad for the Jews."

H G Wells once compared Napoleon to the influenza microbes. He said that if a military leader’s worth is based on how many people he kills, then the microbe wins, because it killed more people in Europe than Napoleon ever did. The same thing can be said of Ariel Sharon. In comparison to either Napoleon or the flu microbe he is nothing. Insignificant. He will only be remembered in history as a killer and mass murderer, and less significant than any modern microbe.

MOHAMMED HAKKI writes for Al Ahram, where this article originally appeared.