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Whistling in the Dark Israel, Palestine and Bush

Israel, Palestine and Bush

by Col. DAN SMITH

"I welcome the disengagement plan prepared by the Government of Israel, under which Israel would withdraw certain military installations and all settlements from Gaza and withdraw certain military installations and settlements in the West Bank.The United States remains committed to the vision of two states living side by side in peace and security, and its implementation as described in the roadmap."

President Bush (April 14, 2004)

With this April 14, 2004 statement, President Bush threw the full weight of the United States government against any impartial settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He also undercut the credibility of Jordan’s King Abdullah and Egypt’s President Mubarak–key allies and Israel’s neighbors–with their publics and inflamed the "Islamic street." Moreover, he has completely undermined what little hope there might have been that any of the 55 Islamic–and more importantly, any of the 22 Arab–countries would contribute troops to a post-June 30 international peacekeeping force for Iraq (Pakistani and Malaysian officials hinted they might consider sending peacekeepers if the UN takes over from the U.S. at the end of June–assuming there is a peace to "keep.")

In large part, the fact that the U.S. has so little willing support in the Islamic and Arab worlds may have tipped the balance against the Palestinians. The White House had already burned its bridges to the Palestinian Authority’s Yasser Arafat by demanding he appoint an independent "prime minister" who would name other ministers and with whom Israelis could negotiate. It then eviscerated any hope that such a prime minister might really become an alternative power center by insisting that he "dismantle terrorist capabilities and infrastructure" as a precondition for any new or increased assistance. But as long as Israeli troops occupy Palestinian areas or even conduct reprisal raids, no prime minister will accrue sufficient support to stand up to those who commit terrorist acts.

Washington’s position, enshrined in the U.S. "Roadmap to Middle East Peace" first announced on June 24, 2002, saved Ariel Sharon from the "threat of peace" as well as from the need to engage in any serious negotiations. It also allowed Israel to continue expanding existing settlements in those parts of the Occupied Territories in intended to retain in spite of the roadmap’s call for a freeze on new settlements and in defiance of United Nations Security Council Resolutions going back to 1967 (Resolution 242).

But as the intifada continued into autumn 2003, new doubts about Israeli tactics were aired within Israel from unexpected quarters. In late October, General Moshe Yaalon, Israeli Defense Forces Chief of Staff, told reporters that the restrictions then in effect on freedom of movement by Palestinians were so harsh that, by increasing anti-Israeli sentiment, they were strengthening the appeal of terrorist organizations and undercutting Israel’s strategic interests. Other officers expressed similar sentiments, including 26 pilots who signed a statement characterizing the policy of targeted assassinations as "illegal and immoral" (washingtonpost.com October 31, 2003). Yaloon’s statements were followed by a press event with four former chiefs of Israel’s Shin Bet domestic security agency who challenged the Sharon government’s actions. One noted that "Terror is not thwarted with bombs or helicopters" while another observed "The problem, as of today, is that the political agenda has become solely a security agenda" (Washington Post, November 15, 2003).

Nonetheless, even the obvious failure of the military option to stem, let alone stop, attacks against Israeli military installations, settlements in the Occupied Territories, and in Israel proper, did not deter Sharon. Undoubtedly, the Bush administration’s pre-occupation first with the "post-war" situation in Iraq–November saw a spike in U.S. fatalities–and second with the general "war on terror" mitigated whatever pressure the White House might have been inclined to apply on the Israelis to give at least the appearance of even-handedness . In fact, former U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria, Dr. Jack Perry was so struck by the growing identification of U.S. and Israeli policy, especially in "fighting terrorism," that he wondered "how much we are defending Israeli interests and how much our own" (Charlotte Observer, January 7, 2004).

In his April 14 combined statement-press conference-letter exchange with Sharon, President Bush effectively intertwined U.S. policy toward Palestine with Israel’s stance:

– Israel will not have to withdraw all military installations or settlements from the West Bank, nor all military installations from Gaza. This concedes to Israel the right to retain as large a military presence and whatever civilian areas on the West Bank it wants, final status talks notwithstanding.

– The U.S. is steadfastly committed "to Israel’s security, including secure, defensible borders and to preserve and strengthen Israel’s capability to deter and defend itself, by itself, against any threat or possible combination of threats." In defiance of international efforts to control weapons of mass destruction, this statement is a thinly disguised approval of Israel’s nuclear and other special weapons programs. It also keeps open unfettered access to U.S. weaponry and subverts restraints on the misuse of U.S. weapons against civilian populations. No mention is made about a U.S. commitment to the security of Palestinian civilians from Israeli actions that violate international accords. (As an aside, to have truly militarily "defensible" borders, Israel would have to control the entire West Bank to the Jordan River, the Sinai peninsula to the Suez Canal, and the Golan Heights.)

– The U.S. "understands that after Israel withdrawspending agreements on other arrangements, existing arrangements regarding control of airspace, territorial waters, and land passages of the West Bank and Gaza will continue." This allows Israel to control all ingress and egress to Palestinian areas, and, with a later, more specific reference, concedes Israel’s right to build its "security barrier" as it wishes and to maintain it throughout "final status" talks, as long Israel "takes into accountits impact on Palestinians."

– An "agreed, just, fair, and realistic framework for a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue as part of any final status agreement will need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the settling of Palestinian refuges there, rather than in Israel." This very strongly suggests the White House support for an independent Palestinian state is based less on principles of human rights and human dignity than on finding a rhetorical fig-leaf (a "home" for Palestinian refugees) that the White House hopes will divert increased anger within the refugee population–as well as criticism from other governments–at its capitulation to the Israeli position. Given the density of population in Gaza and the areas on the West Bank that Israel intends to retain, this position is impractical.

– Given "new realities on the ground…it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949." This is a strange formulation, in that Resolution 242 (1967), normally the first UN resolution cited, as well as the Roadmap, speaks of returning to the pre-1967 Israeli-Arab borders. This well may reflect a desire to remove any ambiguity about Israel’s conquests in the 1967 war when it seized control of Gaza, the West Bank, and particularly East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim as the capital of their "state."

President Bush did reaffirm U.S. support for establishing "a Palestinian state that is viable, contiguous, sovereign, and independent." But then he added: "so that the Palestinian people can build their own future in accordance with my vision set forth in June 2002."

This demand that Palestinians conform to an outsider’s "vision" mirrors the Bush Administration’s attempts to dictate the form of the new Iraqi government as well as Sharon’s ongoing efforts to manipulate the Palestinians. And these considerations do not even touch the question of how there will be a "viable and contiguous" Palestinian state given the territory Israel will retain.

In responding to a question in the short press conference, Bush revealed another unspoken concession to Sharon: removing the timelines in the roadmap. "And now it’s up for [sic] responsible Palestinians, caring Europeans, Americans, the United Nations to step in and help develop such a state that will be a peaceful state, one in which money will actually end up helping the people of the Palestinian–Palestinians to be able to grow their businesses and grow their–find wealth for their families. And then we can worry about the final status negotiations." Given the poverty, the structural impediments to developing a functioning economy, and the physical and psychological destruction from years of conflict, it will be well past the roadmap’s 2005 deadline before final status talks will even begin.

There is one way that "final status" might occur by the end of 2005, especially given President Bush’s assertion during the press conference that "the best way to achieve peace is to fight terror" and his vision of a militarily liberated Iraq as an example of democracy and free markets spreading enlightenment throughout the Middle East. As expressed by Ambassador Perry, the U.S. may "be working towards a Middle East in which America and Israel dominate the region militarily, forcing the Arab and other Muslim states to conform to our image of what they ought to be."

Such an outcome will no more bring peace than whistling in the dark by the cemetery will ward off ghosts. It is a recipe for perpetual war and unending terror.

Col. Daniel Smith, a West Point graduate and Vietnam veteran, is Senior Fellow on Military Affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker lobby in the public interest. He can be reached at: dan@fcnl.org