Former CIA analyst
“Coup” is the word being widely used to describe what happened in Gaza in June when Hamas militias defeated the armed security forces of Fatah and chased them out of Gaza. But, as so often with the manipulative language used in the conflict between the Palestinians and Israel, the terminology here is backward. Hamas was the legally constituted, democratically elected government of the Palestinians, so in the first place Hamas did not stage a coup but rather was the target of a coup planned against it. Furthermore, the coup — which failed in Gaza but succeeded overall when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, acting in violation of Palestinian law, cut Gaza adrift, unseated the Palestinian unity government headed by Hamas, and named a new prime minister and cabinet — was the handiwork of the United States and Israel.
The Fatah attacks against Hamas in Gaza were initiated at the whim of, and with arms and training provided by, the United States and Israel. No one seems to be making any secret of this. Immediately after Hamas won legislative elections in January 2006, Elliott Abrams, who runs U.S. policy toward Israel from his senior position on the National Security Council staff, met with a group of Palestinian businessmen and spoke openly of the need for a “hard coup” against Hamas. According to Palestinians who were there, Abrams was “unshakable” in his determination to oust Hamas. When the Palestinians, urging engagement with Hamas instead of confrontation, observed that Abrams’ scheme would bring more suffering and even starvation to Gaza’s already impoverished population, Abrams dismissed their concerns by claiming that it wouldn’t be the fault of the U.S. if that happened.
Abrams has been working on his coup plan ever since with his friends in Israel. As part of this scheme, the U.S. also urged Abbas — again making no secret of this — to dissolve the Fatah-Hamas unity government formed in March this year, form a new government, and call for new elections. Abbas acceded to U.S. demands with embarrassing alacrity after Hamas took Gaza. In a further gratuitous turn of the screw, he has appealed to Israel to turn up the heat on Hamas in Gaza by stopping delivery of fuel to Gaza’s power plant and keeping the Rafah border crossing point from Egypt closed so that none of the thousands of Palestinian waiting at the border to return home will be able to enter.
The UN’s outgoing Middle East envoy, Alvaro de Soto, whose final report on his two years in Palestine-Israel was recently leaked to the press, describes Abrams and a State Department colleague, Assistant Secretary David Welch, threatening immediately after the Hamas election victory to cut off U.S. contributions to the UN if it did not agree to a cutback in aid to the Palestinian Authority by the Quartet (of which the UN is a member, along with the U.S., the EU, and Russia). De Soto also describes a gleeful U.S. response to Hamas-Fatah fighting earlier this year. The U.S., he says, clearly pushed for this confrontation, and at a meeting of Quartet envoys, the U.S. delegate crowed that “I like this violence” because “it means that other Palestinians are resisting Hamas.”
The Israeli-U.S. strategy for Palestine is now crystal clear: overturn the will of the people (in this case as expressed through democratic elections), kill off any resistance (Hamas in this case, along with any civilians who might get in the way), co-opt a quisling leadership (Fatah and Mahmoud Abbas), push out and kill if necessary as many people as international opinion will allow, ultimately rid Palestine of most Palestinians. The cast of characters and organizations has changed from earlier times, but this has essentially been Israel’s strategy from the beginning.
The Bush administration is putting a beautiful face on this strategy in the aftermath of the Hamas takeover of Gaza, trying to lure the Palestinians with empty favors to Abbas and Fatah — a three-month amnesty for 178 so-called militants in the West Bank, release of 250 prisoners (out of 11,000), $190 million in aid (most of it recycled from previous undisbursed allocations, and amounting in any case to a mere seven percent of Israel’s annual subsidy from the U.S.), release of customs duties withheld for the last year by Israel (monies stolen by Israel in the first place). The U.S. is also holding out the promise to Abbas, if he behaves, to be allowed to play with the big boys in the Middle East and be included among the favored “moderates.” In a speech on July 16, Bush offered the Palestinian people a choice. They can follow Hamas, he said, and thus “guarantee chaos,” give up their future to “Hamas’ foreign sponsors in Syria and Iran,” and forfeit any possibility of a Palestinian state. Or they can follow the “vision” of Abbas and his Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, “reclaim their dignity and their future,” and build “a peaceful state called Palestine as a homeland for the Palestinian people.” The prerequisites imposed on Abbas are, as before, to recognize Israel’s right to exist, reject violence, and adhere to all previous agreements between the parties.
The promises of Bush and his neocon hucksters, led by Elliott Abrams, are a siren song, holding out a false hope that Abbas’ surrender to U.S. and Israeli enticements will bring a just peace and a just resolution of the issues most important to the Palestinians. The vision of a “peaceful state called Palestine” that the U.S. holds out is a sham, constituting perhaps 50 percent of the West Bank (but only ten percent of original Palestine) in disconnected segments, with no true sovereignty or independence, no capital, and no justice for Palestinian refugees. In these circumstances, Bush’s vision of a “reclaimed dignity” and a decent future for Palestinians is also a sham. Although Abbas and his Fatah colleagues are going along thus far, most Palestinians have not fallen for these blandishments, which offer nothing in return for their abject surrender to Israel.
The election of Hamas in the first instance sent a political message — of resistance to Israeli occupation and extreme dissatisfaction with Fatah’s failure to end it or even to protest it adequately and the international community’s failure to help — and nothing in recent developments gives the Palestinians any hope that their message has been heard. Quite the contrary, in fact. But any expectation that this fact will lead them now to surrender is premature. As Israeli activist and commentator Jeff Halper wrote soon after the Hamas election, the Palestinians gave notice in that election that they would not submit or cooperate, that they were resurrecting a tactic from the 1970s and ’80s, of remaining sumud, steadfast — not engaging in armed struggle but not caving in to Israel’s desire that they disappear. The race now is to see whose strategy prevails and whether the Palestinians in their steadfastness can hold out against Israel’s long-term strategy of apartheid, ethnic cleaning, and even, as honest commentators have increasingly begun to label it, genocide.
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Last fall, in the aftermath of a summer of daily Israeli bombardment of Gaza, Israeli historian Ilan Pappe characterized as a deliberate genocide what was then an average daily death toll of eight Palestinians in Israeli artillery and air strikes. Following Israel’s disengagement from Gaza in 2005, the Israeli political and military leadership, recognizing that Gaza’s almost 1.5 million Palestinians were hermetically sealed into a tiny geographical prison, had come to view them as an extremely dangerous community of inmates, which, in Pappe’s words, had “to be eliminated one way or another.” With no way to escape, Gaza’s Palestinians could not be subjected to the gradual ethnic cleansing occurring in the West Bank, and so, at a loss as to how to deal with this massive problem, Israel was simply implementing a “daily business of slaying Palestinians, mainly children,” always using Palestinian resistance as its excuse on security grounds for inexorably escalating its attacks.
Palestinian resistance, Pappe noted, has always provided Israel with the security rationale for its assaults on the Palestinians — in 1948, in the late 1980s when the Palestinians belatedly began resisting the occupation, during the second intifada, and following the 2005 disengagement from Gaza. When Israel ultimately escaped international accountability for ethnically cleansing over half of Palestine’s native population in 1948, it was given license to incorporate this policy as a legitimate part of its national security agenda. Pappe predicted in 2006 that, if Israel continued to avoid any censure from the international community for its genocidal policy in Gaza, it would inevitably expand the policy. Only international censure, and he believed only the external pressure of boycott, divestment, and sanctions, could stop “the murdering of innocent civilians in the Gaza Strip.”
Writing again about Gaza only a few weeks ago in the wake of Hamas’ defeat of Fatah forces there, Pappe notes that he received many uneasy reactions to his earlier use of the charged term “genocide” and had himself initially rethought the term, but ultimately “concluded with even stronger conviction” that genocide is the only appropriate way to describe what Israel is doing in Gaza. Again noting the different realities in the West Bank, where ethnic cleansing is proceeding, and Gaza, where this option is not possible and where ghettoization is also not working because the Palestinians refuse to accept their imprisonment docilely, Pappe says that Jews, of all people, know from their own history that when ethnic cleansing and ghettoization fail, the next stage is “even more barbaric.” Israel has been experimenting, he says, with gradually escalating killing operations against Gazans. At each stage, Israel uses more firepower, and as the distinction between civilian and non-civilian targets has gradually been erased, casualties and collateral damage have risen. In response, Palestinians fire more rockets, thus providing Israel with a rationale for further escalation. So-called “punitive” actions, undertaken on the grounds of enhancing Israeli security, have now become a strategy, Pappe observes.
The experimental aspect has been in gauging international reaction. Israel’s military leaders wanted to know “how such operations would be received at home, in the region and in the world. And it seems the answer was ‘very well’; no one took interest in the scores of dead and hundreds of wounded Palestinians.” Each Palestinian response, and each Israeli killing operation ignored by the world at large, enables Israel “to initiate larger genocidal operations in the future,” Pappe says. For now, internal Palestinian fighting, itself fomented by Israel and the U.S., has given the Israelis a respite, essentially doing Israel’s job for it. But Israel stands ready to wreak more havoc and death whenever it pleases. Again, Pappe asserts that the only way to stop Israel is through a campaign of boycotts, divestment, and sanctions — the only way of cutting off the “oxygen lines to ‘western’ civilization and public opinion” on which Israel depends. Only such external pressure, he believes, can possibly thwart Israel’s implementation of its “future strategy of eliminating the Palestinian people.”
Other critical observers have begun to see a similar murderous intent in Israel’s handling of the Palestinian issue. Richard Falk, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton, in a recent ZNet article entitled “Slouching Toward a Palestinian Holocaust,” also spoke forcefully of a possible coming genocide:
“[I]t is especially painful for me, as an American Jew, to feel compelled to portray the ongoing and intensifying abuse of the Palestinian people by Israel through a reliance on such an inflammatory metaphor as ‘holocaust.’. . .
“Is it an irresponsible overstatement to associate the treatment of Palestinians with this criminalized Nazi record of collective atrocity? I think not. The recent developments in Gaza are especially disturbing because they express so vividly a deliberate intention on the part of Israel and its allies to subject an entire human community to life-endangering conditions of utmost cruelty. The suggestion that this pattern of conduct is a holocaust-in-the-making represents a rather desperate appeal to the governments of the world and to international public opinion to act urgently to prevent these current genocidal tendencies from culminating in a collective tragedy. . . .
“Gaza is morally far worse [than Darfur], although mass death has not yet resulted. It is far worse because the international community is watching the ugly spectacle unfold while some of its most influential members actively encourage and assist Israel in its approach to Gaza.”
Israel’s strategy of “eliminating the Palestinian people,” is not new, as Ilan Pappe has long made clear in his several histories of the conflict, most notably the newest, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, on the deliberate expulsion and dispossession of Palestinians in 1948. But the methods and the tactics change from time to time, and it is clear that now that Israel is enjoying the full, open, and conscious backing of the United States in this endeavor, thanks to the neocons’ hijacking of Middle East policymaking in the Bush administration, it is proceeding really quite brazenly, making little secret of its essential hostility to all Palestinians and of its ultimate intent to eliminate, by whatever means necessary, the entire Palestinian presence in Palestine.
At the same time, there is growing recognition in many quarters of what exactly Israel’s agenda entails, as well as growing willingness to speak about it publicly and to label genocide and apartheid as the realities that they are. This recognition is growing not only among humanists like Pappe and Falk, but also among realists like John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, who startled the world in 2006 with a forthright critique of the extensive power of the Israel lobby over U.S. policymaking; among outspoken former policymakers like Jimmy Carter, who had the temerity last year to write a book about Israeli policy with the word “apartheid” in the title; among some activists who are ready to put forth and stand by a campaign of boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against Israel; and even among many thoughtful Jewish and Zionist commentators who have begun to challenge their assumptions about Israel’s innocence and the benign nature of Zionism.
Indeed, in ways not yet fully understood or fully played out, the years 2006 and 2007 have been a seminal period in the conflict. Developments on the ground, where the genocidal policies described are being pursued with increasing openness, along with new trends in the public discourse that swirls (or pointedly does not swirl) around the conflict in the world outside have forced new ways of thinking, new pressures, new ways of dealing with the long-running tragedy that is Palestine. Two distinctly opposite trends have emerged: one is the new and revolutionary push to examine Israeli and U.S. policies toward the conflict openly and without artifice; the other, in large part a reaction to the first, is a continuation and magnification of the longstanding impulse to deny the realities of the situation, suppress knowledge, suppress debate, close discourse. The future will be determined by which trend gains ascendancy. For the moment, the second is ascendant, as always, but the undercurrents created by the first trend simmer strongly.
The fundamental question is whether the Palestinians will be able to survive an intensifying assault on their very existence by the most powerful nation in the region, supported and actively assisted by the most powerful nation in the world, until the new voices opposing this assault grow strong enough to be heard around the world. For Palestine will not be saved without a total change in the public discourse surrounding every aspect of the conflict — without a far more widespread awakening, of the kind Richard Falk has come to, to the horrific oppression Israel is visiting on the Palestinians, and probably without the kind of serious pressure on Israel, from the outside, that Ilan Pappe advocates.
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The Palestinians’ own will and steadfastness are obviously of great importance. The key question is whether they can, despite the forces working against them, remain sumud, and regain the basic loose unity that had until recently kept them more or less together as a people through 60 years of being scattered. Or will they simply be willed away by the world community, left to molder and disintegrate in their small, confined enclaves — including not merely in Gaza but in various disconnected reservations in the West Bank, in small pockets inside Israel, in poverty-stricken refugee camps in neighboring Arab states, and in isolated exile communities throughout the world? Will they have the strength of purpose to continue pursuing justice and independence, or will they merely go along with their assigned fate, succumbing to the classic colonial strategy, which Israel is pursuing, of emasculating any resistance by co-opting its leaders, inducing one segment of the native population to police and suppress the rest?
Over the 60 years since the Palestinian naqba, or catastrophe, which saw the Palestinians dispossessed and ethnically cleansed to make room for the establishment of Israel as a Jewish state, Palestinian history has evolved in roughly 20-year phases. The first, from 1948 to the late 1960s, was a period of nearly helpless quiescence during which the Palestinians were almost extinguished as a people — first dispossessed and dispersed, then totally forgotten by their Arab brethren and by the rest of the world. Israel and Israeli propagandists willed any memory of Palestinians out of the public consciousness and erased most remaining physical traces of the Palestinians’ presence on the land. Palestinians themselves existed in a state of shock, trying to regroup but unable to devise a strategy for resisting and bringing their case to international public attention.
The second phase was an era of Palestinian resistance. Running from the late 1960s and spurred in great part by Israel’s 1967 capture of the West Bank and Gaza, the remaining parts of Palestine, this period saw the PLO unify the geographically and politically disparate Palestinians around the goal of liberating Palestine and saw Palestinian factions employ terrorism and armed struggle in response to Israeli terrorism and oppression. This is the period when Palestinians in the occupied territories, unable to use armed struggle against Israel’s overwhelming strength, used the strategy of sumud, remaining steadfastly on the land to thwart Israel’s attempts to force them out. In 1988, a year into the first intifada, a popular and largely non-violent uprising that brought the Palestinians considerable international sympathy and gave them the confidence of political success, the PLO accepted the two-state formula, thus waiving claim to three-quarters of original Palestine by recognizing Israel’s existence inside its pre-1967 borders and agreeing to accept a small Palestinian state in the remaining one-quarter. During this phase, the world was finally made aware, although not always necessarily in favorable terms, of the Palestinians’ existence and their plight.
The third two-decade period, up to the present, began as a period of accommodation but, as this unreciprocated accommodation has increasingly been exposed as bankrupt, is ending with a renewal of resistance. Yasir Arafat formalized the PLO’s huge 1988 concession by signing the Oslo accord in 1993 and agreeing to the several implementing stages that followed — stages that, far from moving toward Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza and toward establishment of a sovereign, contiguous Palestinian state there, actually consolidated Israel’s control, facilitated a massive influx of Israeli settlers into the very territories slated for Israeli withdrawal, forced the Palestinian leadership into the collaborationist role of enforcer of Israeli security, and isolated the Palestinian population and Palestinian authority in the territories into literally hundreds of disconnected land segments.
When at the Camp David peace summit in 2000 it became clear that, as far as Israel and the U.S. were concerned, a limited Palestinian independence could be achieved only through still more concessions to Israel, and on such critical issues as the disposition of Arab East Jerusalem and the fate of approximately 4,000,000 Palestinian refugees scattered throughout the Arab world, Palestinian eyes were opened to Israel’s endgame, and resistance began anew. The Palestinian leadership still formally supports the two-state solution, and even Hamas has consistently indicated a readiness to give Israel a long-term truce and accept Palestinian statehood in the West Bank and Gaza if Israel withdraws from these territories completely. But, as it has become increasingly obvious that Israel has no intention of ever making meaningful concessions to the Palestinians, more and more Palestinians, including the 1.3 million who live inside Israel as (second-class) citizens, have abandoned accommodation and are returning to maximum demands such as full implementation of the right of return for 1948 refugees and equal citizenship for Palestinians and Jews in a single state in all of Palestine.
After a period of armed resistance and terrorism during the second intifada following the peace process collapse in 2000, resistance has turned primarily to political means. Hamas refuses, despite major economic deprivation resulting from international political and economic sanctions, to capitulate to demands for recognition of Israel’s right to exist unless Israel recognizes a Palestinian right to exist and defines where its borders and the limits of its expansion lie. Inside Israel, Palestinian citizens have begun to demand an Israeli constitution (there has never been one) that would mandate equal rights for Palestinians and Jews, making Israel a state of all its citizens rather than a state of Jews everywhere. There have also been increasing calls, by some few Israelis and large numbers of Palestinians, for establishment of a single state for Palestinians and Jews in all of Palestine, in which all citizens would have equal rights, equal dignity, and equal claims to national fulfillment. Finally, new calls have arisen for international boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel until it demonstrates that it is prepared to end its racist oppression of Palestinians.
Each of these phases has been marked by two principal features: Israel’s consistent efforts over 60 years to eliminate the Palestinian presence in Palestine, and the Palestinians’ determined and to this point successful effort to defeat this attempt to erase them from the landscape. Israel has varied its tactics but ultimately has never given up its goal of establishing “Greater Israel” as an exclusively Jewish state. Its methods have involved bald-faced ethnic cleansing as in 1948; a continual propaganda campaign attempting to demonstrate that Palestinians do not exist and, if they do, have no rights in any case; a steady expansion into more and more Palestinian territory; and a gradually escalating effort to make life so unbearable for that persistent remnant of Palestinians inside Israel and in the occupied territories that they will leave voluntarily. Most recently, Israel and the U.S. have been making a concerted effort to undermine Hamas, for the very reason that it represents the political if not the religious will of the people, and to force the split between Hamas and Fatah that culminated in last month’s fighting in Gaza.
Israel found an eager collaborator in the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority, whose leadership has sought since the start of the peace process to cooperate with the Israeli occupier and the U.S., despite being repeatedly slapped in the face. The leadership’s forlorn desire to be seen as “moderate” and “reasonable” has meant that the Palestinian Authority, whether headed by Yasir Arafat or by Mahmoud Abbas, has never registered a serious protest against Israel’s continued consolidation of the occupation and has rarely even paid lip service to the right of return for Palestinian refugees. This attempt to curry favor is the reason today that the leadership cooperates openly with Israel and the U.S. against Hamas, despite clear evidence that Israel will never make meaningful territorial concessions to the Palestinians or even any real political concessions to Fatah, such as release of significant numbers of Palestinian prisoners, and despite clear evidence that the U.S. will never pressure it to do so. Discussions over the years with ordinary Palestinians, including some working inside the PA, reveal a near universal chagrin at the PA’s accommodationist stance. Both in advance of the elections that brought Hamas to power and since, Palestinians have expressed consternation at Abbas’ blind desire to please the U.S. in the expectation that this behavior would bring some political benefit to the Palestinians, despite repeated evidence to the contrary. There is widespread disgust not only with the PA’s corruption but more importantly with its utter failure to defend Palestinian rights. Abbas is clearly still running after the U.S. and just as clearly getting nowhere.
Is this abysmal Palestinian situation a harbinger of things to come? The Palestinians are suicidally split; one segment of the leadership is desperately paying court to their oppressors, while the other stands strong in resistance but is seriously isolated; Gaza is impoverished and entrapped; the West Bank lies helpless on its back, open to the picking by territorial vultures; and no one, absolutely no one, in the international community seems willing seriously to intervene, to press for restraint by Israel, to oppose the unquestioning U.S. support for Israel, to recognize Palestine’s legally constituted government, or even to offer meaningful aid to the Palestinians. Is this the vision of the Palestinians’ next 20 years? Most Israelis and most U.S. policymakers hope so. This is a Palestine molded in the neocon laboratories of the Bush administration, part of the “birth pangs” of a new Middle East, a Middle East envisioned in the corridors of the White House and the State Department as dominated totally by Israel, full of subservient Arab governments (dubbed “moderates” in the jargon of the new age) or, where the “moderates” do not prevail, mired in continual U.S.-instigated warfare.
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Enter Elliott Abrams, the neocons’ Dr. Frankenstein and senior working-level creator of much of the Middle East’s current turmoil. Although not a main architect of the Iraq war, Abrams, who has been the principal Middle East adviser on the National Security Council staff throughout most of the Bush administration, was part of the pro-Israeli neocon cabal that devised and pushed for the war. He it was who advocated and has now largely succeeded in creating the “hard coup” against Hamas. Working with Vice President Cheney’s Middle East adviser David Wurmser, another rabid Israeli supporter, and with Cheney himself, Abrams fully supported and may have given Israel a green light for Israel’s war against Hizbullah in Lebanon last summer. This year, according to the New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh and others, Abrams has been a key figure behind the fighting going on at the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon; the insane scheme, undertaken in cooperation with some Saudi elements, some powerful rightwing Christians in Lebanon, and at least indirectly with Israel, has involved arming and encouraging extremist Sunni militias in Lebanon in order to weaken Shia Hizbullah, as well as Iran and Syria. Finally, it almost goes without saying that Abrams has become a leading advocate, again according to Hersh, of an attack on Iran, and he has been pushing Israel to launch an attack on Syria.
Palestinian commentator Rami Khouri calls this induced chaos the beginning of a great “unraveling” of the current Arab state order established decades ago in the aftermath of World War I. At the very moment when Arab states — including not only governments, but various groups within them, including Islamist, other sectarian, ethnic, and tribal movements — are struggling to define themselves, Khouri says, huge external pressures led by the U.S., Israel, and some European governments and abetted by some Arab governments (those currying favor with the U.S.), are weighing down on the local elements to thwart them and redirect them toward fulfilling Western interests. Khouri calls this a formula for an explosion. Some form of utter turmoil, if not an outright explosion, would seem to be precisely the desire of Abrams and his fellow neocons, as well as of Israel.
No one should be surprised that Abrams has had a hand in creating the mess in the Middle East and is actively working for the dismemberment and emasculation of the Arab world. He did this in Central America before being caught lying to Congress during the Iran-Contra investigation and being momentarily sidelined. More to the point, concern for Israel’s interests, and an extreme rightwing agenda, have long driven Abrams’ actions.
He is the son-in-law of two of the original neocons and the most strident rightwing supporters of Israel, Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter. If his relatives were not enough to incriminate him, Abrams has been outspoken himself, in office and outside, in opposition to virtually any peace process and any Israeli territorial concessions. In the early 1990s, according to a 2003 profile in the New Yorker, he co-founded the Committee on U.S. Interests in the Middle East, which spoke out against Israeli territorial concessions, and later in the ’90s he was a fierce critic of the Oslo process. He has written of the first Palestinian intifada, which involved virtually no violence beyond stone-throwing, that it was no mere “uprising” but involved “terrorist violence” against Israelis. Since coming to the NSC staff, he has made it widely known that he has pushed the administration to line up in support of Israel. He has also made little secret of his strong anti-Palestinian views. Far worse than putting the fox in charge of the henhouse, the move that put Abrams on the NSC staff placed the pro-Israel lobbyist par excellence, emotional advocate for Israel, icn charge of making policy on a conflict of surpassing importance to U.S. national interests in a world far beyond Israel.
More than most policymakers past or present, Abrams wears his pro-Israeli heart on his sleeve. In a 1997 book on the place of Jews in U.S. society, Faith or Fear: How Jews Can Survive in a Christian America, he took the position that Jews should “stand apart from the nation in which they live. It is the very nature of being Jewish to be apart — except in Israel — from the rest of the population.” Although maintaining that this stance implies no disloyalty to whatever nation Jews live in, he unabashedly affirmed the importance of the Jewish “bond” to Israel. The Jewish community in the U.S., he said, should conceive of itself as a religious community because “faith is the only ultimately reliable bond between American Jews and Israel.” He laid out a program for change in the Jewish community that could not have made his commitment to Israel clearer. Describing Israel as a source of Jewish identity for millions of American Jews and “the essence of their lives as Jews,” he said his program would mean making “the link to Israel . . . one of personal contact and commitment” rather than merely of financial support.
For all his affection for Israel, Abrams has shown himself to be a pragmatist — in the sense of devious manipulator that describes his hero Ariel Sharon — and this pragmatism has ultimately allowed him to accomplish more for Israel than his harder lining colleagues would have been able to do. One longtime friend says of him, according to the New Yorker profile, that he is “unusually effective at combining different strands of policy. It’s a mark of his performance in these jobs — showing an acute sensitivity to what his political opponents are worried about and knowing how to win them over, or neutralize their animosity toward him.” This cold-blooded awareness of what politics demands enabled Abrams to maneuver through the hype surrounding the Roadmap peace proposal when it was first presented in 2003, and in the end undermine the Roadmap altogether at a time when politics demanded that Israel appear to be going along with this U.S.-proposed peace plan.
While many Israelis and most of Abrams’ neocon colleagues feared that the plan would demand real territorial concessions of Israel, Abrams worked closely with Sharon’s chief of staff, Dov Weisglass, to design a scheme that would make it appear that Israel had agreed to the plan while actually placing the onus on the Palestinians to take the first step by stopping all terrorist incidents and dismantling militant organizations. After Israel had destroyed all Palestinian security capability, it was clear that this would be an impossible task for any Palestinian leadership, but Abrams and Weisglass knew this would give Israel the breathing space to proceed with settlement expansion and consolidation of the occupation. It was an intricate maneuver that reassured the right wing in Israel and the U.S. that Israel was making no concessions but made it appear to most of the world outside that Israel was ready to make “painful concessions” if the Palestinians “showed their good will.”
Weisglass later exposed the thinking behind the scheme as it began to evolve a year later into Sharon’s plan for so-called disengagement from Gaza. These peace plans, he said, speaking specifically of the disengagement plan, supply “the amount of formaldehyde that is necessary so there will not be a political process with the Palestinians.” They “freeze” the political process. “And when you freeze that process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, and you prevent a discussion on the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem. Effectively, this whole package called the Palestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed indefinitely from our agenda.” Weisglass boasted that this had occurred with “a [U.S.] presidential blessing and the ratification of both houses of Congress.” He did not openly credit Abrams, but, as a State Department official once told an interviewer, Abrams is “very careful about not leaving fingerprints.”
Abrams has repeated this act multiple times — not only over the Roadmap and disengagement, but over the issue of Israeli settlement expansion and over Israel’s construction of the apartheid wall (on which he has helped plan such minutiae as the placement of gates and some parts of the wall’s route) — each time making it appear that Israel is making concessions, or would do so if it had a decent Palestinian partner for peace, but quietly manipulating the situation so that in the end Israel is enabled to proceed with its plans more or less unimpeded. By thus cooperating with Israel to fine tune its occupation practices, Abrams has acted as a partner of Israel rather than as a U.S. policymaker and has given legitimacy to virtually every aspect of Israel’s continuing occupation.
This same pattern is apparently being repeated with the engineered Hamas-Fatah split. Although Israel has no more intention now than ever previously of making real concessions to Abbas (and indeed announced immediately after Bush’s speech that it will not even discuss the central issues of borders, refugees, and Jerusalem), the U.S. and presumably Abrams have persuaded the Israelis to make some low-cost gestures to Abbas, while acting as though they are eager for negotiating progress whenever the “moderate” Palestinians are ready — all in the hope of undermining and finally defeating Hamas.
Reports of a rift between Abrams and Condoleezza Rice are frequent, but it is probable that Rice has simply decided to follow Abrams’ lead in most things Middle Eastern. She is probably more dovish than Abrams, and she seems to have made a serious although badly misguided and short-lived effort early this year to restart some kind of negotiating process between Israel and the Palestinians, with her attempt to put a “political horizon” for negotiations before them, but she is neither as clever nor as emotionally involved in the issue as Abrams, and she appears content to follow along, even at the cost of some embarrassment when her initiatives are undermined.
There is some question in fact whether Rice truly disagrees with Abrams. She did, after all, learn most of what she knows about the Palestinian-Israeli situation at the feet of Abrams, who was the NSC staff’s principal Middle East point person for most of her term as national security adviser. The fact that her principal State Department assistant secretary for the region, David Welch, seems to be actively cooperating with Abrams in efforts to stir up turmoil in Lebanon and travels with Abrams to Israel indicates either Rice’s total submission to Abrams’ dictates or her disinterest in taking any kind of policymaking lead in the Middle East. In either case, if there was ever a disagreement strong enough to matter, it appears by now to have been submerged.
Thus Abrams almost certainly has fairly free rein to fold, spindle, and mutilate policy on Palestine-Israel. He is obviously in his element, hyperactively pulling strings behind the scenes everywhere, wheeling and dealing with cohorts in Israel — where he travels every month or two, sometimes more often — as well as with compliant elements among the “moderate” Arab governments. Shortly after September 11 and the start of the “war on terror,” according to the New Yorker profile, he was so enthusiastic about the prospect of manipulating the Arab world that he exulted that “I feel young again! I love all these battles — they’re so familiar to me.” He was back in the fray, as during the era of the Central American wars. There is little evidence that he faces any restraints inside the U.S. He has obviously triumphed in whatever competition there might have been with Rice, he works closely with Cheney and Cheney’s right hand, David Wurmser, and he has a coterie of admirers and supporters among the neocons in think tanks around Washington. He appears to be not only Israel’s facilitator and co-conspirator on Middle East issues, but Bush’s Middle East brain as well.
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This picture of unrestrained power and extreme partisan advocacy at the center of Palestinian-Israeli policymaking in Washington is the backdrop against which any intensified anti-Zionist sentiment and any effort to change and broaden public discourse must struggle. The power that Abrams and his neocon cohorts wield is further strengthened by the well financed, single-focus Israel lobby. Together, these factors present an almost insurmountable obstacle to any progress toward open discussion of the Palestine-Israel reality, and ultimately toward real justice for Palestinians and genuine peace for the region. Nor is it an obstacle that will be removed after Abrams leaves office, even if a Democratic president is elected and the neocons are banished; the lobby, of which Abrams is only one, albeit very central part, wields such power and such control over discourse on Palestinian-Israeli issues that policy will not change significantly whichever party holds the White House and whichever controls Congress.
Nonetheless, there is some change underway in public discourse, at least enough to worry some of the lobby’s movers and shakers, who constantly wring their hands in distress over the supposed “anti-Semitism” of the growing numbers of Israel’s critics. It is impossible at this stage to foretell the outcome of what is, without exaggeration, an epic struggle between those fighting for pure justice for a dispossessed, oppressed people and those on the other side who, in the course of fighting to preserve the ethnic and religious superiority of Jews in an exclusivist state, are provoking a clash of civilizations and a disastrous global war with the Muslim world. On the one hand, it is clear that the voices of critics like John Mearsheimer, Stephen Walt, Jimmy Carter, and the relatively few others with the courage to speak out and organize campaigns such as the boycott-divestment-sanctions campaign are but a small chorus against the lobby’s huge symphony orchestra. Moreover, the chorus’ song comes at a time when the U.S./Israeli/lobby orchestra is creating maximum chaos throughout the Middle East, generating more turmoil, manufacturing more fear, and helping drown out opposing voices.
On the other hand, Zionism is unquestionably under assault these days. Increasing numbers of commentators and politically aware individuals are finally beginning to recognize that the oppression, the atrocities that Israel has been committing in the occupied territories for the last 40 years, are not some kind of aberration but are merely a continuation of a campaign of ethnic erasure begun in 1948. Ariel Sharon himself described the conflict with the Palestinians that began with the second intifada in 2000 as “the second half of 1948.” The late Israeli historian Tanya Reinhart recognized this reality and noted in her 2002 book Israel/Palestine: How to End the War of 1948 that as far as Israel’s political and military leaders are concerned, “the work of ethnic cleansing was only half completed in 1948, leaving too much land to Palestinians.” This leadership, she said, “is still driven by greed for land, water resources, and power,” and they see the 1948 war as “just the first step in a more ambitious and more far-reaching strategy.”
Increasingly, other thoughtful Israelis are coming to recognize this connection to 1948 and reject it — to recognize that the occupation cannot be ended and real peace forged without looking back to the beginning in 1948 and rectifying the huge injustice done then to the Palestinians. For the Palestinians themselves, the right of return — the right to return to their homes in Palestine or receive compensation for the loss of those homes — has become a genie that, having been roused by Israel’s own loud objections to recognizing the refugees and by Israel’s constant attention to its “demographic problem,” will not be put back in the bottle.
The next 20-year phase in Palestinian history is a chapter that cannot yet be foretold. The range of possibilities is wide. At one end is continued Palestinian accommodation and surrender to the siren song of empty U.S. and Israeli promises, such as is being encouraged today. Continued resistance, largely political but also including some military, along the lines of Hamas’ strategy is probably more likely. Over the longer term, it is possible to see success in some measure, some form of vindication and real justice. Ultimate justice — for both peoples — would be the establishment of guaranteed equal rights for Palestinians in Palestine, formal establishment of a single state for Palestinians and Jews, and acceptance of a formula under which Israel recognized its responsibility for dispossessing the refugees and the refugees were granted the right to return if they chose.
Twenty years hence, will Israel continue to exist as a Jewish state, intent on maintaining Jewish supremacy at any cost? Will the Palestinians be further dispossessed and scattered? Despite their dismal situation today — and despite over the years being repeatedly dispossessed, exiled, ignored, oppressed by successive conquerors, occasionally massacred — the Palestinians have remained remarkably persistent and steadfast, and it is difficult to envision their total defeat. In his 1970s novel The Secret Life of Saeed, the Pessoptimist, on the difficult life of Palestinians in Israel, Palestinian novelist Emile Habiby wrote a scene that probably in some way describes the future of Palestine. His hero, the Pessoptimist, watches as an Israeli military governor drives a Palestinian woman and her child away from a field she is working. “The further the woman and child went from where we were . . . the taller they grew. By the time they merged with their own shadows in the sinking sun, they had become bigger than the plain of Acre itself. The governor still stood there awaiting their final disappearance. . . . Finally he asked in amazement, ‘Will they never disappear?'”
Jeff Halper observed in a recent personal account of his own journey away from Zionism that “the truth is that despite [Israel’s] desperate attempts to erase their presence and replace it with purely Jewish space, the Palestinians define our existence.” The refugees in particular, despite not even being present, pose the greatest challenge to Jewish comfort; they “do not give us rest, [they] prevent us from truly taking possession of the land.” The refugees and everything about the country that until 1948 was Palestine “are now a poltergeist under our feet, concealed under layers of ‘Judaization.'”
This uncomfortable and highly unequal coexistence, we can probably all be assured, will remain in place for the foreseeable future. But ultimately, some combination of these narratives — Palestinians as ever-present, Palestinians as the source of eternal Israeli discomfiture, finally Palestinians as returned, unearthed from layers of Judaization and living together with Jews as equal citizens — may describe a better future. Halper hopes for a day when Israelis will exorcise their demons by doing justice to the Palestinians, “which means turning the Land of Israel into Israel/Palestine (or Palestine/Israel).” Many others are talking increasingly of a vision of Palestine as a land in which Palestinians and Jews are equal. It won’t be an easy progress, but at the end of the next 20-year phase, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Palestinians will be living in freedom, justice, and prosperity. To be meaningful, all three of these requirements for a decent life must be there for both peoples in equal measure.
KATHLEEN CHRISTISON is a former CIA political analyst and has worked on Middle East issues for 30 years. She is the author of Perceptions of Palestine and The Wound of Dispossession. She can be reached at email@example.com.