The United States of America is organizing another international conference in the Middle East. This one, sadly, emerges as a result of the destruction of Palestinian society by Israel. By doing so, the US is setting itself up for a political and security failure, yet again. The first US failure was called Oslo, where the Palestinian leadership was lured into a US-sponsored ‘peace process’ that has led to the intentional obliteration of Palestinian cities and dismantling of Palestinian leadership and the Palestinian Authority.
The Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been central to the Middle East ever since Israel was created 54 years ago. Furthermore, ever since Israel occupied the remaining 22% of Palestine – the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem – on June 4, 1967 tensions in the region have been steadily increasing. Today’s Middle East crisis reflects another round of US foreign policy failure and the continuation of Israeli disregard for international law and universal standards of nation-state behavior. There is, however, an important difference this time around: the world, including the Arab world, has finally been able to glimpse at the nature of the Israeli occupation. This one difference has the power to create a momentum that may change the political landscape of the Middle East forever, and with it US interests in Middle East.
As Israel defied President Bush’s repeated call for an immediate withdraw from Palestinian cities and refugee camps, some US leaders such as Joseph R. Biden Jr., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, have called upon the US to provide the region with the “strong leadership that only America can provide.” This is a senior US foreign affairs official who was unable to predict and is now unable to admit that the last 35 years of US support – financially, politically and morally – for Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people would lead to a human catastrophe. Equally astonishing is the refusal of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to ask why Palestinians should accept American leadership now, after it failed throughout the entire course of the Oslo peace process to address the political rights of the Palestinian people.
The Bush administration’s decision to ignore Israel’s 18-month military aggression on Palestinian cities displays that American leadership is already in full support of Israel’s actions. Bush’s earlier landmark policy change in support of a Palestinian state, now seems only to have provided a thin veneer of political cover under which Israeli tanks rolled into nearly every Palestinian city. All this comes with the backdrop of President Bush, after being rebuffed by Israeli refusal to stop its war on Palestinians, calling prime minister Ariel Sharon a ‘man of peace’.
Conversely, the Palestinian leadership is in over its head. President Arafat does not have a public or organizational mandate to negotiate anything other than the principles in the PLO Covenant. Some would even argue that with the total collapse of the Oslo Peace Accords, the reference points of the Madrid Conference, namely Palestinian acceptance of UN resolutions 242 and 338 and the PLO recognition of the State of Israel, are now also in need of reassessment. The US will continue to abuse this Palestinian political vacuum in order to promote its agenda of having Arab States (fearful for their own survival) pressure President Arafat into accepting less than what Palestinians rightfully and legally deserve. However, the US is mistaken to believe that in this period the Palestinian Authority President and his handful of personal aides or a few randomly appointed Palestinian civilians authoritatively speak for the Palestinian people.
The Palestinian Authority that was established to operate in the West Bank and Gaza Strip by the Oslo agreement was created by US-blessing and has now been dismantled by US-blessing. That leaves us where we were pre- Oslo with regard to Palestinian politics, with the PLO being the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. This being the case, it is crucial that the PLO convene an emergency Palestine National Council meeting outside of Palestine in order to assume the reins of leading the Palestinian struggle. For Palestinians there is too much at stake to wait for President Arafat to be released from captivity by Israel and the US before taking action. Also, it is unfair to all those Palestinians that have sacrificed so much in this struggle to allow the Palestinian Authority to negotiate under these conditions.
With or without the US-sponsored conference being proposed by Secretary of State Powell, the US can end the Israeli occupation and reinstate Palestinians their national, political and civil rights as defined in over 60 UN resolutions. This, and only this, will reinstate US credibility in the region. If the conference maintains the Israeli occupation, in any way, shape or form, it will commit the region to more bloodshed and put regional US strategic interests at serious risk. Given that all participants, except Israel, would be coming to this conference with a US political and economic knife at their throats, it is unlikely that the US and Israel will walk away with anything more than a media success, and at best, another empty ‘peace process’ that delays solving the conflict for a few more years.
The US is clearly defining its Middle East foreign policy by playing Russian Roulette with the Palestinian cause. By spearheading a political initiative based upon Palestinian physical and political ruins, the international/regional conference initiative has two conceivable outcomes. Either the Palestinian struggle will end with the fate that befell Native Americans, or the Palestinians, these suffering 6 million people, will be the Achilles heel of a much larger movement that will tear the US hegemony in the Middle East at its seams. If I were a betting man, I would take the latter, for Martin Luther King was right on the money when he said, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension, it is the presence of justice.” Without the enfranchisement of the Palestinian people, the Middle East will know neither.
Sam Bahour is a Palestinian-American living in the besieged Palestinian City of Al-Bireh/Ramallah in the West Bank and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org