The US, the Palestine question and the global conjuncture
The US, the Palestine question and the global conjuncture
(Excerpts from speech delivered at a conference Peace in Palestine, Putrajaya, Malaysia 28-30 March 2005
The Middle East is in flames, and this is principally for two reasons in my view, both relating to the United States.
One is achieving strategic military supremacy in the region in order to maintain untrammeled access by the US to the Middle East oil needed to maintain its high-consumption, petroleum-based civilization. To this end, Washington overthrew the nationalist government of Mossadegh in Iran in 1953, cultivated the Shah of Iran as the gendarme of the Persian Gulf, supported anti-democratic feudal regimes in the Arabian peninsula, introduced a massive permanent military presence in Saudi Arabia, which contains some of Islam s most sacred shrines and cities, launched the 1990 Gulf War, and invaded and occupied Iraq in 2003.
The other major reason for the instability of the region is Washington s unstinting support for Israel. That this policy, like the first, is utterly provocative to Arabs is not difficult to understand.
It is hard to argue against the fact that the state of Israel was born on the basis of the massive dispossession of the Palestinian people of their country and their lands. It is impossible to deny that Israel is a Euro-American settler-state, one whose establishment was essentially a displacement from European territory of the ethno-cultural contradictions of European society and whose population is continually augmented by large numbers of Westerners, among them true blue white American settlers born and raised in Brooklyn, New York City. The Holocaust was an unspeakable crime against humanity, but it was utterly wrong to impose its political consequences chief of which was the creation of the state of Israel on a people who had nothing to do with it.
It is hard to contradict Arab claims that it was essentially the political muscle of the United States that created and gained UN legitimacy for the state of Israel; that it has been massive US military aid that has been the lifeline of this state for the last half century; and that it is deep confidence in perpetual US military and political support that has enabled Israel to sabotage in practice the emergence of a Palestinian state.
Iraq and Palestine: the Strategic Connection
These two anchors of US policy in the Middle East strategic supremacy in the region and support for Israel have become even more intertwined under George W. Bush. The extremely influential neoconservative gang that planned the Iraq War had Israel s interests in mind. As Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense, put it before the invasion, the road to peace in the Middle East goes through Baghdad. The grand plan of the neoconservatives is the American-sponsored "democratization" not only of Iraq but of neighboring countries, but it is not principle that drives this but politics. As Elizabeth Drew writes, the neoconservatives aim to democratize the region was driven by their desire to surround Israel with more sympathetic neighbors. The targets for democratization were mainly enemies of Israel particularly Iraq, Syria, and Iran and certainly not Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the Persian Gulf feudal monarchies that were soft on Israel and allied to Washington. Not surprisingly, the neoconservative group at the Pentagon headed by Wolfowitz and senior Defense Department officer Douglas Feith has been described as an extension of the Likud leadership.
The Intifada and Negotiations
A successful invasion of Iraq was seen as securing Israel s flank. But the opposite has been the case, since the invasion has not only pinned down the US but also made Iraq a rear base for movements resisting Israeli occupation of Palestine. In the meantime, the second Intifada has forced Israel to unilaterally withdraw from the Gaza. Of course, this has been at great cost to the Palestinians, in the numbers of young fighters who have sacrificed their lives as well as the many innocent victims of Israeli reprisals. But as James Bennet, former Jerusalem bureau chief of the New York Times Magazine observes, There is a reason that violence is likely to remain at hand for the Palestinian national movement: Palestinians have good cause to believe that it is working. Although the outside world sees the Intifada as purely a disaster for the Palestinians, within Palestine, the violence seems to have succeeded, at a high cost. It has resulted in something, at least in prospect, that all the negotiating by men like Abbas never achieved: the actual evacuation of Israeli settlements. As the Hamas representative in Lebanon and Syria, Usamah Hamdan, put it, [A]ny withdrawal from our land, not matter how small it is, is a victory for the Palestinian people.
Some observers believe that having achieved part of their goal, the Palestinian people are now at a juncture where they may have a chance of achieving the rest of their realistic expectations through negotiations led by the new President Mahmoud Abbas that is, a truly independent Palestinian state coexisting alongside the state of Israel. They have already shown their commitment to and skills in democracy in their recent presidential and municipal elections, where candidates from Hamas trounced candidates from the politically dominant Fatah in many areas in the Gaza. These elections were, in fact, a model for many authoritarian Arab states allied to the United States. Now the question is, will the Palestinian people have a truly sovereign state in which to practice their democracy?
Israel: Intransigent as Ever
With Abbas having secured a rough agreement from the different Palestinian groups to reduce if not halt their military operations in Israel and give the negotiations a try, the ball is in Israel s court. Unfortunately, the Israeli government is not behaving in good faith. While Ariel Sharon has tried to score propaganda points with his much ballyhooed withdrawal of settlements from the Gaza, he is actually expanding settlements on the West Bank. Just last week, the government confirmed plans to expand the already large illegal settlement a few miles east of Jerusalem called Maale Adumim. The momentous implications of this move provoked even the New York Times, no lover of the Intifada, to condemn Sharon editorially:
Yes, indeed. How will negotiations succeed when the Israelis are effectively appropriating 21 per cent of the West Bank bordering Jordan, where Israel faces no security problems? When despite condemnation by the International Court of Justice, the 250 kilometer long Apartheid Wall is being built one kilometer a day, with its completion likely to happen any day now?
The United States could, of course, make a difference. Yet under George W. Bush, American condemnation of the Palestinian Intifada has been loud while any disapproval expressed of Israeli settlement activity has been faint, if any. The truth is, as John Newhouse aptly describes it, US policy is currently an extension of Ariel Sharon s policy-a case of the tail wagging the dog.
Even Hamas is waiting to see if the so-called New Era of negotiations brings anything positive. This deeply motivated yet pragmatic force has already participated in the municipal elections and has said it will participate in the coming parliamentary polls. President Habbas is said to be looking forward to it as the opposition in a future Palestinian state. Yet with Israeli intransigence and Washington s uncritically tying its flag to Sharon s calculations, I would not be surprised if Hamas were soon to cry Enough is Enough and say, as its representative in Lebanon Usamah Hamdan told us in September of last year, We will not accept these conditions. We will continue our resistance. We have sacrificed for the last 56 years. What difference will another 10 to 15 years make?
The current lull may well be a lull before a resurgence of the Intifada, as many Palestinians believe. Should the Intifada resume owing to Israeli intransigence, the biggest losers will ultimately be Israel and Washington since the effective leadership of the Palestinian struggle is likely to move from Fatah and the PLO to Hamas, which is much less flexible when it comes to the future of the Israeli state.
Global peace will be a pipe dream unless there is peace in the Middle East. That, however, is unlikely to happen unless the US abandons the two anchors of its Middle East policy: achievement of strategic domination of the region and unstinting support for Israel. The choice before Washington is stark. Either it abandons these policies willingly now, or is forced to abandon them owing to the massive resistance that continues to build in Palestine and throughout the Middle East.
Let me just end by saying that today there are signs that global civil society may be coming behind the Palestinian cause in a way that it has not done so before. In the last two years alone, we have had four milestone meetings placing the Palestinian struggle at the top of the global civil society agenda: the Jakarta Conference of May 2003, the historic Beirut meeting in September 2003, which brought together about 300 global peace activists and representatives of civil society in the Middle East, the Global Peace Assembly at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre in January of this year, and the Cairo Conference that occurred just a couple of days ago.
Particularly significant is the fact that the Anti-War Assembly at the World Social Forum has come behind a boycott, sanctions, and divestment campaign to force Israel to end its occupation of Palestine. Allow me to end by reading an excerpt from the Call to Action approved unanimously in Porto Alegre: