Creating people's geographies
By Patrick Seale :: Miftah :: October 07, 2006
Arab leaders are reported to be seeking a summit meeting with US President George W. Bush to persuade him to change course before the whole region goes up in flames.
This is the clearest indication that American blundering in the Middle East has reached such catastrophic levels that even the most moderate and pro-American regimes are being moved to abandon their usual caution and speak out in alarm.
Will Bush agree to take advice and criticism from a conclave of Arab leaders? He may be excused for thinking that this is not the right time. Under intense domestic pressure over the war in Iraq and with his attention focused on November’s mid-term elections, the last thing he would welcome is a public airing of his Middle East policies.
Bush may duck out of a meeting with the Arabs but he cannot ignore the signs of a gathering rebellion against almost every one of his policies. One such sign is the stiff resistance US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has run into on her visit to the region this week. Her reception was courteous enough – the Saudis, Egyptians and rulers of the Gulf states are invariably hospitable and polite – but behind the diplomatic niceties was a rejection of almost everything she said or had come to achieve.
For Arabs, particularly wrong-headed is her attempt to downgrade the importance of the Arab-Israeli conflict in favour of a campaign to mobilise the region’s so-called “moderates” against “extremists” and especially against Iran. This is seen as a crude attempt to divide and rule.
The one thing the Arabs want most urgently from Washington is to curb Israel’s aggression, halt its expansion, persuade it to withdraw from land seized in 1967, and force it to negotiate a just and honourable peace with its neighbours, which would allow the emergence of an independent Palestinian state. In this, “moderates” are united with “extremists”.
But it would seem that to hope for any such initiative from Bush is to whistle in the wind. He does not appear to have the personal authority or the grasp of the problem to act decisively. His administration is paralysed by profound internal differences. Fervently pro-Israeli officials, such as Eliott Abrams at the National Security Council, can be counted on to sabotage anything the state department might propose. After the debacle of the Lebanon war, Ehud Olmert’s government in Israel which is fighting for its political life, is incapable of any serious movement towards peace.
Meanwhile, Israel’s nationalist-religious colonists, emboldened by the crisis, are busily expanding their scores of illegal outposts on Palestinian land, with the tacit support of the army and the government. Needless to say, the United States is doing nothing to halt this pernicious activity which, more than any other, is destroying any prospect of peace.
Rice knows it, but all that she found the will to propose was to ease, ever so slightly, the suffocation of Gaza by stationing international observers at the Karni crossing which Israel keeps closed most of the time. In the face of the current political and humanitarian disaster, such palliatives are inadequate.
In the meantime, America’s goals in the Middle East are either unattainable or are profoundly disruptive. What are these goals? They are to force Iran to abandon its nuclear activities under the threat of sanctions or military attack; to overthrow the democratically-elected Hamas-led Palestinian government by lending support to the more pliant Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian National Authority; to isolate Syria, depicted as an inveterate trouble-maker and neutralise Hezbollah.
As is now evident to even the most casual observer, the pursuit of these goals has produced the very contrary of what the US hoped for. Rejecting American bullying, Iran is more determined than ever to pursue its nuclear programme for what it claims are purely peaceful purposes.
In Gaza, America’s support for Israel in its attempt to destroy Hamas – by besieging, starving and bombing the civilian population against all the norms of humanitarian law – has brought this grossly over-crowded and suffering territory, where nearly 90 per cent of the population are below the poverty line, to the very edge of total breakdown.
When will Israel and America learn that the more the Palestinians are cruelly oppressed and the longer their legitimate national rights are denied, the more radical they will become, with all that this means for the future security of Israel and its American patron?
As for Syria and Hezbollah, they can be neither isolated nor neutralised. They are essential actors on the Middle East scene.
Resolving conflicts, and in particular the Arab-Israeli conflict, should be America’s top priority, as numerous present and former world leaders never cease to urge.
Little can be done until the United States regains its independence of decision-making from Israel and its powerful American friends.
A second condition would be for the US to insist on reciprocity from Israel in its dealings with the Palestinians. It is all very well to insist that Hamas recognise Israel, renounce violence and respect all previous agreements, while Israel refuses to recognise Palestinian political rights, kills them on a daily basis and violates every agreement ever signed.
A third necessary development would be for Bush to outline in reasonable detail his parameters for a global Middle East settlement – as Bill Clinton attempted to do, unfortunately too late in his presidency – backed by some real political will and financial muscle.
The real questions are these: Can America change course? Can the structure of political power in Washington allow it? Or must the headlong rush to the abyss continue unchecked?