By Jack A. Smith
The Bush administration's new Palestinian policy, delivered with great fanfare by President Bush June 24, essentially encapsulated the views of far-right Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel, nuanced with sufficient ambiguities -- Washington hopes -- to placate key allies and Middle East clients such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan.
The principal aspect of the new White House policy was Bush's demand for the ouster of Yasir Arafat, the elected president of the Palestinian Authority. Both Bush and Sharon have now refused to even initiate negotiations to resolve the escalating Israeli-Palestinian conflict until Arafat is removed from office.
The Bush administriton fortified its demand by threatening to eliminate financial aid to the Palestinians unless the long-time leader of the struggle for national independence and self-determination was dismissed. It did not, however, imply armed action in the event the Palestinians refuse the demand, as it has in "regime-change" proclamations against Yugoslavia, Iraq and Afghanistan. U.S. aid to the wretchedly poor, stateless Palestinians is indirect and minuscule, delivered through the UN and World Bank.
In addition, the U.S. will support Israel in retaining the status quo of colonial military occupation, poverty, and national humiliation unless the decimated Palestinian Authority sees to it that (1) a leader -- and thus a political program --acceptable to Israel and the U.S. is elected, (2) market-oriented economic reforms are implemented, (3) "corruption" is ended, and (4) "terrorism" -- which in Sharon's view includes the confrontational struggle for national liberation known the intifada, not just the recent spate of desperation-induced suicide bombings -- is terminated.
Israel, which has occupied the Palestinian territories since 1967 and routinely deploys its overwhelming military apparatus to suppress the legitimate aspirations of millions of people for independence and statehood, was asked to do precisely nothing by the Bush administration. Bush didn't even request that Sharon withdraw his marauding tanks from their latest West Bank incursion as he did in early April, when the Israelis simply thumbed their nose and went on to virtually destroy the infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority. The New York Times, a traditional supporter of Israel, was critical of the Bush proposal for telling Sharon "that he is free to reoccupy the entire West bank" until all the "reforms" are in place. The newspaper commented, "How the Palestinians can be expected to carry out elections or reform themselves while in a total lockdown by the Israeli military remains something of a mystery."
The ultra-right Likud Party, which controls the Israeli government -- and absolutely renounces the notion of a Palestinian state -- was astonished and overjoyed by the new U.S. policy of dismissing Arafat and placing the entire responsibility for peace upon the subject Palestinians. The only gift Bush neglected to present Sharon was the Israeli Prime Minister's suggestion that the U.S. appoint a new leadership for the Palestinians, over their objections, rather than allow them to decide who would replace Arafat.
Washington did, of course, put forward the prospect of possible Palestinian state as a reward for the capitulation demanded by the U.S. proposal. But a Palestinian state, in the final analysis, was left to negotiations with Likud after the Bush administration's four demands were met. President Bush's speech was remarkably empty of further details, lest a recalcitrant Israeli government be held to them. It is difficult to grasp how any part of this crazy-quilt scheme can work.
Most moderate Arab governments chose to emphasize the positive aspect of Bush's speech, the eventual prospect of a Palestinian state. They brushed aside the demand to reject Arafat, implicitly suggesting it was the product of a diplomacy so lacking in sophistication as to be undeserving of attention. While press reports depicted most Palestinians as angered by Bush's demand to dispatch Arafat, the long-experienced old warhorse himself focused on the positive, and responded to Washington's ouster order as an opportunity to educate Bush about democracy by emphasizing that the selection of a Palestinian leader "is what my people will decide. They are the only ones who can determine this." He then announced new elections in January. It is assumed that Arafat, 73, will be a candidate, in which case he'd probably win. The Palestinian Authority announced it was going to engage in a variety of reforms before Bush's speech.
Aside from support from Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair, who long ago pinned his own tail to the 800-lb. American donkey, however outrageous its braying, other leaders of the industrialized Western countries were either offering discreet qualms or a prudent silence for the time being.
At this stage, Sharon, a bully who thinks of himself as a brusque realist, is expecting the Palestinian people to (1) reject orders to remove Arafat, which would result in a continuation of the present military escalation, as far as he is concerned, (2) replace the aged veteran with a more hard-line, militant figure, which will be viewed as a justification for Israel's complete military suppression of the Palestinian movement and utter rejection of statehood, or (3) elect a moderate leader who could be manipulated into making compromises detrimental to self-determination and a truly independent state.
International pressure has been mounting in recent years for Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories and enter discussions about a Palestinian state -- considerations that are anathema to the present Israeli government. President Arafat has the strong backing of a plurality of Palestinians, and he is regarded by a number of influential European governments as a relatively reasonable and respected leader willing to participate in genuine negotiations. In response, Prime Minister Sharon has adopted the tactic of exploiting the suicide bombings to undercut Arafat, deflate foreign pressure, and indefinitely delay any moves toward giving up territory. Terrorism, as in "War on," is Sharon's main political asset, just as it is Bush's.
Arafat has repeatedly condemned the suicide attacks. His position is, "We oppose the killing of civilians for political purposes." But he obviously cannot control all the actions of certain rival organizations such as the fundamentalist Islamic Hamas, which deploys this tactic for two political reasons: demonstrating that the Israeli government, far from being all-powerful, cannot even protect its own people; and, in de facto concert with the despised Sharon, to subvert a "peace process" that conceivably could produce a moderate, secular Palestinian state that neither wants. Hamas prefers an Islamic state; Sharon, no state at all.
After each attack, Sharon justifies his opposition to peace talks by charging that Arafat is directly responsible for ordering the bombings, though he knows better. So, evidently, does Washington. A State Department report released May 16 disclosed that a U.S. investigation found "no conclusive evidence" Arafat or other top Palestinian leaders ordered any specific terrorist attack on Israel from June through the end of December last year, despite Israeli claims. Hamas itself has been quite forthright in criticizing Arafat precisely because he does not support its bombing campaign. Commenting on Bush's speech immediately after it was delivered, a Hamas leader was quoted in the press as stating that "I hope the Palestinian Authority will now understand that it should support resistance and not chase after the West."
Sharon blames Arafat for terrorism in order (1) to undermine the Palestinian Authority (PA) leader as a legitimate "partner for peace," especially in the eyes of foreign governments seeking a "land for peace" settlement, (2) to justify taking severe military action in the Palestinian territories, (3) to so destabilize the PA, Arafat and the entire Palestinian political spectrum that an "extremist" leader may be propelled to power, thus moving the question of occupation, the 1967 boundaries, statehood and genuine negotiations entirely off the agenda, and (4), to galvanize a majority of Israelis behind Likud's right-wing rejectionist line. Nothing would satisfy Sharon more than for Hamas to assume leadership of the Palestinian struggle. He believes this would completely destroy the struggle's legitimacy in terms of world opinion, terminally weaken the Israeli peace movement, and provide the context for initiating even more extreme acts of repression toward the Palestinians.
The mainstream Palestinian position, backed by most Arab regimes, is for Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories, remove from the settlements, restore the 1967 boundaries, entertain the demand for a "right-to-return" for Palestinians of the diaspora, and recognition of a Palestinian state. In return, hostilities would cease between the two peoples, and the Arab countries would recognize the State of Israel's right to exist in peace and friendship. Some Palestinian factions, such as Hamas, reject the notion of an Israeli state entirely. Much larger Israeli factions, including the ruling party, reject the notion of a Palestinian state. Likud also refuses (1) to accept a return to the 1967 armistice lines, (2) to entertain the removal of some 200,000 Israelis now living in hundreds of small settlements that actually control 42% of the territory of the Palestinian West Bank (including East Jerusalem), or (3) to consider dividing Jerusalem to enable it to become a Palestinian as well as Israeli capital. A large number of religious Zionists maintain that God demands these settlements remain in place. Some religious groups wish to see the Palestinians removed from "Biblical Israel" altogether, transported to Arab countries. Small numbers on both sides propose that the entire Israeli-Palestinian area be transformed into a bi-national secular state where Jew and Arab would live in harmony.
Washington is entirely on Israel's side because it views the country as a critically valuable, stable, and loyal supplement to U.S. power in the strategically important, oil-rich Middle East. Israel's army is second to none in the region. To maintain this relationship, some 30% of all American foreign aid goes to Israel. Since 1987, Congress has approved yearly aid distributions of about $3 billion to its closest ally, split between economic and military support. In addition, the U.S. offers Israel some $2 billion a year in federal loan guarantees. Another $1.5 billion leaves the U.S. annually as tax-deductible private donations.
But the U.S., which accounts for 25% of the world's petroleum consumption (with just over 4% of the population), cannot dominate the Middle East with Israel alone. It must have Arab allies and a modicum of geopolitical tranquillity to assure sufficient and dependable supplies of relatively low-priced petroleum for industry, transportation, heating, the military, and so on. The White House further depends on these allies (support from Israel, acquiescence from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait and others) to launch a new war against Iraq, which has become a Bush dynasty obsession as well as a requirement of empire to punish offending upstarts within the realm by starving or bombing them into obedience. The Palestinian question constitutes the main contradiction standing between these two sets of necessary allies. The Bush administration is attempting to maneuver this contradiction in its own favor by seeming to promote the Arab goal of Palestinian statehood while simultaneously contriving to effectuate Palestinian concessions amounting to virtual submission to Israel.
One factor helping determine the future is public opinion in Israel. Commentators in Israel's right-wing press generally were ecstatic about Bush's speech. There were many media reports describing the mood of the Israeli public as ranging from satisfied to overjoyed. In general, left and peace constituencies were appalled. Most of the press supported Washington's new approach, referring to it as a victory for the Jewish state, but there were a number of criticisms as well in the centrist and left press, often focusing on the vagueness of the plan, the impossibility of several of Bush's demands, the futility of dictating who may or may not represent the Palestinian people, and the fear that the result will be even greater violence.
There have been numerous indications in recent months that a consequential number of Israelis are ready to accommodate a Palestinian state in return for peace and reasonable security guarantees. As evidenced by recent mass peace demonstrations and opposition within the armed forces to serving in the occupied territories, peace and justice forces in Israel are not without influence. Likud's main rival, the Labor party, is hardly functioning as a serious opposition now, but this could change soon in degree if not in kind. Shimon Peres, the senior Labor leader who functions as foreign minister in Sharon's Likud-dominated coalition government, has hardly been outspoken of late, but he permitted a reporter to observe his malaise while watching Bush's speech on television. According to veteran journalist Shimon Shiffer of Yediot Aharonot, the country's largest mass-circulation newspaper:
"Peres' face became more and more weary and angry, the longer Bush went on with his speech. 'He is making a fatal mistake,' remarked Peres. 'Making the creation of a Palestinian state dependent upon a change in the Palestinian leadership is a fatal mistake,' he repeated again and again. 'Arafat has led the Palestinians for 35 years, kept their head above the water in the international arena. No, no, you can't just brush him aside with one speech.' Peres did not watch the speech to the very end. He got up, turned off the TV and left he room, saying before he left: 'The abyss into which the region will plunge will be as deep as the expectations from this speech were high. There will be a bloodbath.'"
In the U.S., both establishment political parties, backed by the media and public opinion, united behind Bush's new policy -- a traditional deference, enhanced by the perception that support for the Zionist state is now an aspect of that holy of holies, the war on terrorism. The far-right, particularly its fanatical fundamentalist Christian component, has long been an ardent supporter of Israel against the Palestinians, largely for reasons of biblical prophecy.
The usual splits within the Bush camp between the State Department (Colin Powell) on the one hand, and the Defense Department (Donald Rumsfeld) and White House (Dick Cheney) on the other, were resolved with Powell's surrender. Powell was depicted as being somewhat more balanced on the Israel-Palestine question, and open to continue dealing with President Arafat, as opposed to his arrogantly hawkish counterparts. In the end, Powell publicly announced he was "very pleased" with Bush's announcement that the U.S. was bending the knee to Sharon by dumping Arafat for "encouraging, not opposing, terrorism." The Bush administration evidently did not thoroughly think through the new strategy because its spokespeople were groping awkwardly for answers to reporters seeking such basic information as with whom Powell was now supposed to deal in the next round of negotiations.
It wasn't until the day following the president's speech, after incessant questioning from the press regarding the grounds for demanding Arafat's removal, that the White House discovered it had a rationale: Bush allegedly received "intelligence information" a few days earlier indicating that Arafat authorized paying $20,000 to the Al Aksa Martyrs Brigades, which has been implicated in suicide attacks. In all probability this the same information obtained and made known immediately by the Israeli army several weeks ago when Arafat's compound in Ramallah was first raided -- eliciting a response at that time by the Palestinian Authority charging the allegation was intentionally misleading.
The big question is how the Palestinian people will respond to Bush's policy. Issues of leadership, democracy, corruption, economic reforms and the nature of the liberation struggle do exist, of course, and the Palestinians are perfectly capable of dealing with all such complexities justly and creatively, given reasonably normal conditions. Bush, however, insists that these matters be resolved to the satisfaction of both the U.S. and Israel under conditions of colonial oppression, military domination, occupation, violence and acute poverty -- all as a prerequisite to possible negotiations with an extreme right-wing Likud government largely composed of adamant rejectionists who have learned nothing and forgotten nothing from history. To top it off, Bush's vagueness about details leaves an opening wide enough to situate an Israeli army tank filled with shifting requirements, expectations and time-frames about the demanded reforms, with space enough remaining for several helicopter gunships crammed to bursting with far more complicated circumnavagations about settlements, boundaries and statehood.
It is risky to predict how this will play out among the Palestinians and the nations of the world which show interest in an equitable peace leading to the establishment of a new state. Arafat, who actually is a moderate, lately has been signaling that he is willing to consider some important concessions, including former President Clinton's interpretation after the 2000 Camp David talks, drawing fire from left groups such as Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and fundamentalists like Hamas. But neither the U.S. nor Israel will deal with him any longer. At the same time, there is no evidence the Palestinian people are prepared to dispose of their long-time leader because Bush and Sharon have ordered them to do so.
There's a chance that the major accomplishment of the Bush administration's new policy will be in maintaining the deplorable status quo and giving Sharon the green light to do as he pleases, while Washington takes credit for "walking an extra mile" for peace and even trying to help the Palestinians attain their long-desired goals, all the while keeping Pentagon gunsights trained on Iraq, America's main fixation in the region.
The Palestinians, however, have proven themselves as durable and determined as they are tough and tested, and it is entirely possible that in this contest with the world's only superpower and the Middle East's dominant military force, they are capable not only of holding their own, but, in time, of obtaining their own.