United States And World Fan Middle East Flames By Protecting Self Interest

12 April 2002

By Stentor Danielson

President George W. Bush has finally admitted that all things Clintonian are not necessarily bad. The bloodiest week in years in the Middle East has forced him to swallow his isolationist campaign words and dispatch Secretary of State Colin Powell to broker an end to the violence. The motives are quite different -- Clinton wanted a Nobel prize, while Bush is aiming for a green light from Arab nations to finish his father’s business in Iraq -- but their plan is the same.

Powell’s mission improves on Clinton’s plans in its explicit focus on Arab leaders, enlisting their aid to push Palestine toward a peace agreement. This effort builds upon the recent Arab League resolution to offer Israel normal relations in return for a withdrawal from occupied territories in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where all parties except Israel’s right wing now agree that a Palestinian state must be founded.

However, a crucial problem in U.S. Mideast diplomacy remains unresolved even with Powell’s expansion of effort to include Arab governments. The ongoing non-diplomatic involvement of foreign governments has added fuel to the very fire that Powell and Arab leaders are talking about putting out.

The conflict is seen too often as simply a conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians. Some will lay the blame at the feet of Palestinian suicide bombers who want to eliminate the state of Israel. Others focus on the oppressive Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and Jewish settlement programs, which create the feeling of powerlessness that drives Palestinians to desperate measures. Both of these are real grievances that need to be addressed. But they are not the whole story, and do not explain the global significance of a war that, in terms of deaths and destruction, is comparable to much lower-profile conflicts like the struggles over Kashmir, Chechnya and Sri Lanka.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become a symbolic battle for foreign powers. Heavily pro-Israeli commentary is forthright about the fact that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, while Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is a dictator like his Arab supporters, with a comparison to U.S. retaliation against the Taliban thrown in for good measure. Palestinian apologists, on the other hand, put the Israeli occupation in the language of war crimes and human rights abuses, casting the struggle as a battle for self-determination. The situation is viewed as a religious struggle by many, both Muslim and Jew.

Beyond the symbolic significance, though, the conflict serves a strategic purpose for many of the regimes that are now talking about peace. The support of Arab and Muslim nations, particularly those with a more religious leadership, for the Palestinian cause is no secret. But their support is not due simply to their view of the atrocities committed by the Israelis. As is often pointed out, abuses just as bad or worse go on under their own noses, and often with their express orders. Compared to some Arab and Muslim leaders, Israel has shown remarkable restraint.

The focus of the Arab and Muslim world on the plight of the Palestinians is in many ways a result of this homegrown oppression. Israel is a distraction, a distraction that is easy to hate because it practices a different religion and was brought back to the region by the colonial powers that created the nation of Israel out of the British Mandate of Palestine.

By fomenting anger over the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and directing funds to support groups who carry on the fight, Arab leaders keep their people from focusing on the problems of their own autocratic regimes. The image of a dangerous adversary is a powerful tool in silencing complaints and promoting unity behind whatever leadership is in place.

These regimes are propped up by the United States. Our government finds them useful, as they give us what we want, without thinking of the consequences of supporting dictators. The royal family of Saudi Arabia gets a free pass as long as the oil keeps flowing. The U.S. turns a blind eye to Uzbek president Islam Karimov’s health-threatening agricultural policy and destruction of unapproved opposition parties as long as he lets us use his air bases. Remember, Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein both got their starts on the U.S. payroll, fighting the Soviet Union and Iran respectively.

The U.S. government has had a chronic fear of Islamic democracy. Islamist politics are seen as far more of a threat than autocratic but stable rulers, so the U.S. supports these regimes with foreign aid as they put down democratic movements. And in the short term, these fears are justified. Just look at Yugoslavia, where the ouster of the dictatorial Slobodan Milosevic led to the election of ultranationalist leader Vojislav Kostunica.

But in the long run, democracy will undermine the power base of movements whose radicalism is driven by opposition to oppression. While Ralph Nader’s criticism of the "Republicrats" was a stretch, he was right in pointing out that democracy leads to moderation in political agendas. We can laugh at Americans like Jerry Falwell because we know our government is not the threat to good people that he says it is.

A democratic state would have less need to distract its people by focusing their anger -- and finances -- on the Palestinian cause. There would be no oppression, no crackdowns on democracy and freedom of the press, to distract the people from.

The United States has blood on both its hands. While our government supports regimes that encourage Palestinians to choose terrorism over a peace movement, it throws its direct support behind Israel.

Israeli military action moves the conflict farther from a resolution even as the rhetoric of self-defense is invoked. Israel does have a right to defend itself. But military reoccupation of the West Bank, while satisfying in an eye-for-an-eye way, do not contribute to the safety of Israel, and in the long run may undermine it.

Palestinian militants and their sympathizers use Israeli oppression and occupation as justification for their desperate counterattacks. Through most of the past decade, this oppression and occupation has been low-profile enough that Israeli officials could plausibly deny it on the world stage (though pro-Palestinian agitators made sure their constituents never forgot about it). Now, Israeli military action is making this conduct toward the Palestinians, for which it has long been criticized, all the more real.

Being rounded up by Israeli troops is more humiliating than being harassed at border checkpoints. Having your house demolished by a tank causes more despair than having it moved aside to make room for a Jewish settlement. Ultimately, the Israeli military is only justifying suicide attacks. And it’s doing that with American weapons.

The United States’ massive foreign aid check to Israel ensures a partnership between the countries that bolsters U.S. strategic interests. Despite the degree of U.S. support for Arab regimes, relations are still often not much more than cordial (in part as a result of the U.S. stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which support for these regimes fuels). The United States depends on Israel as a foothold in the region. The fact that Israel is a democracy being threatened by authoritarian regimes makes it all the harder to use foreign aid payments to prod Ariel Sharon into concrete steps toward peace, without being accused of abandoning a sister state. This unconditional aid carries with it the price of lives -- Israeli as well as Palestinian -- lost in the conflict.

None of this is meant to exonerate Israeli or Palestinian warmongers. Hamas, Likud, Fatah, Labor, Islamic Jihad and others are not simply pawns in a great game, but active players. No suicide bomber or tank driver can blame any foreign supporter for his or her crimes. However, before we can resolve the grievances that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is based on, the situation must be disentangled from the political significance it holds for foreign nations.

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