News & Politics

Pressuring Israel May Prevent a 'Generational' Mideast War

Israel may well find itself at war with Syria and Hezbollah in the coming months, and the American foreign policy establishment needs to let go of its long-standing biases to prevent these conflicts.
The Middle East stands at the edge of an abyss, and the most powerful country in the world has become institutionally incapable of pulling it back.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports that there "will be a war next summer. Only the sector has not been chosen yet." According to Israeli defense officials, "the IDF's operative assumption is that during the coming summer months, a war will break out against Hezbollah and perhaps against Syria as well."

America's best hope of containing the escalating tensions in the region would be to address the festering wound that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has represented for decades. Common sense dictates that the time has come for the United States to apply pressure on Israel to restart negotiations with the Palestinians equal to that already put on the Palestinians to recognize Israel and contain their violent factions.

That would mark a dramatic shift in policy, and would potentially transform Bush's smoldering wreckage of a Middle East agenda. It could also represent a turnaround in the larger struggle against Islamic extremism, pulling the world back from the brink of the real "Clash of Civilizations" that ideologues from both East and West apparently covet.

It would go a long way towards mending fences with our European allies -- Tony Blair said recently that "resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is at the core of bringing peace to the Middle East" -- and it would give the United States a golden bargaining chip to entice Iraq's neighbors to help clean up the mess we've made there. The Iraq Study Group -- the bipartisan, blue-ribbon bunch of Wise Old Men and Women -- concluded that we have little hope of stabilizing Iraq "unless the United States deals directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict" and urged "renewed and sustained commitment by the United States on all fronts," including an aggressive push for "a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine."

Yet, it won't happen. Israeli PM Ehud Olmert, who explicitly linked Israel's conflict with Lebanon during the summer to George Bush's "War on Terror," quickly shot down the ISG's recommendations, rejecting "the attempt to create a linkage between the Iraqi issue and the Mideast issue."

And so it will be. Despite the fact that we've been very, very good to Israel for a very long time, it has become politically impossible to demand that our closest ally drop the almost impossible preconditions they've put on the Palestinians for rejoining the peace process. That's because key constituencies in both major parties -- traditional Jewish "Israel voters" for the Dems and evangelical "Christian Zionists" for the Republicans -- have pushed the debate in DC to such a degree that a balanced approach to the region is now impossible for the United States.

This spring, political scientists Stephen Walt of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago created a firestorm with their study of the impact of the "Israel lobby" on U.S. foreign policy. Critics lambasted the two respected scholars, accusing them, as has become the norm, of perpetrating conspiracy theories and being closeted anti-Semites. But their point was simple. The Israel lobby, which they defined as a loosely allied group of advocacy organizations, have effectively created a rigid political orthodoxy in Washington, the result of which is that our government is now effectively incapable of pursuing U.S. interests in the Middle East if they conflict in any way with the policies of Israel's center-right governing coalition.

It would be hard to find a clearer validation of their argument than the knee-jerk rejection of the Iraq Study Group's recommendation that the United States adopt a regional strategy towards stabilizing Iraq.

The Bush administration has gone further in giving Israel carte blanche in its handling of the situation in the Occupied Territories than his predecessors (including Reagan) ever did, authoring a dramatic shift in U.S. policy towards the region. The administration offered its "Roadmap" with much fanfare in 2002. But while the Bushies have condemned the Palestinians for straying from that plan, they've been silent as the Israelis have repeatedly and quite openly violated its tenets.

In April 2004, George W. Bush made a statement that sent shockwaves through the diplomatic community:
In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion.
This was the moment when the United States gave up the pretense of being an honest broker in the conflict -- that pretense long being a hallmark of U.S. policy.

In 1978, Israeli Prime Minister Menachim Begin signed the Camp David Accords, in which he promised that Israel would halt the construction of settlements -- illegal according to U.N. Security Council resolutions 446, 452, 465 and 471. At the time, the Israeli settler population in East Jerusalem and the West Bank was less than 100,000 (in 1972, it was about 10,000). But as of 2000, there were 400,000 Israeli settlers living in territories captured in 1967, according to Israeli government statistics. Since the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993, the Israeli settler population in the West Bank (excluding Jerusalem) has doubled.

Three years ago, Israel promised the United States, in writing, that it would halt the construction of new settlements. But in October of this year, Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz released a report that Haaretz called "political dynamite." The government study found that "a secret two-year investigation by the defense establishment shows that there has been rampant illegal construction in dozens of settlements and in many cases involving privately owned Palestinian properties." The New York Times (in its "travel section" of all places), reported that while "Israel has long asserted that it fully respects Palestinian private property in the West Bank and only takes land there legally" Israeli occupation watchers have found that "39 percent of the land held by Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank is privately owned by Palestinians."

While the administration has given an unprecedented green light to the Israelis, it has brought intense pressure on the Palestinians. After much-touted Palestinian elections resulted in Hamas coming to power, the administration advocated a complete cessation of aid to the Palestinian authority and approved of Israel withholding Palestinian taxes that it collects. That led to an underreported but very severe humanitarian crisis in the occupied territories.

The rationale was that elements within Hamas refused to recognize Israel and call a halt to the Intifada, which is certainly justifiable on its face. But at the same time, both Ariel Sharon and his successor Ehud Olmert flagrantly violated the provision of the Road Map that requires that any and all moves in the occupied territories be negotiated with the Palestinians. The Bush administration had no problem with Olmert campaigning on a promise to unilaterally move about 20 percent of the Israeli settlers in the West Bank from recent settlements to older ones, while annexing about 10 percent of the Palestinian territory (a plan since abandoned, at least for the moment)

Simply put, if we extend the question of recognizing the other side's "right to exist" to the "right to self-governance within the boundaries long established by international law," then it becomes clear that Palestinians must acknowledge Israel's right to exist while powerful factions within the Israeli government refuse to acknowledge the same rights for the Palestinians, and can do so with impunity, according to the Bush White house.

And Israeli unilateralism is directly contrary to U.S. interests. As the New York Times' Steven Erlanger wrote ($$), "Israeli unilateralism can be bad for America as well as for Palestinian leaders who favor talking rather than shooting."
When the United States is seen to be an active participant, pushing its ally Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians, Israeli leaders can deflect domestic criticism by blaming Washington, the United States can earn credit with the Arab world for pushing Israel, and the Palestinians will be seen as an active player at the table, boosting negotiators like Mr. Abbas over the rejectionists of Hamas.
Since the Israelis pulled out of the peace process five years ago, there has been absolutely no incentive for them to return (while the Palestinians have been literally starved for voting Hamas to power).

Washington's lock-step embrace of Israeli policies goes beyond its dispute with Palestine; while Israel's massive destruction of Lebanon was viewed as a textbook example of a disproportionate response almost universally -- outside of DC and Tel Aviv -- there's evidence that the United States encouraged the attack. The United States also vetoed two Security Council resolutions condemning Israel for excessive violence in Gaza, which led Arab countries allied to the United States to break the economic embargo on the Palestinians.

We've dug a deep hole in the Middle East, and we just can't stop digging.

This isn't about Iraq -- nothing can salvage the U.S. project there at this point. And it's not even about defeating extremism in the short-term -- nobody seriously believes that militants will give up their violence overnight. But the American strategic class is talking about a "generational war" like the Cold War, and if that's the case, then we have got to take the Arab world's legitimate grievances seriously. Pressuring Israel to pursue a final settlement with the Palestinians would boost our frayed credibility (not only in the Middle East), deepen the rift in radical Islam between those who believe the West is their ultimate enemy -- call them the bin Ladenists -- and those who target their own, often corrupt, governments and, over the long-term, it would separate the Arab extreme from the Arab Main street. That's how you win a "war" on terror.
Joshua Holland is an AlterNet staff writer.
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