A Reason for Hope in the Middle East

News & Politics

A war on terrorism, it seems, can be difficult to wage. Particularly if it is conceived in overly stark black-and-white terms, and especially if it is pushed beyond its original target.

Since September 11, George W. Bush has been pressing the so-called Bush Doctrine, claiming that anyone who supports, feeds, or harbors terrorists is the moral equivalent of a terrorist and a potential target of U.S. might. While doing so, he has asserted there are only two sides -- ours and theirs -- and that every nation of the world must decide whether it stands with the United States or against it.

Additionally, Bush has rhetorically widened the war, hurling threatening words at Iran, North Korea, and, most of all, Iraq -- countries so far unconnected to the awful attacks of September 11. In recent weeks, Bush has directed his verbal wrath more against Saddam Hussein than what's-his-name, that al Qaeda guy. (Or as the White House might say, Osama? Osama Who?) Whether or not the administration was truly planning a near-term action against Iraq, Bush was certainly talking war.

Then came the latest troubles in the Middle East -- and the policy contradictions and liabilities of Bush's war on terrorism were shoved right into the President's face. I confess to experiencing schaudenfreude while watching Bush spinman Ari Fleischer uncomfortably respond to reporters asking why Bush could do what he wants in his war on terrorism, but Ariel Sharon could not in his war on terrorism. Or why the Bush Administration (on some days, but not others) would call on Israel to refrain from smashing Yasir Arafat, whom the Bush Administration claimed was not doing all he could to stop terrorist attacks upon Israel. After all, under the one-size-fits-all Bush Doctrine, Arafat was as bad as bin Laden -- a point pro-Israel neocon hawks have been enthusiastically and exploitatively peddling of late.

This is not to say that Bush was wrong to urge Israeli restraint (on those days when he was not winking at Sharon), only that it was entertaining to watch the Bushies be compelled to realize that life isn't as simple as evildoers-versus-good-doers.

Bush was not able to apply his grand war-on-terrorism template to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To do so, on his terms, would entail branding Arafat a terrorist and blessing a Sharon rampage, and that could lead to an all-out war that spreads beyond the West Bank and eclipses Bush's own war on terrorism. (Certainly, Israeli attacks on Palestinians can be characterized as state terrorism. But don't expect Bush and his gang to rethink their position on terrorism that far.)

When Bush finally announced he was dispatching Secretary of State Colin Powell to the Middle East to seek a cease-fire, he said Israel should end its incursions into the West Bank and he seemed to indicate his support for reviving political negotiations immediately, perhaps even before a cease-fire is brokered and proven. With this statement -- which also blasted Arafat -- he was breaking with the Sharon government (and its hardline backers in the United States), which insists that talking about Palestinian gripes before the suicide bombings end is rewarding terrorism. Bush was implicitly acknowledging that in some instances a counter-terrorism strategy must include addressing the grievances that give rise to desperate, hateful, and immoral measures.

A conceptual breakthrough? Let's not be that optimistic. But occasionally the realities of a situation cannot be ignored -- even by a president and his advisers.

There might be more good news. The events in the Middle East may well have put the kibosh on Bush's plans to extend the war on terrorism to Iraq. When the Arab League met in Beirut recently, its members declared that any attack on Iraq would be considered an attack on all of them. With these words, they raised the bar for any U.S. military move against Saddam Hussein and formed something of an Arab NATO. Bush can no longer easily shift his war on terrorism to a war on Saddam.

For the past few months, on radio shows and television programs, I have been arguing with conservatives about the wisdom of a U.S. war against Iraq -- let alone the justification. Whenever I mentioned that most Arab nations appeared unwilling to support an attack (thus, the United States could end up enraging more Arabs, causing further diplomatic and geostrategic problems in the region, and undermining its ability both to pursue the 9/11 perps and to play a positive role in the Israeli-Palestinian mess), I was told various Arab leaders could not publicly endorse an attack on Saddam, but that privately most were saying, "sure, go ahead, we'd be happy to see him gone." That may have been true, but the statements issued by the Arab League in Beirut (including the Saudi peace initiative calling for normalized relations with Israel in exchange for a return to the pre-1967 borders) cannot be put back into the toothpaste tube. The message to the United States on Iraq was clear: Stand down.

Given the assorted pressures on the Bush administration from the pro-Israeli hawks (a bipartisan group of pundits, lobbyists and members of Congress), the evangelical Christians (who are more Catholic than the Pope in supporting the hardliners of Israel), and military contractors (who pocket several billion dollars a year on arms sales to Israel), it's almost encouraging to observe the Bush gang, in starts and fits, respond to the on-the-ground truths of the conflict.

Powell almost sounds like an Israeli peacenik. Here's what Uri Avnery, the leader of Gush Shalom, the Israeli peace movement, recently wrote:

When a whole people is seething with rage, it becomes a dangerous enemy, because the rage does not obey orders ... When tanks run amok in the center of a town, crushing cars and destroying walls, tearing up roads, shooting indiscriminately in all directions, causing panic to a whole population -- it induces helpless rage.

When soldiers crush through a wall into the living room of a family, causing shock to children and adults, ransacking their belongings, destroying the fruits of a life of hard work, and then break the wall to the next apartment to wreak havoc there -- it induces helpless rage.

When soldiers shoot at everything that moves -- out of panic, out of lawlessness, or because Sharon told them "to cause losses" -- it induces helpless rage ... When these and thousand other acts like them humiliate a whole people, searing their souls -- it induces helpless rage.

And then ... the suicide bombers go forward to avenge, with a whole people blessing them ... A person who lacks empathy for the suffering of the occupied people, who does not understand its condition, would be well advised to shut up. Because every such humiliation kills dozens of Israelis.
In less dramatic fashion, Powell voiced similar sentiments:
The Palestinian people need security. They need to be free from humiliation at checkpoints. They need to be free to go to their jobs. They need to be free to educate their children. They need to be free to build their economy. They need to be free to pursue their own destiny ... I am as committed to that as I am to the security of Israel.
Now that should worry the Sharonistas. The day before Bush decided to send Powell -- who says he cares as much about Palestinian rights as Israeli security -- to the land of turmoil, a bunch of neocons and cons led by the usual suspects (William Kristol, William Bennett, Norman Podhoretz) released a letter asking Bush to give Sharon a free hand. The group urged Bush to lend his "full support to Israel as it seeks to root out the terrorist network" and to stop pressuring "Israel to continue negotiating with Arafat, any more than we would be willing to be pressured to negotiate with Osama bin Laden or Mullah Omar." By the way, this band called on the President "to accelerate plans for removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq," asserting this would enhance the prospects for peace in the Middle East. But none of this seems to be part of Powell's mission.

On the day of the September 11 attacks, former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a longtime hawk now more hawkish than Sharon, was asked by a New York Times reporter what the assaults meant for U.S.-Israeli relations. "It's very good," he answered. Then, probably realizing he had revealed too much, he added, "Well not very good, but it will generate immediate sympathy." Presumably Netanyahu meant sympathy for Israel and the crush-the-Palestinians crowd. The pro-Israeli hawks -- who happen to also be the get-Saddam hawks -- have tried to take advantage of 9/11 to win support for an all-out Israeli military solution to the problem (as if one exists). But they have lost the latest round.

That's reason for a smidgeon of hope, even as the reports from the region are depressing and the animus on both sides appears too deep to be overcome.

Another reason for hope is that it can be difficult -- though hardly impossible -- to deny fundamentals. According to a March 20 report in Yedioth Ahronoth, an Israeli newspaper, secret Israel Defense Force intelligence reports concluded that IDF's actions in the occupied territories in the previous six weeks had made matters worse. The reports noted that the IDF operations prevented the Palestinian Authority from taking action against terrorists and that the IDF bombings and targeted assassinations had motivated some of the subsequent suicide attacks against Israel. The reports said that the Israeli actions, which were designed to prompt the Palestinian Authority to move against terror, actually drove senior Palestinian officials to cooperate with terrorist groups.

These reports obviously did not have much of an impact on Sharon. But if Israeli military intelligence can see that the situation on the street does not lend itself to simplistic, dead-or-alive, blast-'em strategies, maybe the nation's leaders will reach a similar conclusion before it's too late. And perhaps events in the Middle East might cause Bush and his teammates to understand that index-card foreign policy formulations -- regarding hostilities in the Middle East or the war on terrorism -- do not always hold true outside of focus groups.

Granted, all this might be expecting too much. But it's better than just waiting for Armageddon.

David Corn is the Washington editor of The Nation.

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