U.S. Wrong to Back Sharon

Zbigniew Brzezinski was the U.S. national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, and was involved in brokering the Camp David Agreement between Israel and Egypt. He spoke to NPQ editor Nathan Gardels about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

Gardels: How dangerous is this situation now between Israel and the Palestinians? Has it spun beyond control?

Zbigniew Brzezinski: The situation is quite dangerous. First of all, Yasser Arafat could well be killed in any effort to remove him from the office where he is trapped. If he is killed, Mr. Sharon can then claim it was an accident.

Second, the whole thing is degenerating into more widespread violence between the Palestinians and the Israelis, and that's deplorable.

Third, Israel's international position is very badly damaged. A country that started off as a symbol of recovery of a people who were greatly persecuted now looks like a country that is persecuting people. Meanwhile, the United States and Israel are becoming isolated internationally. This could hurt America's ability to conduct its war on terrorism.

In the longer term, what worries me is that the Palestinians are being turned, largely thanks to the efforts of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, into something like the Algerians: people absolutely determined to wage urban guerrilla warfare brutally, ruthlessly, at any cost and at enormous self-sacrifice.

At the same time, the Israelis are becoming like the white supremacist South Africans, viewing the Palestinians as a lower form of life, not hesitating to kill a great many of them and justifying this on the grounds of self-defense.

The reactions on both sides are all out of proportion. It is a very sad spectacle. Ultimately a spectacle of failure of American strategy.

Gardels: Can Sharon succeed in the occupied territories, or will he fail, just as he did in Lebanon in 1982?

Brzezinski: This incursion by the Sharon government reminds me very much of Mr. Sharon's operation in Lebanon in 1982, in which he misled his prime minister by defining the objective as different from his real intention and actual conduct.

When we evaluate success or failure in such an operation, we have to look at the totality of it. There's loss of human life.

But you cannot define the loss of human life only in terms of the number of Israelis killed by brutal, savage, inexcusable Palestinian terror. The fact of the matter is that three times as many Palestinians have been killed -- and only a relatively small number of them were really militants. Most were civilians. Hundreds have been children. To ignore this is to feed the root of the problem -- each side feels that only its victims are victims.

Any solution must ultimately be political -- which means the problem cannot be solved unilaterally by one side alone.

Gardels: But hasn't Arafat undermined the chances of a political solution by not cracking down on terrorists?

Brzezinski: Yes, there has been Palestinian terrorism , but the fact of the matter is that we have also had deliberate, overreactions by Mr. Sharon designed not to repress terrorism, but to destabilize the Palestinian Authority and to uproot the Oslo Agreement -- which he has always denounced.

Therefore, we're dealing here with a political strategy by the Israeli leadership designed to disrupt and undo the Oslo process. Unless the United States steps in, not only just with a procedural proposal of the Tenet plan and the semi-procedural proposal of the Mitchell plan, but with a concept and of vision of peace, the situation is going to get worse and worse.

Gardels: This political process should go forward even as suicide bombings take place?

Brzezinski: If we don't do that, then we make any so-called cease-fire a hostage to any act of terrorism. It's absolute hypocrisy claim that Arafat can put a stop to all terrorism. To put it mildly, it is poor information on the part of President Bush to insist on that.

Arafat is cut off. Sharon is repressing the Palestinians. Yet terrorism is not stopping. How is Arafat supposed to put a stop to it?

Yes, he probably has been evasive. He probably has been winking. His ability to control the situation would be greatly increased if there was serious movement toward political process in which the United States took the lead.

Gardels: In U.S. eyes, should there still be a role for Arafat?

Brzezinski: What's quite obvious is that Sharon's strategy since September 11 has been to stigmatize Arafat as a terrorist and link him to the U.S. struggle against terrorism.

I have no grief for Arafat. I've dealt with him. He's evasive; he's elusive. But the argument that he could stop terrorism and bring it to a halt and then go on from a prolonged procedural discussion into subsequent political discussions is sheer self-deception.

The point is there has to be a political process concurrently with the efforts to contain the violence. That means the U.S. stepping in, laying on the table proposals that point both parties to some outline of a final settlement.

Gardels: How would you get Sharon to accept that?

Brzezinski: Certainly by not endorsing what he's doing or winking at it or acting in a way which is contradictory -- on the one hand giving him the green light and on the other hand voting in the U.N., asking the Israeli troops to withdraw from Ramallah.

That incoherence, in effect, gives Sharon the option to keep moving forward. And if Arafat is killed in some encounter, he will become a martyr to the Arabs.

Gardels: Is the U.S. isolating itself by not opposing Sharon?

Brzezinski: We can't ignore the fact that no country in the world endorses what we are doing or endorses what the Israelis are doing. That means that in some fashion either the whole world is seized with some total misunderstanding of the situation or that the course that is being pursued by Sharon with tacit American accommodation is not productive or conducive to peace.

Nathan Gardels is the editor of New Perspectives Quarterly, where this interview first appeared.

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