So Long, Middle East Road Map

The Middle East road map finally met its untimely but expected demise over the weekend when Israeli bombs landed near Damascus, aimed at an alleged terrorist training camp.

The question this week in diplomatic circles is not how to salvage the peace process but how to avert global mayhem. It's not a question, however, that worries the Bush administration, which appears content to let the Middle East hurtle down the path to possible armageddon.

Supporting the Israeli action, the president said, "Israel's got a right to defend herself, that Israel must not feel constrained in terms of defense of the homeland." This weekend's Israeli attack on Syria shows how far Israeli leader Ariel Sharon will go -- and just how willing Bush is to cover for his excesses. When the issue came before the UN Security Council on Sunday, Kofi Annan and most of the other delegates correctly described the attack as a violation of international law and the UN Charter.

In contrast, the Americans decided that any resolution had to be "balanced" with a condemnation of terrorism in general, and the Haifa bombing in particular. (There is no doubt that the Haifa suicide attack was horrific, but the Syrians had no provable or likely connection whatsoever with the bombers.) The Israeli ambassador to the UN, Dan Gillerman, showed equal chutzpah in decrying Syria's request for an emergency Security Council meeting. He said, "For Syria to ask a debate in this council is comparable only to the Taliban calling for such a debate after 9-11, it would be laughable if it was not so sad."

The attacks on Syria mark the end of any hope that the U.S. will take a firmer line with Sharon. "One-sided," "biased," or "unbalanced" are the knee-jerk reactions to any UN resolution (or indeed any TV program, or any printed article) that suggests that Israeli government behavior is less than perfect. Relentless reiteration by Israel's supporters, the Bush administration, and Tony Blair's government have shifted the terms of the debate to the point that one suspects that any action of Israel, however outrageous, could not be condemned without the insertion of such "balancing" references, or more likely vetoed outright using the handy justification of self-defense against terrorism.

Last week, Kofi Annan condemned Israeli plans to build 600 new homes for settlers in the Occupied Territories as "serious obstacles to the achievement of a two-State solution," and said that the settlements are "a clear breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention and also contradict Israel's commitments under the Quartet's Road Map." The U.S. shamefacedly suggests that the settlements and the wall, not to mention the assassination and exile threat are simply "unhelpful," and so far has shown no signs of suspending the aid that pays for these unhelpful breaches of international law.

The exception was the administration's announcement that it may deduct some of the construction cost for the Israeli security wall separating Israel from the West Bank from the $9 billion in U.S. loan guarantees to Israel as authorized by Congress. UN Human Rights Rapporteur John Dugard, a South African anti-apartheid activist and lawyer, recently issued a report that found that those "living between the Wall and the Green Line will be effectively cut off from their farmlands and workplaces, schools, health clinics and other social services. This is likely to lead to a new generation of refugees or internally displaced persons." Unsurprisingly, the Israelis immediately denounced Dugard's report as "biased and one-sided" even though it had refused to even meet with him during his visit to the region.

Thus far, U.S. has shamefacedly suggested that the settlements and the wall, not to mention the assassination and exile threat, are simply "unhelpful," and has shown no signs of suspending the aid that pays for these breaches of international law. And in a typical show of "balanced" policymaking, during the same week, it vetoed a resolution condemning Israel's statements threatening to exile and if necessary assassinate Yasser Arafat (who for all his faults is the only freely elected leader of the Arab world). U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte predictably insisted that the resolution lacked "balance."

The degree of support for U.S. policy in the Middle East can be measured by the vote in the UN General Assembly to condemn Israel for its threats on Arafat. It makes the so-called "coalition of the willing" look impressive. The United States and Israel were joined by Micronesia and Marshall Islands, two tiny states totally dependent on Washington for their budget, the only states to vote against the resolution.

Bush's position on the attack on Syria has disturbing implications for the world, coming on the heels of Kofi Annan's speech to the General Assembly warning of the dangers of unilateralism. In many ways, it's the administration's own actions that have led the way down this dangerous road of "hot preemption." If the U.S. can attack Iraq on suspicion of possessing weapons of mass destruction and harboring terrorism, then how can it call Ariel Sharon to order when he wants to whack an old enemy in a fit of pique? And down the line, what does Washington tell New Delhi if India decides to strike Pakistan or China takes action against Taiwan?

The Bush White House, however, is far more intent on pursuing its own plan for global payback, irrespective of its consequences. Its position on the Israeli attacks was hardly coincidental. There is every sign that the Bush administration is relapsing to its bad old ways. An anonymous administration official told the Knight-Ridder News Services that hawks within the administration are still hoping for "regime change" in Syria, and recently asked the CIA to come up with a list of replacements for Syrian President Bashar Assad. The Congress in tandem is considering the Syria Accountability Act, which authorizes the Bush administration to impose new economic and diplomatic sanctions on that nation.

The reality is that there is more resistance inside the Israel Defense Forces to Sharon's policies than there is in Washington. Twenty four officers of the Israeli air force in recent weeks refused to participate in raids on the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza, especially the assassination raids against the leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The officers felt too many innocent civilians were being killed in the attacks. It's a pity that neither Bush nor Sharon has any such qualms.


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