Salvaging Bush's Mideast disaster

The real "front line of the war on terror" is Palestine. By brokering a lasting peace, the U.S. can make up for Bush's colossal blunders.

Published November 28, 2006 1:26PM (EST)

This weekend, Israel and the Palestinians announced a cease-fire, ending the bloody low-level conflict that has been raging for months and momentarily returning the world's attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The cessation of violence in the Gaza Strip, where about 400 Palestinians and five Israelis have been killed, is a welcome humanitarian development. But any long-term hopes it gives rise to are likely to be cruelly dashed. It addresses none of the underlying issues, and in fact only strengthens rejectionist elements on both sides. Unless the Bush administration moves to broker a lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace, the cease-fire will prove to be yet another temporary lull, and the conflict will worsen, with dire ramifications for the United States.

As the Iraqi debacle lurches from dreadful to nightmarish, with 140,000 U.S. troops caught in a vicious purgatory, it is all too easy to forget that the real "front line of the war on terror" is in Jerusalem, not Baghdad. The Israeli-Palestinian crisis is not a matter that America wants to deal with. There is zero debate about it in Congress, where unswerving support for Israel continues to be the only thing that Democrats and Republicans agree on. It divides the left. It is such an emotional, sensitive issue that most people don't even bring it up. And it's easy to simply dismiss it as intractable.

But like it or not, the fact remains that the now 39-year-long Israeli occupation of Palestinian land continues to be the most incendiary issue in the Arab-Muslim world, the single thing that most inspires hatred of the U.S. A U.N.-sponsored group recently found that tensions between Islam and the West are caused not by religion but overwhelmingly by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has acquired a symbolic significance larger than itself. The conflict affects virtually every problem in the region, including Iraq -- a fact recognized by world leaders from British Prime Minister Tony Blair to Jordan's King Abdullah to the leaders of France, Spain and Italy, who just presented their own peace plan. Until the U.S. brokers a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians -- and only America can do it -- we will stumble impotently around in the Middle East, despised by all except the corrupt despots we prop up, while the anti-American rage that breeds jihadists grows.

The Israeli-Palestinian crisis has long been the elephant in the room of Bush's entire Mideast policy, a subject too fraught to bring up. It is incorrect to say, as some on the left have done, that Bush's Iraq war was fought "for Israel." But it is true that the war was dreamed up by strongly pro-Israel officials and ideologues and that Israel's interests were a significant factor in their decisions. And in a larger sense, the ideology behind Iraq, and Bush's entire "war on terror," is identical to Israel's "iron wall" approach to its Arab enemies -- a fact that has gone largely unremarked upon in the United States.

Which makes it a matter of considerable historical irony that America now has an opportunity to break through the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock. Precisely because Bush's neoconservative policies have seriously weakened the United States, forced it to pay dearly in blood and treasure, and entangled it in the region like never before, they have opened a window of opportunity on the Israeli-Palestinian front. The pro-Likud hawks from the American Enterprise Institute who brainstormed the Iraq war, as Bob Woodward describes in his new book, surely never dreamed that a war-on-terror strategy right out of the Likud playbook could end up leading the U.S. to make moves on Palestine that under "normal" circumstances it never would -- moves that could save Israel from itself, bring justice to the Palestinians, undercut the growing strength of hybrid resistance/Islamist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, and allow moderate Arab regimes to begin to reform.

The solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as former President Jimmy Carter argues in his important new book, "Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid," is well known by the parties on both sides, and has been for years. Its key elements are shared, with some variations, by a number of peace plans: the so-called Geneva Initiative, the new European peace plan, and the Saudi peace plan of 2002, which was approved by the Arab League. Those elements can be quickly listed: a two-state solution based on full Israeli withdrawal to its internationally recognized 1967 borders and dismantling of the settlements, with any land swaps to be mutually negotiated. Jerusalem would be the shared capital of both states. A limited number of Palestinian refugees would be allowed to return to Israel, with the majority being paid compensation and resettled elsewhere. All Arab countries, and the new Palestinian state, would recognize Israel and renounce violence against it.

Under Bill Clinton's vigorous leadership at Camp David, and later at Taba, the U.S. came close to brokering such a deal. Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak were still negotiating at Taba in January 2001 when Barak, facing elections, suspended the talks. As Carter argues, and Clayton Swisher documents in his thorough study, "The Truth About Camp David," the standard U.S.-Israeli line that Yasser Arafat turned down Barak's "generous offer" and is thus wholly to blame for the collapse of the talks is simply false. Swisher argues that the U.S. and Israel were largely to blame for the fact that the talks were ill-prepared and mutual trust was not established. But even if one puts some of the blame on Arafat for making the perfect the enemy of the good, and holding out for a better deal, as does former Israeli Foreign Minister and peace-talks negotiator Shlomo Ben-Ami (who is broadly sympathetic to the Palestinians and opposed to Israeli colonization of the occupied territories), the basic lineaments of a peace deal remain the same. If peace talks fail the first time, the answer is not to cut off negotiations and continue building settlements, but to try again.

Unfortunately, following the collapse of the Camp David-Taba talks, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon took his customary hard line, continuing to build settlements and framing all of his policies, like his ideological soul mate George W. Bush, in terms of "a war on terror." And Bush gave Sharon a green light to do what he wanted. Just 10 days after his inauguration, Bush announced that he was going to break with Bill Clinton's approach to the Middle East and give Sharon a free hand to deal with the Palestinians. In words that sum up the ideology behind his later Iraq adventure, he told his National Security Council, according to Ron Suskind's "The Price of Loyalty," "Sometimes a show of strength by one side can really clarify things."

The results of Sharon and Bush's "show of strength," in Baghdad and in the occupied territories, are now in. Of Baghdad, nothing need be said. Of Palestine, suffice it to say that an already catastrophic situation has grown still worse. Israel has continued to build settlements -- which a recent Israeli governmental report reveals were mostly on privately owned Palestinian land seized by Israel -- and construct a security wall, deemed illegal by the International Court of Justice because it carves off large chunks of Palestinian land. Before his incapacitating stroke, Sharon pulled unilaterally out of Gaza, an action that helped preserve Israel's Jewish demography but left Gaza, whose borders Israel still controls, a vast open-air prison, and did nothing to address the underlying political issues. For their part, the desperate Palestinians started a second, more violent intifada, using terrorist attacks and Qassam missile strikes, which have only hardened Israel's position. And the election of the militant Islamist group Hamas, whose charter denies Israel's right to exist and calls for its destruction, has led Israel and the West to cut off all aid, slowly starving the Palestinians and further radicalizing them.

The situation is untenable, and the incremental approach, enshrined in the Oslo peace process and the so-called, de facto defunct road map, has utterly failed. Only an immediate move to final-status issues can cut through this bloody stalemate, and prevent the rejectionists on both sides from growing even stronger. The current cease-fire, as the Israeli analyst Akiva Eldar argues in the Israeli daily Ha'aretz, actually rewards both Hamas and the Israeli right wing, neither of whom is forced to pay a price for its continuing intransigence. In effect, it is simply a momentary upward blip in the same failed approach.

Eldar, and Ben-Ami, argue that what Israel needs to do is seize upon one of the viable peace plans on the table -- whether the European, the Saudi or the Clinton parameters -- and take proactive steps to solve the problem once and for all. "When the sole alternative to temporary arrangements and unilateral steps is the perpetuation of violence, temporary arrangements and unilateral steps become indispensable," Eldar argues. "However, when an alternative offering all-encompassing peace in the Middle East is within arm's reach -- and includes normalization between Israel and the members of the Arab League -- a hudna [the long-term truce offered by Hamas, which would not affect its rejectionist charter] is criminal, if not downright stupid. This alternative is written, in black on white, in Arabic, in an unprecedented resolution passed at the League summit on March 28, 2002 in Beirut."

Without U.S. pressure, there is no chance that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's weak administration will take this bold move. Hitherto, neither the Bush administration nor the Democrats has shown any interest in pressuring Israel to do anything. But the current situation holds out an opportunity for the United States, if it has sufficient wisdom and political courage, to move forward on a grand Mideast strategy that would not only resolve the most dangerous problem in the world, but help America extricate itself from Iraq, defuse tensions with Iran and Syria, and save Lebanon from teetering over the brink into civil war.

Middle East politics is a complex and tangled ball, but when you pull on virtually any strand, you discover it is connected to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. Solving that crisis has always been in our long-term self-interest. But because America is now enmeshed in the Middle East, the self-interest is more urgent.

Outside of Iraq, a problem we chose to create, almost every problem America faces in the Middle East ultimately has all or some of its roots in Palestine. Hezbollah exists because of Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, whose purpose was to destroy the PLO. Iran's anti-Israel ideology draws most of its venom from anger over the Palestinians. Syria's rejectionism stems from the Palestinian issue and Israel's refusal to return the Golan Heights. The growth of radical Islam throughout the region, and the increasing weakness of the moderate Sunni states, is in large part a result of rage at Israel and its patron America. As Shiite expert and regular Salon contributor Juan Cole has pointed out, Osama bin Laden was inspired to plan the destruction of the World Trade Center after seeing the "destroyed towers in Lebanon" smashed by Israeli bombs.

Under normal circumstances, the U.S. could -- and almost always has -- simply ignored these inconvenient truths. But thanks to Bush's Iraq war, these are no longer normal circumstances. Everywhere Bush turns, as he tries to salvage something from the ruins of his Mideast policy, he runs up against the Palestinian issue. The most significant example is James Baker's Iraq Study Group, which will reportedly urge him to talk to Syria and Iran -- a prospect that has right-wing supporters of Israel in a state of near panic. But Palestine also holds the key to the future of Lebanon. Bush's neoconservative brain trust is urging him to maintain his hard line against Syria and Hezbollah. But as Israel's recent, unsuccessful war shows, the Shiites in Lebanon are too powerful to smash into submission. The only long-term solution to Lebanon's woes, as former ABC News chief Middle East correspondent Charles Glass, who was kidnapped by Hezbollah in 1987, recently argued, is to remove Hezbollah's raison d'être by providing justice for the Palestinians.

Will the Bush administration yield to geopolitical reality, and pressure Israel to take the necessary steps to make peace? Not likely. Although brokering an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan would help resolve every problem the U.S. has in the region, America could still stumble on without one. Even though it is bloodied and desperately searching for a way out of Iraq, the Bush administration is deeply committed to its neoconservative approach to the Middle East, and few expect it to perform a humiliating 180-degree reversal. "I don't think we should expect a revolution in the administration," former special Middle East envoy Dennis Ross told Bloomberg News. "They are six years in power. There is a certain set of attitudes. There is a certain approach."

If Bush stays on his current course, he will opt to pay lip service to Baker but largely ignore his group's recommendations. He will keep the heat on Syria and Iran, put no pressure on Olmert, and, after a failed attempt to stabilize Iraq by increasing troop levels, begin to draw down U.S. troops next spring or summer -- in effect, maintaining his current Middle East policy, with the one change being the removal of troops from Iraq.

This is probably what will happen -- and if it does, it will be a disaster. As the neocons argued after 9/11 in support of their Iraq adventure, the status quo is no longer acceptable. With America's standing in the Middle East at an all-time low, simply bailing out of Iraq, without trying to dramatically improve our ruined regional position, and maintaining our support for Fortress Israel, would be folly. Fundamentalist Islam and jihadi rage will grow, moderate regimes will weaken, the danger of regional conflagration will increase, and hatred between Israelis and Palestinians will become ever more toxic.

The key is the newly empowered Democrats. But to overturn Bush's neoconservative Middle East policy, the Democrats would have to think strategically, put America's long-term interests first, and break with Bush on the one area where they robotically agree with him: Israel.

There is no precedent for the Democrats' doing this. But then, there is no precedent for our current dire situation -- which is why there is a ray of hope. The unilateral, force-based Bush approach is dead, killed in the bloody streets of Iraq and the cluster-bomb-strewn fields of Lebanon. Having enraged and radicalized Arab populations across the region, and with Iraq melting down into a failed-state breeding ground of jihadis, neither the U.S. nor Israel can win by using the blunt instrument of force anymore. If the Democrats recognize this, and pressure Bush to broker a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians -- or if they can restrain themselves from attacking him if he miraculously tries to do it himself -- something could yet be salvaged from the worst foreign policy debacle in U.S. history.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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