Bush Launches A New Middle East Initiative
Pretty much no one is taking it seriously. Even mainstream analysts usually
willing to take Bush administration Middle East initiatives at face value
are rolling their collective eyes. The New York Times’ senior correspondent
Steven Erlanger acknowledged in July that Bush’s latest “vision,” a U.S.-Israeli-Fatah
alliance creating a model Palestine in the West Bank designed to snub the
isolated “Hamastan” in Gaza, is not a “vision shared by other American
allies or other members of the so-called quartet—Russia, the European Union,
and the United Nations.” (Yes, even the Times said “so-called” quartet.)
It is also “doubtful that the Saudis share Mr. Bush’s analysis, since they
have been urging Hamas and Fatah to get back together again.” A different
Times article included a succinct headline identifying the real reason
for the latest initiative: “Mired in Iraq, U.S. Seeks to Begin Building
a Palestinian State.”
The “plan,” such as it is, is painfully familiar, only narrower and more
constrained than ever before. The centerpiece is a call for a new regional
peace conference in the fall, to be led not by Bush himself, but by his
Secretary of State. Bush says it will include Israel, the Palestinians,
and “their neighbors in the region.” But the only Palestinians allowed
to participate will be the Abbas-led Fatah- controlled sector of the Palestinian
Authority operating in the West Bank; the democratically elected Hamas-led
Palestinian parliament and its government in Gaza will be excluded. It
may include some neighboring governments, but only those who recognize
Israel’s “right to exist.” Regional powers like Syria and Iran would of
course be excluded, but it is not clear that even Jordan and Egypt, which
maintain official diplomatic ties with Israel, let alone Saudi Arabia which
doesn’t, would publicly accept Israel’s “right” to have expelled Palestinians
to create an exclusive Jewish state. Overall, it’s not likely to be much
of a conference.
Another part of Bush’s plan involves renewed U.S. aid to the Palestinians.
Following 18 months of a crippling U.S.-orchestrated international economic
boycott of the Palestinian territories, Bush announced that “immediately
after President Abbas expelled Hamas from the Palestinian government, the
United States lifted financial restrictions on the Palestinian Authority.”
Bush referred to the emergency government appointed by Abbas, led by his
replacement Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. A key component of this aid is
an $80 million grant in military aid to Abbas’s Fatah-controlled security
agencies now operating with the support of U.S. General Keith Dayton.
Bush also said he will push Israel to release Palestinian tax revenues—which
Israel had illegally withheld since February 2006—as if that was a major
concession. Regarding settlements, he called only for ending settlement
“expansion” and removing the 2,000 or so settlers of the “unauthorized”
outposts—“unauthorized” by the Israeli government that is; all settlements
are illegal under international law. Any future territorial agreement,
Bush said, would have to take into account “current realities”—meaning
that the existing huge Israeli settlement-cities and most of the 480,000
West Bank and East Jerusalem settlers will remain. The latest U.S. embrace
of Abbas and calls for a Palestinian state are emerging just as realistic
hopes of a viable two-state solution are fading.
Islamism, Islamic Nationalism, and Bush
However inevitable the failure of Bush’s latest plan, it is important to
recognize how it fits into broader U.S. strategy in the Middle East. The
most recent iteration of the ideological framework for Bush’s “new” Middle
East describes an existential conflict between “moderates” and “extremists”
being fought out in the so-called Global War on Terror (GWOT). But of course
those Manichean categories simply don’t exist beyond the limited vision
of Washington and Tel Aviv. The Palestinian struggle against the U.S.-backed
Israeli military occupation didn’t start with Bush’s GWOT—although the
false claim of “global terrorism” in Palestine has become a key pretext
in U.S. efforts to justify its uncritical support for Israeli occupation
and apartheid. The black-and-white notion of “good Fatah, good Abbas” vs.
“bad Hamas, bad Haniyeh” has no resonance among Palestinians themselves
or anywhere else in the region.
Bush tried to equate the Islamic nationalism of Hamas with the anti-state
obscurantist extremism of al Qaeda, claiming (as Abbas did as well) that
Hamas had welcomed al Qaeda to Gaza. The claim sparked particular outrage
among Palestinians. But it is consistent with the White House’s regional
strategic approach of equating, isolating, and attempting to eliminate
all Islamic- identified forces that resist U.S. hegemony in the region.
Part of the U.S. strategy includes efforts to establish or prop up governments
in the region whose main job is to stand against various kinds of Islamist
resistance—think Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, to some degree even Lebanon.
Hamas has no known ties to al Qaeda, which actually condemned Hamas when
the Palestinian organization decided to participate in elections. Like
Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas uses an Islamic framework rather than secular
nationalism to fight a traditional struggle against occupation and for
national political power (what would be state power if Palestine were a
state). They provided social and economic support as well as popular resistance
to gain influence and electoral support in elections deemed free and fair
by former President Jimmy Carter and a host of U.S. and European monitors.
Fatah’s dwindling credibility also reflects global and regional shifts.
This is a moment when Islamic nationalism is on the ascendancy throughout
the region, when anti-imperialism in the Middle East is defined more and
more by Islamist forces while secular Palestinian nationalism, Arab nationalism,
and Arab socialism have all lost ground. So it is crucial to understand
the distinctions between the various strands of Islamist strategy. Groups
such as al Qaeda, the Taliban, and some in Pakistan want U.S. troops out
of the region and existing governments destroyed in order to impose a rigid
theocracy enforcing the most extreme and reactionary interpretations of
Islamic law in a broad region in which national borders and national identities
are wiped out. Islamic nationalist forces, such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and
some Iraqi parties, define their goal as the end of foreign military occupation
and an Islamic-identified, but largely inclusive (though not secular) government
within nation- states.
A key difference, of course, is the state-based focus of these organizations.
Unlike al Qaeda and others trying to destroy state governments and create
a new “caliphate” across the Muslim world, the Islamic nationalists operate
and struggle for power within existing (and anticipated) nation-state structures.
Since their election in January 2006, Hamas leaders have stated clearly
that their operative goal is a long-term truce with Israel, the right of
return of Palestinian refugees, and creation of a Palestinian state in
the 1967 occupied territories, which they would govern in coalition with
the secular Fatah and other factions.
Fatah, Hamas, & U.S./Israel
Many Palestinians still view Fatah, long the centerpiece of Palestinian
national politics, as their political home. But the near-collapse of the
PLO and the rise of the Oslo-created and U.S.-backed Palestinian Authority
(PA) led to more criticism of Fatah’s strategic failures and corruption
and, more recently, new censure has arisen regarding the Fatah leadership’s
close ties to the U.S. As a result, many Palestinians have distanced themselves
from the organization. Human rights, social welfare, and other civil society
organizations have been particularly concerned about Abbas’s recent decree
replacing the existing law mandating registration of NGOs and other associations
with a new order requiring organizations to apply for a license from the
Palestinian Ministry of the Interior—and giving the Ministry the right
to deny any group a license to operate.
At the same time, many Palestinians in Gaza as well as the West Bank view
with unease the Islamic tilt of Hamas politics. So far the social agenda
they have implemented, particularly regarding women, has been, in the Palestinian
context, conservative, but not extremist. Whether Hamas is telling the
truth or not about their longer term intentions, political conditions on
the ground—particularly the still powerful secular forces within Palestinian
society—will make imposition of the most coercive forms of Islamic law
unlikely. Many also strongly oppose Hamas’s brutal military attacks against
Fatah in Gaza. But its legitimacy remains, as Hamas did win Palestinian
elections with a clear majority. A recent July 4 poll by the Fatah-oriented
al-Quds newspaper reported 41 percent support for Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh,
with Fatah’s 25 percent divided between 13 percent for Abbas and 12 percent
for Marwan Barghouti, the imprisoned leader of Fatah’s younger and less
compromised generation. In that same poll Abbas’s U.S.-backed prime minister,
Salam Fayyad, re- ceived only 5 percent of the vote.
The violence of the internal Palestinian struggle in recent months reflects
a deep and longstanding crisis within the Palestinian national movement.
Neither the U.S.-allied secular nationalism of Fatah’s leadership, nor
the still untested Islamist nationalism of Hamas have so far been able
to provide the Palestinians with the kind of new strategic vision required
to strengthen the weakened PLO and rebuild the now fragile movement it
once so powerfully represented.
But even beyond the human catastrophe of the fighting, the tragedy is that
in this horrific struggle among the Palestinians, both sides are really
fighting over the leftover crumbs of power. The full loaf of power and
the main responsibility for the violence belongs to the Israeli occupation
and its U.S. backers. In the 16 months from the Palestinian elections in
January 2006 through April 2007, Israeli troops killed 712 Palestinians,
almost half of them children. During that same period, much of which included
Hamas’s unilateral ceasefire, Palestinians killed 29 Israelis, including
soldiers and civilians.
There is no question that U.S.-Israeli hands lay behind the escalating
tensions and eventual violence of the Fatah-Hamas split. In a leaked confidential
report written by former UN representative to the so-called Quartet, Peruvian
diplomat Alvaro de Soto acknowledged that “the U.S. clearly pushed for
a confrontation between Fatah and Hamas—so much so that, a week before
Mecca [the Saudi- brokered unity agreement between the two factions], the
U.S. envoy declared twice in an envoys meeting in Washington how much ‘I
like this violence,’ referring to the near-civil war that was erupting
in Gaza in which civilians were being regularly killed and injured, because
‘it means that other Palestinians are resisting Hamas.’”
To try and achieve some level of international legitimacy for a “diplomacy
surge” in the Middle East that might divert attention away from his catastrophic
war in Iraq, Bush orchestrated this summer the appointment of his once-and-future
strongest ally, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, as representative
of the Quartet. But even now, despite Blair having largely sacrificed his
own political career and legacy at the altar of the U.S. war in Iraq, the
Bush administration continues to insult and disrespect him. In his last
appearance before the British Parliament, Blair said proudly that his “absolute
priority” in his new role was to “prepare the ground for a negotiated settlement”
between Israel and the Palestinians. Two days later, State Department spokesperson
Tom Casey flatly contradicted him, saying, “There’s certainly no envisioning
that this individual would be a negotiator between the Israelis and Palestinians.”
That was more consistent with Blair’s earlier recognition of the limitations
of his own role. Talking candidly with Bush in 2006 on microphones they
thought were turned off, Blair offered to do whatever the U.S. wanted,
apparently regardless of what that was, while recognizing that what he
did had little significance.
So What Do We Do?
The divide within the Palestinian movement—especially the violence of this
past summer—has confused and demoralized many supporters of Palestinian
human rights and the movement to end Israeli occupation. But neither the
splits nor the violence change the overall obligation of international
supporters of a just, comprehensive, human rights-based peace.
When the Palestinian elections resulted in an outcome challenging the Bush
administration’s expectations, the U.S. responded with a complete economic
boycott of the entire Palestinian population of the occupied territories.
Somehow the legitimacy of such a collective punishment was never considered
an appropriate question in the mainstream U.S. media—while even talking
of boycotts against the Israeli occupation engenders immediate accusations
of dis- crimination, support for terrorism, even anti-Semitism.
The global call for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) represents
the most promising non-violent economic pressure campaign to force an end
to Israel’s violations of UN resolutions and international law. The BDS
call was launched in 2005 by Palestinian civil society organizations and
the UN-based International Coordinating Network on Palestine. Applying
the lessons and adopting some of the techniques of the powerful global
movement against South African apartheid in the 1980s, the BDS campaign
includes diverse supporters using a broad array of tactics. It includes
the “socially responsible investment” of the Presbyterian and other Christian
churches committed to investigating and reversing corporate support for
occupation and the stockholder campaigns against Caterpillar’s sales of
bulldozers used illegally as Israeli military weapons in the occupied territories.
The U.S. Campaign to End Israeli Occupation will soon decide on a corporate
target for national boycott and divestment campaigns throughout the U.S.
Globally there are important successes already. While the humanitarian
and political situation inside the occupied territories continues to deteriorate
as Israel escalates its divide-and-conquer tactics of occupation and dispossession,
BDS pressures are on the rise in direct defiance. Two of Britain’s largest
trade union federations recently passed boycott resolutions. The powerful
Canadian Union of Public Employees voted to support BDS campaigns. In South
Africa, home of the first anti- apartheid campaign, influential government
officials and key backers of the ruling African National Congress—the ANC
women’s federation, its youth league, the Communist Party, the COSATU trade
union federation—all have come out for sanctions to force Israeli compliance
with international law.
The U.S. and global peace mobilizations cannot rebuild the Palestinian
national movement from outside and it is rarely useful for us to take sides
in the internal conflict, beyond supporting unity efforts and working to
defend Palestinian civil society organizations. The best answer to U.S.
support for Israeli occupation and apartheid and to U.S. divide-and-conquer
tactics against the Palestinians will be the consolidation of a broad popular
movement saying no—joining the rising global movement for BDS as a powerful
non-violent tool that challenges that U.S. support and demands an entirely
new foreign policy based not on power, but on justice and equal rights
Phyllis Bennis is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. Her newest
book is Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.