Another Look at Bush in the Middle East: Is There Hope for Change In US Policy?

For virtually all progressive observers, the Bush trip to the Middle East constituted an empty vessel more fixated upon provoking a conflict with Iran than making peace between Israelis and Palestinians and driven more by the showering of billions of dollars in new weapons upon Saudi Arabia while affirming a continuing commitment to assure Israel’s "qualitative edge" in weaponry.


Many commentators have lamented George W.Bush’s dodging of crucial questions aimed at clarifying his statements on ending the occupation and establishing a Palestinian state, his grotesquely insensitive characterization of Israel — with Arabs constituting 20 percent of its population — as a "Jewish state," his clumsy obfucations in the face of questions about Israeli settlements, the future status of Jerusalem, refugees, his signals of approval for Israel’s escalating violence against Gaza.


For many, Bush’s promises of full engagement in Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking echoed the sad and frustrating history of previous promises. Robert Fisk, for example, has reminded us that in 1991, George H. W. Bush spoke optimistically of progress in the peace process and promised not to abandon it while his Secretary of State James Baker gently chastised the Israelis for continuing to build settlements in the Occupied Territories, a complaint echoed last week by the present Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice.


As always, there is the sorry record of unrelenting US military largesse and political support to Israel. All this while Israel eagerly has served as an outpost for US strategic interests rather than as an integral member of the Middle East community.


It is no wonder then, that so many observers have responded to Bush’s trip with skepticism often leading to cynicism and despair. Yet, in the spiral of history nothing remains exactly the same. Something new is always emerging; something old is passing. It is often difficult to recognize and understand new phenomena, especially in the complex and tortured politics of the Middle East. Yet, whether we are ultimately proved right or wrong in assessing new elements, we need to consider them as possibly helpful or even essential in working for peace and justice in the region.


With that in mind, Condoleezza Rice’s role in Bush’s recent foray through the Middle East should be considered. Press reports and the observations of progressive Israeli commentators have noted that Rice was doing the heavy diplomatic lifting while Bush pushed his one-note routine on terrorism and Iran. In driving a possibly revised agenda on the Israeli- Palestinian question, Rice orchestrated a little noticed, but significant change in the US negotiating position. Talking to the press en route from Israel to Kuwait, Rice, began by ignoring, as Washington traditionally does, the fact that the alleged "terrorism" of infinitely weaker Palestinians can end by restoring the human rights and resources denied them for so many decades. She also ignored the Israeli practice of often escalating violence when negotiations seemed imminent.


Nevertheless, what she said was significant: "The ‘road map’ for peace … had become a hindrance to the peace process, because the first requirement was that Palestinians stop terrorist attacks. As a result, every time there was a terrorist bombing, the peace process fell apart and went back to square one. Neither side ever began discussing the ‘core issues’: the freezing of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the right of Palestinian refugees to return, the outline of Israel‘s border and the future of Jerusalem. The reason we haven’t really been able to move forward on the peace process for a number of years is that we were stuck in the sequentiality of the road map." (Boston Globe, 1/16/08)


That change signaled by Rice has been almost universally ignored by the left. However, it has not escaped the attention of right wing observers. Jeff Jacoby, the ultra-right op-ed columnist at the Boston Globe mourns Rice’s revision of the road map as "the death of the Bush Doctrine" that refused to negotiate unless "terrorist acts" ended. (Jacoby’s’ rants underscore the reality that the struggle for justice for Palestine is an inseparable aspect of the battle to defeat the right at home.)


There have always been striking contrasts between Washington‘s pronouncements and its practices. A recent contradiction of Rice’s words is US refusal to support a UN Security Council resolution calling for the lifting of Israel‘s siege of Gaza unless Hamas rocket fire stopped. It may well be that the Rice’s recasting of the road map’s processes may suffer a similar fate.


However, events in Gaza in recent days provide a different political lesson: the power of international protest that forced Israel to ease its lockdown of Gaza and its cutoff of vital oil and water supplies. Global pressure also might have played a role in emboldening the besieged people of Gaza to pour through the blown fences at Rafah to ease a gathering humanitarian crisis of near starvation and material deprivation.


Emerging splits in ruling class circles represent another crucial factor in pressuring for policy changes. In this regard, Rice’s increasingly assertive role in the Middle East may be significant. While her loyalty to Bush is well documented, her political trajectory suggests greater complexity. Along the way from the Graduate School of International Studies at Denver University where she was reputed to be moderately liberal, to Cold War expertise in the Soviet military, to the Council on Foreign Relations, to membership on the boards of Chevron Corporation and the Charles Schwab Corporation — she was noticed and promoted by the likes of George Schultz and Brent Scowcroft, powerful ruling class proponents of pursuing US imperial objectives through balance of power diplomacy, "triangulation," and "realism" while eschewing ideological crusades and alliances that undermined those central imperial interests.


In recent months, there have been growing signs of fissures in ruling circles over the thrust and direction of US Middle East policies. The proliferation of US bases and other military facilities throughout the region has altered the strategic picture and has, in the eyes of the "realists," at least partially negated Israel as a principal strategic asset for the United States. That trend is reflected in part by the controversial writings of Stephen Walt and John Mearscheimer who argue that realism requires the US to diminish its special ties with Israel and treat it as it would any other foreign power — in terms of predominant US imperial interests.


Such fissures have are being generated by an influential elite seeking to bring the Israeli- Palestinian conflict to an end in order to extend and consolidate US power in other parts of the Middle East. While the motives of this group are malign, their influence in the short term can provide an important complement to the pressures of a progressive global movement for peace and justice in the region.


Perhaps despair over the prospect for regional peace has driven some observers who have traditionally stressed Washington‘s dominance over Israeli policies to now contend that the Israeli tail wags the US dog. Citing Olmert’s seemingly intractable political problems with his ultra-right alliance members, those observers now see him confidently smothering Bush with praise while never intending to seriously engage in negotiations.


That may be. But there is little doubt that Washington remains the decisive influence over Israeli policies. A half century of tens of billions in weapons and other aid will leverage a lot of that influence. This fact weighs heavily on Palestinian consciousness. On this past Christmas Day I joined my Palestinian host for what would ordinarily have been a ten minute ride from his East Jerusalem home that was now fifty minutes around the massive 24 foot high wall constructed by the Israelis. We were heading to a local West Bank butcher to pick up a Christmas turkey. (It turned out that we had to settle for chicken as the turkey truck never made it through a check point.) Forced to take a circuitous route through the narrow streets of hilly West Bank villages, we surveyed a scene of utter disintegration borne by the occupation’s malign neglect — rutted streets, run down houses, rusting dumpsters, decaying garbage littering empty lots. As we drove, my host’s free hand swept over the depressing scene as he remarked that Washington‘s approval was at the heart of Israel‘s steady strangulation of the West Bank. None of that disaster would have happened without that approval. Indeed, he angrily insisted such measured disintegration could not have happened had the US simply remained neutral in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.


There is also little doubt that Washington‘s insistence will assure negotiations in the coming weeks. However, there is a slim hope at best for successful bargaining, by the end of Bush’s term. The severe political weakness of both Olmert and Abbas alone are enough to imperil such talks. At this point still powerful far right forces in Washington and Jerusalem will attempt to use the process to eliminate Hamas and impose upon Abbas an even more shrunken "Palestinian state" smothered by Israeli military power and strangled by the "security" wall.


Three weeks ago, I witnessed the economic impact of the Israel‘s huge wall twisting its way through the West Bank and seriously diminishing East Jerusalem‘s economic life. A major segment of the wall runs for hundreds of meters down the middle of the main Jerusalem-Ramallah road. Scores of small businesses on both sides of the wall have been reduced or eliminated due the truncation of one of East Jerusalem‘s main arteries. The economic life as a whole of East Jerusalem, the heart and lifeline of a potential Palestinian state, has been severely damaged. Only small pockets of business activity remain as a result of Israel‘s steady shrinkage of hitherto viable Arab communities. The encroachments of huge Israeli settlements throughout East Jerusalem and the adjacent West Bank have isolated Palestinian villages and communities. The wall often separates Palestinians from Palestinians, making of mockery of Israel‘s claims that it was constructed to protect Israelis from attack. Israel is now building an exclusive tram line to facilitate a tightening linkage of its growing settlements. The impoverishment of the West Bank, coupled with the calculated deprivation of Gaza calls into question whether the material conditions exist to foster a viable Palestinian state.


The inevitable question arises: why bother investing any hope and political energy in attempting to extract an advance for justice from the faltering Annapolis process?


For all its near fatal flaws, the post-Annapolis process right now is the only diplomatic game in town to confront the issues and where the interplay of various forces — the struggles of the Palestinian people, the impact of growing global protest against the occupation, the interface, though limited of Palestinians and Israelis, the emerging tensions between the Washington "realists" and Cheney-Elliot Abrams hard right — can possibly prod some positive developments.


The advent of talks can constitute the framework for an urgent global demand for the suspension of violence. Such a demand could pressure Israel to accept Hamas’ offer to negotiate an end to rocket attacks on the Israeli town of Sderot. A comprehensive cease fire would apply to all the occupied territories and bring an immediate end to the collective punishment and indiscriminate assaults on the civilian population of Gaza. A substantive end to violence, especially in Gaza, can provide precious space for the Palestinians to forge a unified strategy among its population in refugee camps, in Israel, and on the West Bank and in Gaza. Crucially, it can create an environment for reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, without which no negotiation can mark progress.


An end to violence can have a positive effect upon Israel‘s difficult political environment. The refusal of the Israeli Supreme Court to put an end to collective punishment in Iraq, petitioned by Israeli human rights groups, is a stark reminder of the morally bankrupt right wing choke hold on Israeli institutions. The political center has virtually disappeared from Israeli politics. (The right wing Sharon-Olmert Kadima party falsely portrays itself as a center party while It is widely acknowledged that the Labor party has moved to the right. The greatest expansion of settlements occurred under Labor governments and the inspiration for the "security wall" came from Labor politicians.) That center needs to be regenerated. A slim hope for that regeneration lies at least in part with a negotiating process that seeks to end the violence and the occupation. At the same time the departure of the ultra racist Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu party from the Olmert government to protest the post-Annapolis process is a small step toward a healthier reorientation of Israeli politics.


Condoleezza Rice’s ambitious agenda has little chance of success unless there is an unlikely capitulation on all major points by Fatah. But something else can happen in a growing interface between Palestinians and Israelis backed by a worldwide outcry for an end to the occupation. In the midst of discussions framed by growing pressures to achieve a comprehensive cease fire (and the dismantling of the despicable check points and walls), barriers formed from decades of bitter estrangement can weaken. Discussion can possibly go beyond borders and territory — going down a long, unexplored road where both sides can consider the nature of a shared civil society that would fulfill the strongest aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians. That thoroughgoing exploration of the kind of society both peoples want and can live in can begin a historic reconciliation and a recasting of the political vision of a peaceful future for both peoples.


For many progressives, discussion and analysis of the Annapolis and Bush’s clumsy journey through the Middle East has ended in hand-wringing and paralysis. "Collapse" has been the operative term, invoked even before the process began. Characterizations such as "farce" and "charade," while thoroughly understandable, fail to take into account the power of world opinion and progressive mobilization, the growing splits in elite circles and the determination of the Palestinian people to achieve peace and justice supported by courageous friends in Israel. Ultimately, the summary rejection of the post-Annapolis process, however deeply flawed, is an abdication — underscored by a failure to offer any alternative strategy — from the sacred responsibility to seize every opening in the quest for justice and peace for all in the region. Every opening, every fissure, every prospect, no matter how slim, needs to be seized and tested in the quest for justice and peace. That road to peace is long and rutted with obstacles, but it must be traveled.

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