Some policy, some state. The Bush years have been marked by, among other things, continued Israeli settlement in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, rapid construction of the Separation Wall and a vast Jewish-only road network throughout the West Bank, and the collapse of the Palestinian economy with the US-led cut off of direct aid to the Palestinian Authority after the free and fair election of Hamas to government in January 2006.
Moreover, the April 2004 exchange of letters between Bush and former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon provided a US green light for permanent Israeli control of much occupied Palestinian and, denial of the Palestinian Right of Return, and preservation of the Jewish identity of Israel. The Administration was unwilling to back even those agreements that Rice herself had facilitated such as the 15 November 2005 Agreement on Access that was supposed to provide free access between Gaza and the rest of the world but that failed to free even the Gaza harvest.
A Look Back
The absence of peace led to enormous human suffering and loss. Yet, while it is easy to criticize the Bush Administration, one should not forget that many of these Israeli policies evolved during the term of the far more “engaged” former president Bill Clinton, who was happy to usher in the Oslo peace process in September 1993. As one writer noted, “Oslo enabled Israel to begin separating both peoples without having to withdraw from the Occupied Territory.”(2) The system of closures in the West Bank was institutionalized after March 1993, Gaza was sealed off by an electronic wall in 1994, and the pass system was introduced in 1994, with passes given to less than 3% of the Palestinian population in 1995.
In other words, it was during the heyday years of the Oslo peace process that Israel began to introduce what many more people, including former president Jimmy Carter, are now calling Israel’s system of apartheid in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.(3)
Over the past six decades, the US has reversed Israeli actions towards the Arabs on three noteworthy occasions: Dwight D. Eisenhower’s demand for withdrawal from Egypt in 1956, Carter’s demand for withdrawal from south Lebanon in 1978, and George H. W. Bush’s refusal to support $10 billion in loan guarantees for Israel unless it halted settlements.(44) Otherwise, successive US Administrations have not sustained pressure on Israel to abide by international law and UN resolutions dealing with the part of mandate Palestine that became Israel in 1948 or in the Palestinian lands it occupied in 1967.
Why Is US Policy the Way It Is?
The debate that often rages among US groups dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is whether the pro-Israel lobby has a stranglehold over US Middle East policy, or whether the US has its own foreign policy agenda that Israel serves.
Certainly, there would be a painful domestic cost for any US administration that takes a stand against Israel. Members of Congress and the Administration provide considerable support, due in large part to ceaseless efforts by the pro-Israel lobby. This helps to maintain US aid to Israel at over $3 billion a year and secures a US veto against efforts at the UN to apply international law.
At the same time, when the US believes its interests are threatened, it acts to stop Israel in its tracks. For example, when Israel sold unmanned drones to China in defiance of US restrictions, the US in 2005 slapped sanctions on Israel, suspending cooperation on several arms development projects. It insisted not only on cancellation of the sale but also on stringent conditions before it would resume cooperation on arms technology.(5) And there are recent hints that the US may be using Israel in ways Israel does not want to be used. When Israel escalated Hizballah’s capture of two soldiers in July 2006 into all-out war, some reports suggested that Israel wanted to end the war sooner than the US did. More recently, there were reports that Israel would like to talk to Syria about a peace deal, but is not being allowed to do so by the US, whose current policy is to isolate Syria and Iran as it deals with the bloody chaos unleashed by its 2003 invasion of Iraq.(6)
Moreover, as several analysts have noted, US support for Israel increased exponentially after it showed its military prowess in 1967, which led to what is now known as the “special relationship.” Some Israelis now fear that Israel’s inability to crush Hizballah in 2006 – although the US gave it ample time to do so by forestalling attempts to reach a ceasefire - will lead the US to reappraise the special relationship.(7)
Explaining the Present Movement
The US clearly has its own interests in the Middle East: not just access to but control of major sources of oil, as the EU, China and India shape up to become economic and political superpowers over time. US oil interests have informed its policy in the region for decades, particularly towards the Gulf. The US supported Saddam Hussein against Iran during the 1980s, supported Kuwait against Iraq’s 1990 invasion, and controlled Iraq thereafter by a US-led, UN-imposed regime of sanctions from 1990 to 2003.
The main difference between past and present US policy is that the radical rightwing elements of the US policy and defense establishment known as the Neocons have opted for a less subtle expression of US control, to the horror of the earlier architects of policies of indirect control such as former secretary of state James Baker. Throughout, Israel has positioned itself as a strategic ally to US interests so as to promote its own interests, much as it had done with Britain during its days of empire.
Today, the US needs Arab allies in its attempts to secure a stable Iraq so that it can hand over direct control to the Iraqis and exercise indirect control from the massive military bases it has constructed in the country since 2003. But now those Arab allies are more insistently demanding movement on the Israeli-Palestinian front. The European Union is also more emphatically demanding action, most recently when German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Washington D.C. to do so as soon as Germany became EU president in 2007. Meanwhile, Russia is esurgent, in the region and beyond.
Hence Rice’s recent re-engagement. However, it is unlikely that the US and Israel will offer the Palestinians the minimum that any leadership can accept: that is, a sovereign state in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, which accounts for 22% of mandate Palestine, and a solution for Palestinian refugees that they would consider just. At most, we might see an amelioration that would bring some relief to Palestinians under occupation but would not lead to a comprehensive settlement.
Which Way Forward?
There are two main lessons to be drawn from the above account: nothing is immutable, not even the US-Israeli special relationship, and an enormous amount of work is needed to achieve Israeli and US policies that are based on human rights and international law.
Within the US, movements are building to challenge current US policy. They include “realists” such as John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt (of The Israel Lobby fame) as well as liberal Zionist groups that argue that neither American nor Israeli interests are served by an alliance that precludes a fair settlement of the conflict. They also include a range of US human rights advocates - Christians, Muslims, Jews, Arab Americans, African Americans, and many others - who have come together in such organizations as the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation to argue for a human rights-based US policy towards the conflict and to push their elected representatives in that direction. There are some signs, albeit modest, of change, for example, the resolution introduced in the House of Representatives on 8 February 2007 calling for US support of a lasting peace in Palestine and Israel.
Within Israel, the small anti-occupation camp is being joined by groups that also work for equal rights between Jews and Arabs, thus challenging the exclusively Jewish identity of Israel. The Israeli Arab leadership recently demanded, for the first time ever, that Israel should become the state of all its citizens. Internationally, there is a small but growing movement for boycott, sanctions, and divestment against Israel’s occupation similar to that against South Africa.
These movements, if reinforced through constant struggle, are what will, over time, change US policy and bring a just and peaceful resolution to Palestine, Israel, and beyond. And struggle there must be. Too many people have suffered too much to do otherwise.
Nadia Hijab is a senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies and co-director of its Washington, D.C., office. The opinions in this piece are her own.
(1) Speech to American Task Force on Palestine dinner, 11 October 2006.
(2) See Anne Le More, in Aid, Diplomacy and Facts on the Ground: The Case of Palestine, ed. Michael Keating et al, London, Chatham House, 2005.
(3) In 1973 the United Nations General Assembly defined apartheid, which means “apartness” or “separate” in Afrikaans, as a crime against humanity that was not specific to South Africa and adopted the International
Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid.
(4) Israel suspended construction for a period of time and agreement was reached between Bush and the
late Yitzhak Rabin on the loan guarantees.
(5) See, for example, The Guardian 13 June 2005, “US acts over Israeli arms sales to China.”.
(6) See, among others, The Independent 2 February 2007, “After 40 years, could the ice be melting on the Golan Heights?”
(.7) See, e.g., The New York Times, 13 November 2006, “In New Middle East, Tests for an Old Friendship”.