American-Israeli honeymoon ruined by talk of a Palestinian state

In the past, the few sporadic arguments between the US and Israel could have been likened to bouts of sibling rivalry, or to the inevitable squabbles that happen even in the best of families. The quarrels were unpleasant but brief, as both sides never forgot that in the end, they were bound by relations strong enough to overcome any misunderstanding. If they ever disagreed, the US and Israel eventually ended up supporting each other against the world.

The US (big brother) could always be counted on to be there for Israel (juvenile sister), excusing her every fault and giving the impression that big brother was in charge. And when they agreed, America also seemed to be leading, when in fact Israel led the dance most of the times.

A classic example of this pattern can be taken from the recent American and Israeli walkout from the World Racism Conference in Durban, South Africa, when Shimon Peres, Israel’s foreign minister, explained on Israeli Radio why it would be preferable for the US to appear as the leader. “We will not do anything before the United States, to avoid the impression that the United States is serving Israel,” elaborated Peres. “I can even say with appropriate modesty that the United States is slightly bigger than Israel, slightly stronger, and its voice carries more weight. So we have decided to be second voice, not first voice.”

Modest Israel had thus decided that the slightly bigger and slightly stronger US should indeed appear to lead the way in many incidents of American-Israeli cooperation, as any big brother should. Lately, however, the relationship between the two states has begun to be much more evocative of a marital one, with the US as the weary husband, and Israel as the jealous wife.

Much has been said about Ariel Sharon’s recent pathetic accusations that likened Israel to the sacrificed Czechoslovakia of 1938, and that warned the leader of the free world not to try to “appease” the Arabs at its expense a la Chamberlain. The Bush administration was understandably infuriated by this outburst, when all the US has ever done was support Israel. Not only is Israel far from being a Czechoslovakia, but everyone knows full well that the only appeasement that has taken place for several decades has been that of Israel at the expense of Arabs.

Upset, but not upset enough to break-up, the Bush administration exclaimed yet again its unwavering devotion to Israel. While bitterly deploring Sharon’s statements, US officials went out of their way to remind Israel of its status in America’s heart. Ari Fleischer, White House spokesman, said: “The president believes these remarks are unacceptable. Israel could have no better or stronger friend than the US and no better friend than President Bush.” As for Secretary of State Colin Powell, he clearly tried to downplay the row in-between frantic phone conversations with Sharon, saying that “from time to time, we’ll have these little cloudbursts, but that doesn’t affect the strength of our relationship.” Of course, as all couples know, marital bliss eventually returns when the foundation is deep enough, and when one of the partners is reassuring enough.

While America loudly protested its “innocence” at abandoning Israel, Sharon pushed his hysterical jolted-wife act to the limit, demonstrating utter contempt for the Bush administration’s first real attempts to rally Arab support, to propose new ideas for peace in the Occupied Territories, and even to contemplate the actual establishment of a Palestinian state. God forbid, Sharon must have thought. Ever the bulldozer, he increased the pace of his military assault and ordered the heaviest offensive this year on Palestinians.

In true “couple who had a dispute, kissed and made up” fashion, both American and Israeli officials quickly declared that the row was over when Sharon expressed regret for his comments. Sharon concluded “it’s completely behind us.” But the new honeymoon might not be long-lived this time: unfortunately for Sharon, another US friend (who unlike Israel is actively fighting alongside America to achieve “enduring freedom”) has also been referring to the concept of a Palestinian state, and playing host to Yasser Arafat. One can only imagine Sharon’s angst and that of his spokesman, Raanan Gissin, who is obviously just as confused as his boss.

Referring to Arafat’s Monday meeting with Tony Blair, Gissin said that it “certainly won’t be conducive to forcing Arafat to stop terrorism, which he has not done.” In their frustration, Gissin and Sharon forget that only last week they were congratulating Arafat precisely for “taking measures against terrorists” (ie killing students).

Speaking after his meeting with Arafat on Monday, the British prime minister clearly indicated that he considered a proper homeland for Palestinians an inevitability. “The end we desire é is a just peace in which Israelis and Palestinians live side by side, each in their own state, secure and able to prosper and develop,” Blair said. “That is the only sensible outcome.”

While any reasonable person wanting peace would consider these comments encouraging, albeit vague and unlikely to elicit any real action for the time being, it is clear that Ariel Sharon (who can be described with many adjectives, but not “reasonable”) will try to hinder this newfound American and British conscience from going too far. Already, assassinations of Palestinian figures have resumed with a vengeance, and many other creative measures of oppression continue. Among other things, Israel has threatened to cut off Gaza’s electricity supply if it doesn’t immediately pay its arrears (which the PA hasn’t been able to do, suffering severe economic difficulties since Israel imposed a blockade a year ago). Israel has also seized yet another chunk of land in Gaza, to build a new road for Jewish settlers. No one is objecting.

If Sharon’s initial apprehension had been that the US and Britain really wanted to fight all terrorism (therefore including his), surely he now realizes that he is not on the list é which speaks volumes for Operation Enduring Freedom’s “objectivity.”

Despite the declarations by the American administration and the British Cabinet, the Palestinian people have been increasingly suppressed not only by Israel, but by the Palestinian Authority itself. The latter, not content with its recent clamp down, is awaiting the arrival of riot gear generously sent by the US, including an ample supply of batons to ensure that dignities, if not bones, can be broken. It would not even surprise me to hear that Arafat had to sign an affidavit prior to the shipment of the riot gear, promising that it would only be used on Palestinians, and not in self-defense against Israeli assaults é not that batons and helmets could do much in the face of F-16s, tanks and bulldozers anyway.

But in spite of this complete dominion of Palestinian lives, Sharon still seems to be worried. Perhaps he hides in his arrogant criminality a premonition of what might make an oppressed people snap. Hoping that America will not give Palestinians their fair due, and that the alliance against terrorism will not even try to punish him, perhaps he senses that in the end, it might be batons, and not fighter jets, that prove to be the catalyst in securing Palestinian independence. Perhaps Sharon fears his lifetime partner may not be able to permanently misguide an increasingly questioning public opinion. Perhaps Sharon worries that he has walked on the grounds of Al-Aqsa for the last time.

* Rime Allaf wrote this commentary in Damascus for The Daily Star

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