Israel’s actions from the beginning have directly contradicted the image it projects to the West. The founding of a country that was to be “a light among nations” required the forcible expulsion of most of its original inhabitants. The “Middle East’s only democracy” became the brutal oppressor of three million Palestinians. The nationhood that was to endow the Jewish people with “normality” gave them instead a garrison state in which military strength is the dominant value.
The most enduring myth of all is that Israel would welcome peace with the Palestinians and the Arab nations if they agreed to recognize Israel’s legitimacy as a state. In 1955 then-Prime Minister Moshe Sharett recorded in his diary a statement by Israel Defense Minister Moshe Dayan that revealed Israel’s true policy: preserving the unity of an immigrant population by discouraging peace efforts and maintaining a sense of permanent beleaguerment.
Dayan’s statement was in defense of Israeli reprisal raids against Egypt and Jordan, including an attack on Egypt that killed 39 people and put an end to a peace overture by Egypt’s President Gamal Nasser. “Without these actions we would have ceased to be a combative people,” Dayan said, “and without the discipline of a combative people we are lost.” The government’s object should be “to maintain a high level of tension among our population and in the army.”
With the exception of Jimmy Carter, American presidents and the Congress have bought into the image of Israel as a peace-loving country whose actions are intended only to protect its citizens from terrorism. Following Israel’s lead, Washington for years refused any contact with the PLO, and it continues to shun Hamas as terrorist. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Congress in April that the Obama administration would consider dealing with Hamas as a member of a unity government only if it renounced violence, recognized Israel, and agreed to abide by past agreements.
These demands, unfair to begin with, have become untenable in the light of Israel’s unequivocal rejection of a two-state solution. Hamas leaders have repeatedly indicated their willingness to make peace with Israel if it withdrew to its 1967 borders. Hamas also signed on to the 2002 Arab peace proposal that promised full recognition of Israel and was based on the same terms. The recent election of an Israeli government that opposes any form of Palestinian state means that Hamas’ position is now closer to Washington’s than is Israel’s.
The Obama administration nevertheless continues to insist that Hamas “recognize” Israel. Roger Cohen, a long-time foreign correspondent and now columnist for The New York Times, calls the argument over recognition “a form of evasion.” In a recent letter to the New York Review of Books he wrote that Hamas should be viewed as “an authentic, resilient, and many faceted political expression of Palestinian frustration rather than through the sole prism of terrorism.” He might have added that Hamas also provides much needed social services to the people of Gaza and restored order to an area that under Fatah was plagued by gang violence and corruption.
Israel has done its best to portray the organization as dedicated solely to terrorism by carrying out actions such as assassinations and truce violations calculated to provoke retaliation. Former British intelligence official Alistair Crooke recently told an interviewer for The New York Times that in 2002 he and a colleague spent weeks negotiating a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas only to have Israel drop a bomb on a key Hamas leader at the last minute.
Another target and near-victim of an Israeli death squad was Hamas’ current top leader Khaled Meshal, who in 1997 was injected with poison by Israeli agents in Jordan and saved only when King Hussein demanded that Israel send an antidote (see p. 46). Meshal nevertheless announced on May 4 that Hamas would stop firing rockets at Israel and he reiterated Hamas’ eagerness for a cease-fire. “I promise the American administration and the international community that we will be part of the solution, period,” he said.
A solution may be a long time coming, however. Shortly after his election, Binyamin Netanyahu told Obama’s envoy George J. Mitchell that Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish state before there could be any progress toward peace. Netanyahu also said he would accept only “limited Palestinian self-rule,” a term Israeli leaders use to mean giving Palestinians in West Bank cities control over not much more than garbage collection and street maintenance.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, the bad cop in Israel’s top leadership, took an even more extreme stand, declaring that Israel was not bound by the agreement it signed at the Annapolis peace conference in 2007 pledging to “further the goal of two states.” He also said that granting concessions to the Palestinians would “only bring pressure and more wars.” Lieberman, a former bar bouncer who immigrated to Israel in 1978 from the Soviet Union, has been under investigation for 13 years for receiving bribes, money laundering, and breach of trust. But since Israel’s new minister for internal security is a member of Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenyu party he has little reason to worry.
The Palestinians immediately rejected Netanyahu’s demand. Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat noted that the PLO had long ago recognized the state of Israel but said recognition of Israel as a “Jewish state” would negate the refugees’ right of return and deny full citizenship to Israeli Palestinians, who make up a fifth of Israel’s population. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told the Israelis, “It is not my job to give a description of the state. Name yourself the Hebrew Socialist Republic–it is none of my business.”
Although Mitchell has called for a settlement freeze and declared that two separate independent states are essential to peace, Israel is demolishing hundreds more Palestinian homes in Silwan, a section of Jerusalem that Palestinians have long intended to be their capital. Palestinians who have lived in the area for generations are being replaced by right-wing settlers, and Silwan is now called “the City of David.” A U.N. report released on May 1 condemned the house razings and said at least 60,000 Palestinians in Jerusalem were at risk of losing their homes.
Israel is also continuing to expand the settlements in the West Bank that lie between the Green Line and the separation wall. The barrier that runs for 486 miles along Israel’s border is in fact a giant land grab. Almost all of the wall is on Palestinian land; in some places more than 10 miles inside the West Bank. Its construction has already required the confiscation of 3,700 acres of Palestinian land and the destruction of 102,000 trees.
The Israeli government claims the wall is intended to protect Israel’s security, but it also serves to justify Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, according to Sari Nusseibeh, the president of Al Quds University. Nusseibeh was quoted by David Hare in the April 30 issue of the New York Review of Books as saying, “It’s like sticking someone in a cage, and then when he starts screaming, as any normal person would, using his violent temper as justification for putting him in the cage in the first place.”
So far criticism of Israel by the Obama administration has been muted. Shipments of U.S. arms to Israel have continued, and an American officer, Gen. Keith Dayton, will oversee the training of Fatah security forces for another two years. Those forces have been used almost solely to disperse Palestinian protesters and hunt down Hamas supporters. According to Netanyahu, the U.S.-trained police are an “apparatus that will fight terrorism.”
Nevertheless, the days of rubber-stamp support for Israel may be over. In his appearance before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on May 5 Vice President Joe Biden, after reaffirming America’s commitment to protecting Israel’s security, went on to say, “Israel has to work toward a two-state solution, not build more settlements, dismantle existing outposts, and allow Palestinians freedom of movement.”
The latest issue of the Report on Middle East Settlements, published by the Foundation for Middle East Peace, quotes a high-ranking Israeli security official who said after Mitchell’s visit to Israel in early spring, “The impression Mitchell left in the security establishment is that he considers the settlements a stick in the wheels of peace negotiations…It is possible that he will persuade the U.S. administration to impose sanctions and to begin…cutting the American defense aid…If that happens, that will be a dramatic decision from Israel’s perspective.”
Secretary of State Clinton gave the security officials another reason to worry. In response to Netanyahu’s statement that peace with the Palestinians was a low priority and that his first concern was to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, Clinton told a House committee that “For Israel to get the kind of strong support it is looking for vis-Ã -vis Iran it can’t stay on the sidelines with respect to the Palestinians and to peace efforts. They go hand in hand.”
Clinton’s statement should also worry Americans, with its implication that if Israel does resume negotiations with the Palestinians–which until now have been largely a sham–the U.S. will support Israel’s stand on Iran. Shortly after taking office Netanyahu said that a nuclear armed Iran would be “the biggest threat to humanity and to Israel,” and Lieberman carried the same message to European leaders in early May. A senior Israeli official said during a visit to Washington that Obama had only until the end of the year to “completely end” Iran’s production of uranium. After that point, the Israeli warned, Israel might take out the Natanz nuclear facility by force.
As Nadia Hijab, a senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies, points out: “Iran lives in a neighborhood with three actual nuclear powers–India, Israel, and Pakistan. Approaching Iran with greater understanding of its actual security concerns is a better way to make sure it doesn’t go for a nuclear weapon, and the wiser path to moving toward a nuclear free Middle East.”
Obama is not likely to adopt such a wise approach, however. His special adviser on the Gulf and Southeast Asia is Dennis Ross, who in 1985 helped launch the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank spun off from AIPAC. Ross was a member of the U.S. delegation at Camp David in 2000, and afterwards blamed Yasser Arafat for the failure of those talks. Arafat had turned down Israel’s offer of only a truncated portion of the West Bank as the basis for a Palestinian state.
More ominously, last summer Ross co-chaired a task force for Obama that produced a paper entitled “Strengthening the Partnership: How to Deepen U.S.-Israel Cooperation on the Nuclear Challenge.” According to an article by Robert Dreyfuss in the Nation, the paper proposed a coordinated U.S. and Israeli policy toward Iran that included plans for “preventive military action.” In a report for the neoconservative Bipartisan Policy Center, Ross recommended the “prepositioning of military assets” in the Gulf by the U.S. in case negotiations with Iran fail. Ross favors talks with Iran, Dreyfuss writes, but believes they should be limited to at most a few months. After that the U.S. should plan to take “kinetic action,” which could mean a military assault.
Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace, views such a proposal as dangerous. He doubts the Iranians have made a decision to build a nuclear weapon but believes they’re determined to have the technology, both for prestige and as an insurance policy.
Tehran announced on April 22 that it would welcome nuclear talks on its uranium enrichment program with the U.S. and European nations and was ready to offer a proposal to resolve the dispute. ElBaradei urges that the talks have no time limit and should provide for discussion of longstanding grievances. Given the mistrust that has been built up, the process might take as long as two years. Meanwhile, he says, it would be “utterly crazy” to attack Iran. “If you bomb, you will turn the region into a ball of fire and put Iran on crash course for nuclear weapons with the support of the whole Muslim world.”
If Israel takes military action against Iran Obama will be pressured to come to Israel’s aid–at the very least by providing war materiel and support in the U.N. Security Council. If he does, the “ball of fire” ElBaradei predicted will surely engulf Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the U.S. and its allies are already meeting increasing resistance.
American bombing attacks that kill large numbers of civilians have provoked more demands that Americans leave, and driven the Taliban deeper into Pakistan, where they have now moved to within 60 miles of Islamabad. The Pakistani army has fought back, but mainly with air strikes that have forced hundreds of thousands of villagers to flee their homes and aroused anger at both the U.S. and the Islamabad government. “We have no blankets, we have no food,” one woman said. “The army and the Taliban are not killing each other, they are only killing civilians.”
The Taliban in Afghanistan are now the umbrella organization for a variety of resistance forces who share the goal stated by one Taliban leader: “We will be content in capturing Afghanistan and throwing the Americans out.” Fighting is also sparked by local grievances. An article in The New York Times described the ambush of an American platoon by a militia composed of villagers who were angry at the government for banning logging. The reporter concluded that “Afghanistan is myriad wars within a war.”
Instead of declaring that the invasion of Afghanistan was a disastrous mistake, and getting out, Obama is sending in more troops and building a string of new military bases. Gen. David Petraeus said recently the war “will take the long haul,” but if so the enemy is certain to grow larger and more inclusive. Continued warfare could also weaken the already fragile government of a nuclear-armed Pakistan, whose collapse would pose a far greater threat to the world than al-Qaeda holed up in the mountains.
More fighting on behalf of corrupt and malfunctioning governments will not solve the problems of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Fundamental changes in U.S. policy in the region are necessary, starting with an examination of grievances that provoke extremism and America’s role in deepening those grievances.