Imperious blundering


The Bush administration’s failure to effectively manage the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has given Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his military licence to kill Palestinians and commit war crimes in Jenin and elsewhere on the West Bank. As the administration waffles over taking decisive action that would help to move the situation towards some kind of political settlement, Israel is giving every indication that it will continue committing its crimes.

That Sharon is a loose cannon with a record of war crimes is well known to the American government. Given the slightest excuse and a helpful climate, Sharon was bound to use massive force to impose his will, hoping that, as usual, the Israelis would manage the consequences and avert the threat of sanctions. No other country would have been able to get away with what Israel has done in Jenin and other parts of the West Bank, and none would have been able so easily to scuttle a feeble UN fact-finding mission.

No one can deny that Israel’s behaviour would have been impossible without direct or indirect official American approval. Why, then, did the US administration choose not to take action to prevent this human catastrophe? Could the Bush administration have acted differently, and does it have the backing of American public opinion to take a different course?

One need not go back too far in contemporary history to find a possible answer to the first question. Philip Gourevitch of The New Yorker recounts in We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow we will be Killed with our Families (Picador, 2000) the horrific details of the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 and examines the world’s failure to stop it. Samantha Power has chronicled, in a long and moving essay in the Atlantic Monthly (September 2001) the shabby record of US foreign policy-makers (under the more liberal Clinton Administration) who stood by while Hutu militiamen and ordinary citizens, using firearms, machetes and garden implements, murdered some 800,000 Tutsi and politically moderate Hutu in Rwanda. Power concludes that “the story of US policy during the genocide in Rwanda is not a story of willful complicity with evil”. US officials, according to Power, did not sit around and conspire to allow genocide to happen. But whatever their convictions about “never again”, many of them did sit by, and they most certainly did allow the genocide to occur. She argues that without strong leadership, the American system will incline towards risk-averse policy choices. By failing to adopt a clear pro-active policy to stop what was already widely known to be occurring, American officials simply let things take their course.

What the Israelis did in Jenin, Nablus and elsewhere in the West Bank is nowhere near the human tragedy that occurred in Rwanda. Nevertheless, even a small massacre is still a massacre. Survivors’ testimonies and human rights reports indicate that the Israeli army did commit war crimes during its incursion into Palestinian towns and villages. Furthermore, key American officials did not just sit around and do nothing; many administration hawks were busy marshalling support for Sharon and trying to sabotage US Secretary of State Colin Powell’s mission in order to give the Israelis more time to get the job done.

The Bush administration refused to engage itself in the conflict for a long time, allowing it to escalate to dangerous levels. And when the administration finally did decide to become engaged, it adopted most of the Israeli positions, put pressure only on the Palestinians and succumbed to the manoeuvrings of pro-Israel hawks like Vice-President Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfewitz while offering only symbolic soothing messages to its Arab allies. In a replay of how the Clinton administration behaved in Rwanda, the Bush administration failed to exert leadership and let the system do its thing by moving towards risk-averse policy choices. By refusing to confront Sharon directly, the Bush administration effectively gave him carte blanche to do as he pleased.

Congress acts almost reflexively as a pro-Israel body, no matter how extreme Israel’s policies are. Within the administration, there are key pockets of hard-core supporters of Israel. At the same time, there are people within the administration who are afraid that aligning US policy with Israel’s excessive use of force may threaten US interests in the region.

Informed US public opinion is also not reflexively pro-Israeli. As recent polls show, the majority of the public does not endorse unequivocal congressional support for Israel in its current conflict with the Palestinians.

In a survey conducted by the University of Maryland’s Programme on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA), the majority of Americans favour a more even-handed US approach; they blame both sides for the continuing conflict and prefer that the US government work with the United Nations to reach a political settlement. In addition, the majority of the public favour an independent Palestinian state and view Israel’s actions toward the Palestinians as punitive. Majorities endorse withholding American aid to Israel (61 per cent) and the Palestinians (63 per cent) if they fail to agree to a cease-fire and return to the negotiating table. Surveys of American Jewish public opinion also show that this important sector of the American public is hardly monolithic in its views of the Middle East, with significant numbers showing deep anxiety about the course of Israeli policy under the leadership of the extreme right.

American policy may be based on notions of political realism or crude cost-benefit analyses made by various politicians. But it is most certainly not based on American public opinion. In fact, if President Bush were to come up with an even-handed initiative for a political settlement based on an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Palestinian territories, and on the establishment of a viable and independent Palestinian state living in peace and security alongside Israel, he would find majority support among the American public. President Bush might also be able to reverse the tide of anti-American sentiment in the Middle East.

It is unrealistic to expect such a role reversal on the part of a US administration that is so highly inept and politically short-sighted. Therefore, the worst is yet to come. The Palestinians cannot count on the US government or the international community to prevent further massacres. Sharon and his military feel that they have a free hand to do as they please. They may reoccupy all of the Palestinian territories and inflict more damage and, in the process, may even forcibly evict people from their homes. Such horrible scenarios are not far-fetched. The question is what will the Arabs do?

The writer is professor of political science at the University of Tennessee. He has conducted numerous public opinion surveys on US attitudes toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.