With Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon promising still more assassinations, including that of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, and with his cabinet approving a budget that expands Israeli settlements in the West Bank both inside and outside of its newly constructed wall, it seems clear that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is desperately in need of outside intervention if disaster is to be averted. In the past, there have been a number of instances where the United States was able to play such a role. But, it appears, no more.
Despite justified Arab anger with the current drift of U.S. policy, it is important to remember several past U.S. interventions that assisted peace efforts in the region. In 1956, for example, then President Dwight Eisenhower did act quite forcefully to rollback the Israeli, British and French aggression against Egypt. Even in 1982, after months of silence and acquiescence in the face of Israel’s grotesque invasion of Lebanon, then President Ronald Reagan finally did act to restrain then Prime Minister Menachim Begin.
Following the 1991 war to liberate Kuwait, then President George H.W. Bush’s and his Secretary of State James Baker’s firm opposition to Prime Minister Yitzak Shamir’s obstructionism and settlement construction plans cost the Israeli Prime Minister his reelection bid. And in his two terms as President, Bill Clinton often used more subtle, but still real pressure, to change Israel’s behavior vis-Ã -vis the Palestinians-from negotiations that led to the repatriation of over 400 Palestinians whom Israel had expelled into Lebanon, to the signing of the Wye Agreement, the first pact between a Likud-led government and the PLO.
In a real sense, the current situation is more desperate and more in need of intervention. But after over than three and one-half years of unrelenting violence and the near total destruction of the Palestinian Authority, there is no American help forthcoming.
Whether operating out of ideological conviction or cold political calculation, President George Bush has given Ariel Sharon a free hand, and he did so both before and after 9/11. On only one occasion, did it appear that Bush was prepared to act as a restraining force. In early April 2002, after a dramatic acceleration in horrific terrorist attacks and deadly counter assaults, Bush delivered a somewhat balanced ultimatum to both Israelis and Palestinians. He then dispatched Secretary of State Colin Powell to the Middle East to help stop the bloodshed and restart peace efforts. But, after facing two weeks of non-stop political assault from his conservative Republican base, angry at his Administration for putting pressure on Sharon, Bush responded by declaring Sharon "a man of peace" and placing exclusive blame for the situation on Yasser Arafat. In that one act, he sealed Arafat’s fate, seriously undercut Powell’s mission and gave Sharon the green-light that the Israeli leader has been taking advantage of ever since.
An unrestrained Likud-led Israel is a recipe for disaster-and the Palestinians are on the receiving end of this disaster. President Bush’s recent and renewed blessing of Sharon has only served to make a bad situation even worse.
Both the U.S. President and his Israeli counterpart appear to have calculated that there is no political downside to their behavior. For his part, Sharon has sought to placate his far-right opponents by more aggressively pursuing repression and violence against Palestinians in Gaza and by promising settlement expansion in the West Bank. With the Israeli left posing no effective challenge, the debate in Israel is now between the hard-line and the harder-line right wing.
Tragically, it appears the same is true here in the United States. With Bush’s Democratic opponent John Kerry endorsing both Sharon’s policy and the "Bush Declaration" in support of Israel’s unilateralism it appears, that if there is no change, there will be no serious U.S. debate of this critical issue during the presidential election year.
What has brought us to this sorry state of affairs? In part, it is driven by crass politics, with all parties assessing the costs and benefits-whether in terms of money or votes-of any action they may take. In part, it may also be due to the messianic extremist ideology of some or the absence of any ideology or any real conviction of others regarding this issue. And, in the end, it is also due to racism-a near total lack of compassion for Palestinian humanity.
In any case, left with no immediate prospect of U.S. pressure or any other external pressure, to restrain the current state of affairs, the Israeli-Palestinian dynamic continues out of control with the Palestinians remaining extraordinarily vulnerable to continued Israeli assaults on their persons, their lands, and their hopes. The damage that this has done and will continue to do to human life, to the search for peace and to regional attitudes toward the United States is incalculable.
This is not a statement of despair as much as it is a call to action. Those who care about Middle East peace, promoting Palestinian rights and saving the lives of innocents must act to challenge and change the political dynamic in the United States. It can be done. And too much is at stake to remain passive in the face of this urgent need.