Change and Continuity in American Mideast Policy

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The transfer of presidential and congressional power in the United States last week was a fascinating display of one modern form of democracy in action, including the delightful performance of Florida. The exercise of that power by the new administration of President George W. Bush will now be watched carefully by most of the world, including many of us in the Middle East, for signs of any changes in policies.

I would guess that most people here in the Middle East would be watching in vain. It is unlikely that we will see any significant change in the substance of American policy in this region, yet we probably will see changes in the tone, style and focus of American policy.

It did not take long for the new administration to signal how little things will change. The White House spokesman Ari Fleischer Monday neatly captured the continuity in Americas policy to Arab-Israeli peace-making when he said that President Bushs goal in the Middle East is lasting peace based on a secure Israel.

Secretary of State Colin Powell said more or less the same thing when he was questioned by the Senate during his confirmation hearings earlier this month. The security of Israel is number one priority; once this is secured, peace and rights for others in the area can be explored. (Notice the striking difference between the American approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Northern Ireland situation. In Ireland the two parties are assumed to have equal rights. In Israel/Palestine the rights of Israel are assumed to be more important than, and to take precedence over, the rights of the Palestinians.)

The point is that distinct American administrations and individual presidents do not make major difference to U.S. policy in the Middle East. That policy is determined by a series of forces and interests that do not change very much or very often. These include: deep and strong American sympathy and support for the State of Israel as the safe haven of the Jewish people in the wake of the Holocaust last century, and as a fulfillment of biblical prophecy; a sophisticated and perfectly legitimate capacity of pro-Israeli political forces in the USA to use their considerable influence in the American electoral system, especially in Congress, to generate American policies that are friendly to Israel; and a corresponding lack of serious influence in Washington by pro-Arab parties.

The resulting broad American tilt towards the Israeli position on Arab-Israeli issues has been clear for half a century, and will remain so for many more decades. What is surprising, though, is how many people in the Arab World still expect changes in the American administration to lead to changes in the Arab-Israeli situation. This seems to reflect the dilemma of Arab weakness and dependency on American military and economic support, which combine to generate a nave anticipation that things will change for the better with the new American administration. This is naivet taken to a very desperate degree.

The Clinton administration set new records in its deep involvement in Arab-Israeli peace-making. Perhaps it has little to show for its results, other than helping to cement and preserve the 1994 Jordan-Israel peace accord, and promoting mixed results from the inconsistent implementation of the Oslo process. The fascinating and historically striking aspect of all this was the amount of diplomatic energy that the president and his administration spent on Arab-Israeli issues, with countless trips, meetings, summits and crisis gatherings.

The dilemma for the Arab World is: despite this heightened American involvement in Mideast peace-making in recent years, the final synthesis of positions that came out of the Clinton years broadly gives Israel all of its key demands, while making Palestinian demands something of a Holy Land subsidiary or appendage to Zionism. Israel maintains the majority of its colonies and settlements that it built on occupied Arab land; it refuses to accept the Palestinian refugees right of return; it maintains control of large chunks of Jerusalem that it annexed; and it enjoys special security arrangements in Palestinian lands.

Making Israels security the number one goal makes sense from the Israeli and American domestic perspectives, but it is a formula that promises only stalemate in the peace-making department. For all his energetic and personal commitment to peace-making, President Clinton simply could not transcend the centrality of Israels security as the pivot and anchor of peace-making; he could not get to the point where mutual security and national rights for Palestinians and Israelis had to be sought as simultaneous and equal goals.

It will be important to assess the Clinton years and their unprecedented degree of direct US diplomatic engagement in Mideast peace-making. This was a truly historic phenomenon, with mixed results; but its lessons can be relevant for many other people in conflict situations around the world. One lesson that we continue to learn as we watch this transition in U.S. political power is that we should not expect any significant changes in American policies in the Middle East. Change, peace, security, and justice for all in this region will come from the will and realism of the parties in this region, not from the actions of global powers half a world away whose policies consistently favor one sides demands.

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