Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness

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Nearly one year ago, the tragic events of September 11 set into motion significant changes in American Middle East policy that have had a negative impact on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The climax of that change was illustrated in the infamous June speech of President George W. Bush in which he nearly reclassified the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as part of the “war on terror.”

That was a dramatic about-face from considering the conflict’s solution to be one based on United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, which calls for ending the illegal Israeli occupation, to one in which the Palestinian efforts against that occupation have become illegal.

The other dramatic shift has been the administration’s transformation of the Palestine Liberation Organization and its chairman Yasser Arafat from partners in an American-led peace process into targets for regime change.

One can think of three reasons for these dramatic changes. One is the current American over-sensitivity to violence against civilians as a result of the tragedy of September 11. Second is the very successfully-orchestrated media campaign by Israelis and their US allies, a campaign launched days after September 11 and intended to mute the realization of some that perhaps American support for unjust causes and oppressive regimes including Israel was responsible for external hostility. The third reason for this change was the series of Hamas suicide bombings just a few weeks after September 11, which only aided official Israeli efforts to associate the Palestinian struggle with Osama bin Ladin’s attacks.

But American policy towards Palestinians and Israelis has always fallen victim to other developments–the war in Afghanistan being one example. Palestinians are now worrying a great deal that the next example will be the repercussions of an American war on Iraq. There are two main reasons for that fear. The first is that Israel might take advantage of the diversion to do really nasty things to Palestinians–more than has already been visited upon them. The other reason for fear is the possible association of Palestinians and Iraqis or the Palestinian leadership and Iraq, both of which would further discredit the Palestinian cause in the eyes of the American public.

Many Palestinians had in fact been hopeful that the most recent American encounters with our conflict here would create insight and spur the drawing of realistic conclusions–for one, that force never solves problems. They had hoped Americans would see that what is happening here as not simply the result of violence by a bunch of terrorists that can be solved with their killing or arrest, but a classic case of decolonization. Indeed, what motivates the Palestinian public is the desire for freedom, liberty and self-determination–values that should ring true for the American people and their leaders.

Instead, Palestinians were recently surprised to hear that, after the US administration had promoted elections as a main vehicle for Palestinian reform and eventual statehood, the administration has changed its mind. In fact, US officials are now pushing for the postponement, if not the completely abandonment of Palestinian elections scheduled for next year. Their reasoning seems unprincipled; when US officials wanted to change the Palestinian leadership, they thought elections would be a good idea. But when it became clear that Palestinians were likely to elect the same leadership, those same officials found that elections did not fit their political desires.

It does not seem off the mark, then, to say that the American government and the world’s only superpower, is pursuing policies that fall far from the requirements of international legality and the very values of the American people.

Mr. Ghassan Khatib is a Palestinian political analyst and director of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center.

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