Obama dims Hopes for a New Middle East Policy

"Send us 30,000 scholars instead. Or 30,000 engineers. But don’t send more troops–it will just bring more violence."

— Afghan Parliamentarian Shukria Barrakzai in The Christian Science Monitor, March 1, 2009.

If hopes were made of glass, the sound of their shattering since Jan. 20 would be deafening. In dealing with a worldwide depression President Barack Obama has adopted innovative solutions substantially different from those of his predecessors, but in dealing with the equally dire situation in the Middle East he seems committed to a policy that has consistently failed.

The change of American presidents will not mean a foreseeable end to the war in Afghanistan or even to the U.S. occupation of Iraq, where 50,000 U.S. troops will remain until 2011 and possibly later. Even more disappointing is the absence of any change in policy toward Israel. When pro-Israel zealots objected to the nomination of Ambassador Charles Freeman as head of the National Intelligence Council because he had criticized Israel, Obama scuttled his director of national intelligence’s nominee. Despite Amnesty International’s charge that Israel had committed “serious violations of international law and human rights abuses,” Obama renewed George W. Bush’s pledge to send Israel $30 billion for weapons over the next 10 years.

That pledge means continuing to send Israel the equipment it used to kill 1,434 Gazans between Dec. 27 and Jan. 19, weapons that included F-16 bombers, Hellfire missiles, attack helicopters, white phosphorous bombs, and an anti-personnel device known as “Defense Inert Metal Explosive” (DIME). The new missile is similar to but more lethal than cluster bombs. On explosion the DIME spreads micro shrapnel throughout the body, causing multiple fractures that can’t be dealt with surgically. A patient who survives is almost certain to suffer septicemia and a deadly form of cancer. Congress approved a $77 million sale of 1,000 DIMEs to Israel in 2008.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton set the tone for administration policy at an international conference in Egypt held to raise funds for the relief of Gaza. She expressed deep sympathy for the suffering of the Gazans, but laid the blame for it on Hamas. When she visited the West Bank during her trip she told a Palestinian audience that in order for a child in Gaza to have the same right as other children to “go to school, see a doctor and live with a roof over her head,” they must “break the cycle of rejection and resistance, [and] cut the strings pulled by those who exploit the suffering of innocent Palestinians.” What she meant was: Get rid of Hamas.

Clinton paid lip service to the Arab peace proposal of 2002, which offered full peace with Israel in exchange for Israel’s withdrawal to its 1967 borders, but instead of chastising Israel for not accepting it, she called on the Arabs to “begin signalling through words and deeds that the spirit of the peace initiative can begin to govern attitudes toward Israel now.” In other words, the obligation to make peace lies with Arab leaders, even as Israel remains unyielding in its rejection of their proposal.

International donors pledged some $3 billion in aid to Gaza, and Clinton promised an additional $600 million, with most of the money going to the Palestinian Authority, headed by President Mahmoud Abbas. How much aid will actually reach Gaza is questionable, since contributors stipulated that no money may be given to Hamas, which has controlled Gaza since 2007, when it put down down an attempt by U.S.-trained Fatah forces to oust it from the unity government.

Efforts to funnel aid to Gaza through nongovernmental organizations face obstacles set up by Israel, which refuses to permit entry of cement, steel, and other materials necessary to rebuild the police stations, public buildings, health care centers, science laboratories, businesses, and thousands of homes it destroyed. The Israelis allow in only a trickle of necessities such as food and medicine.

Obama and Clinton have vowed to pursue peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, but their refusal to include Hamas in the negotiations promises to doom their effort from the start. Given the respect Hamas won from Palestinians for standing up to Israel’s military might, and Abbas’ demonstrated weakness, Hamas will have to play a role in drawing up any peace agreement acceptable to all Palestinians.

Hamas’ popularity in the region increases with every act of cruelty inflicted by Israel. It has long abandoned its goal of destroying the Jewish state and is willing to talk peace. Its leaders insist only that Israel withdraw completely to its 1967 borders. Since almost all Palestinians support this demand, which is based on U.N. Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, there is no reason why the Obama administration shouldn’t recognize Hamas as a legitimate negotiating partner. The British government recently showed the way by announcing it was re-establishing contact with Hezbollah, acknowledging that the organization is “part and parcel of the national fabric in Lebanon.”

The one-sided demand that Hamas recognize the Jewish state’s right to exist in order to take part in negotiations became even more untenable in March with the formation of an Israeli government that opposes even a semblance of a Palestinian state. The platform of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud party asserts that “The government of Israel rejects the establishment of a Palestinian State west of the Jordan River…Settlement of the land is a clear expression of the unassailable right of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel…The Jewish communities in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza are the realization of Zionist values.”

Netanyahu’s governing coalition includes two additional right-wing parties, Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas, both of which represent nationalist settlers and ultra-Orthodox Jews who declare any return of Palestinian territory an offense against God. Shas’ chairman, Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, claimed Hurricane Katrina was God’s punishment for Bush’s support of Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza. Shas was given the Housing Ministry and will supervise settlement construction.

A Labor Alternative?

The Labor party became the third member of the coalition when Netanyahu agreed to reappoint its chairman, Ehud Barak, as defense minister. Barak is a member of the hawkish wing of the party, which split 680 to 507 to join Netanyahu’s government. At Camp David in 2000 then-Prime Minister Barak offered the Palestinians a truncated “state” composed of a chunk of West Bank territory surrounded by Israeli settlements, military bases and highways. He walked out of follow-up negotiations in Taba, Egypt, days before Israel’s Feb. 6, 2001 election in which he was defeated by Ariel Sharon–”and when Israeli and Palestinian negotiators reportedly were close to agreement. As defense minister, Barak planned Israel’s 22-day assault on Gaza that shocked the world with its massive destructiveness.

Netanyahu caused a ripple abroad when he named an outspoken hawk, Avigdor Lieberman of Yisrael Beiteinu, as foreign minister. Lieberman favors action against Iran to stop its nuclear activities, and proposes that Israeli Palestinians be required to sign a loyalty oath to the Jewish state or be deported. His appointment is in line with Netanyahu’s emphasis on Iran’s nuclear program as the greatest danger Israel faces, with the Palestinian issue of far less importance. Lieberman’s appointment may be a signal that Israel and its supporters will press hard for a tougher U.S. policy toward Iran.

Javier Solano, foreign affairs chief for the European Union, reacted to Netanyahu’s election with consternation. “Let me say very clearly,” he said, “that the way the EU will relate to an Israeli government that is not committed to a two-state solution will be very, very different.”A Haaretz editorial commented that “The ascent of politicians like Avigdor Lieberman is always an indication that a democracy has lost its direction and seeks to channel its fear and hopelessness into hatred.”

The election outcome reflected the overt racism that pervades much of the Israeli population, especially settlers, police and members of the army. Haaretz correspondent Amira Hass visited Gaza after Israel’s invasion ended, and found walls covered with graffiti saying such things as, “We came to annihilate you,” “Death to Arabs,” and “We came to liquidate you.” Families forced to evacuate their homes returned to find their furniture and other possessions smashed and used as toilets. Haaretz reported on March 21 that soldiers were ordering T-shirts showing bombed out mosques and dead Palestinian babies. One shirt bore a picture of a pregnant woman with a bulls-eye imprinted on her belly, saying “1 shot, 2 kills.”

Soldiers in the West Bank are often equally brutal. After a recent increase in military raids, The Guardian reported that soldiers were storming into homes in the middle of the night, destroying furniture and other goods, and either making arrests or threatening to return. At least 10 high-ranking Hamas officials have been re-arrested, along with hundreds of other Palestinians. Most are accused of taking part in protests against the separation wall that intrudes on village land.

Although these demonstrations are almost entirely nonviolent, Israeli troops routinely fire tear gas, rubber bullets and sometimes live ammunition at the participants. They have killed at least four Palestinians in the past year, including a 10-year-old boy. Such behavior went unnoticed by the U.S. media until mid-March, when an American, Tristan Anderson, took part in a protest in the town of Ni’lin and was gravely injured by a tear gas canister fired at random by an Israeli soldier.

The powerful influence of right-wing settlers no matter which government is in power was illustrated in March when the previous Ministry of Housing announced plans to double the number of West Bank settlers by building 73,000 more units. Settlement construction increased by 60 percent after Bush’s peace conference at Annapolis in November 2007.

Just before Clinton’s visit to Ramallah in March, the government also began tearing down the first of 1,500 homes in Arab East Jerusalem to make way for historical parks, claiming the owners lacked permits. Clinton called Israel’s actions “unhelpful,” but when she was questioned about Israel’s continued settlement expansion, declined to give a direct answer. Like Israeli officials, she noticeably avoided using the word “settlements.”

Clinton was similarly vague on the issue of Gaza’s border crossings. “We have obviously expressed concern,” she said, but implied that Hamas’ continued rocketing was to blame. Her spokesman, Robert Wood, dismissed as “biased” a report by the U.N.’s human rights investigator, Prof. Richard Falk, on the desperate plight of Gaza’s population.

The Kadima government under Tzipi Livni did everything possible to prevent creation of an independent Palestinian state while maintaining the fiction of seeking a two-state solution.The Israeli government is now dominated by right-wing nationalists whose avowed goal, as Prof. Ze’ev Sternhell of Hebrew University describes it, is “a colonial state that stretches from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River.” Obama therefore has to choose between ending U.S. support for Israel or subsidizing Israel’s efforts to achieve permanent dominance over the Palestinians.

The president must make equally crucial decisions regarding Iraq and Afghanistan. His declared plan is to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq by 2011, as the Status of Forces Agreement requires, but that document can always be amended if the security situation worsens and a weak Iraqi government asks for continued protection. Obama has not mentioned removing from Iraq the 190,000 private contractors or the dozen or more U.S. military bases that resemble self-contained American cities.

Obama’s decision to send 21,000 more troops to Afghanistan and extend the war into Pakistan could entrap him in an open-ended conflict that could deepen ethnic and political divisions in nuclear-armed Pakistan, and pose a threat to U.S. security. Brian Urquhart, former U.N. undersecretary-general, has pointed out that Operation Desert Storm in 1991 “created a permanent U.S. military presence in the Gulf, which, in Saudi Arabia, provided the proximate cause for the birth of al-Qaeda.” A continuing U.S. presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan could have similar consequences.

The administration’s strategy is now aimed at ending the use by the Taliban and al-Qaeda of safe havens in Pakistan to launch their attacks, and strengthening the central government in Kabul. But that plan faces several obstacles. Air attacks and ground raids by U.S.-led forces inevitably kill civilians and account for much of the anger that has turned most of the Afghan population against the war and sparked anti-government violence in Pakistan.

A strong national government runs counter to the Afghan tradition of tribal and village leadership and is additionally suspect in view of the Karzai government’s corruption and failure to improve life for ordinary Afghans. According to Oren Tripp, who has spent the past two years in Afghanistan as a Truman National Security Fellow, the Kabul government has failed to provide even the most basic services or maintain a minimum of stability. It has consequently left a vacuum that “the Taliban is filling, one village at a time.”

Many foreign policy analysts suggest that the sensible way to counter extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan is to isolate al-Qaeda from the Pashtun tribesmen and other diverse groups that come under the heading of “Taliban.” These fighters bitterly oppose the presence of Western armies, but have no interest in exporting terrorism. Many members of the Taliban are not religious fundamentalists, but farmers and unemployed laborers who joined the Taliban in order to earn $200 a month. The message from Tripp and other experts is that restoring the economy would bring about peace far faster than drone-fired missiles.

The Bush administration proved at great cost that a nation cannot impose its will on another people through military force. Obama will succeed in Afghanistan only by withdrawing all U.S. troops and providing aid for agriculture, schools, and roads. He will make America and the world safer if he takes into account the grievances that cause terrorism, and abandons the policy of blind support for Israel.