Some years ago a prominent Palestinian attorney whose roots in Jerusalem dated back to before the Crusades recounted to this writer that he and a group of fellow businessmen had raised the money to build a much-needed cement factory in the West Bank but that the Israeli authorities had denied them a permit. "Why?" I asked without thinking. The attorney simply smiled and shrugged his shoulders. He was too polite to say, "It’s the occupation, stupid!"
That memory came rushing back with the news that Mitt Romney in a speech in Jerusalem on July 30 declared that the Palestinian economy lags behind Israel’s because "culture does matter." Speaking to American Jewish donors at a $50,000-a-couple breakfast, he explained, "As you come here and you see the GDP per capita for instance in Israel, which is $21,000, and compare that with the GDP per capita just across the areas managed by the Palestinian Authority, which is more like $10,000 per capita, you notice such a stark difference in economic vitality."
Romney did not bother to visit "the areas managed by the Palestinian Authority." If he had, he might have learned that the gross domestic product in the occupied territories was not $10,000 but $2,900, while Israel’s is nearly 10 times greater. He made no mention of the billions in aid the U.S. has lavished on Israel since its inception, or the fact that Israel’s routine denial of business permits forces Palestinians to buy Israeli products.
Had Romney gone to the West Bank and seen the long lines of pedestrians and cars waiting at checkpoints; the roads that Palestinians are not allowed to use; or the 26-foot-high wall that winds around Palestinian cities, he might have asked himself what effect such obstacles might have on the economy.
He might also have noticed the settlement swimming pools glistening in the sun next to Palestinian villages parched for water, and learned that the Palestinian Authority has to buy water from Israel at a price five times higher than what Israelis pay–”water taken from West Bank aquifers Israel appropriated from the Palestinians. But if Romney were interested in the facts he could have stayed home altogether and read the CIA World Factbook, which says: "Israeli closure policies [in the West Bank] continue to disrupt labor and trade flows, industrial capacity, and basic commerce, eroding the productive capacity" of the economy.
An editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle called Romney’s statement "a flub." But it is more likely that the presidential candidate chose his words carefully. He was speaking to a selected audience–”not simply Jewish voters but deep-pocketed supporters of Israel. One of the event’s organizers, J. Philip Rosen, is a former chairman of American Friends of Likud. In a 2007 article for the settler newsletter Arutz Sheva, Rosen referred to Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas as "evil," and called Palestinian society "pathological."
Sitting next to Romney as he spoke was gambling billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who has pledged to spend $100 million to defeat President Barack Obama. Adelson was reportedly the source of former presidential candidate Newt Gringrich’s remark that Palestinians were "an invented" people. Gingrich received some $10 million from Adelson before dropping out of the race.
The Republican party in recent years has made support for Israel a key issue in its platform, on a par with tax cuts for the rich and reduced spending for the poor. The approach was originally intended to win over traditionally pro-Democratic Jewish voters, but is now aimed at a variety of groups, including weapons manufacturers, Christian evangelicals, corporate executives who admire Israel’s high-tech economy, and neocon hawks eager once again to intervene in the Middle East.
A longtime member of the latter group, Dan Senor, has been Romney’s closest foreign policy adviser and friend since 2006. Senor, one of the leading supporters of the war in Iraq, was chief spokesperson for the Coalition Provisional Authority under Paul Bremer, boasting of the invasion’s success even as Iraq descended into chaos. His book Start-up Nation attributes Israel’s success to its entrepreneurial spirit and culture, and was the obvious inspiration for Romney’s theme at the Jerusalem fund-raiser. Senor’s sister, Wendy Senor Singer, runs AIPAC’s Jerusalem office.
A telling indicator of what Romney’s Middle East policy would be under Senor’s guidance was described by Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East adviser to both Democratic and Republican secretaries of state. According to Miller, Senor "has an acute sensitivity and sensibility toward Israeli security interests…a filter through which he, and should he get to be president, Romney, sees the whole panoply of issues in the Middle East."
Instead of exposing the dangers of Romney’s approach to the Middle East, President Obama chose to demonstrate his own dedication to Israel. As Romney left for Jerusalem, the administration released an additional $70 million in military aid to help the Israelis expand production of a missile defense system. Obama then signed a bill increasing military and civilian cooperation with Israel. The measure was further proof of "America’s unshakable commitment to Israel," the president said.
Having turned the crucial issue of U.S. Middle East policy into a competition to see who can show the most slavish support for Israel, Romney and to a lesser extent Obama are playing a game that will undermine hopes for a just peace, and create more anti-U.S. hostility in a part of the world that is becoming increasingly volatile.
Israel’s right-wing leaders, knowing there will be no calls for restraint from Washington, are proceeding at full speed to complete Israel’s annexation of more than half of the West Bank. After pledging to expand the Beit El settlement by 300 units and announcing plans for 500 new homes elsewhere in the West Bank, the government proceeded to recognize Ariel University, in the settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, as Israel’s eighth official university.
The location of a major university in an illegal West Bank settlement–”as all of them are–”indicates that Israel intends to keep that part of the territory regardless of peace negotiations. The head of Israel’s liberal Meretz party, Zahava Gal-On, charged that the government "has brought Israel to a moral low point by establishing an institution on stolen land which forbids those whose land was stolen to enter the gates." One of Ariel’s course offerings, fittingly enough, is "Occupation Studies."
The number of Jewish settlers is growing by 4.5 percent a year, according to Israeli news reports citing data from the Interior Ministry. In the past year 15,600 Israelis moved into the West Bank, bringing the total number of settlers in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem to 650,143. The possibility of a two-state solution has all but vanished.
This is exactly what Israel’s right-wing parties are hoping. Knesset member Yaakov Katz predicted that by 2016 the Jewish population in the West Bank and East Jerusalem would reach 1 million, "at which point the revolution will have been completed." It is a revolution going on largely out of the headlines–”as is the human suffering it involves.
The government in late July announced it would destroy eight villages in the Hebron hills so their land can be used for a military firing range. The 1,800 inhabitants destined to lose their homes and their grazing land are "squatters" and "infiltrators," according to military officials, even though their villages have existed since the 1830s. Construction of the separation wall also continues to take more land from the Palestinians. When the wall is completed it will run far enough inside the Green Line to give Israel 9.4 percent more of the West Bank, and isolate 23,000 Palestinians on Israel’s side of the barrier. Palestinian farmers on Israel’s side will need permits to enter their own land.
Israel’s drive to rid the West Bank of as many Palestinians as possible while cowing the rest into submission has been especially hard on children. Between 500 and 700 children are arrested every year, and many suffer lasting psychological damage as a result. Children are also traumatized when their home is raided by the army. In a typical raid, masked Israeli soldiers in full combat gear break into a home after midnight with their guns pointed, often accompanied by dogs. As the terrified children look on, they ransack the house and, if they are bored, vandalize it. The army carried out 63 raids in the West Bank during the first 10 days of July alone.
Young Israelis also show the effects of an apartheid system that treats Palestinians as less than human. In late August a mob of some 50 teenagers attacked a group of young Palestinians in West Jerusalem shouting "death to Arabs!" and, as bystanders looked on, left several Palestinians hurt and 17-year-old Jamal Julani unconscious. On the same day, a Palestinian cab was firebombed near the West Bank settlement of Bat Ayin, causing the driver and five members of the Abu Jayado family to be hospitalized with severe burns. Some Israelis saw the attacks as a sign of increasing extremism in Israel. Nimrod Aloni, the head of the Institute for Educational Thought, said, "This comes from an entire culture that has been escalating toward an open and blunt language based on us being the chosen people who are allowed to do whatever we like."
Given Washington’s unlimited support for Israel, such incidents are bound to affect the way the U.S. is perceived in a region where hatred of Israel is unabated, and changes in leadership are rapidly taking place. In Egypt, where 70 percent of the public regard Israel and the U.S. as the greatest threat to regional security, recent changes in the civilian and military leadership are certain to affect Cairo’s relationship with those countries.
On Aug. 12 President Mohamed Morsi ordered the retirement of seven top military officers and reclaimed for himself the legislative and executive powers seized by the military just prior to his election. In place of the ousted generals Morsi appointed a group of younger officers who are thought to share Morsi’s desire for more independence from Washington. One of those officers, Gen. Sidqi Subhi, wrote as a student at the National War College in Pennsylvania that the U.S. military presence in the Middle East and "one-sided" support for Israel were arousing hatred in the region and continued terrorism.
In making his bold move, Morsi took advantage of the army’s weak response to an Aug. 5 attack in the Sinai that killed 16 Egyptian soldiers. Israel immediately blamed the attack on Hamas, and the Egyptians pointed to the 1979 peace treaty with Israel that limits the number of Egyptian troops that can be deployed in the Sinai. Analysts, however, said the violence in the Sinai was a result of simmering grievances in the Bedouin and Palestinian communities arising from the Mubarak regime’s long neglect of the area.
Whoever was to blame, it was the Palestinians who were punished. Israel shut down Kerem Shalom, the only commercial crossing into Gaza, and Egypt closed the crossing at Rafah, through which goods and people pass. Gazans who have suffered from lack of fuel, clean water and other basic necessities for six years under Israel’s blockade are now under complete lockdown, their supplies dwindling dangerously. Israel’s latest act of collective punishment is a clear violation of international law, but has aroused no protest from the U.S. and its allies.
In Syria in late summer, the long rule by the Assad family seemed certain to end as high-ranking military and political officials deserted the government and rebel fighters continued the struggle. With civil war raging and casualties mounting, the U.S. and Israel face a dilemma. Both countries would welcome the downfall of Assad, but worry about what will become of Syria’s chemical and other deadly weapons once he is gone. No one can predict the nature of the government that will take his place.
Splits have intensified among Christian, Alawite and Sunni communities, and there is evidence that Assad’s opponents now include al-Qaeda fighters and homegrown Muslim jihadists. "We are looking at the controlled demolition of the Assad regime," said Andrew Tabler of the AIPAC-launched Washington Institute for Near East Policy, "but like any controlled demolition anything can go wrong."
The Obama administration has wisely refrained from sending more weapons into the turmoil, and is reportedly working on a political transition that will restore basic services and restart Syria’s economy. It is an undertaking that would have a far greater chance to succeed if the U.S. had the trust of the Syrian people, including the rebels. But as Israel’s unstinting benefactor and often sole defender, Washington long ago abandoned the role of honest broker in the region. Lacking the credibility it enjoyed before 1948, the U.S. is likely to have little control over Syria’s future.