The election of rightwing leader Ariel Sharon as prime minister of Israel-while not unexpected-has sent shock waves throughout the Middle East. His participation in war crimes, his overt anti-Arab racism, and his refusal to endorse the already inadequate concessions of ousted Prime Minister Ehud Barak significantly dim the prospects of peace with Israel’s Arab neighbors. Yet what most people in the United States fail to realize is that many in Israel are openly blaming former President Bill Clinton for this disappointing turn of events.
Israel’s Ideological Spectrum:
Those who closely follow Israeli politics understand why Sharon won, and how U.S. policy affected this election. On the left of the Israeli political spectrum is the peace camp. This group recognizes the need to evacuate Israel’s illegal settlements from lands captured by Israel in the 1967 war, withdraw its occupation forces, share Jerusalem, and find a just resolution for Palestinian refugees driven from their homeland during the 1948 war. They are a minority, but one capable of gaining widespread appeal in a population which has lived for more than fifty years with the threat of war, more than half of that time as occupiers of a large, defiant population seeking freedom from military rule. Most Israelis, tired of a militarized economy and long stints of military service, would much prefer to live in peace and security with their neighbors.
On the right are those who oppose such compromises. They are strengthened by a belief that compromise is not necessary due to the umbrella offered by the world’s remaining superpower. They assume the United States will protect them from the enormous economic costs of militarization and occupation, and shield them from the diplomatic isolation which might otherwise ensue.
Most Israelis are in the middle. They are willing to hold on to as much captured land as possible if they believe that Israel can get away with it. Yet if they believe Israel will suffer as a result-i.e., by jeopardizing Israel’s special relationship with the United States-they lean strongly toward supporting the peace camp. This has been demonstrated on several occasions historically. Israel withdrew its occupation forces from the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip in 1957 only after heavy pressure from the Eisenhower administration. Former President Jimmy Carter successfully compelled Israel to withdraw from large swaths of Lebanese territory seized in 1978, and eventually from Egypt’s Sinai (including the controversial evacuation headed by Sharon, then defense minister, of Yamit settlement). Israelis narrowly ousted rightist Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in June 1992 only after the senior Bush administration announced it would withhold loan guarantees until Israel froze construction on new settlements in the Occupied Territories.
Due to pressure from 1992 presidential nominee Bill Clinton, Bush approved the loan guarantees in August without an Israeli promise to end their settlement drive. Settlements have since grown dramatically, making the establishment of a contiguous Palestinian state in the West Bank virtually impossible.
Several times during peace negotiations, the Clinton administration took a harder line toward Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinians than did Israel itself. The Clinton “compromise” on Palestinian autonomy presented in the summer of 1993 was less generous than what Israel was simultaneously offering the Palestinians in Oslo. Israel had to meet representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) secretly in a third country largely because the U.S. refused to allow the PLO to participate in the official talks in Washington.
On occasion, Israeli negotiators-first under former prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, and more recently under Barak-quietly requested that the Clinton administration publicly pressure their government to compromise more in the peace talks. That way, it was argued, these Labor prime ministers could tell the Israeli public that the country’s close relationship with Washington was at risk unless Israel made further concessions. For them to counter their domestic right wing, they recognized that they needed a strong push from Washington in support of compromise. The Israeli peace camp by itself simply was not strong enough.
The Clinton administration refused to do so. In fact, it did the opposite. When the Camp David talks ended without a peace deal last July, Clinton and other administration officials openly declared their belief that the Israelis had made more concessions than had the Palestinians. This played right into the hands of Sharon and other Israeli hawks, who could then claim that even the U.S. believed Israel was conceding too much and the Palestinians were offering too little in return. Within weeks, an emboldened Sharon made his deliberately provocative visit to the Muslim holy site, the Haram al-Sharif, provoking the Palestinian uprising. Since Sharon’s visit, 400 lives have been lost.
During this period, the Clinton administration-backed by the congressional leadership of both parties-continued to repeat the mantra about Barak supposedly offering unprecedented concessions. Meanwhile, Washington continued to blame the Palestinians for the violence. As a result, it has been easy for the Israeli public to view the Palestinian uprising as irrational and threatening, rather than as an understandable response to Israel’s failure to meet its obligations under international law and UN Security Council resolutions. These obligations include a full withdrawal of its occupation forces, evacuation of its illegal settlements, allowing for the return of Palestinian refugees, and sharing Jerusalem.
The Clinton administration made similar comments following the initial failure of Israeli-Syrian talks last spring, likewise effectively ending the possibility of a peace treaty in the foreseeable future. Again, this has played into the hands of Israeli rightists who insist that Israel needs to continue its illegal occupation of the Golan region of Syria despite Syria’s promise of enforceable security guarantees. Sharon and his supporters claim that Barak was wrong to offer an Israeli withdrawal from the bulk of the territory.
Even when a solid majority of Israelis favored an unconditional Israeli withdrawal from occupied southern Lebanon during the mid-1990s, Clinton administration officials publicly called on Israel to hold onto the territory in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 425. As a result, Israel stayed in the territory as the death toll mounted on both sides, not withdrawing its troops until last May.
Sharon as an American Creation:
The U.S. strongly backed Sharon as he led Israel’s destructive invasion of Lebanon in 1982, as well as other times he held high positions in the military and the government. Indeed, despite Sharon’s involvement in a series of massacres against Arab civilians in Lebanon and elsewhere over several decades, no U.S. administration has insisted that a man many observers consider a war criminal be kept out of government. Knowing that U.S. military, economic, and diplomatic support would continue unabated, Israelis dissatisfied with Barak’s leadership understandably figured they would have nothing to lose in electing Sharon prime minister.
In this sense, Sharon may be regarded as an American creation. Now, the new Bush administration is going to have to discern how to move the peace process forward with an ally so openly hostile to it. The U.S. will also have to explain to its Arab allies why it is willing to vigorously back a government run by a man so many Arabs justifiably see as a terrorist and a murderer. Many Palestinians and other Arabs may give up on diplomatic solutions when they see the chief mediator of the peace process backing someone who is clearly more interested in military solutions. Then they, too, may decide to turn to war.
There is a critical need for the United States to insist that the new Israeli prime minister end the occupation in order to avoid far greater bloodshed in the Middle East. Whether the new Bush administration is up to the task remains to be seen.
Stephen Zunes is Associate Professor of Politics and Chair of the Peace and Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco.