Seizing the moment


Ariel Sharon immediately seized the opportunity afforded by the Sept. 11 massacres at the World Trade Centre and Pentagon to declare that Israel too had its own Osama Ben Laden in the form of Yasser Arafat and that Israel would not “pay the price” of an American-led coalition against terror. With American attention focused on a domestic catastrophe, Israel launched huge attacks on Jericho, Jenin and other places throughout the occupied territories killing at least fourteen people. Pro-Israeli columnists in the US crowed that now at last Americans would understand the terror that Israelis live with.

But the US immediately saw its prospects of gaining Arab and Muslim support for its “war on terrorism” threatened by this behaviour and rapidly brought Israel to heel. The Washington Post, usually an unflinching friend of Israel and a reliable weather vane of official thinking, lamented that a “reckless” Sharon was “the first world leader since the crisis began to reject an appeal for cooperation by President Bush”. In a complete turn around, Sharon announced an unconditional ceasefire in response to a similar call from Arafat, as well as an end to “offensive” actions against the Palestinians. Initially the truce looked like it was holding – at least until Israeli tanks invaded Rafah killing three and demolishing houses. Yet Sharon continued to irritate the Americans by repeatedly postponing a meeting between Israeli Foreign minister Shimon Peres and Arafat. The two met only after the US ambassador in Israel demanded it take place “immediately”, dramatically abandoning the position that it was up to Sharon to decide when he was ready to talk.

There was nothing new in the substance of the “confidence-building measures” that Arafat and Peres agreed on. What has changed is the position of the United States. Given that the Israeli government remains committed to holding on to most of the occupied territories for ever, the prospect of the truce talks developing into substantial negotiations depends on the Israeli people waking up and choosing leaders who are grounded in reality, on much more US pressure on Israel, or on both.

Yet the developments since Sept. 11 illustrate that the State Department line that it is all “up to the two parties” is simply untrue and the US can influence Israel dramatically when it has the will to do so.

Prior to Sept. 11, the Bush administration, like others before it, had calculated that pressuring Israel would exact a heavy political cost from Israel’s powerful lobby for no obvious gain. In the post cold war era, it was thought, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict could be considered nothing more than an ugly local squabble – like that in Northern Ireland – of little global consequence. In the wake of the catastrophic attacks on its political and financial capital cities, America suddenly found it needed the Arab and Muslim “friends” whose advice and pleas it had assiduously ignored for a year.

The new US willingness to tame Israel is not unprecedented. President Eisenhower forced Israel’s unconditional withdrawal from Egypt’s Sinai peninsular after its 1956 invasion in collusion with Britain and France. In 1991, the first president Bush withheld loan guarantees to protest Israeli settlement construction. In those cases, as in the present, the US was prepared to put a perceived national interest first, even if it clashed with Israel’s preferences and angered the pro-Israel lobby. At a time of true national crisis, the president may also be somewhat insulated from pressure by Israel’s US supporters who might not want to appear to be putting Israel’s interests before those of their own country.

There is also a precedent to the miscalculation that the Arab-Israeli conflict could be managed indefinitely without the need for a just solution. In the early 1970s, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger practised “standstill diplomacy”. With the Soviets virtually driven out of the Middle East, Kissinger believed that the US could deliberately frustrate or ignore Arab peace overtures while Israel could fend off any military assaults with increased US military assistance and technology. The unpredicted and devastating result of this was the October 1973 war which Israel nearly lost, which threatened to drag the US and Soviets into a nuclear confrontation, and which provoked the Arab oil embargo that plunged Western economies into deep crisis. After that, the US became much more engaged, eventually helping to bring about the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.

There is no reason at all to believe that the criminals who murdered 7,000 people on Sept. 11 did so for Palestine, or out of any sympathy for Palestinians. But what is undeniable is that the continuation of this conflict, and American support for Israel’s occupation, greatly diminishes US influence and retards its relations with the Arab and Muslim worlds in every sphere. Much the same can be said of the continued US-led sanctions and bombing against Iraq.

For Palestinians there is a slight advantage here, but one that may be short lived. They should be under no illusions that a tactical need to put pressure on Israel means that the US has suddenly woken up to the justice of the Palestinian cause. Once the US gets what it wants from the Arab and Muslim countries, it may quickly go back to business as usual.

The United States is however likely to have less patience for the conflict and none at all for atrocities – such as suicide bombings targeted against civilians – that deviate from recognised and legitimate forms of resistance. If the Israelis are under pressure to end their assaults on Palestinians, Palestinians can expect to find themselves under as great pressure to prevent any kind of resistance that inflames Arab opinion against Washington. The Palestinian advantage will last only as long as an intransigent Sharon remains in power to embarrass Washington. If the Israeli people are canny enough to replace him with someone more acceptable to the Americans and Europeans, such as Shimon Peres, the Palestinians could soon find themselves in as dire a position as Sharon is in now.

It is time to question whether at this point there is more to be gained from continuing the Intifada as it has developed over the past year, especially if the price is to be more innocent lives. After a year, Israeli practices that the world at first viewed as shocking and inhumane – such as bomb attacks with F-16s and death squad killings – pass with little comment, and Israel’s formal diplomatic and trade relations with the rest of the world have been almost unharmed. It is debatable as to who fared worse, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that both the Palestinians and the Israelis scored net diplomatic and public relations losses during the past year, in addition to the enormous human and economic cost.

The horror of Sept. 11 has therefore produced an opportunity, but one which will fade quickly if not seized. Israelis, after a decade of deluding themselves that they can have peace, security and international legitimacy while continuing to plunder and colonise the occupied territories without mercy or respite, must contemplate the price they have paid for their own choices, and the misuse of their enormous power and resources. On top of that, they face the prospect of diplomatic isolation as countries like Syria and Iran are brought into the “anti-terrorist coalition” and out of their “rogue” status. The Israelis must pick another course and quickly.

Palestinians too must transform their resistance into a mass movement of civil disobedience that mobilises the entire society to demand a complete end to Israeli occupation and full implementation of Palestinian rights. There must be a commitment on the part of the Palestinian leadership to conduct the struggle by the same principles they say they want to live by – full respect for human rights, and full freedom of speech and political participation. If the Palestinians can do this, the sacrifices so many people made in the past year will not have been in vain and they will build an unstoppable movement for freedom and justice that no Israeli government will have any excuse or power to resist.