The Mideast: A Widening Circle of Violence

My name is Ronald Bleier. I’m grateful for the opportunity to address you this evening on the topic of “The Widening Circle of Violence in the Middle East.” I’d like to begin with a few words about my background. I was born during the Second World War, in November 1942, on a tiny island called Lopud off the Croatian coastline near Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia, while my parents were escaping from the Nazis. Fifteen months later, my brother was born in February 1944 on yet another of these islands called Vis, as my parents continued their escape. In due course, my parents made it safely to a refugee camp in Italy where they were among about 1,000 mostly Jewish refugees who were granted temporary asylum in the United States by President Roosevelt during the war. About a year after the war, we were granted permanent residency leading to citizenship by an act of Congress during the Truman presidency. I grew up in Brooklyn, New York where I attended yeshiva elementary and high school and where I was indoctrinated in Zionism, an ideology that I didn’t question for many years. After graduating from Brooklyn College, I spent two years with the Peace Corps in Iran.

It was only in the aftermath of the 1967 war when it became clear to me that the Israelis did not intend to withdraw from the West Bank that my views slowly changed, and I was to meet with a series of disillusionments that culminated in my present anti-Zionist views. The horrific Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 made me understand some of the depths of the savagery and the ruthlessness of Israeli policy. The first Palestinian uprising in December 1987 sparked tremendous interest and activism on the Palestinian issue and roughly coincided with the publication of several revisionist histories by such writers as Simcha Flapan, Walid Khalidi, Benny Morris, Tom Segev and others which opened my eyes to the myths surrounding the birth of Israel. It was then that I learned that Israel was born out of the expulsion of the Palestinian people, out of racial discrimination and that a Zionist Israel, required cruelty and oppression in order to retain control of a second class population. In that connection I needed to look up and figure out for myself the definition of Zionism. I deduced that it meant the ideology that a Jewish state of Israel should replace the former Palestine. From this I concluded that Zionism is manifestly racist in theory and in practice since it treats only Jews as first class citizens.

In my yeshivas we were taught ethical, universal Judaism. We learned about the Torah, the Law of Moses. I was imbued by my rabbis with the notion of Judaism as a religion embodying justice, equality, and human rights for all. Only much later did I begin to recognize the reality of Israel as a state like other states, engaging in the very worst atrocities of which it was capable in order to further its political goals. And later still I began to recognize the special, terrible way Israel was different from other states since it acted with the full diplomatic, economic and military support of the United States.

My next great disillusionment was to find that I was alone among my family and friends in taking an objective and critical view of Israeli policy. I can still recall the moment in the early 80s that I broached my new views of Israel with my father, a dedicated Zionist. We were in a restaurant and his first reaction was to laugh at my ignorance and naiveté. He couldn’t believe that his son would take the side of the Arabs -” that’s how he saw it. His second reaction was to ask me to lower my voice lest others overhear my outlandish views. We very quickly had to agree to disagree on the issue.

I underwent another disillusionment with regard to the role of the media. I had already been something of a critic of the major media but it was a completely new world to learn of the power of the “friends of Israel” lobby to obscure the reality of the crimes of Israel. As it happened, my first publications appeared in the now sadly defunct magazine, Lies of Our Times. The rumor going around when the magazine died was that its forthright stand on the Israeli Arab issue doomed its funding in the post Oslo period. On the power of the Israeli lobby to ruin political careers, to stifle dissent and to procure political support and hundreds of billions of dollars in military and economic aid, I read Paul Findley, Moshe Menuhin, Donald Neff, Jeffrey Blankfort, Alfred Lilienthal and others who pointed to the dramatic and rigid control by Zionists and their supporters over the media and over Congress and the executive on Middle East Policy.

The Widening Gyre

Until the advent of the current Bush administration and the terrible events of 9/11, it may have been possible even for those sympathetic to the Palestinian struggle, to view events in Palestine and elsewhere in the Middle East, as confined to that area of the world, with minimal effects on daily life elsewhere. Needless to say there was more than an element of denial in such a view as we had to put to one side the corruption of our national discourse and the censorship of information coming out of the Middle East, not to mention the raiding of the U.S. Treasury of $3-6 billion a year or more to pacify the Israeli lobby.

But today, in the wake of 9/11 we are confronted with an energized and radical neo conservative movement that has led to the Iraq War and to the resurgence of Al Qaeda. We watch as our civil liberties are restricted, and our government pushes through massive tax cuts for the rich, and sweetheart multi-billion dollar wartime contracts for its political patrons, while piling on enormous deficits with no relief in sight. We watch as our economy falters, as our homeland security becomes more ragged and tattered, and we begin to recognize that we are in many ways as much the victims of war as are the helpless Palestinians, Iraqis, and Afghans.

Why did the United States go to war against Iraq in 2003? In large part, I argue, because of a domestic neoconservative agenda married to Israeli government interest in eliminating Iraq as a potential enemy. Those like Cheney, Wolfowitz, Perle, Feith, Eliot Abrams and others in senior government positions are interested in extending U.S. military power abroad not in the interests of democracy as they claim, but in order to sow chaos, confusion and international tension. They are engaged in overthrowing the international order and they believe in military might not diplomacy as the preferred means of conflict resolution. They might simply be termed bandits or international outlaws.

The power of the Israeli lobby to smooth the way for war was highlighted by the furor over Virginia Congressman Jim Moran’s response in early March 2003 to a constituent question during a town hall meeting. He said: that "if it were not for the strong support of the Jewish community for this war with Iraq we would not be doing this. The leaders of the Jewish community are influential enough that they could change the direction of where this is going and I think they should."

He would have been on safer ground had he limited his remarks to the leaders of the Jewish community. Jews, like many other groups, are split on the war. But the congressman was correct and extraordinarily courageous in pointing to the leadership of the major Jewish organizations, suggesting that they could have blocked the war. As a 13-year veteran member of the House, Jim Moran has been around long enough to understand how political power on Middle East issues operates in Congress. War against Iraq has so isolated the United States and made so little sense that were it not perceived as good for Israel, in all likelihood it would not have gained sufficient traction in the media or in Congress.

The power of Zionist interests explains in part why many high profile Democrats such as Senators John Kerry, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Charles Schumer, Barbara Boxer, Joe Biden and others voted to give President Bush the authority for war in October 2002 despite the manifest recklessness of the venture. They understood that opposition to perceived Israeli interests might well have a dramatic impact on campaign contributions since Jewish sources reportedly donate 50% or more of the total receipts to the Democratic Party. In addition to money, they understood that they would be on shaky grounds with regard to media coverage unless they played it safe and supported the administration.

Playing it safe seems to have boomeranged with presidential contender Senator John Kerry who showed in his October speech in the Senate debate that he well understood the dangers and recklessness of the Iraqi adventure. Nevertheless, he supported Bush and voted to authorize war. By that one decision alone, he seems to have put himself well behind the current Democratic front-runner Howard Dean. Kerry’s situation is a dramatic example of how subservience to Zionist interests pollutes our politics.

We are now in a holding period of about a year until the next presidential elections, where the Iraqi opposition seems to have put at least a temporary break on the neoconservative agenda, and their dreams of regime change in Syria or Iran. The Iraqi opposition has contributed to a new stronger domestic opposition, reflected in the insurgent candidacy of Howard Dean and to some optimism that regime change in this country might be possible. Edward Said, about a month before he died predicted that George W. Bush would lose the 2004 elections because of the Iraq quagmire. I would personally be more optimistic were it not for the advent of computerized and touch screen voting which may already have contributed to upset victories by Republican Saxby Chambliss in Georgia over incumbent Democratic war hero Max Cleland. In Nebraska, Republican Chuck Hegel won two elections where touch screen voting machines owned by Diebold, in which he has a part interest tabulated the votes without a paper record. In addition there were questionable results in Minnesota, Missouri and other states in 2002 due to touch screen voting. But all of that is another story.

While we’re waiting for the political situation in the U.S. to resolve itself, one loose cannon is Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Will Sharon keep quiet for a year, and not provoke any more suicide bombings that he can then use as a pretext to take some provocative action against the Palestinians or the Syrians or the Iranians? Or will he find a way to take advantage of this interim period to provoke some large-scale operation. About a month ago, the U.S. and Israel leaked the news that Israel’s fleet of Dolphin class submarines are deployed with U.S. supplied Harpoon cruise missiles armed with nuclear warheads — information which may or may not be true. Why did they leak this intelligence? Are they contemplating an adventure somewhere? Are they afraid of some pre-emptive attack against Israel? Are they delivering a warning to Iran? We don’t know.

As part of our analysis, we need to recognize the new factor in U.S. Israeli relations in the era of Bush and Sharon, two of the most irresponsible leaders in two of the world’s most powerful positions. One important point is that Sharon has managed to carve out for himself the maximum freedom of action of any Israeli leader since the 1956 Suez War. Ever since that time, the Israeli government has made sure that it had a green light from Washington for its adventures. The same is nominally true today, but the Israeli air attack in early October on an abandoned Palestinian training camp deep inside Syria revealed that the U.S. government control over such Israeli adventures is weaker than it has been for decades. Evidently, the Israeli strike was not cleared beforehand with the U.S. government and the first U.S. response was lukewarm since the attack was an outrageous and unprovoked act of Israeli aggression. In the end it took about 24 hours before Washington decided to climb completely on board when Bush announced that Israel had every right to defend the “homeland.”

The Israeli attack on Syria in early October [2003] came in response to a successful Palestinian suicide attack in Haifa that killed 19 people. A pattern had been established. Sharon provokes a Palestinian attack, generally by assassinating a top leader of one of the militant groups such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad, or the Al Aqsa martyrs brigade. Then the Palestinians respond with an attempted suicide bombing, usually within a week. If the Palestinian attack is successful as was the case with the October Haifa attack, then Israel reacts with high profile retaliation. In this latest instance, the difficulty for Sharon’s government was to choose a retaliation that would satisfy the right wing element of his government, as well as the public at large that is used to such retaliations. An obvious target was Yasser Arafat especially since the Israeli security cabinet decided in early September to expel him. However, such an option was off the table in regard to the Haifa bombing, not merely because of the likely international outcry and because of U.S. opposition to such a plan, but because Arafat is extremely useful to Sharon’s government as he has been to previous Israeli governments. Arafat exists as a convenient punching bag, someone to blame whenever there is a successful Palestinian attack. Arafat’s usefulness makes it highly unlikely that the Israelis will act against him before they have decided and put into operation a plan for mass expulsion of the Palestinians to Jordan.

In the end, Sharon decided on the attack on Syria, being at the same time careful to minimize Syrian casualties in order to dampen the U.S. and international reaction that was carefully measured by the Israelis. As was pointed out, even on a segment of NPR’s Morning Edition program, Sharon’s technique is to continually extend the boundaries of his retaliations (read: aggressions) against the Arabs, confident in the knowledge that after the predictable uproar, a new reality will have been created. Later, when he embarks on yet another attack, he will be starting from a more aggressive position, from which he can ratchet up the pressure even further.

Ya’alon Speaks Up

An unexpected and most welcome fly in Sharon’s ointment appeared in the form of a dispute made public by Lt Gen Moshe Yaalon, the Israeli army chief of staff. At the end of October he complained that the tough policies against the Palestinians, the closures, sieges and assassinations are increasing Palestinian hatred toward Israel and fostering sympathy for the very militant groups Israel is trying to destroy. One hardly knows what to make of this since General Yaalon is notorious as a hardliner and seemed to be totally on board with Sharon’s most cynical plans. Only a year ago, Ya’alon emphasized that Israel was fighting a war of survival against Palestinian militants who must be crushed at all costs and he compared the threat by Palestinian militants to a cancer and argued that he was applying “chemotherapy.” Nevertheless, a hint of his newly critical, anti-Sharon position came in September of this year when he voiced public reservations about the Israeli bomb attack on Hamas leadership in a Gaza residential neighborhood in which the wheelchair bound Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin was lightly injured. But Ya’alon’s September comments were seen to be of a tactical nature. Now he has apparently moved to making strategic complaints. This comes shortly after 27 Israeli pilots signed a letter of protest stating their refusal to participate in bombings targeting Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. Finally, the rally on November 3rd at the Rabin memorial drew an unexpectedly large crowd of 100,000 people signaling widespread discomfort with Sharon’s hard-line policies.

Another problem for Sharon is that he and his two sons are currently under investigation for two corruption cases over political funding and the Israeli police most recently questioned him for seven hours at his residence. It’s not impossible that Sharon will have to step down from his position as Prime Minister as a result of this investigation, although right now I would say that the odds are not high for such a result. Nevertheless, the incident helps to underline the importance of Sharon at the top of Israel’s political echelon. There is a tendency in the public mind to underestimate him or perhaps to soften his edges, since he has attained the office of prime minister. However, we should bear in mind his unique capabilities to unify the country behind his draconian measures against the Palestinians, his ability to intimidate President Bush and the U.S. administration and his ability to make use of and to create opportunities to fulfill the Zionist dream of a land of Israel only for Jews.

What does all this signify about the future direction of Israeli policy? Is it possible to discern a real shift towards normalcy or will we soon see a resumption of the dynamic of terror leading to the fulfillment of Sharon’s plans to rid the former Palestine of as many Palestinians as possible. One way to seek an answer to that question is to look at the reality of Palestinian life as it is lived today, on the ground in Occupied Palestine. For a snapshot of what Palestinians undergo I turn to the testimony of Dr. Mustafa Barghouti who is currently in the United States to offer testimony and who appeared on Pacifica’s Democracy Now! on Friday November 7th. He arrives just as a U.N. committee monitoring human rights abuses concludes that the situation in the Occupied Territories was the worst ever last year. Dr Barghouti is the President of the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief committees. He spoke about the 482 Israeli checkpoints that cut the country up into 300 clusters of prison like entities that create havoc and make normal life impossible. He said that a recent 45-minute trip in the West Bank took him 9 hours in 11 different vehicles since travelers must change vehicles at every checkpoint. He said that 52 Palestinian women have thus far been forced to give birth at checkpoints. He spoke of one recent incident where a woman about to give birth was stopped at a checkpoint and not allowed to continue. An ambulance arrived but she was not allowed to cross the checkpoint in order to get to the hospital. She finally gave birth at the checkpoint and afterwards was not allowed to get to the ambulance and had to return home. It has been widely noted that the Israelis create checkpoints not solely for security, but they use them to harass and humiliate the Palestinian people and to show them that they are not welcome in their land.

Dr. Barghouti spoke about the apartheid wall that Israel is building. He cited the northern West Bank town of Qalqilya, with its 46,000 people surrounded by the apartheid wall. There is one gate for the whole town that closes at 6 pm, opens at 6 am. and is sometimes closed for days. He said that the wall and the checkpoints make normal life impossible.

Dr Barghouti’s case illustrates one of the hot issues surrounding the Palestinians, namely the suicide bombers. Many of those sympathetic to the Palestinians deplore the suicide bombings, putting them on a level with Israeli terrorism. In doing so, they ignore the pressures of everyday life most Palestinian youth are subjected to. They ignore the hopelessness of their situation as they confront the implacable Israeli determination to make their lives as harsh and as hopeless as possible. Many suggest that a better strategy would be for the Palestinians to emulate the tactics of non-violent resistance modeled by Ghandi and Martin Luther King. Would that they be allowed to do so! Such critics ignore Israel’s ruthless control over the situation and the Israeli understanding that non-violent protest is more dangerous to Zionist goals than is violent resistance, because the struggle for world opinion is crucial.

To give just one example from Dr. Barghouti’s experience. Amnesty International reported on an incident from March 2002 when Dr Barghouti was arrested and beaten after giving a press conference with the participation of an international delegation, including members of the European Parliament, delegates from the U.S. and other European countries. He had spoken about the disastrous impact on medical treatment of the Israeli closures of towns and villages in the Occupied Territories. As a result of the beating, he suffered a broken kneecap and various lacerations and bruises on his face and body. Luisa Morgantini, an Italian member of the European parliament also suffered bruises and other injuries as she tried to shield him at the al Ram checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah. Since Dr Barghouti had a world wide reputation he got off lightly according to the Amnesty International report which mentioned the cases of several other Palestinians who were members of human rights groups who suffered lengthy jail terms and beatings.

Many say, why can’t the two peoples simply share the land. But it doesn’t work that way in politics, which is the struggle for the control of resources. There are now about 10 million people struggling for a land that held less than 700,000 a century ago. The reason that the Ben Gurions and the Sharons of this world win out is because they demonstrate the ruthlessness to take by force what their tribe feels is necessary for their existence. In such struggles, it’s a tautological truth that the stronger side wins. Right now the overwhelming power is with the Israelis and the Americans, and there will be much suffering and tears and blood before that power is seriously threatened.


How do we speak of solutions in the face of such terrible and intractable forces in the former Palestine and here at home? I have always believed that the first step is to look the devil -” that is to say, reality -” in the eye, describe it, and understand it as best and as clearly as we are able. That is exactly what we are trying to do here this evening. The next step for each of us is to find ways to struggle for our visions and our dreams and our futures. There are of course no easy answers and no single answer. There is only a difficult and puzzling and impossible process and our job is to find ways to plug into that process and to make it happen. And for that task we are armed only with the hope that we can find the energy and the leadership and the unity to put us on a better path than the one we seem headed towards now.