By Allen McDuffee
George Bush has a commitment problem. On his recent Middle East trip, he had to figure out how to demonstrate his loyalty to Israel and appear committed to peace and the Palestinians, all while rattling his saber at Iran for the sake of Israeli and American hawks. A good start to achieving one of those objectives, of course, was likening Barack Obama to the appeasers of Hitler and the Nazis in front of the Israeli Knesset.
According to the White House, Bush was in the region to “reaffirm efforts toward peace and prosperity and our close work with regional allies to combat terrorism and promote freedom.” For many who have watched as the administration has ratcheted up the aggressive rhetoric toward Iran, it is understood that the Bush administration is looking to “regional allies” for complicity on their plans for Iran.
Naturally, Bush was also there to celebrate Israel’s 60th anniversary and to note that “[e]leven minutes later [after independence], on the orders of President Harry Truman, the United States was proud to be the first nation to recognize Israel’s independence.” He went on to say, “And on this landmark anniversary, America is proud to be Israel’s closest ally and best friend in the world.”
During this trip the president once again attempted to convince Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that Israel’s closest ally and best friend in the world is also the perfect third party to deliver an honest peace agreement between the two.
However, the Bush administration stacking the deck in favor of Israel isn’t exactly news to the Palestinians.
When Vice President Dick Cheney made an unexpected visit to Baghdad in March, that wasn’t the biggest surprise of his 10-day Middle East trip. More astounding was Cheney, arguably the sharpest-taloned hawk in the Bush administration’s war-hungry aerie, having been deployed to ostensibly do the work of diplomacy with Israelis and Palestinians. Cheney’s involvement in the so-called peace process is something of a cruel joke, despite White House claims that “he can certainly complement the kind of message that both the President and the Secretary [of State] have been consistently delivering to Israeli and Palestinian leaders about the depth of our commitment to try and make progress toward a Palestinian state.”
The real intentions of Cheney’s trip made the Palestinians the butt of the punch line. Although the vice president claimed that realizing a Palestinian state would require “painful concessions on both sides,” it was pretty clear Palestinians would have to endure the most pain when he told Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at their March 22 meeting that “our two countries have been more than just strong allies. We’ve been friends—special friends—and our peoples bound together by unique ties of history, culture, religion, and memory. Today, both our nations share the ideals of liberty, equality, human dignity, and representative government.”
The most encouraging words Cheney could offer Palestinian President Abbas was that “[t]he United States will commit resources to help the Palestinians build the infrastructure necessary for a stable, secure and prosperous democracy, and a society led by a government that joins in the fight against terror and honors the aspirations of all its people.”
Before Cheney’s departure for the region, a March 15 White House press briefing with a senior administration official foreshadowed a continuation of the pitiful and dishonest U.S. role in the process thus far: “And I think for what it’s worth, the vice president, in particular in Israel, has a long-standing and close relationship with the prime minister, but also with other very senior-level officials in the Israeli government, particularly the defense minister.”
These close relationships are not unique to Cheney, which might in part explain why previous visits by Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yielded no positive results and indeed may have only encouraged more violence.
Recall when, on March 6, a Palestinian gunman opened fire at the renowned Mercaz Harab rabbinical seminary, killing eight and wounding several. Abbas’ office issued a written statement saying, “The Palestinian Authority condemns any attack on innocent civilians.” In a phone call, Bush told Olmert that “the United States stands firmly with Israel in the face of this terrible attack.” Rice, having met with Olmert and Abbas in an attempt to resume peace negotiations the day before, echoed Bush’s sentiment. “This barbarous act has no place among civilized peoples and shocks the conscience of all peace-loving nations,” Rice said. “There is no cause that could ever justify this action.”
Yet Bush and Rice have had nothing to say about the five-day, high-intensity Israeli ground and air military operation on Gaza that began on Feb. 27, leaving more than 110 Palestinians and three Israeli soldiers dead. And despite the withdrawal of troops on March 3, Olmert promised more attacks to come, telling the Israeli parliament’s foreign affairs and defense committee that “what happened was not a one-off event. ... Everything is possible ... airstrikes, ground strikes, and special operations are being discussed.”
The Israeli blockade on Gaza enforced in October 2007 made food and other goods unavailable to Gazans. Between Jan. 14 and Jan. 20—one of the worst weeks of the humanitarian crisis—the amount of food entering Gaza was only enough to meet 31 percent of the population’s basic food needs, according to the U.N. World Food Program.
In the midst of this crisis, Joe Stork, acting director of the Middle East program at Human Rights Watch, remarked that “Gazans can’t turn on the lights, get tap water, buy enough food, or earn a living without Israel’s consent.” He continued: “Israel’s rightful self-defense against unlawful rocket attacks does not justify a blockade that denies civilians the food, fuel and medicine needed to survive, a policy amounting to collective punishment.” The Bush administration, however, remained mute as the events unfolded and attempted to let it all blow over.
With Secretary of State Rice as its driving force, the Bush administration has claimed to have recommitted itself to Israeli-Palestinian peace in this final year in office. Bush, alongside Palestinian President Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Olmert, attended the November 2007 Annapolis conference aimed at producing a substantive document to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the conference did not meet its goal. China, several Middle Eastern states, Russia, members of the Arab League, the European Union and the United Nations were among the roughly 40 other countries and organizations invited. Bush also visited the Middle East in January. But the effect and even the intent of this involvement are debatable.
“Contrary to what many are saying—that Bush hasn’t accomplished much in his trips to the Mideast—he has accomplished a great deal of harm,” says Francis Boyle, University of Illinois law professor and author of “Palestine, Palestinians and International Law.” For Boyle, Bush has only exacerbated the problems that have plagued the Palestinians for decades—the growth of Israeli settlements, the difficult living conditions of Palestinian refugees, and the further annexation of East Jerusalem into Israeli territory—by allowing these problems to flourish while trying to placate Palestinians with the lure of peace talks and the promise of a Palestinian state.
Boyle, a former legal adviser to the Palestinians, says that despite no agreement at the Annapolis conference, the gathering provided at least one reason to be hopeful. For the first time, he says, “tens of thousands of Palestinians of various political commitment—not just Hamas—protested the proposed Bantustan plan, and forced Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to reject the proposal,” referring to the condition of Palestinians as being similar to that of blacks in apartheid South Africa. The protest and outcome showed Palestinian democracy at work, but, Boyle says, the mainstream U.S. media ignored the story.
In his final State of the Union address, Bush reasserted a commitment to Israeli-Palestinian peace. “This month in Ramallah and Jerusalem, I assured leaders from both sides that America will do, and I will do, everything we can to help them achieve a peace agreement that defines a Palestinian state by the end of this year. The time has come for a Holy Land where a democratic Israel and a democratic Palestine live side-by-side in peace.”
As soon as the applause died down, Bush merged the Israeli-Palestinian issue with his bellicose stance against Iran, saying, “[W]herever freedom advances in the Middle East, it seems the Iranian regime is there to oppose it.” After again alleging that Iran has nuclear capabilities, Bush said, “Iran is funding and training militia groups in Iraq, supporting Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon and backing Hamas’ efforts to undermine peace in the Holy Land.”
The administration decided to pursue Iran even after the Dec. 3, 2007, release of the National Intelligence Estimate stating the consensus view of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies that Iran did not have a nuclear weapon, did not have a program to build a nuclear weapon, and was less inclined to produce nuclear weapons than the U.S. had earlier claimed.
As Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies points out: “How could anyone now claim there was any legal or moral pretext for threatening Iran? But somehow the release of the NIE did not stop Washington’s talk of war. ... The White House, the President, and especially the Vice-President, all continued ratcheting up the rhetoric. In fact, the president had been told of the NIE’s overall conclusions months earlier, back in the summer of 2007.”
And when Bush arrived in the Middle East this past January for his first trip to the region as president, Iran remained atop the agenda. According to Bennis, “One of his primary goals was to reassure Israel that the NIE had changed nothing in U.S. policy trajectories towards Iran and that despite the intelligence agencies’ consensus that Iran was not building a nuclear weapon, ‘all options’ remained on the table.”
To gain the level of regional complicity among Arab states to pursue Iran required some semblance of pursuing a peace process between Israelis and Palestinians that Bush had long ago abandoned when the 2002 “road map” for peace failed.
Israel was opportunistic in taking advantage of Bush’s rhetoric linking the Israeli-Palestinian issue, Iran and Hamas. On Feb. 10, Israel’s Interior Minister Shimon Sheetrit said Ismail Haniyeh, the democratically elected Hamas prime minister, is a “legitimate target” for assassination, and added, “We must take a neighborhood in Gaza and wipe it off the map.”
“Aside from the United States, Israel is the only country where the murder of foreign leaders is openly debated as a policy option,” says Ali Abunimah, co-founder of Electronic Intifada and author of “One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse.”
For Israel, the potential that Hamas could turn to politics presents a threat, not an opportunity, according to Abunimah. He says that Israel is more comfortable with rocket fire “than it would be with hundreds of thousands of Palestinian civilians marching on the checkpoints in Gaza or the West Bank” because “Israel has no interest in facing Palestinian leaders who are at once committed to basic Palestinian rights, capable of delivering, and enjoy popular legitimacy and support.”
“Israel may be trying to provoke more rocket attacks,” Abunimah says, “and force Hamas into abandoning its political strategy altogether to provide the needed pretext to ‘decapitate’ the organization.”
If this sounds unlikely, consider the remarks of Tzachi Hanegbi, chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, who, according to a Feb. 5 Reuters report, declared on Israel Radio that “there’s no difference between those who wear a suicide suit and a diplomat’s suit.”
In this environment, Bush’s “new cause for hope” is difficult to imagine.
Allen McDuffee writes on politics and Middle East affairs and is currently at work on a book, “No Child Left Unrecruited.” He lives in Brooklyn.
AP photo / Kevin Frayer
Two women ride a Jerusalem bus featuring a poster of President Bush that was sponsored by a right-wing Israeli group.