Saturday, October 07, 2006

Pessimistic view from Patrick Seale

Writing in Al-Hayat, Patrick Seale sees no attempt by the Bush administration to resolve any of the conflicts afflicting the Middle East. He argues that it is a small group in the White House that is fanning the flames of violent outcomes to the simmering disputes from Iran, to Lebanon, Syria, the Palestinians. Even Israel interests are not best served by US government policy.

by Patrick Seale from Al-Hayat 6th October 2006

Arab leaders are reported to be seeking a summit meeting with President George W Bush to persuade him to change course before the whole region goes up in flames.

This is the clearest indication that American blundering in the Middle East has reached such catastrophic levels that even the most moderate and pro-American regimes are being moved to abandon their usual caution and speak out in alarm.
Will Bush agree to take advice and criticism from a conclave of Arab leaders? He may be excused for thinking that this is not the right time. Under intense domestic pressure over the war in Iraq and with his attention focussed on November's mid-term elections, the last thing he would welcome is a public airing of his Middle East policies.

Bush may duck out of a meeting with the Arabs but he cannot ignore the signs of a gathering rebellion against almost every one of his policies. One such sign is the stiff resistance U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has run into on her visit to the region this week. Her reception was courteous enough - the Saudis, Egyptians and Gulf sheikhs are invariably hospitable and polite - but behind the diplomatic niceties was a rejection of almost everything she said or had come to achieve.
For Arabs, particularly wrong-headed is her attempt to downgrade the importance of the Arab-Israeli conflict in favour of a campaign to mobilise the region's so-called 'moderates' against 'extremists,' and especially against Iran. This is seen as a crude attempt to divide and rule.

The one thing the Arabs want most urgently from Washington is to curb Israel's aggression, halt its expansion, persuade it to withdraw from land seized in 1967, and force it to negotiate a just and honourable peace with its neighbours, which would allow the emergence of an independent Palestinian state. In this, 'moderates' are united with 'extremists'.

But it would seem that to hope for any such initiative from President Bush is to whistle in the wind. He does not appear to have the personal authority or the grasp of the problem to act decisively. His administration is paralysed by profound internal differences. Fervently pro-Israeli officials, such as Eliott Abrams at the National Security Council, can be counted on to sabotage anything the State Department might propose. After the debacle of the Lebanon war, Ehud Olmert's government in Israel, fighting for its political life, is incapable of any serious movement towards peace.

Meanwhile, Israel's nationalist-religious settlers, emboldened by the crisis, are busily expanding their scores of illegal outposts on Palestinian land, with the tacit support of the army and the government. Needless to say, the United States is doing nothing to halt this pernicious activity which, more than any other, is destroying any prospect of peace.
Condoleezza Rice knows it, but all that she found the will to propose was to ease, ever so slightly, the suffocation of Gaza by stationing international observers at the Karni crossing which Israel keeps closed most of the time. In the face of the current political and humanitarian disaster, such palliatives are wholly inadequate.

In the meantime, America's goals in the Middle East are either unattainable or are profoundly disruptive. What are these goals? They are to force Iran to abandon its nuclear activities under the threat of sanctions or military attack; to overthrow the democratically-elected Hamas-led Palestinian government by lending support to the more pliant Mahmud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority; to isolate Syria, depicted as an inveterate trouble-maker, and neutralise Hizballah.
As is now evident to even the most casual observer, the pursuit of these goals has produced the very contrary of what the U.S. hoped for. Rejecting American bullying, Iran is more determined than ever to pursue its nuclear program for what it claims are purely peaceful purposes.

In a recent development, it has suggested a partnership with two French companies to enrich uranium under French control but on Iranian soil. The two companies, largely owned by the French state, are Areva, the world's largest nuclear energy company, and its subsidiary Eurodef, with which Iran has had long-standing ties going back to the time of the Shah.
If America can overcome its paranoia about Iran and engage in a sensible dialogue with it, this proposal might provide a sensible way out of the current crisis. It might also serve to calm Israel's nerves, which continues to depict any breach of its regional nuclear monopoly as an 'existential threat.' Olmert repeated this again to Condoleezza Rice this week, apparently unashamed at the hint of blackmail in his position: if the U.S. does not act against Iran, Israel will have no option but to do so!

In Gaza, America's support for Israel in its attempt to destroy Hamas -- by besieging, starving and bombing the civilian population against all the norms of humanitarian law -- has brought this grossly over-crowded and suffering territory, where nearly 90 per cent of the population are below the poverty line, to the very edge of total breakdown.
When will Israel and America learn that the more the Palestinians are cruelly oppressed and the longer their legitimate national rights are denied, the more radical they will become, with all that this means for the future security of Israel and its American patron?

As for Syria and Hizballah, they can be neither isolated nor neutralised. They are essential actors on the Middle East scene. There can be no regional peace without the return of the Golan to Syria. In Lebanon, Hizballah is far and away the major political force. Any policy blind to these realities will be doomed to failure.

U.S. threats of 'regime change' in Damascus or Israel's nefarious habit of murdering its political opponents - the assassination of Hizballah's leader Hasan Nasrallah is openly discussed - are no substitutes for dialogue, compromise and true conflict-resolution.

Resolving conflicts, and in particular the Arab-Israeli conflict, should be America's top priority, as numerous present and former world leaders never cease to urge.

Just this week, 135 respected global leaders - former presidents, prime ministers, foreign and defence ministers, congressional leaders and heads of international organisations, including former U.S. President Jimmy Carter - have called for urgent action to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. They advocate a three-point plan: support for a Palestinian national unity government and the end of the financial and political boycott; final status talks between Israel and the Palestinians; negotiations between Israel, Syria and Lebanon, sponsored by the Quartet, the Arab League and key regional states.
These are crucial steps towards a global settlement. But so far, the U.S. is deaf to these entreaties. Bush and Rice speak of the creation of a Palestinian state, but do nothing about it.

Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair says that Middle East peace will be the main concern of his last months in office, but he has so far not translated his words into action. No doubt little can be done until the United States regains its independence of decision-making from Israel and its powerful American friends. So long as the Israeli tail continues to wag the American dog, no progress can be expected. As more than one Israeli has commented, this stranglehold on America's Middle East policy is far from being in Israel's best interests.

A second condition would be for the U.S. to insist on reciprocity from Israel in its dealings with the Palestinians. It is all very well to insist that Hamas recognise Israel, renounce violence and respect all previous agreements, while Israel refuses to recognise Palestinian political rights, kills them on a daily basis and violates every agreement ever signed.

A third necessary development would be for President Bush to outline in reasonable detail his parameters for a global Middle East settlement - as Bill Clinton attempted to do, unfortunately too late in his presidency - backed by some real political will and financial muscle.

The real questions are these: Can America change course? Can the structure of political power in Washington allow it? Or must the headlong rush to the abyss continue unchecked?

1 comment:

William said...

Interesting. Patrick is not far from wrong. The USA is abandoning its old pro-democrcy line in favour of a pro-moderation line. but Blair will take on ISRAEL-PALESTINE. And he will do it within days.