Secretary of State Colin Powell arrived in Israel April 11 calling on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to immediately withdraw Israeli troops from the West Bank. As of April 15, Sharon remains defiant, insisting that his troops must stay until full victory has been achieved. In Washington, Press Secretary Ari Fleischer remarked that Palestinian Authority (PA) head Yasser Arafat had to make greater efforts to stop Palestinian terrorism.
This minuet, played out in the midst of the now familiar carnage occurring in the West Bank as well as in Israel, recalled George W. Bush’s remarks on March 31, as he lounged outside his office/trailer in Texas. He declared once more that Arafat “had to do more” to stop terrorism if he was to have any credibility with the US with respect to the peace process. At that moment, Arafat was besieged by Israeli troops who had occupied all but one floor of his compound. The image of Bush asserting this platitude, already offered robot-like by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice for several months, established an aura of farce one would expect on “Saturday Night Live,” not in pronouncements emanating from the president of the United States.
As Bush spoke the Israeli retaliation for the Passover suicide bombings in Netanya that killed at least 26 Israelis was in full swing. This bombing had given Sharon what he had been looking for—the justification to try to destroy the PA and its infrastructure, along with its ties to the US. Sharon’s purpose should have been clear to administration officials. He has no intention of entering real peace talks, but seeks further Israeli expansion in the West Bank to suit his settler constituency. But Bush’s choice of words indicated that he identified with the Israeli prime minister. Sharon, said Bush, had a right to defend his “homeland” against terror, a significant usage of the terminology Bush saves for his speeches to the nation.
Yet Sharon’s demonization of Arafat as a terrorist, fully qualifying him for removal, was not matched by White House enthusiasm. Washington’s mantra was that Arafat was responsible for the terrorist attacks because he could stop them but did not—he could “do more.” But he was not deemed a terrorist because Washington would not deem him “irrelevant” as did Sharon. Arafat appeared to be essential to the peace process, and is considered the leader of the Palestinians elsewhere in the world.
Slow Boat to Tel Aviv
The incoherence of these White House statements was matched if not outdone by administration responses to Israel’s March-April 2002 invasion of the West Bank. Initial endorsement of the attack shifted to muted criticism as reports mounted of destruction and deaths that have led three Israeli peace organizations to refer to “war crimes” by Israeli forces. When Powell was ordered to the region, following Bush’s statement that he “expected” Sharon to order an Israeli withdrawal, the Israeli press reported that Israeli officials did not believe that Bush and company required an immediate response. US officials had told Israeli counterparts that Israel had a window of opportunity at least until Powell’s arrival in Israel.
The Israeli interpretation seems correct. When Bush barked that he had meant an immediate withdrawal, Condoleezza Rice followed up by explaining that “now” did not mean “right away.” Obviously an “orderly” withdrawal would take several days. As for Powell, he appeared to be taking the “slow boat to Tel Aviv,” stopping first in Morocco, then in Egypt and finally going to Spain and Jordan before heading for Israel. According to reports, Powell’s meandering excursion was planned so as to give Israeli troops more time to pursue objectives before withdrawing to what are now being called “security zones” within the West Bank. This itself is a major shift in Israeli strategy whose political implications for any renewed activity by a smashed PA remain to be seen.
What then is Washington’s “policy” toward Arafat and the Palestinians? Is there any consistency other than apparent full sympathy for Ariel Sharon, a blind eye to further Israeli settlement expansion and incantations condemning Arafat for any terrorist assault on Israel? Has recent American support for UN Security Council resolutions backing the idea of a Palestinian state and calling for Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian-controlled areas demonstrated commitment? Or did it constitute a transparent tactic designed to seek broader Arab backing for an assault on Iraq, drawing disbelief rather than applause? Perhaps Bush, and possibly Rice, are so out of their depths that they can be buffeted by the strongest wind encountered, usually blown by Pentagon hawks closely linked to Israeli expansionism.
“Compassionate Imperialism” in US Foreign Policy
Bush officials claim that excessive US diplomatic activity under President Bill Clinton caused the violence which led to Sharon’s electoral victory. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak lost because of his diplomatic concessions, which signified Israeli weakness. The administration apparently agreed with Sharon, who “formed a unity government, arguing that with national unity Israel could prevail in even the most violent guerrilla contest…[I]n this environment, the Bush administration concluded that circumstances were not ripe for high-level efforts to restart the peace negotiations, and that the most urgent task was to prevent a regional war while fighting terrorism and weapons proliferation.” So stated Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who co-chaired the 52-member group of “experts” and members of Congress that recommended this approach, in the Los Angeles Times April 3.
Behind this verbal smokescreen was the real recommendation—that Sharon be given a free hand to crush the Palestinian uprising, so long as he did not incite a regional war that would hinder the administration’s pursuit of other priorities. Indeed Satloff congratulates himself and his comrades because “regional war has been averted.”
For the Bush administration, however, much broader goals beckoned. Included in them were preparations for the United States to assert itself as the truly dominant power in the world, assuming “imperial” responsibilities. These ideas are not new, as Nicholas Lehman points out in the April 1 New Yorker. First articulated in policy proposals by Wolfowitz to outgoing Defense Secretary Dick Cheney in 1992, they could now be implemented with the arrival of Cheney and his long-time associate Rumsfeld, along with fellow hawks from the Reagan and Bush administrations. The most prominent of these are Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, who were appointed to major positions in the Pentagon under Rumsfeld.
To be sure, the US, though intending to be aggressive in its assertion of its power, would always enforce its will in a responsible manner. As Rice explained to Lehman, the US had an “imperial” vision but it was not “imperialist.” The distinction is not clear, but Rice’s words suggested a stab at an imperialist vision of foreign policy equivalent to Bush’s prescription of compassionate conservatism for American society.
Neocons, Likudniks, and Christian Conservatives
There exists today an informal coalition of right-wing Americans and Likud supporters, abetted by Christian conservatives advocating antagonism toward Islam and full support for Israel. Extensive websites, such as those of the Weekly Standard and the National Review, promulgate this message, often in radical tones.
Wolfowitz and Feith are closely associated with right-wing Israeli circles. Feith appears to assume the right to act independently of his governmental affiliation. He was identified recently by the Israeli daily Haaretz as closely linked to right-wing settler groups in the West Bank, and as a constant opponent of the Oslo accords. According to Haaretz, Feith approached the government of Israel in March as a private citizen—not as a government official—to advise them to seek cancellation of US military aid. He was also due in Israel in late April to meet with his Israeli counterparts in his official guise. Richard Perle, who claims to have arranged Feith’s hiring, established a Defense Policy Group independent of but linked to the Pentagon. Perle was identified by Seymour Hersh, in his 1979 biography of Henry Kissinger, as someone whom Kissinger discovered to have spied for Israel while a National Security Council staffer. Perle was not discharged.
Two organizations with leading figures of the pro-Israel coalition on their advisory boards are the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA) and the US Committee for a Free Lebanon. JINSA backs a strong US presence in the world, bolstered in the Middle East by a full alliance with Israel. A recent e-mail letter calls for boycott of any ties to Arab oil states, especially Saudi Arabia. Perle is on the advisory board, as is Cheney, though the latter is listed as on leave while vice president. The Committee for a Free Lebanon, meaning free of Syrian occupation, is backed by Lebanese close to the Cedars of Lebanon movement identified with Bashir Gemayel and his alliance with Menachem Begin and Sharon in 1982. Strong support for Israel is part of the committee’s mission. Included in its Golden Circle are Feith, Sen. Jesse Helms, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Congressman Tom Lantos (D-CA), Perle and journalist and Likud backer Daniel Pipes. In a recent Jerusalem Post column, Pipes called for Sharon’s “total victory” over the Palestinians. Among the committee’s recommended readings for January was a call by Rush Limbaugh for unleashing Sharon against the Palestinians.
Finally, the rapidly growing Christian evangelical movement backs Israeli takeover of the West Bank, believing that Jews have “a divine deed” to the land. Israel actively encourages evangelical efforts in Congress and elsewhere. These efforts often have a specifically anti-Muslim message, whether openly pushed by Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, or couched in language suggesting that texts in American schools are trying to convert Christian children to Islam. This charge, made by Pipes in the Jerusalem Post, has been taken up by the conservative Hudson Institute. Pipes and others omit the fact that instruction in Islam designed for seventh-graders is similar to that designed to teach other religions such as Buddhism. The omission suggests that Islam is being privileged in a way aimed at Christianity.
These groups share a common interest in a total Israeli victory in the Occupied Territories. When Bush reactivated Gen. Anthony Zinni’s ceasefire mission, criticism from the right mounted. William Bennett argued in the April 3 Los Angeles Times that the US should let the Israelis and Palestinians “fight it out,” advice not far removed from Limbaugh’s call or Pipes’s idea of total victory.
Since September 11, Israel’s victory is linked with total victory for the US in its war on terrorism. Former Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu stressed this theme when he addressed the Senate on April 10, arguing that otherwise the US would be encouraging terrorist attacks on itself. The opposite is far more likely. By siding so openly with Israel to block any chance of Palestinian self-determination, with the concomitant result of further Israeli settlement expansion, the US cannot be believed when it claims to support a Palestinian state. This image of duplicity in Washington’s approach to the issue seems to fulfill the propaganda themes outlined in Osama bin Laden’s recruiting video.
The Karine A Affair
Administration officials appear fully to have bought the pro-Israel lobby’s line when the Israelis seized the Karine A in early January 2002. The ship, with a Palestinian captain and crew, carried 50 tons of weapons and munitions, including Katyusha rockets and launchers.
Israel has claimed that the weapons came from Iran and were destined for the PA—supposedly proving a direct link between Arafat and Bush’s “axis of evil.” Intended to further discredit Arafat, this propaganda blitz also sought to undermine a rapprochement between Washington and Tehran that had begun to blossom following the September 11 attacks. Closer relations between Iran and the US threatened Israeli control of American policy and the “dual containment” designed for Iraq and Iran. (It is worth noting that although Israel has lobbied heavily to block American trade with Iran, as part of “dual containment,” the Jerusalem Post reported that Israel has conducted $100 million of trade annually with Iran throughout the 1990s via companies based in Europe.)
Pro-Israel lobbyists exploited Arafat’s alleged ties with the weapons ship. For Robert Satloff, writing in the National Interest, the Karine A affair produced “analytical consensus regarding Arafat’s unsavory character, his untrustworthiness, his collusion with Iran and his lack of fitness to serve as a partner for peace.” Washington should, said Satloff, suspend ties with Arafat and his senior aides, and seek a change in the PA leadership. Militarily, the US should shift from its original “conflict management” approach, giving Sharon free rein, to a “full ‘alliance-based’ relationship with Israel in recognition of the threat posed to a US ally by Palestinian collusion with an outside power [Iran].” This recommendation jibes with that issued by JINSA in early April. The identification of Arafat with Iran as enemies of the US and Israel in their joint war on terrorism, which demands “total victory” for both, is thus established.
Less expected was the apparent willingness of the New York Times to mislead the public on the Karine A. On March 24, the lengthy front-page article appeared under the headline: “A Secret Iran-Arafat Connection Is Seen as Fueling the Mideast Fire.” The first sentence sustained the title charge, asserting that “American and Israeli intelligence officials have concluded that Yasser Arafat has forged a new alliance with Iran that involves Iranian shipments of heavy weapons and millions of dollars to Palestinian groups that are waging guerilla war against Israel.” The Karine A incident proved these assertions according to authors Douglas Frantz and James Risen.
Only toward the very end of the article do the authors admit that the Israelis themselves could not tie the Karine A shipment directly to Arafat: the case was “circumstantial.” Moreover, an assertion by unnamed “American officials” that Arafat sent close aides to meet Iranians in Moscow last April to clinch the arms deal was denied the next day by Cheney and Rice, who questioned whether such a meeting ever occurred. This disclaimer did not appear in the Times, leaving the misleading impressions of the original piece unchallenged in readers’ minds.
The facts of the case appear to be these: the Karine A arms did originate from an island off the Iranian coast. The Lebanese group Hizballah was involved; the shipment was possibly authorized by radical elements in the Iranian government for Hizballah, not the PA, despite Israeli insistence to the contrary. The 50-ton cargo was to be placed in submersible rafts and anchored off the Gaza coast for Palestinian fishing boats to retrieve. Given extensive Israeli surveillance of the Gaza coast and the range permitted for fishing, Palestinian ability to recover this cargo seems highly unlikely.
Despite these problems with evidence, the propaganda blitz linking the ship to Arafat worked and, according to some reports, clinched the case for Bush’s personal distrust of and antipathy toward Arafat. When Bush announced on April 4 that he was sending Powell to the region, he referred to Iran’s “arms shipments and support for terror.”
The Palestinian “Diversion” from Iraq
Cheney’s tour of the Middle East in March clearly showed how much Washington’s search for Arab backing, however tacit, for its desired assault on Iraq depends on the US approach to the Palestinian issue. But the Palestinian “diversion” will not deter the hard-liners inside and outside the administration. Saddam Hussein is the Bush administration’s next target, whether with allied support or going it alone. Whether the Arabs openly fall into line or not, as Satloff wrote in the National Interest, they will “accommodate themselves” to a fait accompli. But first, in this view, the US must force a transition to a new Palestinian leadership, one able to control the Palestinians but willing to obey Israel’s directives.
The arrogance behind these assumptions verifies the imperial underpinnings to Bush administration policy, appearing to identify its war on terrorism with Israel’s war against the Palestinians. One imposes one’s power with the preconception that order will result: as America will act in the wider world, so Israel will act in the territories. What goes unrecognized behind this hubris is the fact that the Bush administration’s main priority, gaining support for and conducting the war on terrorism, has been sabotaged by administration backing for Sharon’s war on the Palestinians. A Washington Post headline April 11 states that some administration officials are beginning to wonder if Sharon really is “a partner for peace.” What a surprise!
The idea that massive Israeli force will compel Arabs to sue for peace has never worked but is still operative. The blatant hypocrisy of the administration stance blinds it to the fact that the Palestinian issue is at the heart of Arab and Islamic concerns, whatever Israel and its allies in the US want Washington to think.
Insincere efforts to resolve this crisis, eschewing direct intervention with monitors to ensure separation with full Israeli military withdrawal, will only exacerbate matters. As it is, the US approach in the past 15 months has isolated it to the point where British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bush’s only real ally, can state after returning from Texas that “it’s hard to overstate the dangers or the potential for this conflict to impact far beyond the region itself. I don’t think people yet realize how much worse it could get.”
Blair is right. It can get much worse, with American military personnel abroad targeted for attacks in retaliation for US support for Israeli repression and undermining of the peace process. If the US is sincere in seeking a viable Palestinian state with Israeli withdrawal from the territories, the administration must say so and act upon it. Otherwise, the combination of backing for Israel with calls for Palestinians only to “do more,” with no apparent concern for the impact of this stance beyond Israel and Congress, will endanger Americans as well as American interests for the foreseeable future.