Palestinian pawns

Following President Bush's public endorsement of a Palestinian state, has Israel now become more of a liability than an ally for the USA?

Kirk Leech

Topics Politics

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When US president George W Bush said on 2 October 2001 that the USA backed the creation of a Palestinian state, there was widespread surprise and Israeli anger. Has Israel, for so long a US strategic asset in the Middle East, now become a strategic liability, as America attempts to create closer links with Israel’s Arab neighbours?

The USA has traditionally been seen as Israel’s number one political ally – and is its chief defence supplier and a financial backer to the tune of $2billion a year. The influence of the so-called ‘Jewish lobby’ in the USA in ensuring a partisan, pro-Israeli Middle Eastern policy has become part of political folklore. So Bush’s words – ‘I believe there ought to be a Palestinian state…so long as the Palestinian state recognises the right of Israel to exist and will treat Israel with respect and will be peaceful on her borders’ – (1) have caused alarm bells to ring in Israel.

Not surprisingly, Israel’s prime minister Ariel Sharon has rounded on the US administration – comparing Arab states to Hitler’s Third Reich, and appealing to the USA not to repeat ‘the dreadful mistake of 1938 when enlightened European democracies decided to sacrifice Czechoslovakia for a convenient temporary solution’ (2). With the assassination of Israel’s right-wing tourism minister Rehavam Zeevi on 17 October, Sharon again pointed to the dangers of giving Palestinians, whom he accused of harbouring terrorists, their own state. He clearly sees the USA as attempting to placate Arab opinion for political expediency.

But in reality, Bush’s call for the setting up of a Palestinian state was neither an exceptional departure from previous US positions nor a totally cynical move to appease Arab public opinion and hold the anti-terrorist coalition together. The announcement was planned before the 11 September terror attacks, and successive US administrations have ‘supported’ (though never pushed for) the UN Security Council resolution 242, which declared Jewish settlements in Palestinian territory illegal under international law. Current US policy has been to press Israel to comply with a ceasefire and to implement the US-sponsored Mitchell report – its ultimate goal being a two-state solution ‘based on’ UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338.

The notion that the USA has always been Israel’s number one backer is, in fact, inaccurate. Both America and the Soviet Union, the two postwar superpowers, recognised the state of Israel in 1948, pretty much simultaneously.

For the two decades after the Second World War, including the peak years of the Cold War, the USA kept Israel at arm’s length – not wanting to remind the world that West Germany, which the USA was defending as a bastion of freedom against Soviet ‘totalitarianism’, had been the home of the Holocaust and one of the main reasons why Jews sought refuge in Israel, and why American Jews seeking to commemorate the Holocaust received little official backing.

Until the mid-1960s, it was France that supplied Israel with much of its weaponry. No US president set foot in Israel until Richard Nixon’s visit in June 1974 – 26 years after the state was established. Nixon made clear America’s aims in relation to Israel in a memo he sent to his secretary of state Henry Kissinger: ‘The Israelis must recognise that our interests are basically pro-freedom and not just pro-Israel….Unless Israelis understand it and act as if they understand it right now, they are down the tubes.’ (3)

The US-Israeli relationship changed dramatically after the 1967 Six-Day War. Israel’s defeat of its hostile Arab neighbours captured the imagination of the then US administration – which started to see Israel as a potentially important ally in the Cold War to help combat the threat of Pan-Arabism. US foreign policy became increasingly partisan towards Israel, as Israel adopted the role of America’s regional policeman. But even then, the USA never endorsed the idea that Arab land captured by Israel in 1967 could be legitimately held.

The peace process of the late 1980s signalled a further change in the US-Israeli relationship. US-sponsored peace processes in ‘conflict areas’ around the world at the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s were less about bringing peace and justice to war zones, than about Western elites seeking to gain moral authority through humanitarian interventions abroad, and a sign that national liberation movements had come to the end of their struggles.

So in 1988 the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) took the historic step of recognising Israel’s right to exist – an open admission that its struggle was stagnating. In 1991 George Bush Snr started a substantive dialogue with the PLO, but it was the Clinton administration that invested most effort in the Middle Eastern peace process, with the hope of finding a lasting solution.

Such optimism collapsed after the July 2000 Camp David Summit. According to Robert Malley, one-time special assistant to President Clinton for Arab-Israeli Affairs and a member of the US team at Camp David, Israel’s offer to the Palestinians at Camp David was meagre – even though the failure of Camp David was later attributed by some to Yasser Arafat (4). Malley makes it clear that President Clinton saw the creation of a Palestinian state as a key element to the solution of the conflict.

The shape of Middle Eastern politics changed fundamentally after the Gulf War in the early 1990s. The US-led destruction of Iraq indicated that America was keen to play a more active military role in the region – diminishing the need for a regional policeman like Israel. And the lack of any substantial Arab dissent to the Gulf War allowed old enemies to become ‘new allies’.

So President Assad of Syria was transformed from being a ‘terrorist leader of a terrorist nation’ to being lionised at his death – and Clinton even visited Syria, which would have been unthinkable just a few years earlier. The recent promotion of Syria (with US support) to a two-year stint on the UN Security Council showed how the USA now has more cards to play in its Middle Eastern power games.

Since the early 1990s, America’s need for Israel has diminished – and will diminish further with the continuing attacks on Afghanistan. But Israel needs the USA more than ever and feels an acute sense of isolation – and is mortified by US moves towards publicly endorsing a Palestinian state with a shared capital of Jerusalem.

Ex-Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak sees Israel as ‘an outpost of democratic and Western values surrounded by an ocean of Arab and Mulism backwardness and militancy’ (5). He obviously hasn’t read the Islam-loving, Arab-praising, multicultural script for today’s ‘war on terrorism’. If Israel continues to act as barrier to US ties with Arab regimes, it may well become more of a liability than just a diminished asset.

The majority of Israelis are horrified by the US administration’s public support for a Palestinian state – but it reveals who calls the shots in the US-Israeli relationship. Whatever bastardised form of a Palestinian state is proposed by the US administration, one thing seems clear: it will bear no political or geographical resemblance to the kind of state that Palestinians have been fighting for for decades. But in these desperate times for Palestinians, Arafat and the Palestinian people might just settle for the US proposals as the best deal on the table – though it is unlikely to be a durable solution.

Palestinians and Israelis are effectively pawns in US foreign policy. Palestinians don’t need low-cost compensation and Israelis don’t need to have their futures determined by Washington. Both sides deserve better.

Read on:

Palestine after 11 September, by Kirk Leech

spiked-issues: After 11 September

(1) BBC News, 12 October 2001

(2) New York Times, 10 October 2001

(3) Quoted in Thomas Friedman, New York Times, 9 October 2001

(4) Hussein Agha and Robert Malley, ‘Camp David: the tragedy of errors’, New York Review of Books, 9 August 2001
(5) Quoted in the Spectator 13 October 2001

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Topics Politics


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