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A blast from the past

Bush's stage-managed peace deal for the Middle East looks like Clinton's Camp David on replay.

Nicholas Frayn

Topics Politics

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Listening to reports on the new Middle East peace initiative, I felt like the Bill Murray character in Groundhog Day. Only it wasn’t the previous 24 hours that hadn’t happened, but the previous five years. Ceasefires, US peace envoys, handshakes across the table and media hype; the plot has picked up exactly where Bill Clinton left off at Camp David (although, as with any bad soap opera, a few of the main characters seem to have changed).

But wait a minute. I remember writing back in May 2001 that the Bush administration had made Iraq the cornerstone of its Middle East policy so as to avoid the anti-climax that ended Clinton’s era as international peace-broker (1). So what has pushed Bush to go back on his word? The official explanation is that Yasser Arafat’s death and the subsequent election of Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) bureaucrat, Mahmoud Abbas, together with Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon’s increasing pragmatism, have combined to create what US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice called ‘the most promising moment of progress between Palestinians and Israelis in recent years’ (2).

But this narrative ignores the role of the USA in pushing the peace agenda. In fact, very little has changed between the two parties to the conflict. The departure of Arafat has led to a cosmetic change (from combat fatigues to a business suit) but no substantial shift in policy. Even back in 2001, the Palestinian leadership was desperate for some kind of deal that would allow it to withdraw intact from the flagging intifada (3). In the days after the election it looked like Abbas was to be subjected to the same treatment as Arafat; following a suicide bombing Sharon declared Abbas an ‘unsuitable partner for peace’ (4).

Fortunately for the PLO old guard ‘freedom is on the march’. In his State of the Union Address, US President George W Bush cheered Palestinians for ‘choosing a new direction’ in electing Abbas, and promised $350million in aid (5). Palestinian elections had coincided neatly with the White House agenda of democratising the Middle East. Given all the bad news from Iraq, here was a potential success story for the region. Despite the fact that Palestine was already democratic (these presidential elections had been overdue owing to the continued confinement of the previous incumbent), the USA is celebrating as if the elections were a success of its own making. The White House aims to get as much mileage as possible out of the process of Palestinian ‘state-building’. Bush has ended up in precisely the spot he intended to avoid – playing peace-broker in an attempt to win some kind of legitimacy at home and abroad.

Some argue that Bush had given a ‘green light’ to the policies of Ariel Sharon. But in fact, just like any other party in the region, Israel’s support or otherwise from the USA is entirely contingent – a role that leaves its internal politics crisis-ridden and fickle (6). Indeed, it may be that Israel has become a liability for the Bush administration. Time after time, public figures (including the exhaustive 9/11 Commission) have linked the actions of al-Qaeda with US support for Israel (7). Bush was already the first president to discuss a Palestinian state. Now he and his administration can’t shut up about it.

Of course, it would be wrong to be flippant about the potential impact peace might have on the day-to-day lives of the Palestinians. They have spent five punishing years on the wrong end of an increasingly one-sided conflict. There have been 3500 deaths and almost 30,000 injuries since September 2000, hundreds of which were children or teenagers. From a purely pragmatic standpoint, a ceasefire might give Palestinians time to rebuild the institutions that make life in the territories bearable. But outside initiatives will not alleviate the underlying causes of the conflict, nor provide the political gains needed to counter the nihilistic defeatism that afflicts much of the Palestinian youth.

The war on terror appears to be morphing into a new policy. Over the past month, in various speeches by Bush and Condoleezza Rice, a new direction is emerging. The administration seems to have moved away from a focus on terrorism towards a largely diplomatic attempt to instigate reform abroad. Bush claimed in his State of the Union address: ‘the peace we seek will only be achieved by eliminating the conditions that feed radicalism and ideologies of murder’ (8) – while in a speech to European leaders, Rice argued that freedom ‘must be chosen. It cannot be given, and it certainly cannot be imposed’ (9). Indeed, when it seemed as if Bush had given a nod towards Israel’s possible use of military tactics during his second term, he found himself on the receiving end of criticism from within his own party, and quickly ‘clarified’ that he had meant nothing of the sort (10).

While this may be a relief to those on the receiving end of America’s more belligerent activities, it signals nothing particularly positive. As noted elsewhere on spiked, Western governments are not actually interested in actually existing democracy (indeed, they seem not to have noticed it all in the case of Palestine) (11). Instead, the West is interested in democratisation – the process by which it goes forth to light a beacon for the intolerant barbarians of the world. This meddling may be just as destabilising for the chosen targets as a barrage of cruise missiles.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Middle East

(1) War and Peace in Israel, by Nicholas Frayn

(2) 2 Mideast Rivals to State Intent to Halt Attacks, New York Times, 8 February 2005

(3) War and Peace in Israel, by Nicholas Frayn

(4) Arabs say Israel seeks to make Abbas second Arafat, Reuters, 17 January 2005

(5) State of the Union transcript, NPR.org

(6) See A muddled attack, by Nick Frayn

(7) The 9/11 Report (New York Times Edition) p. 538

(8) State of the Union transcript, NPR.org

(9) Rice’s first gambit: fixed frayed ties to Europe, Christian Science Monitor, 9 February 2004

(10) ‘Senator McCain Signals Resistance to Using Force in Iran’, Financial Times, 29 January 2005; Analysis: Bush clarifies vision of liberty, Washington Times, 26 January 2005

(11) Not all votes are equal, by Tara McCormack

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics

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