McGEOGH: The big shift: US puts Israel on notice, 27Mar10 March 30, 2010

Resolving the Palestine conflict is now core American business, writes Paul McGeough.


by Paul McGeough  -  The Sydney Morning Herald -  27 March 2010

At times it is hard to tell where the main game is in the Middle East, or to identify just when history has veered off at a tangent that might make a big difference.

Remember the early 1990s? All eyes were on talks in Madrid and Washington – and then, wham, from out of left field, Palestinian and Israeli delegations emerged from clandestine meetings in a Norwegian forest, brandishing papers that we would come to know as the Oslo Accords.

So it was with the Israeli gaffe this month that might come to be called the Biden bungle, which in the 60-plus-year span of the crisis was nothing extraordinary.

Israel conspired to announce a settlement project on occupied land in East Jerusalem, while the US Vice-President, Joe Biden, was in town to kick off a new effort to resolve the Middle East crisis. In this, Biden was no orphan; the former secretaries of state James Baker and Condoleezza Rice had been victims of the same calculated insult.

The Obama White House responded with fury and the ensuing drama played out predictably enough.

But it was the launch of a diplomatic cruise missile – at a stuffy Senate committee hearing in Washington a week later – that revealed the enormity of what was becoming the gravest crisis to confront Israel in decades.

There was nothing casual in General David Petraeus’s session with the Senate armed services committee.

Far from giving off-the-top-of-the-head responses to senators’ questions, Petraeus, the commander of the US Central Command, brought a considered 12,000-word document, in which he framed the Israel-Palestine conflict as a ”root cause of instability” and an ”obstacle to peace” that played into the hands of Iran and al-Qaeda.

Petraeus ditched a cornerstone of neoconservative dogma by charging that perceived US favouritism for Israel fomented anti-American sentiment across the region.

”The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbours present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests,” he said. ”Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of US participation with governments and peoples in [my area of responsibility].

”Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and other groups exploit that anger to mobilise support. The conflict also gives Iran influence in the Arab world through its clients, Lebanese Hezbollah and Hamas.”

The Petraeus statement articulated a Washington view that would have been impossible under George Bush: that is, the security of Israel and an urgent need to resolve the Israel-Palestine crisis are separate core US national interests.

It follows that Washington can be rock-solid on the former – as the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, was this week; and demand action on the latter – as Barack Obama did this week.

The Petraeus paper confirmed analysis that senior officers from his Central Command have been complaining to the Pentagon about the damage done to the standing of the American military by Israeli intransigence at a time when the US is attempting to muster a regional coalition against Iran.

And it is likely that this internal debate informed Biden’s reprimand to Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, in the days before Petraeus went public: ”What you’re doing here undermines the security of our troops fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

In his choice of words, Biden as good as told Netanyahu that Israel was responsible for American deaths in the region.

There is also a sense that Obama is telegraphing a blunt warning: he has enough challenges to juggle without his Israeli ally making any of them worse. If his pitches to the Arab and Muslim worlds are to be credible, he cannot be seen to have been fobbed off by Israel.

Netanyahu was operating in the belief that Obama had buckled when Israel pushed back in the face of US demands for a freeze on any expansion of what it calls settlements but which, in truth, are Israeli colonies on the occupied West Bank.

The realisation of what was unfolding prompted frantic Israeli efforts to walk backwards from the Biden bungle.

Bush happily allowed the former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon to cast the Middle East crisis as a part of the war on terrorism in which ungrateful Palestinians were generally cast as terrorists and the march of the Israeli settlements, the annexation of land, the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes and the constant and disproportionate use of lethal force could be overlooked.

Other voices that were cowed during the Bush years are seemingly finding renewed authority.

The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, declared last week: ”All settlement activity is illegal, but inserting settlers into Palestinian neighbourhoods in Jerusalem is particularly troubling.” When the Middle East Quartet (a grouping of the UN, US, European Union and Russia) last week ”condemned” the latest settlement project, a former Bush aide who had attended Quartet meetings, Elliott Abrams, was apoplectic: ”The Quartet [previously] only used that word for murders and terrorism”.

The crisis for Israel is that the status quo cannot hold. As Clinton argued, Palestinian population growth in the occupied territories means that Israel cannot continue the occupation and be both a Jewish state and a democratic state. The Israeli historian Avi Shlaim put it more bluntly: ”Land-grabbing and peace-making cannot proceed together.”

Even Ehud Barak, Israel’s Defence Minister, has taken to using the dreaded A-word: ”[If] … there is only one political entity called Israel, it is going to be either non-Jewish or non-democratic,” he said recently. ”If … Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state.”

Israel and its supporters have been part of a concerted effort to sideline the Palestinian

issue on the grounds that the world must first deal with the threat of Iran’s nuclear program. But Petraeus and other influential voices are telling Mr Obama that Israel’s mistreatment of the Palestinians exacerbates the Iran crisis.

It is probably no coincidence that the general’s statement has come on the heels of the Defence Secretary, Robert Gates’s, blunt dismissal of the proposal that air strikes are the answer to dealing with Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Netanyahu has yet to offer any of the substantive concessions demanded by Washington, but while he plays hard, the Israeli leader may find that his timing could not have been worse.

The crisis came to a head in a week in which Obama discovered the power of a well-placed political head-butt in the face of intransigence. A new president finally understood the power of his office.

If Obama thought that one year was enough for talking about health, it is hardly surprising that he was ready to rub Netanyahu’s nose in the dirt after two decades of what only comedians still refer to as a peace process in the Middle East.

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