Even as the despotic Middle Eastern regimes are falling, the US is continuing to dither. One area where the US can now act with vigour is the continued Israeli intransigence over the Palestinian issue. Obviously, at the present time when the Middle Eastern countries are seeking to overthrow their dictators and despots, the attention of its people is primarily focused on their struggle at hand. But when things settle down and they forge new relations with the US, even Egypt and Jordan, the two countries with peace treaties with Israel, are unlikely to actively help Israel to continue choking off Gaza, as Hosni Mubarak’s regime did.
Israel has always argued that its occupation of Palestinian territories is not an issue of much, if any, relevance in the Middle Eastern polity. Therefore, all those who argue that a resolution of the Palestinian question will significantly improve the US and Israeli relations with the Arab world, indeed with the Muslim world, are barking up the wrong tree.
Even Barack Obama once believed that a resolution of the Palestinian issue would greatly help the US make a new start with the Muslim world. Unless one is a downright bigot, it makes sound sense. As David Remnick writes in a recent issue of The New Yorker: “The Netanyahu government’s refusal to come to terms with the Palestinians, and its insistence on settlement building, have steadily undermined both the security and the essence of the [Israeli] state, which was founded as a refuge from dispossession [and] its prospects will not be enhanced by an adherence to the status quo [of occupation].”
Remnick adds, “That was true before the uprising in Cairo, and will remain true after it. This was true before the uprising in Cairo, and will remain true after it.” Because: “Judgment — whether rendered by gods or by people — can be postponed but not forestalled.”
But is Washington listening? Not at all, judging by its veto of the Security Council resolution condemning the Israeli settlement activity in occupied Palestinian territories. The irony is that only a short while ago the Obama administration was urging Israel to extend its 10-month moratorium (which the Netanyahu government was forced to impose under pressure from the Obama administration on illegal construction) for a little longer to facilitate peace talks between Israel and the Palestine authority (which Tel Aviv refused).
If this was the US position a while ago, why did it not join other Security Council members to condemn Israel for acting against international law? Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, argued it was a matter better pursued in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian authority.
At a time when the Arab world is going through a people’s revolution, on the Palestinian issue the US is still taking shelter behind arcane and, frankly, absurd arguments that even its European allies are finding it hard to digest. As Jonathan Freedland has written in the Guardian, “that peace with Arab rulers alone could never last, and that one day Israel will have to make peace with the people [Arabs] it lives among.”
And he adds, “That day may not be coming soon — but that truth just got a whole lot harder to avoid.” Not if the US will continue to reinforce Israeli delusion by giving it political, economic and military support.
The point is that the US’s Middle Eastern strategy is in tatters. It had two pillars. First: an alliance with regional dictators to keep the Arab people down because, if allowed democratic rights, they might elect an Islamist regime hostile to the US’s strategic interests in the region. Indeed, there was a convergence of interests between the US and Arab dictators and monarchs because both feared the Arab people and Islamists.
The second pillar is the US’s unquestioning commitment to Israeli state and its ‘security’. Both pillars are interconnected because Israeli ‘security’ and the US strategic interests require supine rulers in the Middle East, like Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, that would do their bidding.
Regarding the first, the people’s power has shown that Muslim brotherhood and other Islamic groups were as much spooked by the popular and essentially secular nature of the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world as anybody else. The militant Islam as a political force was largely exaggerated. Indeed, the protesters everywhere were gathering around the banner of freedom and democracy that should calm the US fears.
Even a prominent US conservative analyst like Robert Kagan of Brookings Institution, a prominent early advocate of Iraq war, has said, “We were overly spooked by the victory of Hamas” in the 2006 Palestinian elections. And he says, “There is no way for us to go through the long evolution of history without allowing Islamists to participate in democratic society.”
Which raises a pertinent question: what are we going to do, support dictators for the rest of eternity because we do not want Islamists taking their share of some political system in the Middle East? In other words, the US would need to reorient its Middle Eastern policy to accommodate the dynamics of democracy in that region, including legitimate political representation of Islamic parties.
Writing in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof is equally emphatic when he says, “For decades, the US embraced corrupt and repressive autocracies in the Middle East, turning a blind eye to torture and repression, in part because of fear that the ‘democratic rabble’ might be hostile to us.” He adds, “Far too often, we were both myopic and just plain on the wrong side.”
An important factor in this has been the Israeli pressure, reinforced by the powerful Jewish lobby in the US, to keep supporting and nurturing the despotic rulers because they were easy to manipulate and were equally fearful of the ‘democratic rabble’. Over the decades, Israel and the US have become indivisible over the Middle East, particularly on the Palestinian question. And that still seems to be the case, despite all the fluttering of democracy in the Arab world, as evident in the US vetoing of the UN Security Council resolution to condemn Israeli settlement activity in occupied Palestine.
Unless the US starts seeing its national interest independently of Israel, there will be this dichotomy in its Middle Eastern policy. The democratic Arab countries in a new Middle East are unlikely to confront Israel militarily over Palestine, but their popular constituencies at home will not let them turn a blind eye to the sufferings and bombing of fellow Arabs in Palestine. And this will have an important bearing on their relations with the US.
The writer is a senior journalist and academic based in Sydney, Australia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org