Azmi Bishara analyses the direction of Washington’s diplomatic offensive across the region

We had thought that the train of events from the Israeli invasion of Lebanon to its invasion of Gaza, the impression these events created in people’s minds and the growing disillusionment with forces favouring the current settlement process offered sufficient inspiration and impetus to revise official Arab approaches to that process. However, one remains compelled to wonder just how prepared the forces opposed to this approach are to seize the historic opportunity to put an end to that process, rather than to succumb to the current drive to contain them. After all, the US and its allies in the East and West are haunted by this very spectre — the fear of losing the settlement legacy — for which reason they have been waging a sustained diplomatic assault on the region since the Sharm El-Sheikh conference on the reconstruction of Gaza.

The previous US administration had come to the conclusion that the Palestinian leadership, alone, was incapable of reaching a permanent deal with Israel on Israeli conditions, or of keeping the internal Palestinian situation under control. It therefore encouraged its Arab allies to play a more active and determined role in supporting the current negotiating process, strengthening the PA security agencies and countering the resistance in Palestine and elsewhere. Although the allies did as asked, in Annapolis and later, Washington did not take their interests into account. Instead it drove them into a state of permanent self-defence in the face of their own public opinion. Take, for example, their stance during the war on Lebanon in 2006, their incomprehensible boycott of the Damascus summit in March 2008, their complicity in the siege on Gaza, and their position during the summit on Gaza in Doha. To every season its men and its governments: in these regimes there emerged politicians, intellectuals and media figures of the sort that are ready to take part in the “struggle” to resist the resistance, alongside Israel and the US. Of course, the structure and culture of these regimes and their adherents is totally at odds with the concept of resistance and its corollaries of self-sacrifice and risk. They are not constructed to struggle, whether for themselves or for the US and Israel. This is borne out by the failure of the coup against the national unity government and the elected legislative majority in Gaza and in Beirut in March 2008. It is this difference that distinguishes them, for example, from rightwing Lebanese forces of the past. These were fascist forces engaged in a “struggle” against the Palestinian resistance, sectarian militias prepared not only to fight and commit massacres, like the current anti-resistance forces, but also to die for the sake of a sectarian cause, as did fascist forces in Italy, and in Spain during the Spanish civil war in the 1930s. Such dedication is no more. It has been replaced by a type of commitment that has no compunction when it comes to committing crimes but speaks the language of rent and deference to money and material gain. In the latest phase of dialogue and containment on which the Obama administration has embarked these forces, too, find themselves in crisis.

***

The new US administration has stated repeatedly that it views the region from a perspective of Israeli security when it comes to Iran and uranium enrichment, as well as to resistance against Israeli occupation. It believes that Israel’s right to security is not connected with ending the occupation, that it has the right to be an occupying power and at the same time be safe and that it is the Arabs’ duty to sit quietly in their camps, under the conditions of the occupation and the economic boycott, watch the news bulletins on negotiations and rejoice at the Mitchell appointment.

The new administration has also decided that the PA proved itself by keeping the security situation in the West Bank under control during the Gaza crisis. Israel thinks likewise, regarding this as its first real harvest from the Oslo process, a vindication of its earlier claims that Arafat was never serious about security coordination. The nature of the Palestinian leadership has, indeed, changed since the assassination of Arafat. The nature and creed of the PA and the level of coordination of its agencies has changed since Israel stopped being the enemy and became a true partner. In US and Israeli eyes, this type of PA merits support. However, such support stops way short of meeting the demands of the Palestinian people and remains confined to financial and security support, which is what is meant by the term “capacity building”.

The new administration in Washington maintains that support for the PA leadership goes hand in hand with weakening the resistance axis. This has conditions:

– Taking the interests of subordinate Arab states into account.

– Holding talks with Iran to convince it to halt uranium refinement activities while seriously hinting at sanctions before resorting to the military option. This requires building an Arab-Israeli front against Iran which, in turn, requires talking with those Arab countries that “fall under Iranian influence” and, perhaps, taking these countries’ interests into account to a level worked out beforehand.

– In order to identify the interests of these countries within the framework of a cooperative arrangement against Iran for the sake of Israel and to resolve the Palestinian problem comprehensively a new regional roadmap must be drawn up.

– This regional roadmap would support and fortify the already existing Palestinian “roadmap” but it would be much broader and comprehensive, taking into account the interests of countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria in exchange, obviously, for abandoning Iran, and the resistance movements in Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq (with special consideration paid to the existing reality in Lebanon).

The region can thus expect a new “roadmap” for years to come, whether or not it appears in text form or under this title. This is where Washington’s actions are meant to lead us, not to a settlement, permanent or otherwise, or to a withdrawal from the Golan Heights. This is what will keep us occupied for a long time unless something momentous intervenes, such as a resurgence of the resistance or another war.

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In order to flesh out the hypothesis outlined above I will turn to a critical discussion of the lecture delivered by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair John Kerry at the Saban Centre of the Brookings Institute on 4 March 2009. Senator Kerry is a former presidential candidate and a leading Democratic Party figure who came out early in favour of Barack Obama. His lecture followed a recent visit to the region, covering Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. By way of introduction, I will say that the new administration in Washington has taken on board the conclusions of the Baker-Hamilton committee, supported by the Defense Secretary Bill Gates, which is precisely why the Obama administration kept him on in this capacity. The US establishment has absorbed everything that needed to be deduced from the failure of the war policy that the Bush-Cheney administration pursued throughout Bush’s two terms, which is why that establishment backed Obama. Let us turn now to Kerry’s conclusions following his visit to the region.

In his opening remarks Kerry welcomed the election of Obama as an extraordinary chance to signal a new approach to the region because of his pragmatism and “willingness to listen and lead”. He pauses to recount the “emotional” impact of the visit, which effects are presented with carefully calculated selectivity. He felt compassion for the suffering of the settlement village of Sderot over the past eight years and also “deeply moved” by the sight of “little Palestinian girls playing in the rubble” where once an American school stood. (I must admit I have a problem with liberals who want to show how fair and even-handed they are. They make the victims look nice when they want to support some of them and a little girl playing in the ruins of a bombarded American school serves the purpose admirably. As for the occupying power, it is taken for granted in their camp that it is the real victim for perpetuity.). He then proceeds to enumerate four causes for hope, in spite of the election of Netanyahu and all the wars. As we shall see, he does not hope for a solution but he is very optimistic about reaching a new “roadmap”.

The first cause is a “tectonic shift in Middle East geopolitics”.

“The rise of Iran has created an unprecedented willingness among the moderate Arab nations to work with Israel. This re-alignment can help lay the groundwork for progress towards peace.”

Otherwise read, strategic cooperation between the Arabs and Israel precedes peace, which begs the question as to why Israel would need to work towards a solution with the Arabs when it is already cooperating strategically with them against a common enemy.

Second, he says, “the Arab Peace Initiative has emerged as the basis on which to build a Regional Road Map that enlists moderate Arab nations to play a more active role in peacemaking”.

Third, reiterating what every mid-level Israeli Labour Party activist has said and Olmert himself stated in his farewell interview with Yediot Aharanot of 13 October 2008, Kerry holds that “the outlines of a final status agreement are in fact clearer than ever”. In his opinion, the challenge is how to get there and his answer is “to move simultaneously on capacity-building in the West Bank and final status talks”. One can fail but notice that as clear as the outlines of a final status agreement are said to be, Kerry does not venture to spell them out. This is largely because to him the road to get there is what counts. Back to the process is everything, the goal nothing. Life is one never ending negotiation.

The fourth cause was the election of Obama. His administration presents an opportunity for “charting a new path that will empower moderates on all sides who have been lacking political cover and losing political ground”. This was intended as a criticism of the Bush administration which showed no appreciation for the particular circumstances and interests of the Arab “moderates” and failed to provide them sufficient support, thereby keeping them under constant pressure and in perpetual conflict with their political environment.

Somehow the Arab position has done a 360 degree turn. There was a time when the Arab nationalist position held that to separate the Palestinian cause from its Arab hinterland was to collude with designs against the cause. The cause was, in fact, severed from its greater Arab nationalist dimension in Camp David, and even more so in Oslo; however, the Palestinian leadership was incapable of reaching a solution with Israel. Then suddenly it was realised that the cause would have to be restored to its regional dimensions, not because of pressures from Arab nationalism but because Arab nationalism no longer presented a threat, and also because the official Arab order had long since abandoned any Arab nationalist dimension to the Palestinian cause. Now that is a complete reversal. This is why Kerry can be so confident in his assertion that the Palestinian cause was a regional problem that needed to be handled in a plan that covered other regional influential issues, contrary to the customary tactic of dealing with these issues separately. The approach is possible in Kerry’s view because, “Whereas once the Arab world voted unanimously for the three no’s — no dialogue with Israel, no recognition of Israel, and no peace with Israel — there are now three very different no’s which dominate many discussions in the region: no Iranian nukes, no Iranian meddling, and no Iranian hegemony”. Then he adds, quite explicitly, that because of this perceived common threat, the moderate Arab states and Israel “are now cooperating in ways that were unimaginable just a couple of years ago”.

Kerry goes on to say that the Bush administration drew many red lines that it could not enforce (he was referring to that administration’s prohibitions against talking with Iran and Syria, among others). The Obama administration would change that. It would focus on what can be done and leave side issues alone. The regional aim is to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear arms. Therefore, without foregoing the military option, we must move beyond the old red lines. According to the senator this entails talking with Iran about mutual interests in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and bringing Iran back into the international fold with recognition of its regional role in exchange for halting uranium refinement activities. There would also be talks with Syria, with the purpose of isolating and weakening Iran and its instruments such as Hezbollah. China and Russia would naturally be asked to help, though Kerry does not spell out how and what the US would have to pay in return. Russia has demands and interests extending from the Baltic in the north to Serbia in the south, and around the Caspian and Black Seas. China has an equally vast scope of interests. Would the US alienate and sacrifice the interests of its other allies in the world in order to please Russia and China, and all this in order to isolate and bring Iran to heel for the sake of Israel? Kerry did not bother following through on the questions his proposals beg.

***

Kerry supports dialogue with Syria and believes its goals realistic. Syria has negotiated with Israel before, in the face of Tehran’s objections, he observes. Of course Syria will try to “play both sides of the fence for as long as it can” but ultimately “I think that President Assad understands that, as a secular Arab country with a Sunni majority population, Syria’s long-term interests lie not with Iran but with its Sunni neighbours and the West”.

But if this is where Syrian interests lay what has been keeping it from this realisation for so long? Could it be that Kerry had not made it as plain to Damascus as his lesson to it on the Syrian demographic composition? Or could it be that there is a meeting between Syrian national security and the concept of Arab national security that the policies of the US, Israel and their Arab allies helped enhance? That question too is left unanswered. But this is why the US has not opposed the attempt on the part of its Arab allies to embrace Syria and avoid angering it.

However, this is not enough. There are Syrian and Arab demands and interests that the US and Israel lack the flexibility to meet. But Syria apparently will be glad just to talk. It will play the game because it has a political and economic interest in breaking the blockade against it. Of course, there might be some among Syria’s ruling elite, though not yet in the highest decision making echelons, who have more to gain from dialogue. Kerry is aware of this, which is why he stressed linking Syria to the Western economy.

“How do we begin?” Kerry asks midway through his speech. The starting point is to encourage the Arabs to adhere to the Arab Peace Initiative which “bold step never received the focus it deserved when the Saudi King Abdallah proposed it in 2002”.

He sums up this initiative as essentially based on the formula of land in exchange for Arab recognition and normalisation with Israel. However, like Israel he still gives normalisation precedence over peace. For example, although there is the already existing Quartet “roadmap” for the Palestinian track, there is a need for a “regional roadmap” that will “require a sustained multilateral effort like the one that followed the first Madrid Conference in 1991”.

It is odd how everyone likes to recall that burst of activity, even though it brought the Arabs no closer to the solution of their demands. The “moderates” will also, according to Kerry’s vision, be expected to pressure Hamas into halting missile fire from Gaza and agreeing to a national unity government that conforms to the Quartet’s set conditions. In addition, Egypt has the task of stopping arms smuggling across its borders while Jordan will continue to train PA security agencies.

The only measure that Kerry offers the Arab allies in exchange for everything they are expected to do is to demonstrate “with actions rather than words, that we are serious about Israel freezing settlement activity in the West Bank”. At least, for once, there is some recognition that to all previous US administrations the position that settlement activity is an obstacle to peace was, indeed, mere words.

Perhaps the Kerry vision, as presented in his Saban Centre lecture, offers some insight into the current American diplomatic offensive in the region and some of the current Arab reconciliation movements. However, this leads us back to the question we asked at the beginning of this article. What are the supporters of a reconsideration of the entire settlement process doing at this moment? Do they have a strategy to counter the US diplomatic offensive? Until very recently conditions were favourable to them rather than to the pro-settlement process forces.

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