by John Chuckman
June 12, 2003
I read something recently about America's Middle East initiative, the "road map," offering Bush the chance for greatness. Verbal excess like that demands a realistic discussion of the prospects.
When Britain achieved a breakthrough for peace in Northern Ireland, it did not do so by telling the IRA that its representatives were terrorists, unacceptable to negotiate. It had not surrounded the houses of IRA leaders with tanks, blasting away until ruins remained. It did not forbid IRA leaders from attending church or traveling. Yet this is the way - along with a daily toll of reprisal killings and assassinations - Mr. Sharon prepares for peace.
For many reasons, I can only be pessimistic about the "road map." Sharon's immediate instinct was to reject and belittle it. Under pressure from Washington to reverse himself, he only did so with a list of qualifiers long enough to make it a different document than the one Palestinians accepted.
The fact that Mr. Sharon used, just once, the honest word occupation, normally forbidden in the Cloud-cuckoo-land of Israeli politics, and offered to trash a couple of clumps of abandoned, beaten-up trailers where the most-crazed settlers play cowboys-and-Indians with assault rifles do seem less than signs of great events to come.
Consider some of the constraints around this initiative. First, it is sponsored by a President who has just launched the United States into two meaningless, destructive wars. American forces, resources, and diplomacy now face huge, complex, and long-term obligations in Afghanistan and Iraq that did not exist a short time ago. Bush has, at the same time, threatened Iran, Syria, and North Korea, and, at least in the case of North Korea, a serious conflict may well be coming.
Second, this President's policies have not ended terrorism, nor do I believe they ever can, which means American concerns and resources will be stretched even further. The President's policies since 9/11 have been exactly those followed by Israel for fifty years, striking out against someone, almost anyone, wearing the right kind of headdress. Has fifty years of that solved Israel's problems? If anything, it has only created new and desperate enemies, like the hopeless young people willing to blow themselves up to strike a blow.
Third, the plan is in the hands of Secretary of State Colin Powell, who has proved ineffective at almost everything undertaken, a judgment from one who once admired him. More importantly, Powell's stature among Bush's intimates is so low that you suspect they have secretly uncovered he is a distant relative of Bill Clinton, the political anti-Christ of neocon America.
Bush appointed Powell to reassure the world that America had not fallen to a coup of drawling closet-fascists, but the appointment has not proved especially helpful. The insane, arrogant intensity of Bush's inner cabinet - including Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Ashcroft - does mean that any civilized foreigner with something important to say to the United States might rather face Powell, but he or she will be addressing an exalted messenger with little influence.
Powell works hard trying to overcome the zealots' distrust, as with his recent rants and threats about everything from French ingratitude and delusions of yet finding strategic weapons in Iraq to warning Mr. Arafat about blocking the "road map." He's even gone back in time to the 1960s by attacking the neocons' second-most hated figure after Bill Clinton, Fidel Castro. All this only has him clumsily climbing trees, sawing off unwanted limbs that block the Oval Office view, while the viciously dysfunctional family that hired him gazes through the windows gleefully awaiting his plunge to earth.
But perhaps the most important reason for bleakness over the "road map" is the man who is not at the discussions.
Yasser Arafat is now treated as the source of all evil in the Middle East. He is for Sharon the Middle East's equivalent of what Bill Clinton is for America's neocons, although in Israel the nasty game is played with real blood, and likely only Arafat's world-stature and connections have saved him from Sharon's assassins.
Arafat doesn't speak English well, making it easy to give him a bad press in America, and he is indeed given a bad press. Few Americans even know that Arafat has a better analytical brain than their current President. He is a civil engineer and comes from a family that includes a remarkable brother who is a pediatrician and the founder of many medical institutions - not exactly the kind of hot-tempered, inarticulate tribal chief he is so often portrayed in America.
As with almost anyone raised to authority in his part of the world, his experience with democracy is limited to being on the receiving end of what nations boasting of democratic values - America, Britain and Israel - dish out abroad but wouldn't dream of doing at home.
Since democracy naturally flows from a healthy, growing society, it should come as no surprise that Arafat's democratic values are less than perfect. One form or another of authoritarianism is the way all the world's people have been governed before experiencing the revolution of economic growth. It is the way most of the world's people are governed still. Does that preclude us from having negotiations, treaties, and agreements with the governments of most of the world's people?
I do not think there is the slightest question that Arafat sincerely wants peace, although the peace he wants includes the long-term interests of all parties with the injustices and grievances attending the birth of modern Israel having been reasonably settled. This runs up against the Sharon concept of peace which means absolute, unconditional security for Israel while giving little more than words to those who insist on running around in keffiahs and kaftans. One suspects Sharon's idea of a concession is to have his tanks roll back from the center to the edge of a village recently flattened.
Of course, all of human history and the especially the discoveries of modern physics demonstrate that there are no absolute certainties in this world. Einstein, troubled about quantum mechanics, said God didn't play with dice, but we now know he was wrong about that. Israel's insistence on impossible absolutes always prevents genuine progress - that is, the kind of practical progress that characterizes normal human relationships and decent relations among nations.
Short of driving the Palestinians, like three-and-a-half million head of cattle, across the Jordan river - an idea which finds considerable support in Israel and in America's loony Bible-belt - Sharon's vision of peace appears to consign Palestinians perpetually to walled ghettos, dotted with settlements of armed, hostile fanatics and crisscrossed with no-go roads. That is a fairly accurate summary of Barak's Camp David proposal for a Palestinian state, and nothing since has happened to increase Israel's inclination to be large or statesmanlike - rather, quite the opposite.
Arafat correctly rejected Barak's degrading concept of a nation, feeling humiliated after so many years of effort and so many compromises before and after the Oslo Accords. Accepting such an offer would only have seen Palestinians assassinate him and likely tipped them into civil war, hardly contributions to Israeli security. Indeed, once the insanity of civil war takes hold anywhere, normal restraints and humanity are pitched aside in a frenzy of killing and vengeance.
The second Intifadah can be understood both as a natural human reaction to decades of oppression and as an escape-valve for immense internal pressures. Israel blindly insists on seeing only terrorism.
American commentators like Thomas Friedman embroider the theme of Palestinian unreasonableness by asking why Palestinians have not followed the teachings of Gandhi and Dr. King to achieve their goals. I do not know whether this is asked from naivete or utter cynicism, but the answer is simple: the structures of these abusive situations are entirely different.
Israel, on short notice, can close Palestine completely down and has done so briefly many times. Israel simply imports guest workers or new migrants for the many daily tasks done by Palestinians. Neither Imperial India nor Bull Connor's South could do this. Also, the afflicted people of Gandhi and King lived in many locations and were actually the large majority in many or most places. Further, Palestinians have no citizenship and no rights and no standing before Israeli courts. Even citizens of Israel have no defined rights. A nation defined by ethnic/religious identity makes a meaningful bill or charter of rights something of a logical puzzle, a puzzle Israel has not solved in over fifty years.
The possibility of bloody civil war among the Palestinians, brought on by the steps of the "road map" itself is not to be treated lightly, because the steps of every American initiative always demand concessions disproportionately from the weak side. Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas has only restated the obvious in refusing a harsh crack-down on militants for fear of civil war, something Arafat has understood for decades and that has always informed his resistance to Israel's harsh, absolute demands.
Arafat has spent his adult life trying to get a reasonable settlement for the Palestinians. He has made mistakes, plenty of them, but the truth is that none of them proved as bloody and destructive as, for instance, Mr. Sharon's brutal invasion of Lebanon. Yet, Mr. Sharon's career of blunders and bloodshed seems not to have disqualified him as spokesman for his people. Indeed, he does more than this, he now determines who is a fitting representative for the Palestinians.
Excluding Arafat may look attractive from the limited vantage points of Israel's volatile politics and Bush's born-again crowd, but to an independent observer, it looks hopeless.
Israelis may be the victims of their own propaganda about Arafat the terrorist, believing that his replacement in talks can genuinely change the dynamics of the situation. How easily Israelis forget that several of their prime ministers had extensive service as terrorists on their resumes.
The achievement of peace requires genuine risks and brutally hard work from all parties, but Israel demonstrates no willingness to assume the kind of risks that ended Apartheid in South Africa and has come close to ending the sectarian violence of Northern Ireland, and Bush is someone who has never worked hard at anything in his life. The existing human and political mess in the Middle East is frozen in place by the immense protection and subsidies of the United States, and so we come full circle to the nature of the people in the present American government and the terrible new obligations they have thoughtlessly assumed. Then we have Bush's intimate relationship with America's delusional Religious Right whose leaders daily rant against a Palestinian state and cheerfully anticipate the promise of Armageddon from the jumbled nightmares of the Book of Revelations.
Hopes for greatness? I think not.
John Chuckman lives in Canada and is former chief economist for a large Canadian oil company. He writes frequently for Yellow Times.org and other publications.