ISRAEL AND THE PALESTINIANS:
FAR MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE
[Following is the talk by Activist Newsletter editor Jack A. Smith, at the Nov. 10 Israel/Palestine meeting at SUNY New Paltz, including paragraphs omitted from original draft to keep within time limits.]
Good evening. I'm going to discuss some of the geostrategic aspects of the Middle East situation.
Israel's oppression of the Palestinian people is the most daunting international issue confronting the world today, but the facts of the matter are not particularly complex.
Israel is illegally occupying Palestinian land that it invaded 43 years ago. The UN says Israel must withdraw, but it won't. Israel is supposed to be fulfilling a commitment to help pave the way for an independent, sustainable Palestinian state, but isn't.
The Tel-Aviv government treats the 4.2 million Palestinians living in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem like colonial subjects to be manipulated, deprived and punished at will.
These problems are compounded by several related factors:
First and foremost — because it influences all else — the United States exercises political and military hegemony throughout the Middle East. The reason is that the region is the repository of the world's largest reserves of petroleum and considerable natural gas, primarily in the Arabian Peninsula and the littoral states of the Persian Gulf.
Washington has ceaselessly intervened in the Middle East since collaborating with Great Britain to overthrow Iran's democratic government in 1953 after it nationalized its oil fields. Since then, in country after country, the U.S. has helped regional authoritarian governments impede social progress, destroyed left movements, and prolonged to this day the existence of undemocratic regimes.
The U.S. is Israel's political, military and economic protector, and Israel functions as Washington's pro-Western, nuclear-armed military surrogate in the region, but there's a contradiction in this relationship.
America's drive for regional domination is increasingly compromised by Israel's long subjugation of the Palestinian people. It's a major cause of anti-Americanism among the Arab masses, and for the rise of al-Qaeda for that matter. Washington seeks the creation of a weak and subordinate Palestinian state, legally independent of Israel, that will no longer be a detriment to U.S. geostrategic ambitions.
President Obama had to know from the start that the current peace talks would fail. But his goal is at least to convey the impression to the Muslim world that the U.S. wishes to alleviate the Palestinian plight, even as it rides roughshod over Muslim Iraq, Afghanistan, western Pakistan and Yemen.
Other problems include the following:
• Near paralyzing differences exist on many issues between the main ruling parties in the Israeli political system, virtually halting any progress on the Palestinian crisis.
• A debilitating split separates the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) in the West Bank and the Hamas government in Gaza.
• Arab governments support the Palestinian cause, but most are now well within the U.S. sphere of influence, and are thus compromised.
These factors in combination impede a progressive resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict. But the actions of two non-Arab Muslim countries — Sunni Turkey and Shi'ite Iran — may make a difference in future developments.
Israeli politics has moved increasingly to the right in recent decades. The ruling parties and coalitions are center right, right and far right — with the latter imbued with racism. There are no ruling leftist parties.
The current ruling coalition, led by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu of the right-wing Likud party, governs largely from the far right. This is due to the influence of smaller extreme right coalition partners and ultra-orthodox religionists, many of whom maintain that Palestinians have no right to any land within the alleged God-delineated boundaries of Biblical Israel.
The result is the government's refusal to withdraw from the occupied lands, and to continue building settlements in the Palestinian West Bank, East Jerusalem and Syria's Golan Heights — which now accommodate about a half million Jews. It is against international laws to which the U.S. subscribes for an occupying power to resettle the territory with its own citizens.
Netanyahu even refused to order a brief moratorium on new settlements for the duration of his direct talks with PNA President Mahmoud Abbas, who then ended the talks until another suspension is declared. Just last week the government announced it would build another 1,300 new apartments for Jews in East Jerusalem, several months after revealing plans for 1,600 apartments.
Abbas said last week that if Netanyahu persists, "there are alternatives to negotiations," including seeking UN Security Council recognition of an independent Palestinian state, bypassing Israel and the U.S. The Obama Administration made it clear to Abbas his suggestion was "not helpful."
To keep the talks going, President Obama offered generous inducements to Netanyahu to extend the freeze for two more months. [Update: When the Israeli leader rejected the offer, Washington offered a second and more lucrative bribe for a three-month moratorium on building settlements, excluding East Jerusalem. This included a gift of $3 billion worth of advanced fighter planes, a promise to veto any UN Security Council resolution on the Palestine question that Tel-Aviv opposed, and a pledge not to request another halt in settlement building. Such an inducement —an act of public self-humiliation by the timorous Obama Administration — is still being "considered" by Netanyahu, who seems to play President Obama like a fiddle.]
Israel's center-right Kadima party, out of power and now headed by Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister, is willing to form a less reactionary Likud-Kadima government, which probably would be joined by the opportunist center-right Labor party, now part of the governing Likud coalition.
Livni says that such a coalition government would accept the U.S. proposal for a temporary suspension of settlement building. She told Netanyahu that his coalition's intransigence is damaging Israel's interests and security.
Netanyahu hasn't budged so far, though it would free him from the far right fanatics practically paralyzing Israeli politics. Despite his obliging rhetoric the prime minister agrees with the far right's desire to keep as much of the Palestinian territories as possible. He also does not want to lose the leadership of the right wing to his foreign minister and rival, Avigdor Lieberman, an anti-Arab bigot with neofascist tendencies.
The U.S. subsidizes and manipulates the quasi government of the Palestine National Authority which is composed of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) coalition led by Fatah, a much weakened and far less popular organization in recent years than the resistance-minded force it was during most of the years it was led by the late Yasser Arafat. A dozen Palestinian organizations — mostly left but including Islamic Hamas — have been critical of Abbas and the PNA's relationship with Washington. They criticized the talks as a sham.
Neither Washington nor Tel-Aviv recognize or speak to the Hamas government in Gaza, including to Ismail Haniyeh who became the PNA's Prime Minister after the January 2006 democratic election for the Legislative Council, which previously was led by Fatah.
The next year, as a consequence of a virtual civil war between Fatah and Hamas, President Abbas dismissed Haniyeh as Prime Minister. The Hamas leader contested the firing as illegal and continues to function as Prime Minister in Gaza only, legally backed by the Legislative Council. The new Prime Minister Abbas named functions as such in the West Bank only, and is recognized by Obama and Netanyahu though not by the Palestinian Legislative Council.
Israel and the U.S. demonize the democratically elected Hamas government in Gaza, but it cannot be forgotten that in earlier years Israel encouraged the growth of Islamic Hamas as an alternative to the secular and then-leftist Fatah. Much to Tel-Aviv's regret, given its earlier hopes, Hamas turned out to be as dedicated to the national struggle as Fatah and the PLO.
One of the counts against Hamas is that it refuses to recognize Israel, but Hamas has let it be known it is not inflexible when it comes making a balanced and sustainable deal. Fatah, with which the U.S. and Israel are dealing through the Palestinian Authority, does not recognize Israel, either.
In reality, whether or not a political party "recognizes" a state has no legal significance. Recognition is a state to state affair, not party to state. It's fairly certain that an eventual Palestinian state would exchange mutual recognitions with Israel.
The two Palestinian factions remain far apart, but recognize the need for tactical unity. Talks between both sides began in September, broke down but resumed and made progress on three disputed questions. A tough remaining issue concerns the control of Palestinian security forces, which Fatah refuses to share with Hamas.
All the Arab countries support the Palestinians rhetorically, and some do so materially. But some also fear the impact of an independent, progressive, secular Palestinian state on their own undemocratic, conservative regimes, and would prefer a weak, dependent Palestine, as does Washington.
Only two Arab states maintain diplomatic relations with Israel — Egypt and Jordan — but most other Arab governments are no longer antagonistic and are expected to resume normal relations after a Palestinian state is organized.
Egypt is the most powerful Arab state. The authoritarian Cairo regime of President Hosni Mubarak is in Uncle Sam's pocket, extracting an annual subsidy of $1.3 billion a year. Cairo despises Hamas because it is ideologically associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, Mubarak's principal internal enemy.
The monarchy of Jordan, with its large Palestinian population, is in Uncle Sam's other pocket (collecting $540 million a year) because the Hashemite Kingdom is insecure about a possibly progressive Arab republic at its doorstep.
Syria supports the Palestinians and maintains cordial relations with both Fatah and Hamas, but it can't stand up to Washington. And Lebanon has too often been an Israeli battlefield for it to invite Tel-Aviv's ire.
Saudi Arabia and the oil-rich Arab Gulf States give a nod and some money to the Palestinian cause but genuflect to Washington's global power. The rest of the Arab countries, including former radical states such as Libya, rally for Palestinians at Arab League meetings, but do little else.
This leaves the two wild cards in the region — Turkey and Iran — both capable of complicating the U.S.-Israeli domination game in the Middle East.
Turkey, long a West-leaning NATO member and close ally of Israel and the United States, began seeking closer ties with some Arab nations a few years ago. Evidently the Ankara government has decided that circumstances dictate it is time for Turkey to assume the role of an influential Middle Eastern power, independent of Washington and Tel-Aviv.
In 2009 Prime Minister Erdogan condemned Israel's invasion of Gaza with a ferocity that made its old allies blanch. Earlier this year Turkey and Brazil unexpectedly announced they had obtained a nuclear fuel swap agreement with Iran, obviating additional U.S.-UN sanctions — an initiative Washington rejected. And then a few months ago Israeli commandoes interdicted the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, killing nine unarmed Turkish civilians. This provoked an extremely harsh outcry from the Turkish government and people.
Turkey retains diplomatic, economic and other relations with the U.S. and Israel, but its independent involvement in regional affairs, anger at Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, friendship with Iran and Syria, and willingness to confront both its old allies has generated deep suspicions in Washington and Tel-Aviv.
There have been suggestions Turkey is going to adopt the posture of a radical Islamic state, but this is incorrect. While it is true Turkey's strict secularity since its defeat in World War I has weakened in recent years, its secular tradition remains strong.
Iran has long been in U.S.-Israeli bomb sights. President Bush was planning regime change in Tehran until Iraq blew up in his face. Both Presidents Obama and Netanyahu preposterously charge that the Islamic republic seeks to construct nuclear weapons with which to threaten Israel and other countries.
Iran is surrounded by U.S.-Israeli military power, and is being strangled with sanctions. An honest appraisal shows that Tehran's military strategy is defensive, as President Obama — who retains an interest in regime change — is well aware.
Tehran is no military threat, much less the "existential" threat Tel-Aviv claims. Israel's only existential threat is if the U.S. withdraws political/military support and halts its annual $3 billion military subsidy and billions in other favors.
Israel's antagonism toward Iran is unrelated to a potential Iranian attack. It opposes Tehran because it is one of the very few governments that actively support and help finance Palestinian resistance, and because it backs the Hezbollah resistance movement in Lebanon.
America's antagonism is not based on fears of Iranian aggression or nuclear threats. Iran possesses immense oil deposits. The U.S. seeks to control the oil or at least grab priority rights before global oil shortages commence. Washington also regards the Tehran government's public opposition to U.S. imperialism as an obstacle to its long range geopolitical strategy. And if Iran ever teamed up with Turkey, Syria and even Shi'ite Iraq, that would be a game changer. These are the reasons for U.S.-Israeli threats against Iran.
The Middle East often looks static, with American power ruling the region, especially where the Palestinians are concerned. But that's deceptive. No one knows what is going to transpire in the next years. There are many possibilities for change germinating throughout the Middle East, especially as other world nations rise while the U.S. continues to engage in an historic decline.